Last Olympic Weekend

. Saturday, August 23, 2008
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The Olympics are winding down and although it's an exciting worldwide event, I have to admit I'm looking forward to more WNBA basketball

But to keep up with all the sights and sounds in Beijing, check out the little widget below.



See you Monday with some previews of the WNBA's sprint to the playoffs! Yipee!


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More New Media Marketing Ideas

. Friday, August 22, 2008
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Over the past few days I’ve explored some ideas about using new media technologies to help accelerate the WNBA’s growth, specifically “fan journalism” and webcasting.

As I wrote about those topics, I came across a few additional ideas about using the new media technologies. It seems that some of the best ideas might come from Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), which will launch next year featuring members of the U.S. women’s soccer team who just won gold in Beijing.

Of course WPS has the benefit of hindsight – they have taken the lessons learned from the Women’s United Soccer Association, Major League Soccer, and the WNBA into account. But just a look at their websites – an official site and a fan site – demonstrates that they are positioning themselves as one of the most tech-savvy professional sports leagues.

So on top of increasing coverage of the league with “fan journalism” and webcasting in order to increase fan commitment, I also think that the WNBA could help fans better identify with specific WNBA teams by using new media technologies more effectively. I’ve written about this previously, but here are a few very easy concrete ideas that I’ve put together.

Using social networking sites

One thing that struck me about the WPS homepage in comparison to other professional sports sites is that links to their Facebook, Myspace, and YouTube profiles are posted prominently on their homepage. The obvious benefit of social networking sites to a sports team – especially a team in a growing league – is that it gives fans the chance to build community around their favorite teams.

However, these social networking sites are only valuable if people are aware they exist. For example, I know the WNBA already has a YouTube channel set up where they post game highlights. And certain teams also have YouTube channels where they post behind the scenes videos, like the Chicago Sky’s hilarious Armintie Price clips. But these are only as valuable as they are visible – and right now, the WNBA has not made their social networking opportunities visible on the home page the way WPS has.

WPS also has its own dedicated fan community, which is a relatively recent trend among professional sports teams. One group named KickApps seems to be leading the way in this trend.

The KickApps hosted platform powers sports-oriented websites with a wide range of integrated social networking applications, where fans establish their identities by creating their own profile pages, friend other fans and send public and private video and text messages to each other. KickApps also enables rich media sharing capabilities where fans can upload videos, photos, audio clips and blogs that express their passion for the teams. Members of the online communities can leave comments, rate, share, and 'snag' content as widgets and place them on other social networks, such as Facebook and MySpace, as well as on their own blogs or other fan websites. These widgets create virtual gateways back to the team's website, sending traffic from across the Internet.
(For a few examples, see KnicksNet and 49ersfaithful.net)

It seems to me that the closest example of this in the WNBA has been the Atlanta Dream’s Dream Diary, which provides links to its social networking sites.

However, given the development costs likely associated with building the type of sites KickApps creates, these type of sites might be outside the scope of the WNBA right now. But sticking social networking badges on the sidebar is cheap and could help teams to build their fan communities at very little cost.

The question is whether social networking actually has any impact on the bottom line for sports franchises, especially the more expensive high-end sites. KickApps does claim an impact on revenue, but I have yet to find any tangible evidence of that.
"Social media has proven to grow and reinforce the fan community, strengthen team and brand affinities, and create new revenue opportunities through merchandising, sponsorships and online advertising," said Alex Blum, CEO of KickApps. "As leading brands in professional basketball, football and hockey, these teams are paving the way in their industries by defining new channels for fan interaction and engagement, and revenue."
It will be interesting to see what future marketing research shows about the value of social networking for professional sports.

Making video available for fan use

We have yet to see how WPS will use YouTube once games begin, but right now the WNBA only uses it for game highlights. However, one of the benefits of new media is interactivity – the ability for fan users to actually manipulate the media for their own use. The WNBA provides significantly less player video on YouTube for people to make the type of player montages that are available for even average NBA players.

Again, it’s difficult to demonstrate tangible benefits of making more video available, but the NBA has done it on NBA.com with their NBA highlight mixer, which allows fans to mix their own videos. The result is that fans get to make an imprint on the way the game is presented on the NBA.com site.

The NBA highlight mixer is a win for the league and fans – the league doesn’t have to worry about copyright infringements that may occur on YouTube and fans have the opportunity to share their favorite moments with other fans and friends. And it’s the sharing feature that seems to have the most value to a league like the WNBA – it is like grassroots new media marketing.

Letting fans leave an imprint

Overall, implementing a few of these basic social networking features has the potential to enable fan interaction with the league. The more advanced features allow fans to actually shape the way the league is presented to the public.

One thing that a number of the social media sites do, including the WPS fan site, is allow fans to post their own video “testimonials” about the league (or in the WPS case, soccer in general). It adds some vitality to the website and establishes a sense of community, even though the league itself has not even started. And that seems to be valuable in expanding a league’s fan base.

