Commentary

'We're very proud of WNBA Pride'

Originally Published: June 20, 2014
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

June is Pride month for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, a time to take special note of the struggle for equality and the fight against discrimination and violence.

This season, the WNBA has launched "WNBA Pride" as one of its marketing initiatives, making a formal outreach to LGBT fans. League president Laurel Richie recently spoke to espnW about the WNBA's appreciation for its LGBT audience. And about how this platform has been elevated, along with other specific marketing strategies, to best connect with the WNBA's core demographics.

Q-and-A with Laurel Richie

Q: When did you decide as a league to specifically market to LGBT fans?

A: We have been marching to this for a very long time. As far back as I can remember, we've had outreach to the LGBT market. We are building on something that previously existed; this isn't a case of a marketing initiative starting 100 percent from scratch. Part of the work we've been doing across the league is to really crystallize our platform, bring a visual element to it, and work very hard to create integration and collaboration between events at a league level and team level. We did put a lot of effort during this offseason into all of our platforms, like Summer Hoops, Hoops for Troops, Pride, Dads and Daughters. It has been a priority of ours to create robust platforms.

[+] EnlargeLaurel Richie
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty ImagesLaurel Richie said the league's research showed that approximately 29 percent of WNBA season-ticket holders are lesbians.

Q: How did your marketing experiences before coming to the WNBA help in this cause?

A: I hope that I brought discipline from my career at Ogilvy and Mather [advertising] and Girl Scouts to understand an audience, and commission research necessary to dig a little deeper. And then to really understand the power of all of our teams working in concert with each other. Many of these activities were happening on an individual and team basis, whether that was a Pride game, or participation in Pride parades. We had done some advertising at the league level. We had the "Get Your Seats Sweepstakes" on Logo TV/After Ellen. This is our fifth year for that. So we had individual initiatives. The power of this is pulling those together, adding some new ones, and unifying them under the Pride umbrella.

Q: Is this marketing campaign reflective of a greater societal awareness and openness to LGBT concerns?

A: For us, it's really borne out of an understanding of our fan base. That's where we started the initiative, is really understanding that the LGBT market -- and particularly the lesbian community -- is a core segment of our season-ticket holder base.

Q: Could this have been done, say, 10 years ago?

A: I don't know for sure. What I can say is the LGBT market has been with us since the beginning. We have had initiatives throughout our 18 years, but part of our work right now is to make sure we are doing everything we can to reach out to the segments that we know are big supporters of our league, and grow our fan base by doing that.

Q: What has the response been to the Pride campaign, both from fans and advertisers?

A: We are thrilled that when we launched this initiative, we did so in partnership with Cover Girl. We think they are a fabulous brand. The synergy between the WNBA Pride and Cover Girl's celebration of the strength and diversity of women is great. I will say we've had lots of phone calls since we made this announcement from a whole host of different organizations and corporations who want to have some discussions about partnering with us. I was in Tulsa, and I had many fans come up to me and say, "We saw the new initiative; we're really excited." I received some wonderful e-mails and phone calls. It feels like it's been overwhelmingly positive. The shirts we have on sale at NBA.com and WNBA.com and in our retail store in Fifth Avenue -- that was the No. 1-selling item, which I think is a manifestation of fan support.

[+] EnlargeWNBA Pride
AP Photo/WNBAThe Pride shirts are the No. 1 selling item online at NBA.com and WNBA.com and in the league's retail store in New York City, Laurel Richie says.

Q: How much discussion did you have with players before launching the Pride initiative?

A: We treated this the way we do all our initiatives. From a marketing standpoint, we don't have a ton of formal discussion with the players. We didn't preview Summer Hoops or Hoops for Troops with them, either.

Q: But isn't this a little different? There are people in the league this is likely to affect more personally.

A: For us, this is very much a marketing initiative born out of and targeted to our fans. Our research showed us that approximately 29 percent of our season-ticket holder base are lesbians. It's about recognizing and engaging a segment of the population that seems to really enjoy following the WNBA.

Q: You had a situation last year with a WNBA player tweeting against gay marriage. Have you received any pushback from people in the league -- players or team officials -- who are less comfortable with the Pride campaign?

A: The core of WNBA Pride is about diversity and inclusion. Inherent in that is respect for different points of view and belief systems. We will work very hard as a league to celebrate diversity and inclusion, and to be very respectful of the fact than an individual is entitled to their point of view. Our hope is that everyone can come together in a spirit of respecting different points of view.

Q: Individual WNBA franchises have more led the way with Pride events in the past. Will they all be involved with this initiative?

A: All 12 of our franchises have some level of activation around WNBA Pride, but each team has a different plan. That's consistent with all of our platforms. From a league level, we create the strategy, tools, and resources and make them available to teams. So they activate in very different ways. Some teams have Pride games; they participate in local Pride events. I think each team will activate in a way that helps them achieve their business goals, just as they do for our other platforms. It varies by team.

Q: Do you think other leagues will look to what the WNBA has done as a model for incorporating Pride?

A: We've very proud of WNBA Pride, in part because it not only is designed to appeal to a segment of our audience, but it also is very consistent with the values of the WNBA -- being all about diversity and inclusion. I can't speak to what other leagues and entities will do.

Q: There are LGBT fans who've felt for years that the WNBA didn't want to acknowledge them because they thought it was bad for business. Do you think this WNBA initiative can mend some of the wounds from the past?

A: My goal is always to have anyone who's a fan of the WNBA know and feel that we as a league appreciate them as fans. If this initiative resonates with fans and has them feeling appreciated for their support for us, I think that's terrific.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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