- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2001

The WNBA is coming out of the closet.
With a feel-good barrage of kiddie-corps commercials, saccharine slogans and peppy promotions, the WNBA has spent much of its five-year existence marketing to families and children.
Recently, however, some of the league's teams have been openly courting a core portion of their audience one that the WNBA previously had been reluctant to publicly embrace for fear of alienating traditional families.
On July 21, the Sacramento Monarchs will hold their first annual Gay Pride Night, an event that will include a gay chorus singing the national anthem, halftime entertainment from an all-female drum group and five hours of pregame festivities outside Arco Arena.
"We're working with members in the gay and lesbian community to help put this night on," said Sonja Brown, director of public relations for Maloof Sports and Entertainment, the company that runs the Monarchs and the NBA's Kings. "We're a very inclusive team. We welcome everybody."
When it comes to welcoming lesbian fans, the Monarchs are hardly alone. Around the WNBA this season, teams are targeting the demographic that dare not speak its name in unprecedented fashion:
The Los Angeles Sparks made an appearance last month at the 12,000-member Girl Bar, the nation's largest lesbian club, signing autographs and selling merchandise and ticket packages.
The Seattle Storm played host to a post-game party at KeyArena for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's gay and lesbian political organization.
Miami Sol players have made team-sanctioned promotional appearances at gay rallies and lesbian bars for almost two years.
The Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury advertise in local gay and lesbian newspapers.
"I wouldn't say it's new to market to an audience that you know supports you," said Valerie O'Neil, a spokeswoman for the Storm. "And that's what we're doing."
The overtures signal a shift for the image-conscious WNBA, which as recently last season curiously released a list of married or engaged players and their male partners.
Though pursuing gay consumers is commonplace in corporate America AT&T;, for example, is a major sponsor of the Gay Games it's a rarity in professional sports, where past efforts often have met with controversy.
Two years ago, the Washington Mystics were caught up in a minor ruckus when the name of a local lesbian group, the Lesbian Avengers, was shown on the team's scoreboard along with other groups that had purchased blocks of tickets.
Similarly, the Monarchs' front office created a stir last season when they refused to display the moniker of a Sacramento-area group, the Davis Dykes, claiming the name was offensive.
Monarchs co-owner Joe Maloof, who was not consulted on the matter, subsequently apologized to the group and invited them to the team's season finale and playoff opener.
"In the past, it hasn't been OK with consumers and advertisers to be openly gay," said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a Chicago-based sports marketing company. "Women's golf has shied away from this perception for years, struggling with a label that has been put on their tour that it's a predominantly lesbian group.
"However, we've really seen television take the lead in terms of legitimizing gays and lesbians to audiences of all different ages. When you see gay characters in television and movies, it tends to become a part of mainstream society. I think WNBA teams are trying to capitalize on that trend."
For some clubs, however, the change of marketing focus may have less to do with diversity and tolerance than with the bottom line.
With average WNBA attendance falling to 9,074 per regular season game last season down from a high of 10,869 in 1998 the league can ill-afford to neglect any of its core fans, including lesbians.
The WNBA estimates that more than 70 percent of the people who come to its games are women. According to league observers, the WNBA enjoys strong lesbian fan support in many of its cities.
The Washington Blade recently reported that the HRC regularly hosts post-game parties in six league cities, including Washington.
"It's a good move to work on any niche in your target market," Williams said. "Also, the gay demographic is growing. And it's known for disposable income. Any marketer worth their salt would like that."
Some WNBA teams, such as the Mystics, don't single out lesbian fans in their marketing efforts. Washington has been the league's top-drawing team since 1998 and averaged 15,258 fans a game last season.
"The way we market, we market to everyone," said Dyani Gordon, the Mystics' director of public relations. "We definitely target women as one of our demographics we have a campaign that's built on girl power. But we don't target a specific group."
O'Neil said the Storm have enjoyed mostly positive feedback from their lesbian-themed promotions. Last season, the club was criticized on talk radio and received negative phone calls and e-mail for hosting a Gay Pride Night; this year, the team co-sponsored a post-game HRC party at a women's bar without incident.
"Last year, there was a miscommunication as to what the whole event was," O'Neil said. "People thought it was a political platform, that it was an event that wholeheartedly supported a lifestyle choice. But it was just another group of fans, like Girl Scout night or Military night.
"We don't view basketball as a political platform. We view it as an opportunity to get fans in the building and create camaraderie and energy."
That said, marketing to lesbian fans is not without risk. According to Williams, WNBA teams that actively court lesbians may end up alienating their more traditional clientele.
"It's similar to hiring an athlete who has a controversial past," he said. "The WNBA has to weigh the advantages of going after the lesbian market versus what you might lose. Up until now, history tells us that you would lose a demographic.
"So it really becomes a question: Can you get more marketing to the lesbian market? Or can you get more by not marketing to them and continuing to focus on moms and families? It's still too early to know."

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