Q&A with WNBA President Val Ackerman
Ackerman on the State of the WNBA
Listen in: Val Ackerman's pregame press conference
VAL ACKERMAN: If I have to make a comment on the state of the league now, there is now a Lin Dunn bobblehead doll. If this isn't the sign of a league that is hurtling into adulthood, I don't know quite what it is. This is available at an arena near you.
I'm really happy to be here today and I want to thank all of you for coming out and listening to me talk for a few minutes. I want to take all of your questions and before I do, I just want to make a couple of comments about the game tonight, the game, our fan support, and I want to tell you a little bit, because I'm so proud of it, the things that we're doing in terms of our community outreach.
The game tonight is quickly emerging into one of the premier events, not only for the WNBA, but I believe for all of women's sports. We expect a great event. We are going to have a sellout crowd here in Orlando. We are going to be on ESPN for the third straight year, which is taking the national telecast of the game. We are also going outside of the U.S. This game is being televised to almost 170 countries by 46 separate telecasters in 23 different languages, so there is great interest out there in the WNBA and our sport, and all of you here should know that you are in a lot of company. I'm told my PR staff that we have a record number of media credentials as well, here, today, with over 200 credentialed media that are coming to take part in the game.
If you had not passed it when you came in, you might want to take a peek outside as well, because we've had very brisk crowds at our Summer Jam, which is our interactive Fan Fest. We have more than doubled the traffic we had last year in Phoenix at our comparable fan event.
We are very, very happy with the kind of interest and support that we have seen from the City of Orlando and how much they have he embraced the league and the game and all of the various activities that have accompanied it.
Let me tell you about the game, the WNBA Game. It really is in great shape, and it has never been better. We have quickly become a magnet for the world's greatest women's basketball players, and the league truly represents the best that the world has to offer now in women's basketball, which is saying a great deal.
Just to bore you with a couple of statistics, we now have in the league 47 Olympians, not just the U.S. Olympians, obviously, but the best Olympians from across the world. We now have 54 players from 24 countries outside of the U.S. playing in the league. That 54 of the roughly 200 that have WNBA roster spots make up a little bit more than a quarter of the league, 26 percent of our players, and that includes 13 from Australia alone. And many of you, I know, are familiar with the 3 first-round draft picks that we had this past year.
In terms of the other things happening on the court it really is shaping up to be a record season. Many of you know that Los Angeles got off to the best start that we have ever seen in the WNBA with a 9-0 run at the top of the season. Katie Smith broke Cynthia Cooper's four-year-old scoring record. Cooper had 44 back in '97 and Katie, just a few weeks ago, beat that with a record 46 points against the Sparks. A pretty good game against a pretty good team, including an astounding 37 foul shots made. That was a great individual performance in the WNBA.
We have had more close games than ever before this year, as the caliber of play improves, the competitiveness and parity improves. We are seeing that in terms of how close the games are. More than a third of our games have been decided by five points or less and we have had 15 overtimes already, including the longest game we have ever seen, we had a quadruple overtime game, which we have never had before, just a few weeks ago with Washington defeating Seattle.
The rookies, I guess as a final note, are truly living up to the advance billing. I know I don't have to tick off all of the names to the media representatives that are here, but we really are seeing the kinds of performances that we thought we would see from the likes of Lauren Jackson and Jackie Stiles, both of whom are here tonight, both of whom are in the Top-10 in scoring already in their first years. We also have seen very solid performances from people like Marie Ferdinand and Deanna Nolan and Semeka Randall and Niele Ivey, Ruth Riley and others. That's exciting and that's beginning to translate into results from fan support.
Jackie was the subject of the largest player product order that we've had to date in the WNBA. Springfield Missouri K-Mart stores put in an order for 10,000 Jackie Stiles T-shirts and then had to reorder because they had to accommodate the demands in her home territory. Jackie as well made her national television debut on ESPN2 and that helped us rate the highest ESPN2 game that we have had to date.
That's exciting to see the contribution so quickly from a very talented group of women and with the college game now so strong, attendance up, the Women's Final Four, now the subject of a new deal with ESPN and the NCAA, and with girl's basketball growing in popularity it really does look like the sport of basketball as it relates to women and girls is incredibly well positioned. And I think that bodes incredibly well for the future of the WNBA.
Overall, our fan support is something that I and the league are very, very pleased with. It is obvious that there continues to be very strong receptivity both on and off the court, to the WNBA and to our teams and to our players, and there really are many, many encouraging signs and we really do look at everything.
