Attendance figures for Washington Mystics basketball games at MCI Center are nothing short of amazing not far behind the NBA Wizards and downright even with the Stanley Cup runner-up NHL Capitals. And Mystics fans are inexplicably cheerful, even in the face of some miserable play.
The fans get along in a way not seen in any other sport, staying to the final buzzer, cheering and screaming even when their Mystics are on the wrong end of a 30-point blowout. They have the worst record in the league, but the hapless, 2-20 Mystics nonetheless lead the Women's National Basketball Association in attendance.
The official explanation, from Washington Sports President Susan O'Malley, is "girl power. This year, it's not going to be so much about wins as about what women can do. If you have kids, you have to come and say, 'See, I told you, you can be anything you want to be.' And for older women, this is the culmination of a lifetime dream, showing that women can compete at this level."
Throughout the league, WNBA audiences are about 70 percent women, a mirror image of the NBA's gender balance.
And throughout MCI Center, O'Malley's "girl power" claim resonates in handmade signs proclaiming just that slogan; in middle school girls in their basketball team jerseys cheering on their favorite Mystics star guard Nikki McCray and three-point specialist Keri Chaconas; and in power assemblages not of cigar-chewing corporate honchos but of female professionals, straight and lesbian, from the worlds of politics, law, media and government.
"The lesbian community is a key audience and part of the fan base of the Mystics," says season ticket holder Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the gay rights organization Human Rights Campaign.
"I am in a bank of 30 or so folks who got tickets together," she says. "We organized and called early and got seats on the floor three rows back. We sit across the aisle from an African American dad and mom and their kids, and the dad is so engaged, he jumps and yells at the refs. We all sit together and we're united in the event. These are communities that don't often have cause to come together."
Mystics crowds differ from other sports audiences in ways beyond the obvious. They're more suburban, including many families that otherwise would never think to set foot in the District. They're less well-to-do than the NBA's see-and-be-seen power show. With tickets starting at $8 and averaging $15, "for most of these people, this is the first season ticket they've ever owned in their lives," O'Malley says. And they include a concentration of kids that other pro sports haven't seen in more than a generation, including a 20,000-plus sellout for a Tuesday noon game that drew almost every basketball camp in the area.
"A big part of it is fathers and daughters," says Tom George, senior vice president for athlete marketing at Advantage International, the McLean sports management company that represents, among others, WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes. "We baby boomers are the first generation of American males who grew up with the idea that girls can and should do competitive sports, and now we have daughters.
"And," he adds with a knowing laugh, "we know that Title IX means scholarships are available for our girls."
Promoters of women's hoops argue that theirs could be the first American sport since baseball (and that was early in the century) to hit it big as spectator and participatory sport simultaneously. That dream has never come true for soccer and is no longer true for baseball or football. A study by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association found participation in women's basketball grew by 4.4 percent in the two years prior to the WNBA's founding, while male participation fell 6.8 percent in the same period.
"I couldn't wait to get our own team," says Maria Johnson, 38, a Southeast Washington resident who bought her season pass even before the city was guaranteed a franchise. "To see the women come out and compete is so exciting, because this game is not a money issue.
"For the men, it's a business and you can see it in their attitude. The women are having fun playing even if they're down by 20."
When Abe Pollin's Washington Sports began planning for this year's Mystics debut, the marketing department as a matter of course sent a mailing to all Wizards and Capitals season ticket holders. Not even 10 percent of those fans responded.
So the Mystics switched to a grass-roots offense. They ditched the sports mailing lists and targeted people who had bought tickets to Disney on Ice, the circus and other family events.
The Mystics, in their first year, have more than 6,200 season ticket holders, not quite the Wizards' 10,000, but as O'Malley is quick to point out, "there ain't a corporate seat in the house."
One on One
Like the other fan-participation games that turn timeouts into a supercharged frenzy, it was a real crowd-pleaser. Couples dressed up and shouted for the camera's attention. Some couples developed their own cheering sections. But in certain sections of the arena, the device left a sour taste. Not once was the Couple of the Game a single-sex couple, and at Mystics games, that could barely have been a matter of chance.
