NEW YORK -- Amid a surge of public opinion in favor of gay rights in the U.S., the WNBA is launching a campaign to market the league to the LGBT community, becoming the first pro sports league to specifically recruit gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender fans to its games.
With the marketing campaign, the WNBA is capitalizing on what it has 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 launch of the effort coincides with a surge of political and legal advances for the gay-rights movement in the U.S., and shifting public opinion behind many of those advances.
The campaign, which begins with the debut 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. All 12 teams will also have some sort of pride initiative over the course of the season.
"For us it's a celebration of diversity and inclusion and recognition of an audience that has been with us very passionately," WNBA President Laurel Richie said.
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.
"We embrace all our fans and it's a group that we know has been very, very supportive. I won't characterize it as 'Why did it take so long?' For me it's been we've been doing a lot of terrific initiatives. The piece that's different this year is unifying it," Richie said.
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.
"I remember sitting in a few meetings where we had really interesting thoughtful discussions of: Should we be proactive marketing to the LGBT community? What does that say if we do? We certainly didn't want to position the league of being exclusionary to anyone. What were we saying if we did it more proactively? Society and sports culture is very different today than it was back then. Teams were trying to figure out the right thing to do."
Brittney Griner, who is one of a handful of WNBA athletes who have publicly identified themselves as lesbian, was happy the league was embracing the community. Griner, who was the No. 1 pick by the Phoenix Mercury in the draft in 2013, plans on wearing rainbow-colored shoes during the month of June in support of the initiative.
"We'll pave the way and show its fine and there's nothing wrong with it. More sports need to do it. It's 2014, it's about time," said Griner, who served as grand marshal of the Phoenix Pride parade last season.
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 football 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 basketball player, recently described his experience as a gay Division I player.
It also comes amid changes in the political and legal landscape. Just this week, federal judges in Pennsylvania and Oregon struck down state bans on gay marriage, extending a series of such rulings since December. If the latest rulings stand, there will be 19 states -- with more than 43 percent of the U.S. population -- that allow same-sex marriage.
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.
"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."
Rebecca Lobo, who played in the league for six seasons and has been a broadcaster for the last decade, has seen a change from when the league began in 1997.
"It's culturally more acceptable now than it was when it first started," she said. "The league has been around for so many years they can do these sort of things without worrying about what some people might think."
It wasn't always that way.
"For a long time they were happy to have those lesbians fill those seats in the stands, but not willing for a long time to embrace the fan base," said Pat Griffin, professor emeritus in the social justice education program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "I attribute that to the homophobia, fear that somehow acknowledging the fan base would encourage other fans not to go to games. What they've learned is that the fan doesn't keep other people from going to games."
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