The WNBA's Pride predicament

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- It's Friday night after a tough loss, and the San Antonio Stars' Jayne Appel has another WNBA game to play in less than 24 hours. But she's taking time to tell a group of fans why speaking out on LGBT rights is so important to her.

Appel, a Stanford graduate and native Californian, grew up in an atmosphere of accepting other people and their differences. So when a roommate in college tearfully told Appel that she was gay, Appel at first was a bit stunned that her friend was afraid of what her reaction might be.

That's when Appel fully realized that even in as liberal and open an atmosphere as Stanford provided, coming out could still be frightening and difficult. She resolved then and there to always be a voice for people who might be struggling to find their own.

So last month, when the league announced its "WNBA Pride" marketing initiative -- a concerted effort to reach out to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community -- Appel was certainly on board.

"I do think it's a smart strategy," Appel said. "I think when you look at who is in our crowds a lot, and at the amount of money the LGBT community spends on the WNBA, it's a substantial amount."

WNBA Pride is a specific piece of an overall marketing platform for the league, but it's also an acknowledgment by the league that LGBT fans are an important part of its constituency.

Admittedly, some people's reaction has been, "It's about time. Why didn't the WNBA do this years ago?" But for the most part, fans see it as a positive step toward recognizing this segment of WNBA supporters, many of whom have felt marginalized or ignored in the nearly two decades the league has been in business.

WNBA president Laurel Richie said that while she is pleased the league has formalized its marketing to the LGBT community, she doesn't consider it a "new" approach.

"I think some people have characterized this incorrectly as a 100 percent, brand-new initiative, and that's just not true," Richie said. "We have been doing marketing and outreach to this community for years. Whether that's through advertising, Pride nights, participation in local Pride parades or other things.

"What's different this year is we're pulling existing activities together, adding in some new ones, adding in new media partners. The most important thing we've done is unify that all underneath 'WNBA Pride.'"

Richie said the initiative is beneath a greater umbrella of marketing strategies the league is especially focused on, including "Hoops for Troops," which supports the military, and "Dads & Daughters," which encourages fathers to bring their kids to games. The WNBA Pride campaign has received more publicity and seems to have been received well by the players -- although Richie said they were not necessarily consulted about the initiative.

"We are excited about it," San Antonio guard Danielle Robinson said. "I think it definitely puts a message out there and lets us have a statement that we're going to support everybody. And I think it's huge with our fan base."

How will it play out?

While the league itself seems ready to wholeheartedly embrace its LGBT fans, Richie said each individual franchise will manage how it participates in WNBA Pride. Some teams have already done outreach in that area for years, with events such as LGBT fan appreciation games. However, there is no exact blueprint for how WNBA franchises approach the topic of LGBT recognition.

Let's look at San Antonio as an example. Several LGBT fans of the Stars told espnW during a recent two-game homestand that they don't feel the franchise has truly reached a comfort level in openly acknowledging them.

"I hate to say this, but I think the gay community is just used to being treated like that," said a San Antonio season-ticket holder named Lori, who preferred not to give her last name. "In some ways, it's a slap in the face, but I don't think most of us have demanded anything different."

Her partner, Tina, who also asked not to use her last name, then added, "But we believe in the league and supporting women. Women athletes are always treated like second-class citizens, and we want do what we can to help that.

"But when they started this franchise, they needed a certain amount of season-ticket holders. I don't think they could have gotten that without the gay community buying those tickets."

Appel is very cognizant of that fact. She is also an ambassador for a group called Athlete Ally, which was started by a former college wrestler named Hudson Taylor. A graduate of Maryland in 2010, Taylor travels across the country for the nonprofit organization. It encourages straight athletes to "take a stand against homophobia and transphobia in sports and bring the message of respect, inclusion and equality to their athletic community."

Taylor said he sees the WNBA marketing platform as an important outreach to a significant portion of the league's spectators.

"I think the Pride initiative is a great step: acknowledging the LGBT fan base that has been, and continues to be, a major demographic for all the teams," Taylor said.