Fans, I think, these days digest sports in many different ways, and on many, many different levels. The interest for the WNBA is truly apparent. Many you may be familiar with ESPN's regular polls. We are now told that the WNBA now ranks as the fourth most popular sports league in the U.S. according to the ESPN poll figures. That puts us behind only the NBA, NFL and MLB. In addition, the number of fans who are indicating they are big fans of the WNBA is rising at a faster clip for us than for any of the other 15 sports that now appear on that index.
Our opening-day crowds this year were up. Were up, actually in several markets this year, including, for example, Los Angeles, where we've had probably our largest gain. Attendance is up by more than 50 percent in Los Angeles. As we've had in other seasons, we very much expect that attendance, which has been our pattern, will pick up really from this point on. We tend to get very strong crowds in late July and August, and without having to end the season early this year to accommodate a major event like the Olympics, we really do expect to have peaking crowds in the back half of the summer.
We are continuing to attract a very high number of females to our games not only in the arenas, but on television. They really are a new fan to pro sports. We just beginning to understand them and how they act as consumers, but we really have made great inroads there, and we are very confident that we are going to be able to continue to grow that base of our fans, but also the equally traditional important fan base made up of many men who seem to be coming to the WNBA in growing numbers.
Interestingly, our Web traffic has done well and has now quadrupled on the Web site from what we saw in 1997. Just to give you some example of the kind of things that our fans are very interactive and are interested in and engaging us about, we have a fantasy basketball league on our Web site called Virtual GM, and this year we have attracted over 30,000 participants in that one element of the Web alone, and that is a 65 percent jump from last year.
Television continues to be vital for our league. We have not three, but four networks now, that are covering the WNBA during the season with NBC, ESPN2, which doubled its commitment with their game programming, and Lifetime; and that programming we expect is going to have a combined reach in excess of 60 million viewers this summer alone.
Let me say a word about our community outreach efforts. This has always been a priority for the WNBA, the ability to be part of the communities in which our teams are operating in and taking very seriously our responsibility as a league, to try to make a difference in the quality of the lives of our fans.
Our players, I'm very proud to say, have made over 2,500 appearances, communities appearances in the last year alone in their team cities, and as well, on behalf the league in a variety of league promotional events.
During our All-Star festivities today and the last couple of days a number of the programs have been proudly on display. We are continuing our national initiatives that are furthering breast cancer awareness, as well as physical fitness. Sears, our partner in breast awareness program, you may have seen our pink and white basketball which was designed specifically for that initiative with the intent of trying to create additional awareness of good breast health for women.
Here at the All-Star Game, the game itself is the focal point of an online auction of WNBA memorabilia; that is ongoing, and the proceeds of which are going to benefit the National Alliance of Breast Care Organizations. Our Be Active Clinic program continues. Yesterday, I had the privilege of being at the Boys & Girls Club Southwest branch in the greater Orlando area where we conducted a clinic and dedicated a court that was made up of recycled sneakers, thanks to our friends from Nike who are supporters of the Be Active Program.
We launched a new initiative that we are proud to partner with the NBA on, the Read to Achieve Program. This is the first partnership that we have had with them in a major community outreach and public service campaign, and that is going to be very, very broadly based. It is designed to encourage both online literacy and reading among kids, and is designed, as well, to engage their parents in the process of reading with them so that they can accelerate their learning. DeLisha Milton from the Sparks is going to be serving as the WNBA spokesperson for that program, and I am happy to say that American Express, which is one of our corporate partners, is going to be our partner in the Read to Achieve Program.
Finally, another program that we have unveiled recently, again working together with the NBA is our Jr. WNBA Program that you are going to be hearing a lot about. That is a basketball development program where both leagues, the NBA and the WNBA, are going to be serving as a support system for youth basketball recreation leagues that are going to be conducted across the leagues that are currently being conducted. We will be furnishing them with instructional materials for development of basketball players, whether they go on to play in the WNBA or the NBA is not even important, just so that they can have fun and get a good experience out of their participation in the sport of basketball.
We are proud of the Tina Thompson is going to be serving on the advisory board for that program together with Doc Rivers, here from the Orlando Magic and Ray Allen from the Milwaukee Bucks and Bill Walton from the ranks of the NBA legends.
So those are programs that we are all very proud of and really speak to our interest in staying as connected as we can to our fans and to the communities. Really for us, that's what it is all about. I think really that is what the WNBA is truly all about, fans and players and how they come together and we have is been very, very proud of the impact that we have made in that regard.
