By: Tanner Simkins @TannerSimkins
As we turned the first quarter of 2020, there was so much talk that this was going to be the year where female athletes, and the subsequent businesses tied to them, were going to be making their move to prominence. Storytelling, brand spending, investment, engagement, social media play were all on the uptick. There was great anticipation around women’s soccer, the Olympics, the WNBA and a growing number of faces and voices that were finally starting to rightfully even the playing field.
Then the Pandemic hit, and things stopped, and many thought the slide backwards would impact those who were advancing forward. Well, maybe from a business standpoint those who saw a reversal of positive fortune for women’s sports were a little early in their glum predictions.
Two cases in point this week, which follow-up on the tremendous impact as leaders the WNBA players and others have had during “Black Lives Matter.” Both speak to the business success that is growing around team sports.
First was the NWSL announcement of their expansion into Los Angeles. A star studded investment group drew all the buzz and many of the eyeballs this week, as actress Natalie Portman and others actively pushed for support not just of their franchise that would be coming, but for why women’s soccer was a smart, timely and effective sports business move for the future.
Then on Wednesday came the news that a business group that includes the leadership of one of the most effective WNBA teams, the Dallas Wings, would be expanding THEIR portfolio by brining a National Lacrosse league team into the area to play in a new arena in Fort Worth, Texas, Dickies Arena. What is impressive is not just the NLL under Nick Sakiewicz is expanding during a pandemic, these are actually the first two sports franchise expansions in all of 2020 in North America, but that they are doing so because of the success of a WNBA franchise is a highly competitive market that includes the business success of people like Mark Cuban and Jerry Jones on the side of men’s sports. That speaks volumes for the leadership team and the business acumen of the Wings, led by veteran sports marketer Greg Bibb.
“When we look for expansion we have three criteria, and one is tremendous busines success and leadership in running a franchise, and Greg certainly has that,” Sakiewicz said on a conference call with media Wednesday, as the NLL added their second WNBA ownership group to their arsenal (New England, which lays at Mohegan Sun with another WNBA business success story, the Connecticut Sun, is the other).
For his part, Bibb was forward thinking about rising potential, but it should diminish the positive news in any way. “Like the WNBA, the National Lacrosse League is a fast-paced, action-packed game featuring world class athletes. Engagement with the product is affordable and both Leagues have a focus on extending the League and team brands through strong digital strategies.,” he said this week via email. “I think women’s sports has come a long way, but has a long way to go…the WNBA signed an historic CBA with the WNBPA (player’s association) this past off-season and the growth metrics for the League and member clubs have never been stronger. That said, the size of women’s sports businesses, and subsequently the earning power of the female athletes in women’s team sports, is nowhere near their male counterparts. The WNBA is about to begin the League’s 24th season with six games this weekend…all on national networks. That says something, but there is still much work to be done and ground to be gained.”
That work and that ground, was seen by many as one of the harbingers of success as we moved to a new decade in the 21st century. Companies like Anheuser Busch have committed millions to women’s specific initiatives as we started this year, and quietly as we return to play, we are seeing more and more of those commitments. Like everything in sport these days, it’s a slow and cautious return to normal or what that normal will be. But if you are bullish on women’s sports like we are; two consecutive days of impact were this week…one that brought star power and dollars to soccer, and the other that shows even more impact…a women’s sports business making a key crossover into men’s sports. Each impactful in their own way and worth watching as we move ahead, not back, in 2020.