Pt commented on yesterday’s post about webcasting that the WNBA should be like a testing ground for technological innovations. However, in terms of new media, it appears as though the NBA is ahead of the WNBA. Whether that is for financial reasons or just a matter of branding creativity, the WNBA isn’t quite there yet.

But what I find interesting is that at least two NBA cities are actively engaged in the use of social media innovations and the NBA.com site seems ahead in terms of video, while the WNBA does not appear to be in the same place. Development costs don’t entirely explain the discrepancy because some things seem relatively simple (e.g. adding a Facebook/YouTube badge).

Could some of these new media innovations help WNBA fans build a stronger identity with the league? Are there other smaller steps the league could take that have not yet been used by other professional leagues?

It will be interesting to see if the WNBA “catches up” with some of these newer developments over the off-season.

Relevant Links:

The WNBA’s Growth: The Difference Between Quantity and Quality
http://rethinkbball.blogspot.com/2008/07/wnbas-growth-difference-between.html


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Lessons Learned From the Olympics: How and Why the WNBA Should Webcast More Games

. Thursday, August 21, 2008
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During my e-conversation about Darnellia Russell with Lakehead University’s sports information director Mike Aylward, we ended up having an extended discussion about the use of new media technologies to broadcast sporting events.

I was particularly interested in the use of the web for broadcasting WNBA games and Aylward was a great resource for that. Since no television networks will come to the small city of Thunder Bay, Ontario to broadcast games, Aylward set up a system for video and audio casting Lakehead games via the web. Although his effort to independently broadcast Lakehead University’s games is of a much smaller scale than that of the WNBA, I found his insight useful in framing the range of possibilities for web broadcasting.

I return to the subject now after reading an article about NBC’s web casting of the Olympics by Saul Hansell of the New York Times “Bits” blog. In that article, and a previous one from August 13, Hansell challenges the dominant perception that webcasting reduces television ratings and thus hurts advertising revenue by consulting executives from Major League Baseball and CBS, which webcast the men's NCAA tournament this year.

“We’ve learned that wherever you are, you watch on the biggest screen you can,” (Robert A. Bowman of Major League Baseball Advanced Media) said.

To be sure, CBS came to this conclusion slowly. In past years, the network Webcast the early games of the NCAA basketball tournament, but you had to tune into television to see the semifinals and final game.

This year’s Web simulcast of the final games “only added to revenues and therefore profit,” he said. A “low single digit” percentage of the total audience for those games was online, and consisted most likely of people who were not able to get to a television.

(Jason Kint of CBSsports.com) suggested that NBC would have done well to follow the same model, at least for the live events, with the Olympics.

“The way we program March Madness on Demand, making it available on any platform live, is the ideal way to handle it” he said.
To summarize, web casting is not only a means to make sports events more accessible, but it may also increase profit as people generate a buzz about the games they watch.

Furthermore, webcasting a live event that is not televised could also provide accessibility without threatening advertisers, affiliate stations, or cable systems – it only “fuels interest” by allowing people to discuss the “dramas of the day” more easily. From the August 13th article:
“We know without question people want to see the best viewing experience,” (Alan Wurtzel of NBC) said. “If you watched the Olympics in high definition on a big screen, you are not going to watch it online. So that is why there isn’t going to be a cannibalization.”
What this seems to mean for the WNBA is that they are currently under-utilizing the web for broadcast purposes, despite touting an impressive 90+ live webcasts for free this season. The problem seems similar to the dilemma NBC is struggling with regarding the Olympics – the WNBA only makes games available for webcast when they are also televised by a local network (not national networks, like ABC/ESPN).

It’s unclear whether the WNBA limits webcasting because it has given exclusive broadcasting rights to local/national networks. But if we believe Hansell’s article, it’s to the WNBA’s benefit to find a way to independently webcast games that are not televised. And that’s where Aylward’s insight is helpful.

Webcasting is not very difficult or costly

The first insight gained from Aylward -- and something that could probably be discerned just by watching events on the web -- is that webcasting is not that difficult to do. Webcasting does not require a television broadcast to work, although the WNBA’s current broadcast strategy may lead you to believe that.

Really, all you need to webcast a sporting event is a computer connected to the Internet and a camera, preferably equipped with a FireWire port. A very simple example of a webcasting system is available at Ustream.TV. Obviously, the quality of the webcast would depend on the quality of the camera and the Internet connection. I’m sure that a league like the WNBA could find a way to do this simply and cheaply.

In fact, Aylward suggested that WNBA teams could probably pull something like this off independently using a simple two camera system. It is my understanding that WNBA teams already hire interns to work for them and others looking for summer broadcasting experience would probably work for free. So why not put them to work doing something substantive?

A team would probably need to find 5 or 6 interns to set up and operate the cameras. They could assign 2-3 per camera, with one operating the computer, one operating the camera, and possibly a third who can serve as a runner to help troubleshoot any problems that occur during games. An extra 1 or 2 interns (or perhaps one of those monitoring the computer) could be responsible for doing the commentary.

