The WNBA has a long ways to go to reach the popularity of other U.S. professional sports leagues. But new technology platforms like Twitter and FanDuel are becoming important growth tools for the 21-year-old organization as it looks to expand its marketing efforts around the world.
WNBA Commissioner Lisa Borders was in Seattle this weekend for the WNBA All-Star Game, held in the Emerald City for the first time since the league launched back in 1997. She spoke to reporters before the game on Saturday at Key Arena and shed light on the league’s growth in recent years.
Borders, who took over in 2016 after leadership stints with public, private, and non-profits ranging from Coca-Cola to the Atlanta City Council, noted traditional metrics like attendance numbers, points per game, or three-point shots to show how the WNBA is progressing.
But she also took time to talk about “new metrics,” and specifically viewership data from the WNBA’s new streaming deal with Twitter. The site has streamed 10 WNBA games this season, with an average of 800,000 viewers, and a third of which have surpassed 1 million. For comparison, Twitter’s Thursday Night Football NFL streams averaged 3.5 million viewers last season.
Borders pointed out how 60 percent of those watching on Twitter live outside the U.S.
“What does this tell you about attendance in arena and our traditional metrics?” Borders said. “New metrics like Twitter tell us that there is a hunger for our game and women’s basketball in particular. This is a global game played in more than 200 countries.”
Beyond streaming, Borders said Twitter is also valuable because it lets the 144 WNBA players communicate with fans directly, even when the WNBA season wraps up in the U.S.
“Many of our players are global citizens and play during the second six months of the year in the international markets,” she said. “So those markets are now able to follow our players on a consistent basis throughout the year on a platform like Twitter and can even broaden the reach of the WNBA today.”
Added Borders, on Twitter: “We think it’s going to increase the number of eyeballs watching the WNBA, making them more aware of the league, of our players, and what an extraordinary sport that we play.”
Borders also called out FanDuel, the daily fantasy sports giant that just had its merger with DraftKings canceled, and said there are more than 1 million fans playing WNBA-related games on the platform. The league inked a deal with FanDuel this year and launched the first official women’s sports fantasy game.
New metrics like Twitter tell us that there is a hunger for our game and women’s basketball in particular.
“We’re talking about exposure here,” she explained. “In the fantasy space, as well as the social and digital space, we’re seeing tremendous growth in terms of numbers. The first thing with any product in any business is making sure that people know you exist and they are aware of where you are and what you’re doing. So FanDuel in the fantasy space — it’s completely new to our league, which means a new pool of people and a deeper and broader set of interests.”
The WNBA is embracing new tech platforms as it comes off a season that saw the highest attendance numbers in five years and records for digital viewership, social media traction, and retail sales. The league also saw double-digit growth in TV viewership. Those are promising numbers for a league long-critiqued for its lack of relevance; technology certainly seems like a way for the WNBA to shed that reputation.
Technology could also help grow interest in the league as it relates to the players themselves. Longtime WNBA veteran Sue Bird, who made her record-tying 10th All-Star appearance this weekend in Seattle, spoke at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit last month and explained how she wants to see the big innovations in data that are driving more conversations and interest in the NBA and men’s basketball make their way to the women’s game.
“It starts conversations and that’s what our league needs, it needs to be talked about, and that’s how you get it out there and get people to be involved and become fans,” Bird said.
Bird is also a big believer in using technology to improve performance on the court. But she said a lot of the tech you see in other leagues — like how NBA players use tablets on the bench during games — is lacking in the WNBA, mostly for financial reasons.
“We don’t have necessarily the means to have some of that technology in our everyday [routine],” Bird said. “I don’t think you’re going to see any of us with an iPad on the bench any time soon.”