Q. How would you characterize the league's attendance and ratings, and where do you anticipate them going forward?
VAL ACKERMAN: Well, let me just give you some perspective on it. When we launched the league five seasons ago we thought we would attract in the neighborhood of four or five thousand fans a game. That's where we thought the league would be; and in our first season, we more than doubled that. We have maintained and will grow those levels, for certain, in the seasons ahead.
You know, I think the perspective, really, is important here. We've done in just a few years what other leagues have done literally in decades. It really is a challenge to try to create a customer base, to try to make an impact, to try to create a niche in terms of being a new league and trying to reach a new audience, and that is very much what we have done with the WNBA.
What has been especially encouraging, I think to me and everybody involved in our league, is that the fan base that we have reached has been a new fan base. We have attracted not only traditional sports fans, we have many men who come out to our game who enjoy watching basketball in the summer when other leagues are dark. But we have also brought into the WNBA, a fan who historically has not supported the NBA or NFL or other spots. They are really experiencing professional sports for the first time. The women that we have, in particular, are sort of running the gamut. We have young, we have old; and their emotional connection to the league, I think is unique. When you come to a game, you really feel the emotional attachment that the fans have to our players and to our teams and to the league as a whole.
So on the whole, I can tell you that we are trending upward. Our viewership levels for a new sports league have been -- have really been very, very good. It's certainly what we expected. The global reach of the WNBA, I think, has been very important. Not only are we connecting with a fan base here with the U.S., but we have fans literally around the world who appreciate women's basketball, who appreciate the skill level of our players, certainly having 26 percent of our players coming from other countries have accelerated the interest that those countries have in our league and programs and we expect that trends to continue, because women's basketball truly is a global game.
I think that the growing number of fans that are supporting women's college basketball are beginning to translate as well into our numbers. This year more than 9 million fans came to see college basketball teams play, and more and more, we are seeing the crossover base from that, as well.
So the prognosis, I think, is really very strong. As the years go on, I think we are going to be even more educated about how best to reach our customers, how to address their needs in terms of the kinds of packages we offer to them for ticket Sales, whether it is season ticket plans, group sales plans and the like.
Overall, I think the prospects continue to be extremely good for the WNBA to continue to grow in terms of its spectator interest, whether it be in arena or on television.
Q. I remember when the NASL men's soccer started, they always said it was doing to be a generational thing and for years they kept rolling out statistics, "this is how big we are." Do you see a day where you don't always have to talk about numbers and TV stuff? Is that going to be a generational thing, where it will be just so accepted? Do you see that day?
VAL ACKERMAN: I think that day is probably here. I think the mainstream acceptance of the WNBA on so many levels has increased dramatically since our first season. I mean, I talk to a lot of people. I talk to a lot of fans, and it's really very uncommon now for me to encounter someone who has never heard of the WNBA or never heard of the Women's NBA. I think most people now understand there is a women's professional basketball league in the U.S. who involves women playing at an extremely high level and that that league is basically here to stay.
In terms of the generational growth and the measurement of the growth of the league by segments of time, that are for all intents and purposes generational, I think that is an important part of our growth process, and one that I very much see happening. That's why we have tried very hard to reach out to kids. I think the history of men's sports is very clear on this. If you can get a kid who is an Orlando Magic fan when he's eight years old and comes to a game with his dad, chances are good when he is 25 or 50 or 60, he'll still be a fan of the Magic. But I believe that that same sort of progression will happen in women's if you have a 10-year-old supporting the Miracle and becoming very emotionally attached to the players on the team to Carolyn Peck, to the mascots, I think the chances are that in ten years, she is going to be an adult fan and bring with her, her purchasing power, and maybe she will be a fan later and bring her grand-daughter to the game and so forth. We are at the very beginning edges of that process.
That will maybe take a couple of decades to unfold, but I believe it will happen, and I believe in many respects it already has begun to happen, and that's why the young fans in particular are so important to the development of a new sports league.
Q. Can you give us an update on Chicago and the speculation about who would relocate?
VAL ACKERMAN: On the question regarding Chicago, what the Chicago Bulls have done and are doing is undertaking and what we are seeing as a preliminary ticket sales drive. They have become very interested in the prospect of having a future WNBA team. And in order to try to get a better sense of the interest within their city in that team and the fan support that they might have, if they were to move forward in that process, they have begun a drive where they are out now collecting deposits on season tickets for a future team. They wanted to get going now because they have at their disposal the Chicago White Sox promotional outlets, because of the common ownership of the teams, and they want to be able to use their NBA promotional avenues, as well, when our season ends and NBA preseason begins; so that process is under doing. They have in excess of 500 deposits collected to date. They are, really, I would call it, in the beginning stages of their marketing effort, and we think this is a great thing.