"That's the only thing the Mystics have done that has offended me," says season ticket holder and former pro basketball player Mariah Burton Nelson, an Arlington resident who is author of three books on women and sports. "There's a lot of anger on the part of lesbians for being left out of society in general and having to deal with homophobia in sports."
O'Malley says the team never had a policy of intentionally avoiding homosexual couples. But, she adds, "that puts you in an awkward spot, because what if you have two girlfriends who are not a couple? Do you put the camera on them? We're never going to ask people their sexual orientation."
So last week the team quietly changed its promotion from "Couple of the Game" to "Fan of the Game."
For many gay fans, that was fine. "I want the lesbian community to be recognized as part of the fan community," says Stachelberg, whose Human Rights Campaign held a fund-raiser at MCI Center following the first Mystics game and had to turn people away after the event topped out at 800 supporters. "I don't think there needs to be special recognition."
But other lesbian fans argue that their support of the team ought to be recognized. "They have extreme lesbian support and yet there's such an effort to heterosexualize the sport and cover up the gay fan base," says Jessica Brown, a season ticket holder who works for a local nonprofit group and is an activist with the Lesbian Avengers protest group.
The Avengers staged a "visibility action" at Saturday's game, buying up a block of 60 seats and wearing the group's T-shirts, then holding a demonstration after the game at the headquarters of the Family Research Council, the Christian conservative group that has supported a recent spate of anti-gay advertising.
Brown charges that the team has avoided any overt outreach or marketing toward its gay fans for "fear that that would chase away suburban fans. But even when we wear our T-shirts and hold up a banner, we're surrounded by what appear to be heterosexual families and nobody bats an eye."
Indeed, neither the WNBA nor the Mystics have advertised in any gay media or marketed the team toward the lesbian audience. "The media keep coming back to that issue, but nobody else cares," O'Malley says. "We're never going to let the MCI Center be used for a political statement by anybody, but if they're coming as fans, there's room for everybody."
"Everyone's aware that we're supported by that community," says Mystics center Heidi Burge, who played at the University of Virginia before going pro. "It's not something that's a negative or a positive. In women's basketball, that's a factor wherever you go."
"We really didn't have any idea that this would be a component," says Rick Welts, chief marketing officer for both the NBA and the WNBA. Welts says the league did no research into and no marketing toward its gay fans. "We decided to utilize things we already had in place, like promotions on the NBA on NBC broadcasts."
The WNBA has not been shy about using sex appeal to sell the game, but it's been a standard heterosexual sell, with TV ads featuring the league's prettiest players, such as the Los Angeles Sparks' Lisa Leslie, a Wilhelmina model who has spoken about the need to promote the game by concentrating "on the appeal of the woman." (NBA executives note that male players, too, have become sex symbols, with Grant Hill gracing the cover of GQ.)
Although the Mystics have not done any demographic studies on the sexual orientation of their fans and do not plan to "I'll tell you, there's no way I'm asking a hockey fan," O'Malley quips outside marketing firms have been hired by other sports leagues to consider the question.
"The lesbian community is critical to the success of women's sports," says Jeffrey Vitale, president of Overlooked Opinions, a Chicago marketing company that has been contracted by leagues and teams, including some in the NBA, to provide demographic information about the gay and lesbian population.
Although Vitale and other gay-marketing experts believe there is still reason for sports leagues to worry about fan backlash against any effort to market overtly to gays, they say that suspicion has diminished dramatically in the past decade. If the WNBA were to advertise in the gay press, for example, Vitale says, "it's very unlikely you'd lose business over this. Women in general do not get terribly excited about these issues. And men are less likely to get offended by a lesbian connection than a gay male connection."
