FOR MOST OF its first 17 seasons the WNBA took an ambivalent stance toward its significant lesbian fan base. Individual teams staged the occasional Gay Pride Night, but even in 2009 a Washington Mystics executive told The Washington Post that the Verizon Center Kiss Cam didn't go live at Mystics games because "we don't find it appropriate." So last May, when the league and Cover Girl cosmetics announced WNBA Pride, a nationwide campaign to embrace LGBT fans, it was hard not to wonder what had taken the league so long. First Jason Collins became the NBA's first openly gay player; later Michael Sam came out and was drafted by the NFL; and finally Major League Baseball honored the late, closeted high-five pioneer Glenn Burke. Only then—a year after its most dominant young star, Brittney Griner, came out—did the WNBA fly the rainbow flag. Was the league drafting in the slipstream of men's pro sports?
This is an article from the June 29, 2015 issue
Not at all, says WNBA president Laurel Richie: "The LGBT community has been with us since our inception. Players have been grand marshals of [gay pride] parades, and we've had online campaigns with Logo TV and AfterEllen.com for five or six years now. This is really about bringing it all together."
Rick Welts, who helped develop the WNBA as a marketing executive in the mid-1990s, recalls that when attendance stagnated after the first few seasons, "we realized lesbians were an important segment of our fan base, and we had very sincere conversations with our operators." Those conversations led to new marketing approaches, such as ads for the Minnesota Lynx in a gay publication, visits to West Hollywood's Girl Bar by Los Angeles Sparks players, and an auction for a date with Seattle Storm star Lauren Jackson at a "Girl For Girl" fund-raiser. "The league [now]putting its umbrella over it," says Welts, who is gay and is now president of the Golden State Warriors, "speaks to rapid change in our society."
At a game last July a gay Storm season-ticket holder, retired teacher and administrator Lin Zurfluh, said she suspected the league had gotten a push from its players—not just gay ones, which some estimates place at 40%, but also straight players who have joined the "ally" movement. (Athlete Ally is one of WNBA Pride's supporting partners.) Even if the initiative seems late, the WNBA is the first pro sports league with an integrated marketing campaign aimed at gays and lesbians.
Shortly after the WNBA unveiled its Pride platform, Richie went to Tulsa for a Shock game, and a woman in the stands told her, "As soon as I heard, I got in my car and drove to the game." Richie nodded, bemused; virtually every fan there had driven. But the woman quickly made clear how she was different: "I'm from Nebraska!"