Wednesday we had a few stolen last minute hours to make the latest conference stop, at the Sports Business Journal’s first-ever “Dealmakers” event in New York. While you rarely expect to get earth shattering news at such events, the ability to show up, listen and find some unexpected tidbits or new voices is what makes any such industry events important.
The lineup certainly had its share of big names; Robert and Jonathan Kraft, Gary Bettman, Don Garber, Michael Rubin, Wyc Grousbeck among them, but the person who gave some of the best insight wasn’t a commissioner or dealmaker from the top four leagues, it was the Ginny Gilder, an Olympian, Yale grad and now co-owner of the Seattle Storm of the WNBA.
In the past year there has been a marked uptick in positive looks about the people and places around the WNBA, as the league continues to carve its own niche not just as a sports brand, but as a leader for storytelling, progressive thought and social change. Before Wednesday I had never heard Gilder speak publicly, but decidedly came away really impressed with her leadership style, her ability to tell stories and amplify a message, and to convey the value of the Storm, a solo act in professional basketball (for now) in a sports-crazed city, as a growing and engaged business.
Some of her messages (along with revealing she participated in a “strip in” at Yale as part of the push for Title IX acceptance) included:
“We started as the tail & wanted to be the dog.” The Storm, like most all WNBA franchises, came along as a brand extension of the NBA. In some cases they were an afterthought on the marketing and sales side, an add-on to a long offering of programming. However once the Sonics left town, an opportunity was created to carve a solitary, independent niche not just as a women’s basketball franchise, but as a franchise that was about basketball and community and one that could own hoops in Seattle. Moving from tail to dog was an opportunity; one that the Storm have seized and grown without an NBA team in town (although the support of the NBA league office is still critical to success).
“Performance on court dictates how we do at box office.” While Gilder was clear in talking about the brand value of the franchise for family entertainment (ala Minor league Baseball) she was very clear in talking about the value of winning in addition to all the outreach. Winning is OK to talk about for all franchises, major or minor, but many times franchises outside of the big four sports focus more on the off court than the on court bottom line. Having steak and sizzle is importantly, and it was really refreshing to hear her say straight out that WINNING sells tickets as much, if not more, than all the other pieces. An honest assessment of how pro sports should be graded.
“Our differentiator element fighting the competition in the Seattle market is that we have women playing.” While sometimes there is a tendency to shy away from the great athleticism and personality around WNBA teams, Gilder was very clear in the value of what the Storm offer, not just for young women who like hoops, but for ANYONE in the market who has a jones for professional basketball. She was not shy, and purposefully so, about talking about the star power the Storm have in the marketplace and globally, and the marketing of those stars in market that includes teams like the Seahawks, the Sounders and the Mariners as big time talents is ultra-important. There was zero second guessing her validity or her authenticity in talking about her players as brands; it was a clear and confident message that left little room for miss interpretation. Well messages, and well done.
“We live at the intersection of sports, business and cause at the WNBA. “ Again there was little ambiguity in the value proposition for the Storm; the business of objectives were clear, and restated time and time again. This is a franchise that has a proper place amongst all sports properties in a major market, and the ROI on investment goes way beyond what happens on the court. The Storm are leaders, they bring great value to their partners, and most importantly, they are smart business.
Now all of this is not in a vacuum. The WNBA as an overall business still has its challenges, and the franchise moves (right now the sale of the New York Liberty raises some questions as to where the team under new ownership can play in a very important market) to new cities like Las Vegas shows that the league as a whole is evolving into a place where the parent NBA clubs don’t have to be the be all and end all. Rather, standalone cities (like Seattle and Connecticut) can find their own powerful position of the business fabric fits well.
However if I am the WNBA, and I want to find a believable, passionate and straightforward advocate for brand, I’d have Ginny Gilder front and center as often as possible. On a stage that held many bog names throughout the day, she may have delivered the most insightful and authentic narrative of all, and that good news not just for the WNBA, but for sports in general. The Storm move higher on the watch list as a property for us going forward.