There were plenty of things to love about the WNBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas last weekend. The skills challenge and three-point competition on Friday night was a blast. The players were treated like the superstars they are. The crowds were electric. And the game itself was a thrilling 129-126 victory for Team A’ja Wilson over Team Elena Delle Donne, that included three dunks by Brittney Griner and one of the most emotional, inspiring performances in WNBA history by Indiana Fever guard Erica Wheeler, an undrafted guard who was named the MVP of the game.
“It was amazing. Definitely one of the best that I’ve attended,” said six-time All-Star Sylvia Fowles.
But the most refreshing part of the weekend? The host city really pulled out all the stops. Walking around Vegas, there were signs for the All-Star Game everywhere, from billboards to casino walls to public transportation. And none of them included inspirational slogans, the color pink, or rhetoric about supporting women. They weren’t focused on sex appeal, either. The ads just showcased the faces of the most elite women’s basketball players in the world, along with the name, date, and time of the event. Simple, and effective.
Nneka Ogwumike, an All-Star forward with the Los Angeles Aces and the president of the WNBA Players Association, was impressed with the visibility of the advertisements and the focus on basketball above all else. “It’s the [Las Vegas] Aces, it’s the WNBA All-Star game, that’s all,” she excitedly proclaimed on the WNBA’s orange carpet on the eve of the game.
Megan Rapinoe, Women’s World Cup hero and star of the Seattle Reign and U.S. Women’s National Team, was on hand in Vegas to support her girlfriend, WNBA star Sue Bird. She, too, was thrilled that the advertisements across the city didn’t go out of their way to express the inspirational nature of the of the sport.
“Obviously they’re going to inspire girls and boys playing basketball because that’s where they want to get, but to always lead with that — it leaves so much short when it comes to the potential of it,” said Rapinoe.
During the Women’s World Cup, FIFA was criticized — including by ThinkProgress — for its patronizing slogan, “Dare to Dream.” (Female athletes have always dreamed; FIFA and other organizations at the top of the sport have been actively destroying those dreams by failing to adequately invest in women’s sports.)
But FIFA is far from the only organization that often falls back on promoting women’s sports as a social justice obligation, rather than entertainment. The WNBA has done this, as well.
In 2018, the WNBA unveiled its “Take a Seat, Take a Stand” campaign, which was a “women and girls empowerment program.” It leaned heavily on marketing the WNBA as part of the broader women’s movement, and announced that a portion of each ticket sale would be dedicated to one of six WNBA partners, including Planned Parenthood and the United States of Women. All of this was, on the surface, perfectly nice, inspiring, and on-brand for a league whose players have been outspoken about social justice issues. But the campaign was unveiled without input from the players, and some were upset that none of the official partners were associated with the Black Lives Matter movement or ending police brutality.
And there was also something uncomfortable about so heavily tying the sport to charity, and in taking a portion of ticket sales away from the WNBA itself at a time when the league claims it can’t pay the players more.
But most importantly, the league’s ad campaign seemed to forget about the fact that people should support WNBA games because they are physical, competitive, flashy, feisty, and a whole lot of fun. There’s plenty of inspiration on the court for every game, it doesn’t have to be manufactured by marketing consultants.
Last month, the WNBA’s new commissioner, Cathy Engelbert, came on board after a long career as the CEO of Deloitte, a professional services firm. Since she comes from the corporate world, she’s expected to be focused primarily on turning the league into a profitable business. But in a conversation with ThinkProgress three days into her tenure, Engelbert repeatedly stressed that she took the job with the WNBA because she wanted to do “something with a broad women’s leadership platform.”
When asked whether she viewed the WNBA as a sport or a cause, Engelbert said that both were in play.
“I think that’s what makes the W so unique is that [these things aren’t] mutually exclusive with one another. You can have very socially minded community oriented, elite athletes playing a game they love … broadening the fan base, but always knowing that they ultimately have a maybe a broader mission behind what they’re doing,” she said. “So you kind of have to follow the athlete.”
Following the athlete is an important step — in the summer of 2016, the WNBA brass created tension with its players when it tried to quell Black Lives Matter protests. Many WNBA players identify as activists, and should be encouraged to use their voices and platform. But if there’s no interest in the platform itself, then their voices won’t be amplified, they’ll be lost in the abyss.
Female athletes aren’t always going to be perfect role models. The biggest stars might not always be comfortable being the faces of political movements, or advocates for change. So relying on those two things as the main selling point of the league is precarious at best.
The WNBA has come a long way since its early days. It now celebrates the individuality of its players, both through their pre-game styles and by being more openly welcoming to those who are lesbian, bisexual, and/or gender nonconforming. In Las Vegas last weekend, married Chicago Sky teammates Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot were both All-Stars. They walked the orange carpet together, and were interviewed about playing against each other. It was wonderful to see their relationship out in the open and celebrated. But it was also wonderful that this was just a fun side story to the main event, a basketball game between the best players in the world.
As Rapinoe said, the focus on these female athletes doesn’t have to end with the sport itself, but it should always start there. In Vegas, it was confirmed that not only is this approach possible, it’s downright popular.