After 18 years, the WNBA has finally addressed the fact the LGBT community makes up a large fan base (currently cited as 25 percent) and has decided to make moves to recruit its LGBT fans to games.
The WNBA released a statement committing to having “teams participate in local pride festivals and parades,” working “with advocacy groups to raise awareness of inclusion through grassroots events” and advertising “with lesbian media.”
A nationally televised Pride game will also take place on June 22 between Tulsa and Chicago.
“For us it’s a celebration of diversity and inclusion and recognition of an audience that has been with us very passionately,” WNBA President Laurel Richie said. “This is one of those moments in the ‘W’ where everybody comes together.”
All 12 teams will have a pride initiative during the season, many have already done local promotion, like sponsoring booths at gay pride events or hosting LGBT groups at games.
“We embrace all our fans and it’s a group that we know has been very, very supportive. I won’t characterize it as ‘Why did it take so long?’” Richie said. “For me it’s been we’ve been doing a lot of terrific initiatives. The piece that‘s different this year is unifying it.”
When the WNBA started in 1997, Rick Welts, the executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the NBA, said everyone assumed the fan base would carry over between the leagues.
“We guessed very wrong on that,” Welts, who came out in 2011 and became the highest ranking executive in men’s sports to come out gay, said. “Maybe we should have known better. I think from its outset, the WNBA attracted a fan with different interests than our profile of an NBA fan.”
Before their new campaign, the WNBA looked at their fan base and discovered in 2012, 25 percent of lesbians watch the game on television and 21 percent go to them. Welts said this discussion wasn’t the first about reaching out to the LGBT community, but that teams have been trying to figure out how to proactively be inclusive.
Brittney Griner, one of the few out WNBA athletes said she is going to wear rainbow-colored shoes during June.
“I’m so glad that we’re finally making a push to the LGBT community who is a strong supporter of the WNBA,” Griner, who was grand marshal of the Phoenix Pride Parade, said. “Our league being the first to make that push and bring more attention to it is great. We’ll pave the way and show its fine and there’s nothing wrong with it. More sports need to do it. It’s 2014, it’s about time.”
Griner said at the time of her honor: “Phoenix is my adopted home and I’m so honored by the way the fans and the community have embraced me, not only as an athlete but as a person. I look forward to attending my first Phoenix Pride, participating in the parade, and meeting more inspiring, proud Phoenicians who care as much as I do about equality and ending the bullying of our youth.”
Academic chair of the sports management program at NYU’s Tisch Center, Robert Boland, said at one point sports were apolitical. Now, with so many players from different sports leagues coming out, it’s different.
“Sports [have] a natural hesitance to embrace highly controversial issues,” Boland said. “I think we’ve lived through a period where sport was nonpolitical. We’re in a different era now.”
While Pat Griffin, Professor Emeritus in the School Justice Education Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst said at one point homophobia contributed to not embracing LGBT fans, times have changed.
“For a long time they were happy to have those lesbians fill those seats in the stands, but not willing for a long time to embrace the fan base,” he said. “I attribute that to the homophobia, fear that somehow acknowledging the fan base would encourage other fans to not go to games. What they’ve learned is that [it] doesn’t keep other people from going to games.”