For interns interested in broadcast journalism, it’s great experience. For fans, it’s increased accessibility to the game.

It’s definitely possible that these simplified broadcasts would not have the same television-level production with graphic overlays and such. But the key thing is that it makes more games available to fans thus making it easier for fans to build a connection with the league. The league doesn’t lose anything by broadcasting additional games.

Given the problems the league had simulcasting games earlier in the season, it’s likely that it would take some time to work out the bugs in this system. But there’s no reason not to try, especially for teams that don’t have good local broadcasting agreements.

To charge or not to charge

The next major concern is whether to charge in order to cover the expenses for these games. Part of that depends on the system they use to broadcast the games.

For a league as big as the WNBA, it would probably make sense to just use league servers and broadcast games through the league’s website, similar to what they do now. But Major League Soccer – a similar league in size and age – uses the organization that runs Major League Baseball’s web services to webcast their games. And there are many other services that provide sports leagues with webcasting services.

Aylward sent me a variety of sites that do everything from small events to small leagues to professional teams. A brief overview: Aylward uses News-Cast.com for Lakehead University and reports that while they are small, they provide good customer service.

B2TV provides season passes for a number of hockey leagues and collegiate programs, including USA Hockey and the US Hockey League. The one disadvantage that I notice about that service is that it appears to have technical limitations that the others don’t.

INSINC works with bigger leagues, including the Canadian Football League and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment which owns the Maple Leafs, the Toronto Raptors, and the MLS’s Toronto FC. What I notice off the bat is that this service seems to have a more professional presentation than some of the others.

With more webcasting, why not add more interactivity?

Another feature of webcasting mentioned by INSINC that I haven’t seen elsewhere is the use of “enhanced interactive services” that allow fans to connect with one another as they watch games. The vision was described in a case study of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
Leafs TV was able to demonstrate a market for enhanced interactive services, that included four additional camera angles, chat server and in game voting contests ($3.95/game) adding new revenue streams in the process.
This is a perfect example of how webcasting could in fact enhance rather than detract from the experience of watching games, especially for games that are not otherwise televised.

Enhancing the fan experience

I write this post partially out of frustration that I’m assuming other WNBA fans share – some of the most exciting moments thus far this season have gone completely un-broadcast because of the league’s current broadcast strategy. My goal here was only to find out if there are options…and from what I can tell not only are there options, but they’re feasible and smaller leagues are making it work.

Jason Kint of CBSsports.com, which webcast the entire NCAA mens basketball tournament this year (did they do women’s as well?), makes a point in reference to the Olympics tape delaying games, which I hope the WNBA has already paid attention to.
“What makes sports so special is the live moment and not knowing what would happen.”
The joy of watching sports is not just knowing the outcome, but watching people compete to determine the outcome as it unfolds.

I would have loved to be able to see Candace Parker’s first dunk live. Or her 40 point, 16 rebound, and 6 assist performance against the Comets on July 9th. Or the Dream’s overtime thriller against the Sun on June 27th that they almost won in regulation…or so it seemed from the radio feed.

The bottom line for the WNBA is that the fan experience would be much better if they broadcast more games and we live in an age in which that can be done cheaply and efficiently for all parties involved.

I certainly commend the league for providing us with 90+ free games, but it seems like an attainable goal to webcast every game independent of television contracts. If the problem is the cost of providing more than 90, then webcast 90 for free and then charge for the rest.

But it seems like the next step in the league’s growth is to make sure that the average fan can see all the games.

Related Links:

WNBA 2.0: Can Web 2.0 Tools Help the WNBA Build Its Fanbase?
http://rethinkbball.blogspot.com/2008/06/wnba-20-can-wnba-build-fan-base-with.html

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How Grassroots "Fan Journalism" Could Help the WNBA Grow

. Wednesday, August 20, 2008
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How is it that the Washington Mystics are having one of their best years from a business perspective during one of their worst seasons on the court since 2003…and in the middle of an economic downturn no less?

One explanation could be increased exposure.

However, the Mystics didn’t use a national media blitz to boost their revenue – instead they used a combination of local partnerships, longer season-ticket advertising, flexible ticket plans, and doubling their number of sales representatives. All “minor” efforts that ended up reaching an impressive accomplishment for a losing team in a growing league.

So what can we learn about sports business from this example? The Mystics’ success represents the value of increasing exposure at the grassroots level by making connections with fans and giving them what they want.

That lesson is being applied to the launch strategy of the upcoming Women’s Professional Soccer League (WPS), which has taken lessons from the WNBA and the now-defunct Women’s United Soccer League.

WPS plans to start small and grow through grass roots. Teams will be individually owned and operated. League officials estimate teams could break even with 5,000-average attendance.

"It's about local investors in local clubs," Mallett said. "If you can win support on the local level, then you can win nationally."
The grassroots strategy might at first seem inappropriate for the task of building support for a national professional league, but then again…it also seemed inappropriate for the task of winning the democratic nomination for president. Ultimately, when you’re fighting for exposure to make a name for yourself, the long-term strategy of using local exposure to gain broader interest seems to be the strategy of choice for start-up sports leagues.

