WNBA's daily fantasy game is a win for old and new fans
My father took me to my first WNBA game when I was 12. He drove me two hours to Indianapolis so I could see Sue Bird play for the Seattle Storm. It became a ritual. Every summer we would check the schedule, and drive to see the Fever play the Storm. And when Diana Taurasi entered the league with the Phoenix Mercury, we added another game.
I loved basketball because I played it, and I loved the Storm because Bird was on the team. Players and participation are very common entry points for fans to the WNBA, but the league just added one more: fantasy sports.
The WNBA announced a partnership with FanDuel that launches the first official women's sports fantasy game. Coinciding with the beginning of the WNBA season on Saturday -- defending champion Los Angeles hosts Seattle (ESPN, 5 p.m. ET) -- the free daily fantasy game will allow fans to compete for prizes that range from WNBA memorabilia to unique WNBA experiences. I'm not sure what a unique experience is, but I would sign up to let Brittney Griner dunk on me literally any day of the year.
Getting dunked on aside, this partnership is a huge deal.
The WNBA is often maligned for not having enough fans or not paying its players enough money. The league is often discussed from a position of trying to "fix" it. What is not often talked about, however, is the fact that the WNBA, and women's sports more broadly, simply have not developed (nor had the opportunity to do so) a consumption culture in the same way that men's sports have.
Stay with me here.
Men's sports have drama that is dissected on television, in print and digitally every day. People aren't just writing about Golden State taking on Oklahoma City. They are writing about Kevin Durant vs. Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant vs. the Oklahoma City fans.
Men's sports also have video games, and yes, fantasy sports. All of this on top of simply watching the game.
Together, video games, analysis and fantasy sports create a consumption culture that can drive interest and serve as entry points for sustained fandom in a way women's sports have never experienced. When my custom "NBA 2k17" player was drafted by the Jazz, I learned that roster because I was playing with them virtually for far too many hours, and I paid closer attention to them in the playoffs this year (RIP).
Playing in an NFL fantasy league, even casually, heightens awareness of players in the league and their weekly performance. I was emotionally invested in the Los Angeles Rams because I had Kenny Britt on my team. I had no idea who Kenny Britt was until I drafted him, and now I have an opinion.
A WNBA daily fantasy game opens up a similar opportunity. Hardcore fans can engage with the league on a deeper level, and win some cool stuff. Additionally, people who enjoy fantasy games but might not know much about the WNBA will learn about the players in the league, and might watch because they are emotionally (and financially) invested in these players' success. Moreover, a specific interest in the statistical performance of players in the league might drive further conversation about the need for more data and analytics for female athletes.
There is something to be said for not building a consumption culture that mirrors men's sports because the WNBA is not the NBA. They are different leagues with different needs and interests. This move with FanDuel, though, is a new frontier for women's sports, and the WNBA should be applauded for taking this step forward.
And if it's successful, perhaps the NWSL will be able to sanction something similar. That interest could push EA Games to expand the inclusion of women in its "FIFA" franchise. (Not being able to play Dortmund with the USWNT because men can't play women in a video game is dumb, but I digress.) Maybe we will see women in "NBA 2k18" or "NBA 2k19." The fact that I have never been able to break someone's ankles and drain a 3 in their face as Diana Taurasi is wrong.
The success of the WNBA depends on growth and evolution. Sports is no longer just about the games, and the fact that the WNBA is expanding beyond the borders of the arenas is a huge win for the league and fans.