The WNBA on Memorial Day weekend began its 18th season of play.
That's about 17 more seasons than some early prognosticators gave the NBA's sibling.
"There are a lot of fans — girls and boys — who are growing up watching the WNBA," Donna Orender astutely observed during her tenure as president of the league from 2005 to 2010. "They will be fans for life."
“I appreciate how hard they play,” confirmed NBA all-star Kevin Durant, following a recent Minnesota Lynx preseason game. "It’s really unfortunate they don’t get the credit they deserve. Hopefully, everyone comes out and follows.”
Marketing support includes valuable prime real estate that the NBA seems to be moving toward and which already has taken hold in Major League Soccer and Nascar.
Marquee partner Boost Mobile has jersey-front signage with all teams that do not already have a partner in the category.
That is in addition to teams with their own jersey-front sponsorship deals. They include the defending champion Indiana Fever (Finish Line), Tulsa Shock (Osage Casino), Los Angles Sparks (Farmers Insurance), New York Liberty (Foxwoods), Phoenix Mercury (Lifelock), Seattle Storm (Bing) and the Washington Mystics (Inova).
League marketing partners also include adidas, American Express, BBVA, Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser), Coca-Cola, EA Sports, PepsiCo's Gatorade, HP, Jamba Juice, Nike, Pepperidge Farm's Goldfish, Sanofi, Spalding, Russell Athletic, SAP, State Farm and Taco Bell.
Although it doesn't get the overt national exposure of the NBA, the eyeballs have been growing. WNBA and ESPN have been affiliated for 17 years, dating back to the league’s inaugural season in 1997, and recently extended the alliance via a new six-year deal through the 2022 season.
As many as 30 games will be aired nationally on ESPN networks, including exclusive coverage of the WNBA All-Star Game in July, and conference finals and WNBA finals in September-October. Last month, the league's first prime-time telecast of the WNBA Draft Presented by State Farm was conducted at ESPN’s studio in Bristol, Conn.
That draft brought in two women who are expected to impact the immediate and long-term future of the WNBA. Brittney Griner was drafted No. 1 overall by the Mercury, and observers liken her arrival to that of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hitting the NBA back in 1969.
''She's a very talented athlete,'' Abdul-Jabbar himself said of the 6' 8" Griner when he was giving her one-on-one lessons during training camp on how to add a version of his legendary sky hook to her arsenal, which already includes the dunk. “She's not just tall, she has some skills. She runs the court very well, she's active. I think she's going to have a great career.''
Griner's presence on a roster that already includes league super-star Diana Taurasi make the Mercury a favorite to win the 2013 WNBA title while driving fan and sponsorship interest. The pair are featured in Mercury ticket sales commercials, and the team gave away 5,000 Griner T-shirts at its home opener on Memorial Day, which was presented by State Farm.
Skylar Diggins, drafted No. 3 overall by the Shock, broke ground when she became the first WNBA or NBA player to sign with Jay-Z's Roc Nation, which is working in conjunction with powerhouse talent-rep firm Creative Artists Agency. When Diggins graduated from Notre Dame earlier this month, Roc Nation rewarded her with a Mercedes Benz and the promise of mega-marketing deals to come.
ESPN2 aired both Griner's and Diggins' first games nationally on Memorial Day, a sign of things to come on the TV scheduling landscape.
Along with No. 2 overall pick Elena Delle Donne, who was drafted by the Chicago Sky, the WNBA built a "3 to See" marketing campaign. Even league stars such as Candace Parker (Los Angeles) (Phoenix), Sue Bird (Seattle), Tamika Catchings (Indiana) and Maya Moore (Minnesota), each of whom have their own marketing deals, can't mind that rookies are grabbing some of the spotlight and helping to raise the marketing bar.