I think it would be terrific to have a WNBA team in Chicago. I think it would be a great market for women's professional basketball. I would hope that the City of Chicago would embrace it in the same way that we have seen it embraced in places like New York and Houston and Washington. If all things go as we expect them to, the fans of Chicago will make their support known to the Bulls, and with that, the Bulls will begin a more aggressive process of applying, if you will, to have a WNBA expansion team in the future.
On the subject of relocation, there's nothing to say about it. One reason we didn't expand this year was because we wanted to devote all of our energies into building the WNBA in all of the cities in which we are currently operating, and we have seen great progress in many, many places. So at this point, that's really not something that's on the radar screen.
Q. Have you targeted or done any specific marketing toward the gay community?
VAL ACKERMAN: Yes, as a matter of fact we have. A number of our teams have done -- targeted marketing to the gay and lesbian community, with some good results, in good cases, and with our encouragement. It really has been part of a much broader effort that our teams have made to try to reach as large a market as they can. One of the beauties of the sport of basketball is that it reaches so many different people, and the WNBA has been very much a subset of that universality of appeal, and so our teams, really, across the league have been very aggressive in their targeted marketing efforts, and in most cases, with some pretty good results.
Q. What has been your biggest personal surprise about the league to date?
VAL ACKERMAN: My biggest personal surprise? I continue to be surprised at how passionately our fans react to the teams and to the league and to our players.
I had the privilege of being out at the Summer Jam yesterday where I was part of the launch events for our Read To Achieve Program, and to see how much our fans, how long they waited in lines to sign autographs with our players, how patiently they waited for autographs, how much excitement of Jackie Stiles, just in her first year, is creating among our fans.
I believe so strongly in the power of sports. It just is such a unique medium in our culture, to reach people, to inspire people, to bring people together. It is so uplifting to see that happening in women's sports, just like it has been happening in men's sports in this country for decades: To see the kinds of impact our players are making, especially on young kids, how the kids look up to them, how they regard them as role models, the kinds of e-mails that we get that our teams get. We have a time advisory board process that is going on and we have gotten some incredible e-mails from young girls about the impact that certain of our players have had on them how they have inspired them to go on and do great things. That notion, that aspirational dimension that we have created, particularly in kids, continues. I'm very proud of it.
It surprises me less that it's happening now and only in its continuing intensity.
Q. The Chicago situation, with a movement taking place locally, building momentum locally and then transferring up to the league and talking to league channels, do you see that as the future character of expansion or relocation efforts, from cities that want it for themselves, to approach you? And what if that were to happen in a non-NBA city?
VAL ACKERMAN: It's being done in Chicago, in a different way, than the expansion efforts happened in other cities. The reason it is being done this way is because we don't really have any intentions to expand in the near term. And so, Chicago, I guess, is basically trying to prove to us that the interest is so strong that we might want to move up our expansion plans to accommodate the tremendous interest that might exist there. It is a different process specifically for that reason. I don't think it will ultimately change how we will go about having an expansion process in the future. But it is a process like other processes where we have expanded in the past, where we will look at things like potential for fan support, whether or not other women's sports in that particular market have done well, how women's college basketball does, do they have women's high school programs there, how big the city is, what the prospects are of reaching the fans in that market, the geographic location that it creates by being in that part of the country.
All of those things, the strength of the management team that is going to support the WNBA team, all of these factors have been important when we have expanded in the past, and they will continue to be important, as well, when we make our future expansion decisions.
So these are really the same criteria that we will use to assess Chicago or any other team. I would add that it is not just Chicago. They are only the team that has taken the step in launching the sales drive. Other cities have spoken to us, for instance, San Antonio has already hired some staff to begin working with the community, and having folks out there beginning to develop relationships with grass roots organizations and women's businesses and the like. And we have a number of other cities who have not gone quite that far, but have been very active in terms of telling us on a regular basis that when we are ready to expand then, they are going to be ready for us. So the interest in other cities is -- does seem to be pretty strong, and I think that puts us in a good position going forward.
Q. Have you heard any more from the Sixers of any interest -- since the original reasons are no longer valid?
VAL ACKERMAN: I have not talked to Pat lately. I think he's been on vacation for last month or so. There really isn't an update there. The Sixers were part of a group of candidates that we looked at back in 1999 when we selected four teams to join the league for 2000. They clearly have interest in having a WNBA team in the future, and I think it would be a wonderful place.
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