Might there be a way to extend these lessons about grassroots sports business with the new media political campaign that helped propel Barack Obama to the democratic nomination for president? The answer might lie in a new media “fan journalism” effort, for which the technical infrastructure already exists at an unlikely source.

Overcoming the Exposure Challenge

In Sue F.’s “State of the Game” post at the “They’re Playing Basketball” blog, she cited a 2002 NCAA report that noted the biggest challenge to women’s college basketball is exposure. The same could be said about the WNBA.

The NCAA noted that a potential solution to the lack of exposure is “a grassroots-type campaign…including using posters and fliers on campuses, increase the number of giveaways, and gaining support from the media.”

Since the report was written in 2002, new media technologies -- such as blogging or social networking media -- were not mentioned, but would seem to be reasonable additions in 2008. And given the success of the netroots movement that has united liberal progressives and helped Barack Obama’s presidential campaign immensely, it’s hard to ignore the potential power of blogging to similarly increase exposure for a niche sports league.

I know I’ve written previously about whether the WNBA could leverage web 2.0 strategies to help the league grow, but now I’m thinking of a more bottom-up approach driven by fans rather than the league – how could new media technologies help channel the energy, knowledge, and spirit of individual fans into greater attendance, exposure, and ratings for the WNBA? In other words, could a grassroots new media campaign help mobilize basketball fans in support of the WNBA?

The goal of such a new media grassroots movement in terms of the stages of fanhood laid out by the NCAA report should be to attract fans who know the game and help them establish a connection to a WNBA team. It would then seem that commitment is established by ongoing media exposure and coverage that push the new fan to stay involved with the league even if they are not able to attend games regularly. And it is that ongoing coverage that encourages commitment that the WNBA is lacking right now.

Those goals for a new media sports movement are similar (though probably of a lesser magnitude) to the key elements to the netroots movement, as described by Christine Pelosi in a Huffington Post article: to join a community, send a consistent message to potential voters, raise funds, and mobilize people around a cause.

At the end of her article, Pelosi sort of issues a call of action that would be interesting to apply to people interested in helping the WNBA grow:
If each of us who has concerns about our future, complaints about the system, or cynicism about what is possible takes these 4 steps, a progressive majority is inevitable. Our Netroots All-Stars have stepped up to the plate to battle those concerns, complaints and cynicism in order to build a better future -- now it's up to us to join the team.
Despite the obvious differences between a political campaign and a growing professional sports league, Pelosi’s call to action would be interesting to pose to WNBA fans…and there may already be an infrastructure in place to make it all work.

Fan-journalism: Expanding participation in the journalistic process

As evidenced by a recent effort by New York senator Tom Duane to extend journalistic protections to “journalist bloggers”, the lines between “blogger” and “journalist” are blurring and we still haven’t figured out how to negotiate those boundaries. But with the Netroots Movement and Duane’s proposed legislation, we might be forced to fully engage the dilemma soon.

The problem with blogging that leads some people to disregard it as a form of journalism is the lack of accountability and their limited ability to gather information (lack of press credentials), according to Jonathan Alter of Newsweek. As a result, there’s a tendency to become rumor-mongers instead of truly generating “news”.

However, with fan journalists, there’s a chance to do something more because the games themselves are the most important content and anybody can turn on the television or buy a ticket and provide analysis...which is, of course, what leads to concerns about accountability and quality. Then again, this is definitely a case where any publicity is better than no publicity.

Fan journalists could provide first hand accounts of games that the media don’t cover, statistics analysis that provide additional insight, and give attention to the players that the media typically ignores. But the problem is that many people don’t have the time to maintain a blog, though they might have outstanding content to provide every now and then. And it’s hard for a blog with sporadic posts to get noticed and build a following.

However, there may be a solution to that problem that would allow individuals to contribute to the coverage of a sport without committing to a blog and seems to represent the very spirit of the new media grassroots movement that the WNBA needs – Bleacherreport.com (BR).
Bleacher Report (www.bleacherreport.com) formally launched its community-driven online sports network...providing all sports fans one place to create, critique and consume compelling coverage on their favorite college and professional teams. Bleacher Report’s open, collaborative platform features a peer-editing system that helps ensure high quality fan-generated coverage on the site. While in beta, the site grew to more than 400,000 monthly unique visitors and 2,000 original sports editorials published per month — drastically outpacing similar outlets in both web and print media...

The (founders) shared a belief that mainstream sports media didn’t offer the range or depth of coverage to satisfy diehards, and that some of the most insightful analysis comes from the fans who know their teams best. With Bleacher Report, they created a platform to empower all fans to become fan-journalists, producing high-quality content and sharing it with a built-in readership of hundreds of thousands.
Now for those of you that have spent any time at BR, you probably know that the quality of the articles can range from mindless drivel to quality sports commentary (with articles from this blog somewhere along that spectrum). And the majority of those articles are written by the “average lunkhead male”, which is not a favorable environment in which to write about women’s sports.

