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A coming-out party
for professional sports

Johnny Buss said he was nervous. He didn't know what to expect. He had brought his Los Angeles Sparks to a West Hollywood bar where members of the nation's largest lesbian organization were holding a pep rally, and now he was being called on stage.

Johnny Buss, center, and the L.A. Sparks took the bold step of promoting the WNBA team at a lesbian bar.
With colored spotlights dancing off his face and disco balls spinning overhead, Buss treated it like any other Sparks event -- he ran up on stage, smiled as wide as he could and soaked in the roaring applause.

But this was no ordinary promotion. It was one of the first known instances of a pro sports team heading into the homosexual community to generate fan support. Buss, president of the Sparks, was at the center of it all.

"The Sparks are my little baby," said Buss, one of the four children of Lakers owner Jerry Buss. "And when I got up there and saw this group of 1,000 or so fans screaming and waving, I felt like I was a Backstreet Boy or something. It didn't matter where I was or what I was doing -- anybody who is that welcoming and that supportive of our team we're going to embrace."

Call it a coming out of sorts for professional sports. At a time when society gradually appears more accepting of alternative lifestyles -- there are 33 homosexual characters currently on prime-time television -- the world of sports appears to be slowly catching up.

The topic that was once taboo, both in the locker room and in the front office, is now being addressed. League commissioners and team owners are analyzing the risks, realizing the potential rewards and deciding to ignore the issue no longer. Among those leading the charge is Buss and the WNBA's Sparks.

No moment was more telling at the rally than when Buss took the stage, symbolically linking the suits of the sporting world to the heart of the lesbian community.

"That was the kind of stuff that I know we were waiting to see," said Sandy Sachs, co-founder of Girl Bar, the club that hosted the event. "He was up there having a blast like it was nothing. And that was what impressed the (lesbian) community. It helped us feel accepted."

Though each WNBA team controls its own marketing strategy, the suggestion to target the lesbian demographic is one that came from the top of the league's hierarchy. Entering this, its fifth season, the league has put an added emphasis on ticket sales, targeting a host of demographics it previously under marketed. Included in that overlooked group are lesbians.

Karen Bryant
Seattle Storm senior director of operations Karen Bryant, at right with coach Lin Dunn, organized a Gay Pride Night last season.
"There was a lot of emphasis on (marketing to lesbians) during the league meetings in the fall," said Seattle Storm senior director of operations Karen Bryant, who organized a Gay Pride Night for her team in 2000. "I think the league felt like maybe it had been remiss in all of this. So they said, 'Look, this is a market you need to consider.' It's as simple as reaching out into a market that has expressed interest."

In the past, a handful of WNBA teams have advertised in alternative magazines or held gay pride nights, but that the Sparks ventured into the lesbian community to market is somewhat groundbreaking. Until now, few professional sports organizations have aggressively marketed to homosexuals.

Not even in the LPGA or Women's Tennis Association, despite beliefs that a chunk of their fan bases are gay. The new women's professional soccer league, the WUSA, has said its target audience in its inaugural season is families with children who play soccer, not lesbians.

The WNBA takes a different approach, marketing to anyone and everyone who potentially could fill seats.

"I guess I would call it classic target marketing," said WNBA president Val Ackerman, who noted the Phoenix Mercury have targeted senior citizen and Native American populations, and the Miami Sol have marketed to the local Latin community. "We rely on each team's ability to do what they think will work best in their market and that's just what the Sparks did."

University of Massachusetts professor Pat Griffin, author of the book, "Strong Women, Deep Closets: Women and Homophobia in Sports," said she believes the move is significant in the push to eliminate homophobia and prejudice in not only the sporting world, but society as a whole.

It could be akin, Griffin said, to the positive effect that Ellen DeGeneres had on gay rights when her character came out of the closet on prime time television four years ago.

Lesbians are a huge part of the fan base. Everybody knows that they are a good portion of the folks putting their fannies in the seats, but the league has been ashamed of them and scared of them. They've been two-faced about the issue. Now that's changed.
Pat Griffin, author of "Strong Women, Deep Closets: Women and Homophobia in Sports."

"I'd love to think it has the potential to be that important," Griffin said. "Lesbians are a huge part of the fan base. Everybody knows that they are a good portion of the folks putting their fannies in the seats, but the league has been ashamed of them and scared of them. They've been two-faced about the issue. Now that's changed."

The Risks
All this does not come without significant risk, though. For the Sparks, as well as other teams that have marketed to the lesbian community, it's a business decision. And that means weighing the negatives with the positives.

Though Ackerman and Buss insist otherwise, the principal concern according to many people is the potential for alienating more conservative fans who might not approve of the homosexual lifestyle. WNBA demographic research indicates the average crowd at a WNBA game is compromised of 75 percent females. In addition, Ackerman said, 70 percent of fans attend a game with a family member.

Yet trying to balance the marketing efforts targeting those two constituencies could prove challenging.