Major corporations from AT&T to Volkswagen have developed profiles of their gay customers and run ads targeting homosexuals. But sports leagues remain wary of making any overture. "The day we see the NFL marketing to gay men will be the day the corner has been turned" in the popular acceptance of homosexuality, says Sean Strub, president of Strubco, a New York-based gay direct marketing firm.
Strub believes women's leagues will lead the way, in good part because "there's more acceptance of physical affection among women." Indeed, scenes of women embracing over Mystics baskets have produced no complaints and hardly any notice.
Yet the WNBA remains icily silent on the subject of homosexuality. "In the entire WNBA, nobody is openly gay, when statisticians would tell you that's just not possible," says former pro Nelson. "In their promotions, they only tell straight stories, about boyfriends and husbands and babies. I'd like to see them create a safe place with a sexual nondiscrimination policy."
Unease stems from both the league and gay institutions. "For so much of gay culture, team sports was the enemy," Strub says. "The high school locker room was the source of humiliation. There's been a real effort to reverse that, and while gay people who came out 30 years ago were the effete and the affluent, the least likely to be NFL fans, that's no longer true. Now Joe Sixpack, the middle-class gay guy, can come out and be both gay and a football fan."
As the WNBA has not sought gay support, neither are the gay media responding to the burgeoning interest in the game. The Washington Blade, the area's largest gay publication, has not yet written about lesbian support for the Mystics, says managing editor Colleen Marzec. "It's a snowball gathering speed," she says. "We're watching it."
The WNBA set out expressly to create a new fan base-women. "They actively sought out a deal with Lifetime to reach women who are not already sports fans," George says, referring to the cable channel that caters to a female audience. WNBA games are also aired on ESPN and NBC, as well as locally on Channel 20.
"We believed at the beginning there'd be much stronger participation by NBA ticket holders," says NBA executive Welts. "Instead, the audience discovered the sport rather than the sport discovering the audience."
Whatever their sexual preference, women are cottoning to women's hoops in striking numbers, even if the quality of play remains marginal. The TV ratings have been respectable, boosted by the $15 million "We Got Next" marketing campaign. There's been a surge in the number of adult women who collect WNBA trading cards. Mystics and WNBA jerseys and other clothing have sold so well that they're hard to find. The Mystics opened their season with fireworks, NBA-level noise and a center court ceremony featuring Tipper Gore, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and other prominent women in politics.
Companies from GM to Coca-Cola have invested millions in the league, and in its second year, several teams, including the Mystics, are expecting to make some money.
Profits, as well as the modest ticket prices, depend on WNBA salaries' remaining unusually low for pro sports. The average player makes about $50,000 for the 30-game season, less than half the pay in the rival American Basketball League. WNBA stars such as the Mystics' McCray are placed in a separate category of marquee players who earn $250,000 each.
"This game isn't about paying $50 a ticket," says Burge, the 26-year-old, 6-foot-5 center. "It's not just people from politics and wealth, like the men's game. We cater to the younger crowd. They're almost a part of our team. We sign autographs, we hang around after the game, we don't get ushered in and out in limousines."
In the long haul, while girl power could carry the league quite a distance, real success will depend on winning over classic male sports fans, WNBA executives say. So far, the level of play has not justified the attention of ESPN fanatics who would watch almost anything involving a ball. But the enthusiasm and freshness of the players and the "take your daughters" hook have lured far more men than many skeptics thought possible. ESPN's prime-time audience is usually two-thirds male; during WNBA games, the ratio shifts down only a few points to 60 percent male.
"This is all about basic basketball," says Sullivan, known to much of the Mystics crowd by his trademark purple hat. "It brings back the pure essence of the game, which is team. The men's game is too much the individual." Sullivan says he was surprised at first by the mix of people in the rows around him-kids, gays, black and white all mixed up. "But I told them all the first game, I don't know what you expect to do here, but in this section, we are cheering. Understand me? We are cheering."
And so they do, constantly. "Basketball," Sullivan says, "is like a circle of friends, no beginning, no end."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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