However, before dismissing it as a possibility, consider the potential it has to support a new media grassroots movement for the WNBA; in a web-driven world, a site like BleacherReport.com that already has partnerships with Fox Sports and Google News might be the perfect outlet for WNBA fan journalists to provide their own exposure to the game.

Affordances of BleacherReport.com

The use of a reputation system for writers and a peer-review system for rating articles, makes BR more effective for growing a professional sports league than the more insular bulletin boards in two ways. First, the most highly regarded articles and writers are moved to the forefront of the community, which gives non-fans the opportunity to see the best content first. And second, being part of a broader community of sports fans provides the league with more direct exposure to fans who otherwise might not pay attention.

Even more exciting, writer Alan Bass reports that one writer from BR was even given a media pass for a St. Louis Cardinals game. That’s a huge accomplishment for a site like fan-driven site, even if other professional franchises don’t immediately follow suit.

Unfortunately, at this point the BR community has mimicked the imbalance in the mainstream media – whereas the NBA at BR section has 50 articles in the past three days during the slowest part of the off-season, the WNBA section only has 33 articles since the site's inception. As a result, the WNBA section is not even listed on the menu bar on the site, essentially rendering it invisible.

However, WNBA fans cannot blame the league’s lack of visibility on the site’s founders -- as a community-driven site, the burden of producing WNBA articles and making the section more visible lies firmly with the users themselves.

And since the overall culture of the site is not that supportive of women’s sports so people interested in writing WNBA articles probably have to make their work twice as good as others to get noticed. Nevertheless, the opportunity to increase exposure of the WNBA using a platform that has connections to major media outlets is unique and worth capitalizing on for those with an interest in supporting the league’s growth.

BR provides an excellent opportunity for fans to influence the way the sports are covered, but WNBA fans are not yet participating. If they did and the mainstream partners eventually took notice, why couldn't it help the WNBA?

Alternative media coverage could be beneficial to the WNBA

I acknowledge that this whole idea is a stretch – the idea of a fan-driven new media grassroots movement supported by a site that doesn’t promote its WNBA section is a bit idealistic. But for fans who genuinely care about the WNBA and want to influence its growth, this might be the best way to have an impact beyond buying season tickets.

And if the St. Louis Cardinals are willing to provide BR writers with press passes, why shouldn’t the WNBA? The reality is that most media outlets are not going to put their financial resources into women’s basketball (yet). Imagine for a moment if out of the handful of people who read this blog post today, a few in WNBA cities managed to get press passes and cover a team they doesn’t normally receive consistent coverage. It could be a huge benefit to the teams themselves and the fans.

Recently, a few BR writers have written about the value of the site to the sports world and the potential of it gaining credibility. Some writers are even starting to experiment with radio, which would be an even more dynamic step forward. In other words, the site has huge potential…and WNBA fans are not yet involved.

One of the testimonials from Mary Jo Buchannan, a NASCAR writer, really captures the spirit of what BR is good for.
I've also had the privilege of meeting other wonderful writers, many of whom have taken the time to edit my work. Their constructive criticism has shaped my writing and helped me to learn to express myself better than I ever could have imagined.

Bleacher Report has opened up a whole other world for me as well. Who knew there were so many sports that others were equally passionate about as I was NASCAR racing? I've learned more about Olympic events and cricket and F1 in my short tenure with Bleacher Report than I ever would have in a million years of reading about sports in the traditional venues.
Figuring out how to grow fan journalism in the BR spirit could be extremely beneficial for the WNBA and BR has already laid out the technical infrastructure. It’s now up to WNBA fans to take advantage. “Netizens make the Internet,” writes Duncan Cameron at Rabble News. “Top down messaging is not internet friendly, and directive e-mails are deleted.” If the WNBA is going to use the internet to grow, it needs to rely on fans.

Transition Points:

Writing at BleacherReport.com is pretty simple. Go to the site, sign up, and start writing. It's not all that different than signing up for a web forum, like Rebkell. Let the movement begin...

Helen Wheelock has previously written about the use of blogs and podcasting to make up for the lack of media coverage of women’s basketball. It’s worth a read if you haven’t already. An excerpt:
It is encouraging to note that there are those in journalism world who advocate for, and independently produce, coverage of the women’s game. It is also important to note that they face very real resistance. “My colleagues in the media – they make fun of it all the time,” said Kris Gardner of the online site Houston Roundball Review. Initially Gardner covered the NBA, but was drawn to women’s basketball by the passion of the Houston Comets’ fans. “You hear the snide comments from people you hang around with – especially the men. ‘Women’s basketball? Who cares about that? Why should we bother even covering it?’”

