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WNBA Continues Its Brand Success

The Proof Is In The Numbers

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May 25, 2021
 min read

When 2020 began a great deal of the talk about growing value in sports and analytics for brands was tied to women’s sports. From the Women’s World Cup and the NWSL, to the Tokyo Olympics and the continued explosion of engagement in college and high school sports storytelling, women’s sports was pretty much on every marketer’s watch, and engage list. Leading that charge was the WNBA, a property which continued to hammer home value and engagement by being strategic, proactive and targeted in its engagement. Then the pandemic hit. Women’s sports, given the lack of games, the lack of media coverage, the lack of opportunity, it seemed would have to wait again for its turn. The WNBA, given the timing of its schedule, might be more impacted than most.

The “Wubble” Won

However, sports had a resilience not everyone could have expected. “The W” found its place, its “Wubble” and an even bigger share of voice because of the fact that its players, its teams and coaches, had been well versed and highly active in the biggest driver of conversation anywhere during the summer of 2020 and into the fall- cause marketing and social responsibility. For years the players of the WNBA were amongst the most highly engaged athletes on the planet, rallying around causes ranging from literacy to equality, never taking a back seat on debates. Last summer, as the teams gathered at IMG Academy in Florida to start and play through the socially distanced season without fans, the players not only joined their NBA colleagues in raising awareness around social justice, but they took it to a higher level through unified voices. With that added spotlight, the WNBA players were also able to pivot and expand their own storytelling to audiences which may not have been listening before, growing their share of overall voice, and with that, even more value for all those brands who have been a key part of their growth, especially in the past few years.

“Shut up and dribble,” was never part of the W psyche, and because their athletes have been socially focused, their engagement became a natural, international rallying cry. Not just for fans of the league, but for people from all walks of life from around the world.

All of that careful activation, that pointed storytelling, that bright focus on athletic leaders of those less fortunate, put the WNBA in a position when the season ended to be in more brand and business conversations than ever before. It has set the league, athletes and coaches up for almost unprecedented success as we now get rolling in their long awaited, much anticipated 25th season, which began in mid-May.

Social Success

On the social side, WNBA Teams have seen an average of 19.22% in growth of social accounts over the past year (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). While followers have increased by 19.22%, engagement is also up +46% YoY with the LA Sparks (+50.39%), Seattle Storm (+29.58%), and Las Vegas Aces (+25.14%) leading the way. Even more impressive is the growth of the Sparks, Storm and Aces when you look at NBA teams in the past year, as all three surpassed growth of the best NBA efforts, the revamped Brooklyn Nets, the fast rising Denver Nuggets and the LeMelo Ball led Charlotte Hornets during that same period.  YoY Growth for NBA Teams was +5.71%, which was outpaced by the nearly 20% growth of the WNBA.

WNBA Teams have seen an average of 19.22% in growth of social accounts over the past year

From a brand engagement standpoint, the breadth and scope, and diversity of WNBA partner activation and engagement continued to rise last season and into this one. While there was a time in the early stages of the WNBA that brands were buying the NBA and then adding on to the WNBA, that is rarely the case today. Maybe there are key brands like Anheuser-Busch who seek to embrace all things professional basketball (albeit with different campaigns targeted to different audiences), but the WNBA focused programs and partners continue to expand in ways an NBA partnership might not and can bring resonance that a crowded NBA landscape may not have.

It Is All About Real Estate

A great example of WNBA success lies with AT&T, whose partnership gives them a prime jersey spot across all teams, something no other league, men’s or women’s (outside of soccer) can offer. The ability to own the lower half of all the jerseys helped propel AT&T to the top brand spot this past year on team and League social channels. Earning $230,198 in brand value. And while you saw the heavy investment and ROI from traditional partners like Nike, Reebok, adidas and Microsoft, there were also brands speaking to the WNBA demo directly who pulled in activation and awareness success. Companies like Zale’s Jewelers, Gucci and Ivy Park, a trio that now thinks of the power of the WNBA first, and other league partnerships second.

Then we had the power of the athletes as ambassadors and the value they brought and will continue to bring. A rising player like Sabrina Ionescu and what she can bring as a transcendent star to the New York Liberty. Her engagement work with AB, and Microsoft were some of the most visible and successful of 2020. Meanwhile league sponsor Pepsi’s promo of Mountain Dews’ new Watermelon flavor scored big points with a trio of stars, A'ja Wilson, Elena Delle Donne, Sue Bird, who represented markets from the east coast to the pacific northwest. Factor in a brand like Dick’s Sporting Goods, who engaged with Candace Parker, Bella Alarie, and Tyasha Harris around their social platform, #StrongerwithSports and you really start to see how the personalities, and the followings of the WNBA brought wide exposure and resonance at a time when many may have guessed the pause was on.

Looking Into Year 25

As we move ahead in this 25th anniversary season the interest in the W as a property has not slowed. We saw average viewership for this year's WNBA Draft on ESPN rise to 1,008,960. Also the WNBA League account used 156 posts to give brand partner State Farm key exposure, 199,590 engagements and $76,265 in brand value during the month of April alone.          

We saw average viewership for this year's WNBA Draft on ESPN rise to 1,008,960.

While in 2021, teams are still growing at a rapid rate (up 19% from 2020), the pace has dropped from the 2020 growth rate (27% YoY) from 2019 to 2020. That slight dip can probably be attributed to the change in seasons and the bigger gap from where the regular W season would have started in the spring. It is actually even more of a powerful chart back up for 2021 that can be tied to the WNBA growing more than maintaining their brand value during the “Wubble” season and into a very crowded spring this year.

Now will the social successes, especially tied to cause, continue to give the WNBA a bounce as we return to normal in the coming months? While there is no set way to predict such a continued rise for sure, all the parameters for the engaged fan are certainly in place. The league has enhanced its cause platforms, it has doubled down on proactive and telegenic stars and most importantly it has listened to its partners on where and how engagement can best take place. It’s not just a case of a store end cap and some commercial spots, that’s only part of the deal. The rest involves where brands and athletes are resonating more and more, especially with a younger engaged audience in social media, in the integrated campaign space and in the highly important world of cause marketing and social responsibility. Whereas maybe in the past the WNBA on a brand chart of any level may have been fifth or sixth, it is now much higher, and for a brand that has invested in basketball regionally, locally, nationally or internationally, the WNBA is not just an add on, it is a must have.

Just look at the numbers from an unusual season last summer, and you can see the path for success in place.

An overnight sensation, 25 years in the making, with lots of scoring and powerful storytelling just starting. The WNBA success story is one more and more brands, and fans, are embracing, it's going to be a great summer.

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