Representing Athlete Ally, Taylor and Appel had a postgame discussion with fans at a restaurant inside AT&T Center right after a recent Stars game. Ticket sales manager Alma Lara also attended the event and addressed various questions from fans. One concern raised was the "Kiss Cam" that is shown on the JumboTron in the arena. A fan was upset that, at a previous game, the Kiss Cam focused in on two men who are part of the Stars' staff that entertains fans during timeouts. They reacted in mock horror, suggesting the idea of two men kissing was inherently odd and comedic.

The meeting was attended by about 40 fans who expressed gratitude about the chance to discuss these issues. Appel was later asked by espnW if it bothers her that none of her teammates -- some of whom she acknowledged are gay -- came to the Athlete Ally meeting. If she as a straight person found it so important to participate, why didn't they?

"The opportunity is there," Appel said. "And I think it's really important for players -- like Brittney Griner has -- to say, 'Hey, it's OK to talk about being gay.'

"But by the same token, I respect my teammates if they're not comfortable putting themselves out there. I don't want to push them into it. I want them to take the initiative."

Appel had invited everyone on the team to attend the meeting. She said she sent out one more invitation as she left the locker room following the game.

"I said, 'Hey, last chance, if you want to come, it's open,'" she said. "But it's OK. Of course I understand. I certainly don't hold any hard feelings against them."

Differing points of view

Last year, though, there were some hard feelings in San Antonio in regard to the issue of gay rights. Longtime Stars player Sophia Young -- who was sitting out last season with a knee injury -- took to Twitter to say she opposes same-sex marriage.

It was an odd situation: Young's tweets were in response to a bill the San Antonio city council was then considering. But that bill actually was not about same-sex marriage. It was in regard to offering protection against discrimination for people based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Appel said the Stars had a team meeting, while on the road to play Tulsa last August, to discuss Young's tweets. And she acknowledged there was some discomfort when the team got together as a whole -- including Young -- for the first time after those tweets.

But the decision was made to focus on basketball.

"I'm of the opinion that everyone needs to be treated with dignity," said Stars veteran Becky Hammon, who added that she preferred to keep private the details of her individual conversation with Young about this topic.

"As a teammate, I think there's a certain code of conduct you have, and it's always about thinking of other people. Teams are a microcosm of society. You may have people at your job that you may not agree with on every issue, but you find a way to work together on your common goals."

Richie released a statement from the league at that time, saying, "Sophia has the right to express her point of view, however, I do not share her view. The WNBA supports diversity and we are committed to the equal and fair treatment of all people."

Young -- who has since married and goes by the name Young-Malcolm -- did not want to talk to espnW about last year's Twitter issue, or the WNBA Pride initiative. Hammon said, "My heart hurt for everybody then, including Sophia, about all this. I think we're moving on. It feels that way."

What about the San Antonio fans? Some of the season-ticket holders who spoke to espnW said that incident was hurtful and difficult for them.

Stars supporter Michelle Hollett said her partner, Donna DeJesus, stopped wearing her Sophia Young jersey after Young's tweets but that they would not stop supporting the team.

"It's really good basketball, and the ticket prices are so reasonable for professional sports," Hollett said. "We really believe it's a great product."

But Hollett also feels that the Stars' organization needs to make progress in regard to LGBT issues. Neither she nor any of the Stars fans that espnW spoke with could recall a specific LGBT or "Pride" night that was formally announced or acknowledged publicly during a game at San Antonio.

And while some Stars players wore "rainbow"-styled shoes to the June 13 game against Seattle, there was no specific announcement that it was "Pride" night. The Athlete Ally event happened after that game, but Hollett said it wasn't really publicized by the franchise. Other fans said they had heard nothing about it.

Hollett and several of her friends who sit in the same section at games say they just wish there was more outreach to LGBT fans who are so loyal to the Stars. Clearly, that's what the WNBA Pride campaign is trying to do, and fans espnW spoke with said they noticed and appreciate the league's efforts.

Appel said she sees WNBA Pride as important progress and wants to do all she can to just keep that going.

"Especially for a league that has been trying to find a niche for 'How do we make this a profitable thing?'" she said. "Why not reach out more to people who've been there and had your back throughout the years? Why wouldn't you reach out to them?"