“Don’t get me wrong,” said Gardner, “a couple of years ago I was asking myself, ‘Why am I still doing this? There’s no money in it.’ But I’m stubborn. I do it because I enjoy it and I think the athletes deserve some recognition and acceptance. They deserve some respect. If I get an email from a fan saying, ‘Thank you for what you do, I really appreciate it,’ that’s enough for me.”


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Elena Delle Donne Reminds Us That There's More To Life Than Basketball

. Tuesday, August 19, 2008
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This isn't really WNBA news, but I think Elena Delle Donne's Monday announcement that she will not be playing basketball this season says as much about the women's basketball pipeline as it does about her own desire to play.



For those of us that have not been following this closely (myself included), here's a brief description of the situation from the Connecticut Post:

Delle Donne, a 6-foot-5 guard from Wilmington, Del, was projected as a major player in UConn's drive toward a sixth national championship this season. But less than 48 hours after UConn coach Geno Auriemma issued a statement that she will not enroll at UConn, Delle Donne issued a statement Monday saying that she will not play college basketball this season.
The idea of a 6'5" guard getting away must be difficult for UConn fans. However, there's something wrong about the way we begin define 18-year-olds by their ability to play basketball rather than people making one of the most important decisions of their lives: where to obtain an education.

So Kara Wolers' comment to the Connecticut Post was troubling to me:
"She's so good. What a waste," Wolters said Saturday. "It's the most bizarre thing I ever heard. To have an opportunity like that to play, obviously, at the best college women's basketball program in the world. ... and she threw it away."
What jumps out about Wolters' comment is the "what a waste" piece, which seems a bit harsh. What exactly is she wasting? If we've elevated one college basketball program to the point where there is nothing more important in life, then we have a bigger problem than whether Delle Donne will make it to the WNBA. We've apparently lost perspective.

Although the details surrounding Delle Donne's decision are not entirely clear to the public, many people are assuming that it's the pressure from the college recruiting process that led to her wavering about the whole endeavor and now leaving UConn.

I thought Dan at the 5280ft blog put it well back in July:
As far as can be assumed, Elena cracked. She's been under pressure from recruiters since before high school, speculation for years that she could start in the WNBA without even going to college. And please, stop yourself right now before you make a smart remark to yourself about a lack of mental toughness being the problem with the women's game. Lebron handled the same hype and more, true. But he had mentors. Men's high school athletes have been subject to recruiting and scouting, like
this absolute monstrosity, for years. There are other athletes out there to form a support system, beyond their own families, to advise, counsel and mentor these young men. It's just not out there for women. Not until very recently, perhaps as recently as Candace Parker and Maya Moore, has this kind of spotlight been shined on female athletes. You, me, or anyone else can't blame her for wilting under the pressure. I only hope that the young lady is able to straighten herself out and come back to lead a successful career.
Since she did attend UConn for a few days, it's hard to say that recruiting alone dictated her decision, but I think Dan's point about the increasing pressure surrounding women's basketball without the blue chip support network that a LeBron James had in the men's game is valid. And even though it's likely that Delle Donne's decision is a combination of recruiting pressures and the hyper-competitive atmosphere of UConn basketball, I thought that HappyCappie25 made a good point at Rebkell -- we need to rethink the entire college recruiting process, from initial contact to enrollment.
...her case really should be a wake up call beyond WBB and in all of college sports...that is...STOP TREATING KIDS LIKE A DEAD CARCASS IN THE MIDDLE OF DESERT TO BE POUNCED ON BY JACKALS.

I'll say it...GOOD, I hope she goes to a nice school, graduates magna cum laude, gets a 6 figure job in whatever she chooses and sticks it to the college recruiting community.

I'm not just calling out college coaches, most are less than half of the problem and many have called for reform. It's agents disgusied as coaches, its the AAU the dirtiest, most underhanded group i have had the displeasure of talking to, its sites like Scout.com and Rivals, its boosters, adminstrators, Unscruplious HS coaches and HS fans who treat 16-18 year olds like they're Michael Jordan before they even can get an education. It's street agents and hangers on who are trying to get an early peice of the pie, yes in some case it's parents who see their own flesh and blood as nothing more than a meal ticket.
College recruiting has become a meat market where these kids are treated as objects of everyone else's entertainment. That's just no way to live life. And although it was only speculation, I particularly like a comment from John Altavilla at Courant.com
No one has told me this, but I stongly believe there were people in her very close circle that wanted her to go to UConn more than she wanted to go to UConn and she made the decision simply to try to please. That never works in life.
I think we sometimes forget that there’s a natural breaking point for most people and most big-time college athletes have an extraordinarily high threshold for pressure that the majority of society probably couldn’t withstand. But when we push people to the point that external factors are dictating their life decisions and the lines between self-determination and public opinion begin to dissolve, it makes sense that the result would be anxiety and internal conflict. It’s like walking around numb playing a role without a script.

If Delle Donne had the presence of mind to reject what everyone else wanted of her in favor of an opportunity to recapture some sense of internal stability, I’d say that’s a mature decision, although waiting this long may have been immature.

