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WNBA keeps hyping storytelling. Here’s how it is taking action

WNBA’s storytelling evolution sets foundation for ‘Drive to Survive’ effect

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has a board of at least 10 documentary ideas. Pitches have been made to the major media companies, namely Netflix and Amazon. If all things were equal, the league might already be in its boom era of American fandom as Formula 1 is after binges of Netflix’s “Drive to Survive” during the pandemic.

But women’s sports leagues historically aren’t given equal treatment and investment as men’s leagues. The target is often moving and those in power historically are less willing to take the plunge.

“The name of the game in that space is finding someone to distribute it, because that’s where the funding and money comes from,” Engelbert told Yahoo Sports. “When Netflix stepped up and said, ‘We’ll do this F1 [documentary],’ that’s where the money came from to fund it and film it and find the right producers and directors and everything like that. And that’s where women’s sports has fallen short. … This is an issue that needs some equality and some parity.”

F1 isn’t the first sports entity to leverage behind-the-scenes documentary storytelling to grow its fan base — HBO’s “Hard Knocks” first pulled the curtain on NFL training camps in 2001 — but it is the most recent to showcase how much the format can propel athletes into cultural relevance. That in turn leads to more investment, more viewership, more attendance. And most important, more money.

The “Drive to Survive effect” has led to docuseries in golf and tennis that piques interest in serious and casual fans alike. The crux of each of these series is the storytelling itself, a long-standing issue in which the WNBA has lacked in impressive fashion. There is a dearth of options for fans to learn more about the WNBA, its present and its past, even on its own platforms.

That’s a foundation that never fully set and heading into its 27th season, the W is remedying it by hyping storytelling more than ever as the way to market and thereby grow. It continues to lean into the stories of its players and the league office is finally taking up the job itself, from player marketing to responding to fans’ biggest pain points to possibly a similar docuseries coming down the pipeline.

The WNBA is focusing on storytelling as it grows its footprint, which included preseason game in Toronto at Scotiabank Arena this month. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
The WNBA is focusing on storytelling as it grows its footprint, which included preseason game in Toronto at Scotiabank Arena this month. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Nice to meet you: WNBA puts players at forefront

Marissa Coleman, a 10-year WNBA veteran who retired in 2018, is still fielding questions about Chamique Holdsclaw and Lisa Leslie. But it’s in the current tense, as in a man asking her on a plane if Leslie was still playing.

Leslie, a two-time WNBA champion and Finals MVP, and Holdsclaw last played in 2009, long before the conversation took place five years ago, as Coleman recalled on her “See You in the Lobby” podcast in a conversation with Angel McCoughtry. It’s an anecdote many share and an issue at the cross-section of the league’s radar. In recent seasons, the league closed in on a remedy.

The Player Marketing Agreements (PMAs) were implemented in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and are largely discussed in tandem with prioritization since PMAs require players to stay stateside in the offseason rather than play overseas. There are 10 players currently signed to deals that run from the end of the 2022 WNBA Finals to the 2023 Finals and task the player with marketing the league. It’s a financial win for both sides in the long run.

“Marketing has been very important to them because they see the benefits now to building their brands more broadly and the benefit they get from that,” Engelbert told Yahoo Sports. “And again, it’s going to help us in the long run to build more household names and it’s going to help them from a compensation perspective, too, which is extremely important.

“But it’s not the reason we did it. We did it because a rising tide lifts all boats. If we get more players known in the marketplace, known by corporate partners, they’re going to make more money in the end because they’re going to get personal endorsements.”

ESPN's LaChina Robinson with the New York Liberty's Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart during the 2023 espnW Summit NYC this month. Jones and Stewart are highly visible WNBA players. (Arturo Holmes/Getty Images)
ESPN's LaChina Robinson with the New York Liberty's Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart during the 2023 espnW Summit NYC this month. Jones and Stewart are visible WNBA players especially as they build a super-team in New York. (Arturo Holmes/Getty Images)

Those personal endorsements are slowly, but surely, filtering in for the biggest names. A’ja Wilson became the first woman athlete to sign with Ruffles last summer, a massive deal that placed her in the face of any grocery shopper with chips on their shopping list. Breanna Stewart and Puma announced this month the release of the Stewie 2, her second signature shoe, that’s prominently displayed to anyone in the athletic store.

Kelsey Plum, Candace Parker and Diamond DeShields feature prominently in the Google Pixel “House Party” linear TV ad. And No. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston joined the strong Adidas women’s basketball roster. Each of their personalities and profiles has grown as a result.

The WNBA signed three players to league PMAs after the 2021 Finals and signed 10 this iteration at a total cost of $1.5 million, $500,000 of which is a carryover from unused 2022 PMA allocated money. The CBA requires an annual minimum total PMA spend of $1 million with no player making more than $250,000. Engelbert said the league will take a look at next year’s budget and corporate partnerships before deciding if the amount will go back down to $1 million.

“If we have to spend more, we will,” Engelbert said. “We’ll find the right complement of players.”

