A Lot Of Leagues Of Their Own

Corporate America spies the future: Women's team sports

The SuperShow is always a zoo. More than 3,000 companies and 110,000 people jam the world's largest sports-products trade show in Atlanta every February. But this year, there was a new reason to elbow: women athletes. Hundreds pushed to get a peek as Reebok's Ragin athletic shoe, endorsed by American Basketball League (ABL) star Saudia Roundtree, was unveiled. And there was a major crush to spot hot hoopsters Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes when Nike announced a five-year deal with the Women's National Basketball Assn. (WNBA).

It's the girls' turn to score, and Corporate America is taking notice. With four new women's pro leagues formed since last summer's Olympics (including a soccer league announced on Feb. 15 during the SuperShow) and more skilled and recognizable female athletes than ever before, sponsors are rushing for the front-row seats of women's team sports.

For decades, women's individual sports, such as golf and tennis, have drawn fans, sponsors--and big money. The record of women's team sports has been decidedly dicier. At least three tries to get the ball bouncing in women's basketball leagues have failed. Now, however, expanded collegiate sports programs for women have helped create a pumped-up new generation of athletes--and fans. And with the stunning success of American women athletes at last year's Summer Olympics, the outlook for commercial success in women's team sports has never been brighter. "We saw an excitement coming out of the Olympics, not only with women's basketball but across the board, that took women's sports a credibility notch up," says Anthony T. Ponturo, sports marketing vice-president for Anheuser-Busch Cos., a WNBA sponsor. "We like that [the WNBA] has the NBA behind it and that it's a real sport--not gimmicky, not pandering to the female audience. And from a marketing approach, we as an advertiser can own the category...all-exclusive, something you can't do with a bigger league already established."

A string of other big corporate names also has seen the light of the Olympic afterglow. AT&T Wireless Services in October paid $3 million to become the title sponsor for the Women's Professional Fastpitch League (WPF), whose six teams will begin a 72-game schedule in June. The ABL has a bevy of local and national sponsors, including Reebok International Ltd. and McDonald's Corp. Last year, the Women's Professional Volleyball Assn. (WPVA) took in more than $5 million from such sponsors as Evian, Nissan, and Coors Light. And the WNBA, which will hit the boards with eight teams in June, has assembled a roster of sponsors that in addition to Bud Light includes Nike, Champion, Spalding, and Lee Jeans. A source close to the WNBA estimates that each brand has committed about $10 million apiece over three years. "I remember being at the gold medal games in the Georgia Dome at the Olympics with hundreds of fans. That was when I knew [the league] was going to work," says WNBA Commissioner Val Ackerman, who played for the University of Virginia in the 1970s.

SPECTATOR SURGE. Not everyone is that confident, but unlike earlier efforts, today's leagues seem to be in the right place at the right time, with strong financial backing. Both the Women's Professional Basketball League and the Women's American Basketball Assn., two previous leagues, lacked fan support and sponsor interest. And they

didn't have the buzz created by a world-class event like the Olympics.

The sea change in women's team sports can be traced to the 1972 passage of what has come to be known as Title IX, the law prohibiting gender discrimination in programs that receive federal funds. The impact of Title IX has been dramatic: In 1970, 1 in 27 girls played on a high school team. By 1996, that figure was 1 in 3, according to the Women's Sports Foundation.

Greater opportunity has led to better female athletes, and greater success has attracted more spectators. It was only eight years ago that the University of Connecticut women's basketball team played before just 287 fans in the front half of a doubleheader shared with the men. On a Sunday in January, UConn's No.1-ranked women drew 16,294 in a game against Tennessee, a bigger audience than either of two National Basketball Assn. games that weekend. Overall, women's National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Div. I attendance has jumped from 1.1 million in 1982 to 4.2 million in 1996.

All that means that marketers have a much larger pool of young women who could develop an allegiance to their products through sports. But sports-minded women consumers may not be an easy sell. They tend to try different products and often switch brands unless, according to C.B. Bhattacharya, assistant professor of marketing at Emory's Robert C. Goizueta School of Business, the product is endorsed by an athlete they admire. And for most women that means being able to identify with the athlete on and off the court. Whether big names like the ABL's Dawn Staley and the WNBA's Rebecca Lobo can draw fans to products remains to be seen.

Still, with a women's soccer league now in the works and the U.S. hosting the women's world soccer championship in 1999, more sponsors are expected to jump into this nascent market. Trouble is, it will be some time before it's clear how much of the women's team-sports market is sizzle and how much steak.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.