So her switch to Delaware probably isn’t a waste at all – it’s an opportunity to create her own legacy, even if it’s not defined entirely by basketball.

Transition Points:

Update:
UConn coach Geno Auriemma informed The Courant this morning by email that he has granted Elena Delle Donne's release from her scholarship.

The move by Auriemma essentially clears the way for Delle Donne to play volleyball this season for the University of Delaware, where she announced she would be going to school this fall instead of UConn.
http://www.courant.com/sports/college/husky/women/hcu-delledonne-0820,0,5081086.story

Update 2: From Mike DiMauro of The Day --
Reinforcement No. 1: I will never - never, never, never, never, never, never, never - pay attention to these scouting services ever again. You know. The ones that attempt to differentiate the 56th best high school player from the 112th best. It's a sham. Every bit of it.

Here's why: All these people who attach numbers to children cannot measure ambition, emotion and the inner burn from their momentary snippets of observation. It's why Ketia Swanier is a starter in the WNBA. It's why Tyler Lorenzen is a better college quarterback than Ron Powlus. Recruiting is more inexact than forecasting next week's weather. The idea that people are making money off it - or that newspaper folk perpetuate their uninformed opinions - would be hilarious if it weren't so sad.

Relevant Links:

Darnelia Russell & the WNBA Age Requirement
http://rethinkbball.blogspot.com/2008/07/darnellia-russell-wnba-age-requirement.html

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Building the Fanbase: Nancy Lieberman on the WNBA's Growth

. Monday, August 18, 2008
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There was a great post on the new blog "They're Playing Basketball" the other day about the "State of the Game" which highlighted a study done by the NCAA that outlined the developmental stages of fanhood.

I found the stages relevant to my ongoing interest in the WNBA's marketing. Here's a summary according to Sue F (thanks for obtaining and posting the research, Sue):

The study outlines the process of becoming a sports fan, which they call the five phases of a "sports love affair." The first is introduction, which the majority of fans received in playing the game themselves either now, or in the past. The next phase is attraction, followed by connection. After that comes commitment (sic), and the final phase occurs when the team becomes part of the fan's identity.

The WNBA has this down pat. They have plenty of fan events when a team is new, to establish that connection for fans to the players, and gain the commitment and even the identity part. Then the fan events slowly disappear. Colleges should be so tactical with their promotions.
Not surprisingly, the main challenge for women's basketball, according to the study, is exposure, something that anybody with even a passing interest in women's basketball is probably acutely aware of.

However, the first thing that occurred to me is how this study might translate to an analysis of WNBA fanhood. The primary difference between professional and college basketball would seem to be that at least a small fraction of NCAA fans come from alumni or family members of alumni (if you're at all familiar with the University of Michigan alumni network -- I believe the largest in the nation -- you'll know it's probably more than a small fraction). So the question to me is how well can the WNBA parlay that into greater professional attention?

Does NCAA fanhood translate to the WNBA?

In part two of Steven Litel's interview with Nancy Lieberman, Lieberman addresses the very issue of parlaying a connection to the women's college game to the pro game:
I think a lot of people saw these kids play in college for four years, so they have their fanbase. You’d like to think that if someone was a fan of Charde Houston at UConn or Parker at Tennessee of Fowles at LSU, then those fans would take some sort of an active interest in watching them play in the WNBA.

We’re growing our sport every day. Our ratings are up on ABC, our ratings are up on ESPN and our attendance is up. In year twelve, the WNBA is doing all the things it should do to grow as a league.
On the surface, this seems like an excellent point about leveraging people's connections to college stars, but I wonder if it reflects the findings of the NCAA study well.

Sue F. reports that the most important determinant of overall fanhood -- big fan or not(?) -- is character whereas being a "big fan" of NCAA basketball is highly correlated with a connection to a team (or so it appears from her write-up). What the WNBA needs is a way to grab the big fans because it would seem more likely that they would become season ticket holders or watch the games more often and boost ratings.

Implications for WNBA marketing

So given that the WNBA is still in its early stages, does it make more sense to market the Sparks with Candace Parker as an individual or heavily market them as "Tennessee West", as Sue F. writes about in another post? Or is the answer to market to the broader spectrum of WNBA fans and promote Parker's character (which I think is already done)?

The problem seems to be that the promotion of character is exactly what many people see as a gender bias -- people say that it ends up perpetuating the old gender roles of women as emotional beings who rely on others to succeed whereas men are portrayed as courageous warriors who are heroes. It seems that there's a tough balance to strike there between advancing the ratings of the women's game and holding up the players as a different sort of role model for young girls.

I'd be interested to see a similar study done about WNBA fanhood and see how they match up in order to better evaluate Lieberman's assumption about the translation of NCAA to WNBA fanhood.

Transition Points:

At some point in my own WNBA fanhood, I'm sure I'll commit to a team
, but for now, I'm still enjoying watching so many players that it's hard to narrow down to one team I like. Right now I have two teams that I like, both of which I've mentioned previously -- the New York Liberty and the Chicago Sky. I like the Liberty because of their gritty style of play, but I like the Sky because they are just oozing with potential...plus Armintie Price might just be the funniest player in the WNBA. Hard not to root for her. I'll have to keep watching to make up my mind, but with Fowles coming back to the Sky, it might be hard not to adopt them....