Engelbert said Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins and Indiana Fever guard Kelsey Mitchell reached out to her directly to be on deals. They’re joined by Arike Ogunbowale (Wings), Dearica Hamby (Sparks), Didi Richards (Liberty), Isabelle Harrison (Sky), Kahleah Copper (Sky), Napheesa Collier (Lynx) and DeShields (Wings). Hamby and Collier are on their second PMA contracts and were joined in the first year by Betnijah Laney, who was also on a separate team marketing deal with the New York Liberty.

“She did a lot, so much that a media CEO came up to me and said, ‘Gosh, I must have seen Betnijah Laney everywhere. She’s amazing,’” Engelbert said. “Like, yes, that’s what we want. More recognition for some of these players. It’s been going really, really well this year.”

There is no standard contract agreement between player and league, Engelbert said. Instead, league personnel ask what a player’s passion is and tailor a contract around that. Players have attended fashion weeks, NBA All-Star and the NBA Paris Game. They’ve participated in Her Time To Play clinics and the NBA Academy Women’s Camp Africa. And a few attended their alma maters in the winter to be a front-facing connection between college fans and the W. Every tentpole event is a way to grow the individual and league footprint.

“There’s no league that, especially basketball, that survives without players becoming household names and rivalries being created across teams and things like that,” Engelbert said.

Engelbert said the league’s success markers include how much are players recognized, if they’re building their social media following and earning personal endorsements, and if the league is receiving a return on investment from the deals.

“It’s a marketing story, ultimately,” Engelbert said. “We’re focused on awareness that fans and prospective fans need to know how to watch, how to attend, how to buy a jersey. It’s a broader marketing story than just these 10 [players] did these things for us. It’s [about] can we then transition that into our marketing plan that brings exposure for our fans to exactly what the W is all about.”

And that’s where the WNBA has had the toughest time.

It’s a date: WNBA makes appointment viewership

There are myriad pain points for fans to traverse when supporting the WNBA and it actively keeps people out, a constant struggle Engelbert is often asked to address. The PMAs can turn a casual basketball fan into an Ogunbowale, Hamby or Copper fan, but it’s up to the WNBA to make it easier for those people to find games, watch their players and show off their team gear.

Up until the past few years, games on national TV were essentially nonexistent — and that included the postseason. The Disney networks have picked up more games and CBS Sports Network has signed on, plus all of the contests that air on NBA TV. Even then, it has been difficult to know what channel or app service a game is on any given night with the mishmash of TV windows they’re all offering.

“Appointment viewership [is] really what we’re trying to create,” WNBA senior vice president and chief growth officer Colie Edison told Yahoo Sports. “The idea is making it easier to be a fan by telling you when to watch, where to watch, how to watch.”

Edison spearheaded the deal with E.W. Scripps that will feature WNBA games on ION, which launched in 1998 as PAX TV, nearly every Friday night of the season. There will be at least one, and sometimes multiple, games. It is the first live sports deal for ION, a national entertainment network available in every household over-the-air and on all major TV packages.

No financials are available, but it will reportedly not run past the 2025 season when the current TV rights deal with ESPN/ABC expires. That TV rights deal has been at the top of Engelbert’s docket since she came on as commissioner in 2019 and she’s repeatedly said she wants to disrupt the media rights valuation model. The league reportedly made $27 million from ESPN in its TV rights deal in 2021 (growing to $33 million by 2025) and has favorable viewership to MLS, which signed a deal with Apple worth $250 million per year.

While those conversations are going on, the WNBA has to work within current confines. Engelbert told Yahoo Sports in March the league was working on pushing to make sure high-caliber games were in good windows. New York and Las Vegas, the two super-teams garnering the majority of offseason attention by hardcore and casual fans, meet four times airing, in order of games announced last week, on Amazon Prime, ABC, Amazon Prime and ESPN2.

“It’s never going to be perfect because we compete with other sports during our season and sometimes the broadcast windows aren’t ideal,” Engelbert told Yahoo Sports. “But as we move to more [of] the disruption going on in the media and to more streaming — TV windows don’t matter anymore in the streaming world, right? I think as we upgrade our league pass equivalent, as we draw in more subscribers into that, as we get better at producing games that aren’t covered by our national partners, yeah. That’s all part of the strategy. We’re working really hard on that.”

She said expanding the season to 40 games helps because the league has more inventory to sell, which is how a league-high 205 games will air live on broadcasts or streams during the regular season. ESPN/ABC, CBS/Paramount+, CBS Sports Network, ION, NBA TV, Amazon Prime Video, Meta and Twitter all air games with the postseason exclusively on ESPN. There are also calls for shoulder programming — pregame and postgame shows to further drive storytelling and interest. The Mystics and NBC Sports Washington are taking a step with the announcement on Monday of those programs.

All except ESPN have used local broadcast crews rather than in-house teams, another frustration for those wanting to tune in for national games. Instead, it is largely single-team oriented that has leaned on a “homerism” mentality. Edison said the ION broadcasts will also use local talent who “know the most about the teams and the players.”

“I think we have top talent in our markets and so we feel really good about making sure that we’re using talent who know our game and who know our league and have been with the league for a while,” Edison said.

