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She got game: sports licensing welcomes women.

In the locker room and in the licensing world, the definition of organized sports is changing faster than you can say, "You play like a girl." With athletic retail sales totaling nearly $15 billion a year and male-related merchandising "leveling off" (in the words of LIMA Executive Director Charles Riotto), the fair sex is suddenly clamoring to get its share of the sports spoils. The WNBA and the ABL, the two upstart women's professional basketball leagues, have taken a position at the vanguard of this charge, proving in the process that women can move merchandise as readily as they move the ball up the floor.

At LIMA's Licensing '98 International convention, the WNBA will be represented by Mattel, which plans to unveil a WNBA Barbie line in the fall. The doll has shooting motion and comes with her own basketball and backboard; Mattel is also planning on fashion accessories and action figures. The connotations of the Barbie affiliation notwithstanding, the WNBA has taken pains to avoid pigeonholing itself as a game for little girls. According to Sandy DeShong, director of Special Properties at the NBA, the key marketing focus is on "building a brand, building the sport." Though "young girls, young women and even older women" constitute the central demographic, according to DeShong, the league wants to "reach boys as much as girls."

In this regard, DeShong said that the WNBA is looking to emphasize "more than one particular product." Spurred by league-wide average attendance of more than 9,500 and an expansion strategy of two new teams per season, sales of WNBA merchandise have been brisk and broad. The league's signature orange and off-white Official Game Ball sold roughly 100,000 units last season. Champion, the exclusive apparel provider for the league, now offers more than 10 items and has added new products (polo shirts, shooting pants) to its roster of replica jerseys and jogbras. Duffel bags from Accessory Network, ceramic mugs from Hunter Manufacturing, even gold necklaces from Michael Anthony Jewelers contribute to the marketing assault. As the league readies for its second go-round in June, the number of retailers has expanded considerably; the list of licensees now includes products ranging from Pinnacle trading cards to Bulova watches.

The ABL, meanwhile, already boasts licensees Reebok, Baden Basketballs and Courts & Cards, and the league will have a stand at the Licensing Show for the first time in 1998. Flush from a 23 percent increase in attendance, the league will add two more teams (in Chicago and Nashville) and double its marketing budget for the coming season. Carla Peyton, vp of Properties for the ABL, echoed DeShong by saying, "We're an all-product category, not exclusively female." In Peyton's eyes, the biggest boost to ABL merchandise sales is the fact that the players have connected with the fans on a personal level: "The players make hundreds of personal appearances. When they play for a team, they move to that town." The folks from the rival league agree that female players have helped set a fresh tone for the games. Teri Schindler, director of Broadcasting for the WNBA, said: "The atmosphere is very different from that found at NBA games. It's a party atmosphere. Fans see these players as friends." Heidi Uebberoth, vp of International the WNBA, enthused: "There's something unique about these women and this league. The players play with such energy, such a sense of enjoyment."

The rapport meshes nicely with the fact that almost a quarter of American women already own NBA licensed product. In fact, the female hoops demographic has long been a sleeping giant. A 1997 Spring Simmons study reported that there are 24 million adult female NBA fans in the United States, and that they comprise 40 percent of the league's total adult fan base, while 80 million women play basketball worldwide. The Olympic performances of a number of women's teams earned the attention of both sexes; the women's basketball Final - in which the U.S. knocked off Brazil - earned a 15.5 rating and a 33 share.

The Olympic ratings success underlines the fact that both leagues possess licensing's biggest ally: television. In its first year, the WNBA enjoyed significant domestic air time on NBC (2.0 rating, 7.0 share), ESPN (0.9 rating, 1.8 share) and Lifetime (0.5 rating, 1.1 share). Overseas, the WNBA (a third of which consists of foreign players) was broadcast by 12 international telecasters in 10 different languages to more than 165 countries. On NBC Europe, the WNBA reached more than 73 million television households, while ESPN International carried games into 26 million homes in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. The league's international television reach will expand to Greece (through SuperSport) and Gems Television, a women's cable network that spans 20 countries in Latin America. The ABL aired games last year on the Fox Sports Network and Black Entertainment Television, for a combined reach of nearly 100 million homes.

The issue, clearly, is no longer whether a women's basketball league can make it, but rather how many women's leagues will be able to persevere in the widening world of sports. Most agree that the continued survival and expansion of women's athletics in general depends on the quality of the competition once the novelty wears off. The WNBA's Schindler is certain that her league and its products are in no danger: "It is a sport. These are the best players in the world." Minard Hamilton, senior vp at ESPN International, seconded that opinion: "It's a good sporting event. These are compelling games. We're quite happy with the production quality, which is as good as the NBA." And Schindler spoke for many when she welcomed the competition, be it from the ABL or from other women's professional leagues: "Whatever's good for women's sports is good for us."
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Title Annotation:Licensing; sports merchandising for the Women's National Basketball Association and American Basketball League
Author:Wiener, Evan
Publication:Video Age International
Date:May 1, 1998
Previous Article:Shifting terrain at the AFMA.
Next Article:U.S. TV nets need to make a profit.

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