There was a great chapter in a book entitled Media Sport
about the gendered descriptions of basketball players that is relevant to the discussion of how female athletes are more likely to be described in terms of their character. I'll have to dig that up and see how it compares...

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More On the Olympics, the Media & When "Keeping It Real" Goes Wrong

. Sunday, August 17, 2008
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This isn't a basketball post, but I wrote a post last week about "intellectual journalism" and have been monitoring the Olympics coverage for good examples since. Coincidentally, what I've come across is a few articles that are holding the media accountable in similar ways.

What I found interesting is that a few of those articles got to the core of what sports journalism could be doing in terms of providing some insight into the humanness of the Olympics -- both the pure joy embodied in victory and the tragedy of perpetuating unattainable body images. Here's a brief summary of some articles that caught my eye...

More on the Olympics and Body Image

I posted a link to an article by lindabeth at the smartlikeme blog the other day about the problematic gender differences in Olympic uniforms and wrote a thought-provoking piece about the Olympics and body image last week. Well, Karen Blotnicky of Canada's Chronicle Herald touched on a similar point about the double standard of attacking China for their efforts to market their country while continually failing to address some of North America's own that crop up in the Olympics -- body image.

Blotnicky makes the point that if we are going to blame China for being unethical in its efforts to market the Olympic Games, it’s time we take responsibility for our own actions as marketers in this country.

It’s time we created images of men, women, boys and girls that are more realistic and attainable.

It’s time we took responsibility for the fact that girls as young as 10 are beginning to diet.

They want to look like teens in the fashion industry and on television.
This is a point that seems to be brought up at about every Olympics, especially with the young female gymnasts. However, as lindabeth points out in her piece, it would be interesting to see the sacrifices that all Olympians make, especially given all the attention given to the male athletes.

Again, I think this comes down to the proliferation of conflict journalism -- in an attempt to present the big story, they far too often deprive us of the whole story. We don't have to defend China or their actions, but far too often during this Olympics we've been given the opportunity to self-righteously condemn China, without also looking at what we could improve as a nation/society.

Invariably disappointing interviews

The second story is an article from Janet Gilbert of the Baltimore Sun who writes about those "invariably disappointing" post-game/win interviews. For example, it seems like reporters have to eventually find a better way to bring us insight into a basketball game than asking the same old, "So what were you thinking as you took that game-winning shot?" question. Gilbert takes on the interview issue, apparently inspired by observations for swimming:
The interviews are invariably disappointing. These athletes have just pushed themselves to the physical and mental limit, and now they're supposed to be paradigms of poise. I don't like seeing them reduced to icons of inarticulate...but it escapes us in the Olympic setting because we expect extraordinary athletes to be extraordinary speakers. And yet, it is their very humanness that is the essence of their glory.
Interviews are hard, but if the folks covering the Olympics are not able to capture the humanness of the Olympics themselves, then I'd rather just savor a moment of pure joy without the formality.

How keeping it real can go wrong

The third, an last, is from a former Olympic reporter who rose to prominence working for ESPN -- Steven A. Smith. He's been ridiculed over the last few years for being a loud, obnoxious, "angry black man" (most of that reputation admittedly deserved). But in the latest issue ESPN the magazine gave him the opportunity to respond to critics of his article entitled, "Remember when athletes had the guts to stand up for their beliefs?" in which he explores the responsibility of Olympic athletes to take a stand on the political issues of the day. One of the responses from Smith stood out to me as interesting in the context of my thinking about intellectual journalism:
Trivial stuff doesn't interest me. What affects the masses, what's important and substantive is what matters most. I have no desire to be PC. My motto: Be professional and as thorough as I can, but above all else be as real as possible—in everything I say and do.
I see his point here, especially in response to criticisms of the aforementioned article; journalists should first and foremost be responsible for telling the truth about what affects people even if people don't want to hear it.

However, where Smith's claim can be dangerous is when the media pretends it doesn't affect the desires and perceptions of the masses and forgets to be thorough -- it's a delicate balance between reporting to the masses and catering to the masses. I always find it to be a little bit suspect when media members throw up their hands and say, "I'm just giving people what they want" as though those desires are shaped and often created by the media.

So, I tend to agree with both Blotnicky and Gilbert that the media at some point also has a responsibility to help the masses make sense of the things that they should be concerned about without being condescending or pedantic. And sometimes, that means addressing things that "affect the masses" even if the masses think it's trivial.

As Smith alludes to, quality journalism necessarily involves being as thorough as possible. But if "keeping it real" becomes nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to endear oneself to the masses for better ratings or self-interest, then we end up with nothing more than self-righteous conflict journalism that simplistically paints everything as dichotomous rather than providing us with the full story.

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