The one change will be an executive producer and director overseeing it at the nation level.

“You’ll have a consistent look and feel across all the ION broadcasts,” Edison said. “I think you will definitely see an upgraded look and feel from local broadcasts.”

There’s also a long-needed upgrade for its app, which houses WNBA League Pass for $25 a season and can now be purchased through YouTube TV, and its website.

New York Liberty forward Betnijah Laney has been prominently featured among league marketing efforts. (Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports)
New York Liberty forward Betnijah Laney has been prominently featured among league marketing efforts. (Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports)

Welcome home: WNBA sets ‘24/7 content’ hub

Outside of ION’s “appointment viewing” package, it is difficult to keep track of when and where WNBA games will air, so the league’s relatively new digital team has cleaned up the schedule page of the website and app as part of its full rebuild released Tuesday. It is easier to reach the current day’s schedule, versus having to scroll down, and the icons for where to watch are more prominent.

The old app held about 80% of its content behind the League Pass paywall, director of WNBA digital products Devin Ward told Yahoo Sports. It “really missed the mark of our casual fan” who wants to access simple info such as box scores and player details without shelling out $25 off the top, Ward said. The new one is aimed to make fans feel “like they’re truly a part of this WNBA ecosystem and that we care about their interaction.”

“We want them to feel a part of our brand and we want them to feel a part of our players,” Ward said, hitting on an issue fans have noted, the league has verbally addressed, but no one has remedied.

The WNBA added about a dozen staffers dedicated to a digital transformation, a league spokesperson said, using money from the $75 million capital raise announced last year. The issues with the old system were layered and created only more problems.

In the past, someone had to go in and manually enter transactions in the content management system, creating room for error and wasted time. Players’ names were often misspelled or information incorrect. Now there’s a feed to pull in that info, freeing up an employee to “spend time on content [and] power storytelling,” Ward said. The website pages are more efficient, less clunky to use, and the team can now respond to fan feedback in real time when there are pain points.

The app will cater to Gen Z with a front page more akin to social media that features stories up top for each game or news topic and short-series content that will “push like a firehouse” into the app throughout the season. Ward said they wanted it to be a “24/7 content home” and confirmed there is investment and resourcing in place to follow through.

“I just can’t wait for fans to see we finally did it,” Ward said. “We listened. We now have a product that’s out there and to finally be able to say, like, we heard you. We’re working on it. We’re continuing to work on it and we really just want our brand and our products to reflect the players and the league itself. It’s continuing to grow, so our products need to grow with it.”

The new assets were described by the team as a foundation and core product to continue to build. The next level is long-form storytelling with a focus on history that can pull women’s sports onto equal ground.

Moving on up: Long-form storytelling the next horizon

At least one of the 10 ideas on Engelbert’s idea board will hopefully become a reality soon, she told Yahoo Sports. Edison said there are long-form documentary projects in the works that will be distributed next summer in association with teams and the league.

Much like the other exterior issues facing the WNBA’s growth, a documentary series requires those outside of the WNBA offices to jump on board. Often, that’s been an internal advocate at a company making the pitch for women.

“We’re a microcosm of broader society around investment in women,” Engelbert said. “It’s got to be an ecosystem of who determines what they’re going to essentially pay to distribute. And I’m sure, again, someone internal — probably a man — made the decision on F1 and the PGA’s [“Full Swing”] and the tennis [docuseries “Break Point”]. Why aren’t they doing that on women’s sports? And it’s not for lack of ideas and opportunities.”

Beth Greve, chief commercial officer at Iron Mountain Entertainment Services (IMES), told Yahoo Sports the lack of women’s sports documentaries is a combination of things that include time and passion. Greve oversees the company’s work archiving and digitizing content libraries for clients in sports, entertainment and music and has worked with the Los Angeles Lakers and HBO. Even men’s documentaries took time to nab investments and be developed, assisted along by a sweet spot for the style in today’s culture, she said.

IMES is in “constant conversation with numerous teams and leagues,” but at present its public roster does not include women’s teams, Greve said. But she believes a change is coming thanks to documentaries becoming mainstream and women’s sports growing in popularity and coverage. The work the WNBA is doing internally to market, promote and storytell is setting it in the right direction.

“I think we’ve seen bits and bobs, as you would say, of some of that information [for a documentary]. I believe that the popularity of the WNBA is going to change that,” Greve said. “With all the ratings up and the 40-game season this year, and more sell-out crowds and certainly more increase in short-term content and just overall engagement, that is when you get a positive experience from Hollywood, so to speak.”

The investment in “Drive to Survive” catapulted F1 to popularity in the United States, but the sport was already hitting similar popularity benchmarks in Europe. The largest shift was when Liberty Media Company bought F1 in 2016 and course-corrected previous owner Bernie Ecclestone’s anti-digital and social media stances.

Netflix, to Engelbert’s point, had to be interested to strike a deal for a series. But it also couldn’t happen without F1 leaning into its social media presence, its narratives, its personalities. It had to appreciate and understand how to tell its story and let in others willing and wanting to also tell it. There had to be a trust in the paddock.

In the WNBA, it appears to be on the right track.