How the WNBA Stood Up to Trump and Won Fans
Ahead of this summer’s season, the WNBA released a promotional video on its Facebook page. It begins not with players on the court but with a panoramic shot of a crowd filling the streets in Washington, D.C. It then cuts to players running out of the locker room, before returning to a group of women marching—the famous pink pussyhats on their heads and the Capitol’s dome in the background. WNBA stars like Diana Taurasi and Elena Delle Donne appear, high-fiving their teammates.
But no one is shown taking a jump shot or dribbling the ball. Basketball plays a supporting role to images from outside the arena: “Feminist” written over a rainbow sign, a “Girls Rule” poster held by a child. The final frames bring the players and protesters together with the messages: “We Stand for Change” and “We Stand for Equality.” By the end, the video becomes both an advertisement and a call to action—$5 from every WNBA ticket purchased this season will be donated to charities that support women.
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“The first time I saw it, I watched it 30 times,” WNBA Commissioner Lisa Borders told me. “It really moved me.” On Facebook, the video has nearly half a million views and 1,500 shares. The league office hoped those numbers would translate into increased visibility for a 22-year-old league whose average attendance was below 8,000 a year ago and which pulls in somewhere around $52 million in revenue, both paltry numbers compared with its parent league ($7.4 billion). So far, league officials and WNBA observers believe it’s working. Combined viewership for the league on ESPN2 and NBATV is up 35 percent this season. Merchandise sales on the league’s website are up 50 percent over last year. And one of the league’s marquee events, last weekend’s All-Star Game, saw a bump in attendance and a nearly 20 percent ratings jump (the telecast averaged 709,000 viewers).
Those metrics suggest that in a hyperpartisan political environment it is no longer axiomatic that brands need to shy away from hot-button issues for fear of alienating their paying fans. Indeed, the opposite might be true: When the president, with a single tweet, can drive a wedge between the players and owners of a multibillion-dollar league like the NFL, there’s little advantage to playing it safe. The NFL’s muddled response to President Donald Trump’s continuing broadsides over the national anthem debate—defiance followed by acquiescence—has guaranteed the controversy over kneeling players will continue into a third season.
There are numerous examples of individuals in sports taking political positions—the Arizona Cardinals recently released a statement from owner Michael Bidwell in support of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and NBA coaches like Steve Kerr and Greg Popovich have used their platforms to assail the president’s policies. But the WNBA’s “Take a Seat, Take a Stand” campaign is not only a direct rebuke to the president’s treatment of women, but an attempt to align the interests of every one of the league’s constituent groups: players, owners and fans. It is a never-before-attempted gambit to provide a jolt of enthusiasm by grabbing hold of a lightning rod in a political thunderstorm. Among the charities the league is supporting this year are the United State of Women, Bright Pink and Planned Parenthood, arguably one of the most reviled groups among conservative voters.
Borders, a former Atlanta city councilwoman and Coca-Cola executive, doesn’t acknowledge that her league is making a political statement; she couches the effort as a stand for inclusion, advocacy for women and social justice. Whatever she calls it, though, she is also clear that a promotional video that implicitly rips Trump and promotes Planned Parenthood is good for the WNBA, a league that is fighting for coverage and visibility.
There’s a school of thought, she told me, that what’s good for athletes and their activist passions is not necessarily good for business—best expressed by Michael Jordan’s famously apolitical admonition: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” “What we’re seeing,” Borders said, “is that those two things aren’t in conflict—they are in concert.”
The WNBA didn’t arrive here without a few stumbles. Two seasons ago, before Trump was elected president and in Borders’ first season as commissioner, players from several teams wore black T-shirts during warmups in support of the Black Lives Matter movement after two men were killed by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana. In response, the league levied $500 fines on the players for violating the league’s uniform policy.
But the players pushed back. After a game between the Indiana Fever and New York Liberty, players talked only about their protest and the issue of social justice, refusing to answer questions about the game. On social media, they spoke out publicly against the fines. A few days later, the league retreated, and Borders rescinded the fines. “When you have a league with so many women of color, so many of them educated and attuned to social justice issues, the league realized there was no neutral ground,” said Howard Megdal, editor-in-chief of highposthoops.com, a site that covers the WNBA.
Trump’s election and his penchant for stoking the culture wars—and often using black athletes to do it—only reinforced that lack of neutral ground. By 2017, WNBA players joined the protests that sprang up across the country in response to the Trump administration. Breanna Stewart, a star on the Seattle Storm, traveled to Los Angeles International Airport to protest the president’s travel ban, which targeted a group of Muslim-majority countries. Indiana’s Briann January and Marissa Coleman attended the Women’s Marches around the country. “We’re so used to having to fight for ourselves as a league, as players and as a community that fighting isn’t uncommon for us,” Stewart told me.
That players were participating in the protests, Borders said, was an inspiration for the ad. Stewart has watched the internal divisions in the NFL, where players and owners have battled over players’ aspirations to speak out against racial equality and police brutality and protecting the league’s business interests. “As the WNBA, we need to have a unified front,” Stewart said. “Obviously there will be times where we don’t agree, but compared to the NFL—the disparity between players, front offices and management—it’s huge. We know change is only going to happen if we’re together.”
“We’re standing up for what we believe in, whether Trump is the president or not,” said WNBA star Breanna Stewart.
The NBA has made its position known, too, by lending its name and star players like Stephen Curry and Chris Paul to a TV ad paid for by Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety. Adam Silver, the league’s commissioner, has echoed Borders’ thoughts suggesting that activism can be good for the league—though the NBA has not gone as far as the WNBA. It’s easier, of course, with a fan base that skews more liberal and diverse (see this chart published in National Journal). Pro basketball is the only major sport in which black fans make up a higher percentage than white fans (45 percent vs. 40 percent); 45 percent of its fans are under 35. NFL fans, meanwhile, are 80 percent white, with an average age of 50, and more likely to be Republicans.