For years the WNBA has struggled to find that perfect mix of edgy athletic talent and family audience to draw casual fans in from beautiful weather indoors in the summer. They have had breakout crossover stars like Lisa Leslie for sure, but getting a consistent return that matches both talent ton the court and buzz off the court has been an issue.
So enter Brittney Griner. Griner joined the fray of professional athletes formally admitting they are gay this spring, along with the LA Galaxy’s Robbie Rogers and the Washington Bullets Jason Collins. She has appeared on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s Taboo Issue wearing a snake, and has enough talent and athleticism to actually be mentioned as someone who could challenge, at least for a short while, for an NBA roster spot.
So while the flavor of the spring is the buzz around athlete’s “coming out,” Griner is almost the opposite…she has the ability to be a transcendent star whose sexuality is the least important part of her global appeal. For sure Rogers is a great young soccer talent, not playing in a major market, and Collins has been a solid citizen and role player now toward the end of his career. But Griner is a young, vibrant and diverse star.
Her appeal? Some thoughts.
Cause Marketing: One of the most important causes now being embraced by sport is anti-bullying. Griner readily admits she was a victim of all types of bullying throughout her life, and it drove her almost to the point of suicide. Being the athletic face of a corporate campaign on bullying, partnered with some high profile male athletes, would be a great fit to expand her visibility and draw attention to the cause.
Appeal to Gen X: Griner has multiple interests, and is often seen with a unique choice of clothes and a skateboard. Boarding, as well as gaming (another of her interests) remains a huge draw for the audience in the late teens and early 20’s which has drifted from tam sports, and having Griner with some of the elite gamers and X Games stars can help pull some casual faces to the WNBA, as well as exposing the WNBA to a young audience who can now see a connection directly to their interests vs., just hanging out in a gym shooting hoops.
The male hoops audience: Try as they may, the WNBA has never really enjoyed a male fan base who right now in locked into the Spurs and the Heat. Griner’s talent, her athleticism and her toughness, translates really well to a male NBA fan looking for an offseason fix. She plays in a women’s league, but as Mavs owner Mark Cuban has pointed out, her ability is transcendent.
Global sport: As a business, sport is becoming more global, with American brands looking to grow overseas and a host of non-American companies looking to engage in the States through sport. The woman’s basketball market is much more lucrative in places like Russia and China during the winter, and Griner can be the linchpin for a brand looking to go abroad or for companies from elsewhere looking for exposure in the States.
So does it matter that Griner is gay? For a consumer base and a media culture that is really engaged in sexual orientation today, it matters to some extent. Are there parts of American culture that will say that her private life will affect their buying decisions? Yes, but that group is shrinking, especially among a younger and more engaged demo. Can her orientation lead to some deals which she or even the WNBA may not have been a part of in the past? Yes, but whether they are solid, lucrative and long term remain to be seen.
Bottom line is if Britney Griner continues to excel as a transcendent athlete, she will help grow her sport and her brand. Her influence will be more shouted because of her ability and her uniqueness as a person who has served life’s lessons well and more whispered that she is gay. It will become almost a non-factor in the minds of brands as things progress and the issue of sexual orientation in sport becomes less. Nike for example, has already signed her to a deal which was dubbed by some as being their first openly gay athlete. However her value to that brand, and any brand, will be to an audience who will love her athleticism and her skill as much as, or even more than, her sexual orientation. Would it be better for the WNBA to have her talents in a major market like New York or Los Angeles? Yes. However for now, having her in a market like Phoenix will also be an interesting test in what she can achieve away from some of the brightest marketing lights on either coast.
If she stays successful on the court, continues her professional growth off the court, and gets the brand support and promotion needed, Brittney Griner’s upside is tremendous and brands engaging now for the long term will reap the benefit. The WNBA may finally get its brightest and longest day in the sun.