A year later, the league has heeded the demand of Delle Donne and many other players who joined her in speaking out. The WNBA launched a brand “refresh” last month that included a new logo as well as a commercial that featured diverse players in street clothes in addition to game highlights and unveiled a new tagline, “Make Way.” It’s a marketing strategy that Delle Donne said Monday puts the league “in a great position.”
It’s not just the way the league brands itself that, in many players’ opinions, has changed for the better heading into the start of the regular season May 24. In April, the WNBA announced two major new partnerships, one with AT&T and the other with CBS Sports Network, which will broadcast 40 regular season games this season in addition to the slate already planned for ESPN networks. The league also said ratings rose 31 percent last season, a nice bump after 2017’s record lows.
Along with the optimism, however, are other matters that taken together make the 23rd WNBA season what chief operating officer Christy Hedgpeth called an “inflection point.”
The league has been without a president since Oct. 2, when Lisa Borders stepped down after three seasons to become the first chief executive of the Time’s Up organization combating sexual harassment. (Mark Tatum, deputy commissioner of the NBA, which owns 50 percent of the league, has been serving as the interim WNBA president since Borders left.)
Players have opted out of the collective bargaining agreement, which will expire on Halloween, in hopes of achieving higher pay and better working conditions — issues that were highlighted last month when Breanna Stewart, the league’s reigning MVP, ruptured her Achilles’ tendon playing overseas, where WNBA stars earn higher salaries.
Stewart is one of a handful of prominent figures — including Maya Moore, who chose to sit out the season, and Diana Taurasi, who underwent back surgery last month — who will miss some or all of the season.
The league is “a little bit in limbo,” Mystics guard Kristi Toliver said.
Sue Bird, point guard for the reigning WNBA champion Seattle Storm, categorized it as the early stages of a long process. She acknowledges the strides the league has made since she was a WNBA rookie in 2002, but also made it clear in an interview Wednesday that more progress is needed.
“I think we’re still in a state of figuring out exactly what business model is going to make this product grow,” Bird said. “For a long time, we were stuck in the ‘well, this is what the NBA did, so let’s do it this way’ model. And we’re not the NBA, we’re a totally different thing. We’ve learned from our mistakes. That’s the good news.”
If it sounds as if Bird is speaking of the WNBA entering a new era, it’s because that’s how league executives see it — at least when it comes to how the WNBA sells itself.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, speaking Thursday at the Economic Club of Washington D.C., acknowledged that the WNBA “hasn’t developed into a stronger consumer business yet” but continued, “Even though the league has been in existence for 22 years, we’re in essence doubling down on it. We believe in it. We believe we can turn it into a successful business.”
Hedgpeth, who became interim COO last October and has held the position permanently since February, said she first sat down to talk about a brand reset with Borders and Silver in May 2018. The league worked with a New York-based image and brand consultants Sylvain Labs to come up with the marketing strategy, which included a new logo.
“Logowoman” is no longer confined to a box, like the NBA’s Jerry West-modeled logo. Her hair is in a bun instead of a ponytail.
“The logo is really just scratching the surface,” Hedgpeth said in an interview Thursday. “It really is a fundamental overhaul of the brand, starting with the brand positioning really being about — we use the word ‘reasserting’ ourselves — as a bold, progressive league that stands for the power of women.”
When asked about the state of the league, Bird, Delle Donne, Toliver and Mystics Coach Mike Thibault all mentioned the new marketing initiative and TV deal as the first things on their mind. Gaining exposure is still paramount for the league, and in that area, players see progress.
In addition to the 40 games CBS Sports Network will broadcast this season, the ESPN networks’ slate was bumped from 13 regular season telecasts in 2018, all of which were on ESPN2, to 16 this year. ABC will air three games this season for the first time in five years, according to Hedgpeth.
“Between our four ESPN ones and our eight on CBS Sports Network and some other NBA TV ones, aside from our Monumental Network, we’re going to be on nationally almost half our season,” Thibault said of the Mystics. “That’s a lot of exposure we haven’t had."
CBS Sports Network doesn’t carry the heft of ESPN. The cable channel is available in 49.9 million homes compared with ESPN’s 84.8 million subscribers, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. But Bird notes that the fact that a new network was interested in the WNBA grants the league more legitimacy as a viable product.
The fact that the league still has no president appears to be a less immediate concern as players’ thoughts turn to the grind of the season. Hedgpeth said the league is looking for a seasoned business executive with a vast corporate network who can grow revenue and exposure. The ideal candidate also would fit with the culture and values of the WNBA.
The league hopes to announce its new president before regular season games begin.
“You need to have somebody whose sole focus is the WNBA,” Bird said. “ … And if they’re taking their time to select that person because they want to make sure they’re getting the right person? Cool. I can wait.”
Rick Maese contributed to this report.