Lisa Borders is mic’d up and working the room, selling women’s basketball like someone pitching timeshares. She’s talking about new uniforms, a new ball, a new playoff format, a new TV deal, at which point I flashed back to my marketing and advertising class in college.
Professor: “Does anybody know the most popular word used in advertising? New.”
Borders is the WNBA’s new president. She’s No. 4 in 20 seasons. The job hasn’t quite reached Andy Warhol proportions — everybody is a WNBA commissioner for 15 minutes — but it’s certainly not the picture of stability, either.
Let me state here that I’m not anti-women’s sports. The growth of women’s athletics in high school and college has been a remarkable thing to watch in my lifetime. I count the U.S. women’s gold medal teams in hockey, soccer and basketball among my favorite Olympic memories.
But at the professional level, women’s team sports continues to suffer. Women’s soccer and hockey leagues have been tried and failed after hoping to use the Olympics as a launching pad. The WNBA, which includes the Dream, was born in 1997, the summer after the women’s gold medal in Atlanta. But the league is coming off a season with all-time low average crowds of 7,318 (and that’s inflated announced averages).
The Dream, who play their second home game of the season at Philips Arena on Sunday, ranked ninth in the 12-team league at 6,122 per game (a 4.4 percent increase). But they’re on their third ownership group and, like most of the league, are losing money and struggling to get on the local sports landscape.
“I thought we’d be further along,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in September.
And he’s the hand that feeds them.
Why bring this up now? Because Borders, the former Atlanta City Council president, vice mayor under Shirley Franklin and Coca-Cola executive, was back in town recently to promote the WNBA as it enters its 20th season. She spoke to a group that included members of the Atlanta Press Club, Dream officials and players and local business people, played a promotional video and outlined the league’s perceived accomplishments.
Borders was instrumental in Atlanta getting a WNBA franchise nine years ago and she remains a Dream season-ticket holder. So she has a vested interest. The Dream has had on-court success, reaching the league finals three times in its first six seasons, but significant increases in fans and revenue haven’t followed.
“We’re battling a plethora of basketball,” said former Los Angeles Lakers great Michael Cooper, the Dream’s third-year coach. “In the summer, fans want to take their kids on vacation or to go see Grandma, and we’re asking them to watch more basketball after they were force-fed men’s and women’s college basketball and (the NBA) and football all season long.”
So the season should be moved?
“No. We just have to do a better job marketing the players and developing the league.”
It hasn’t helped that the best women players often play overseas, where they can make more money and skip the WNBA. But the league has not been short of television exposure, thanks to the NBA’s help.
At some point, the question will be asked: Do enough people care?
Borders said she wouldn’t have accepted the position if Silver didn’t convince her he was committed to making the WNBA work. So how does that jibe with Silver’s comments in September?
“He was telling the truth,” she said. “Everybody always believes you should move farther and faster. It doesn’t mean he’s dissatisfied with what has been accomplished, but, sure, he’d like to be further along.”
Could the WNBA survive without the NBA’s assistance?
“I don’t know,” Borders said. “But I don’t have to worry about that because big brother is standing right beside us.”
The WNBA promotional video included sound bites from LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul. Impact? The Dream had an announced home opener crowd of 6,152. (A WNBA spokesman said league attendance is up 7 percent from a year ago at this time.)
Borders doesn’t understand why some people would have an aversion to the WNBA when they say they’ve never been to a game.
“Would you say that about a restaurant you’ve never been to?” she asked.
True. But great chefs have restaurants go belly up all the time, whether because of competition, location or the lack of a compelling reason to go. Twenty years later, the WNBA has a lot of empty tables.
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