Gary Cavalli, former commissioner of the American Basketball League, experienced such backlash during his days with the now defunct women's professional league. Though he declined to go into specific details, Cavalli said a couple of potential sponsors for one of his Midwest franchises used the homosexuality issue as its sole reason for not financially supporting the league.

Val Ackerman
Val Ackerman, left, says the WNBA allows its teams to design their own local marketing campaigns.
"We recognized early on that there was significant potential audience from (the lesbian community), so why not welcome it?" Cavalli said. "But the risk is that people get the assumption that the audience becomes something that families don't want to bring their kids to. And you have to be concerned about that."

That argument bothers Sachs. For several years, she has marketed a weekend vacation package to Palm Springs, Calif., during the Nabisco Championship, a major event on the LPGA Tour.

"I think it's time that everybody stopped playing ostrich," she said. "You go to a game and can see who is there -- it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out. But all anybody wants to do is go watch the game."

Last year, the Storm received negative phone calls and e-mails from fans and was criticized on Seattle talk radio stations after team officials organized a "Gay Pride Night" at a game.

"The letters were very disheartening," Bryant said. "So I went on record with as many people as I possibly could to tell them that in no way were we exclusively marketing to lesbians. Are they part of a target demographic? Absolutely. But with a start-up league, you have to market to anybody that will listen and support the team. And with that, you hope you don't lose your family audience."

Ackerman said the league has yet to hear any complaints in regards to the publicity that has surrounded the Girl Bar event. In Los Angeles, Buss said the response has been overwhelmingly positive. He has yet to field any complaints from sponsors. And for every angry fan that has called, he said the team has taken 20 compliments for its recognition of the lesbian community.

"We live in L.A. where I think the tolerance for this sort of thing is pretty good," he said. "But regardless, I don't know that there has been a more successful promotion that we've ever done."

The Rewards
Given the risks, why would a league or team take such a bold move? In hopes of not only increasing attendance, but in an effort to tap into a previously overlooked demographic that could be coveted by advertisers.

Buss says the Sparks' night with Girl Bar ranks as one of the team's top promotional appearances.
Last season, WNBA attendance stalled at an average of 9,100 per game and despite the financial backing of the NBA, the league has yet to turn a profit. According to the league, last year's TV ratings on NBC earned a 1.4 share (equal to about 1.4 million households). That's better than the ratings for women's college basketball on CBS or the NHL on ABC, but still not where the league would like them to be.

Targeting the lesbian community, Cavalli points out, could change that.

"I think it's a need at this point," Cavalli said of marketing to lesbian fans. "This is a real critical stage for the league. The novelty factor has worn off; TV ratings and attendance are stagnant. They need to get the arrows pointing up. Clearly, this is one of the markets they should be appealing to. They've realized they almost have to do this."

Though Ackerman recognizes the need for the league's continued growth, she said she doesn't believe targeting a single demographic will be enough.

"I wouldn't single out any group as 'the one we need' " she said. "We need fans. Whoever they may be, whatever their backgrounds may be, whatever characteristics they have. It doesn't matter. In our minds, there are two demographics -- those that are WNBA fans and those who are going to become WNBA fans."

Howard Buford, CEO of Prime Access, a New York-based advertising agency that handles marketing to the gay community for several Fortune 500 companies, said he believes gays and lesbians are ideal demographics for the sports world to target.

"Many of these households don't have children and thus there's a higher dispensable income, especially for entertainment," he said. "In addition, there's a higher amount of dispensable time that is available. It's the perfect fit and is one of the reasons sports is so attractive to the gay community."

If they test this and it works, you'll see a lot of other teams copy them. If it fails, many others will not be willing to ever try this experiment ever again.
Rick Burton, Director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon

That extra money, says Rick Burton, Director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, translates into greater profit for teams like the Sparks. "The members of that community are in a position to buy season tickets and buy seats that are closer to the floor," he said. "Those are packages with a greater margin market performance, with greater revenue."

And that is the bottom line.

"We just want to put people in the seats," Bryant said. "If they want to make this political and if it helps as a catalyst for breaking down stereotypes, that's a great by-product. But it isn't our goal. This is a business."

The Results
What remains to be seen are the long-term effects of the Sparks' marketing campaign and the attention it has received. Some believe the team is taking a huge risk; others are convinced it is on the cusp of social change. The answer will begin to be revealed June 5, the Sparks' home opener against Cleveland. That will be the first game of the Sparks' promotion with Girl Bar. It includes a post-game "After Party" with players.

"At that point, it will all be out in the open," Sachs said. "The eyes of the world are definitely going to be watching. They're going to be, 'OK, did the Sparks sell more tickets or was this a big loser idea here?' "

If the recent rally is any indication, the Sparks could walk away from this marketing plan looking like geniuses. If not, the long-term ramifications could be damaging.

"Marketing is part science and part art," Burton said. "On the science side of things, this is an experiment. If they test this and it works, you'll see a lot of other teams copy them. If it fails, many others will not be willing to ever try this experiment ever again."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for He can be reached at

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