The WNBA is launching a campaign to market specifically to the LGBT community, a move that makes it the first pro league to specifically recruit gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered fans to its games.
With the campaign, the WNBA is capitalizing on what it has quietly known for years: The community makes up a significant portion of its fan base. The difference now is that the league is talking about it publicly and making it a deliberate part of its marketing strategy.
The effort, which begins with the launch of a website Wednesday, includes having teams participate in local pride festivals and parades, working with advocacy groups to raise awareness of inclusion through grassroots events, and advertising with lesbian media. A nationally televised Pride game will take place between Tulsa and Chicago on Sunday, June 22.
It's taken the league 18 years to take the step, though it had discussions about the possibility previously. Teams have done some promotion locally, sponsoring booths at gay pride events and hosting groups at games.
Before launching the campaign, the league took a close look at its fan base. It commissioned a study in 2012 that found that 25 percent of lesbians watch the league's games on TV while 21 percent have attended a game.
Rick Welts, who was the executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the NBA when the WNBA first started in 1997, said that when the league began executives figured the fan base would be a carryover from the NBA.
"We guessed very wrong on that," said Welts, who is the president and COO of the Golden State Warriors and became the highest ranking executive in men's sports to publicly acknowledge he's gay in 2011. "Maybe we should have known better. I think from its outset, the WNBA attracted a fan with different interests than our profile of an NBA fan."
Brittney Griner, who is one of a handful of WNBA athletes who have publicly identified themselves as lesbian, was the No. 1 pick by the Phoenix Mercury in the draft in 2013. She plans on wearing rainbow-colored shoes during the month of June in support of the initiative.
The league's campaign comes after a wave of recent announcements from players who are identifying themselves publicly as gay. NBA player Jason Collins became the first player in men's professional basketball to come out and played with the Nets. Former Missouri player Michael Sam, who came out in print and televised interviews earlier this year, was drafted in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams. And Derrick Gordon, a UMass baskeball player, recently described his experience as a gay Division I player.
That helps make the timing for the WNBA's decision right, said Robert Boland, academic chair of the sports management program at NYU's Tisch Center.
"Sports has a natural hesitance to embrace highly controversial issues. I think we've lived through a period where sport was nonpolitical. We're in a different era now," he said.
"This is a group where there is a natural affinity and marketing affinity," he said. "It's a recognition of where the world is today. I'd be shocked if there was any backlash."
The Associated Press