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Why WNBA Stars Struggle to Build Personal Brands

While athletes like Serena Williams and Lindsay Vonn have achieved fame and fortune, female basketball players haven't had the same luck.

When Skylar Diggins, a 24-year-old WNBA Guard for Oklahoma's Tulsa Shock, graduated from Notre Dame, sports agents discouraged her from becoming a professional basketball player. Only a few WNBA stars were able to make real money and gain visibility, and Diggins was told the path for female basketball players was a dead end.

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Now two years into her professional career, Diggins has been profiled by Vogue, Essence, and the New York Times Style section. She appeared on the April cover of Avon's beauty magalog Mark, scored a spot in this year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and landed endorsements from Nike and Sprint. She sat front row during February's New York Fashion Week and kissed Drake on live television after he practically begged her to at last month's ESPY Awards—and this was all after becoming the first female athlete to sign with Jay-Z's Roc Nation, which represents celebrities like Rihanna and Rita Ora.

While WNBA players face a host of difficulties—sexist stereotypes, lopsided salaries in comparison to their male counterparts, a tiny fan base—sports analysts believe Diggins is paving the way for a new generation of players by creating an incredibly marketable image in a way very few WNBA stars have.

"I'm happy to be part of a positive movement," Diggins told Racked. "One thousand percent, I believe everyone should succeed in every way they desire. I think we need to continue to get out into the community."

The WNBA's Image Problem

The question has become this: Why do WNBA players have such a hard time marketing themselves off the court? While female athletes like Serena Williams, Lindsay Vonn and Gabby Douglas have built personal brands that earn them fame and fortune, basketball players haven't had the same luck.

Skylar Diggins with Drake at this year's ESPY Awards. Photo: Getty Images.

Though Nike has hired players, including Diggins, to model for them, companies like Under Armour and Lululemon have shied away from having WNBA stars represent them. The underuse of these athletes by fashion fitness brands is frustrating to many, including Heather Zeller, who runs the blog A Glam Slam—especially during a time when fashion and sports have seen such overlap. She believes the team aspect hurts WNBA players' chances of scoring endorsements.

"Athletes that participate in team sports don't get the same visibility that women of tennis or gymnastics do," Zeller said. "Those athletes, who have lucrative endorsements in industries like fashion and beauty, have more visibility because they have an easier time being seen as individuals."

Not to mention, the WNBA's image is not one that's easily embraced, noted WNBA stylist Rachel Johnson. The sport is seen as aggressive and masculine, which makes the players themselves less desirable when it comes to attracting image-conscious brands.

"From a sports perspective, these women holler, scream, sweat, and aren't posing when they play, so they aren't going to look their best."

"From a sports perspective, these women holler, scream, sweat and aren't posing when they play, so they aren't going to look their best," said Johnson, who is hired by the WNBA to help players with styling and makeup lessons. "It's not easy to be a woman in that place."

Society still rewards athletes that fit with traditional standards of feminine beauty, added ESPN columnist Kate Fagan. This is why many basketball players who don't fit into that mold have trouble breaking landing deals.

"Sports marketing is very risk-averse. They know that sex sells, and if they can find a sexy female model to cash in on, that's who they are going to use," Fagan said. "There is research showing that authenticity resonates with consumers more than sex appeal, but that isn't a decision that's reached companies yet. It's challenging to break that stereotype."

The Numbers Game

When talking about the lack of interest brands have in WNBA players, many point to the league's weak fan base. The WNBA was founded in 1996, 50 years after the massively popular NBA. Dubbed "the quietest professional sports league in the United States," the WNBA's average attendance last year hovered somewhere around 7,500 per each of their 34 regular-season games; the NBA saw an average of about 17,000 fans at each of their 82 games, not to mention the millions watching on TV.

"It doesn't seem like our fanbase has changed significantly enough," said Debbie Antonelli, an on-air basketball analyst for networks like CBS and ESPN. "We don't have the following—I wish we did. If you look at Twitter, we're last in numbers and conversations. Maybe the physicality of the sport is what's turning people off, which is why you've seen a lot of cleaning up in the game, calling fouls, taking out some of the aggression."

Nate Parham, who runs Swish Appeal, SB Nation's WNBA site (which, like Racked, is owned by Vox Media), believes WNBA players are overshadowed by their male counterparts and the fact that basketball is played differently by women halts people's interest.

Photo: Getty Images

"The fundamental thing you have to remember is that the WNBA started way after men's basketball was established. Women's basketball is below the rim, and it takes a certain type of fan to want to watch that," Parham said. "The Michael Jordans of the league defined the way the sport was played, and only a few female players even dunk during games. Then you add in sexist issues, like people struggling to consume women in powerful positions and the notion that female basketball players can't be beautiful."

Then there's the money: The average earnings of a WNBA player is estimated at $72,000 and their maximum salary is capped at $107,000. Meanwhile, NBA players like Kobe Bryant made more than $30 million last season alone; BuzzFeed even compiled a list of 52 NBA players who make more money than the entire WNBA roster combined. Fagan explained that the WNBA isn't in a financial place to match those salaries or even offer players more. Between their smaller fan base, cheaper ticket prices, and fewer sponsors, the league grosses way less than the NBA and couldn't fiscally compete if it tried.

Where Are the Players?

Another fundamental reason why WNBA players struggle for visibility is because they simply aren't around enough. Their season is four months long and a majority of the players spend the rest of the year on teams overseas. While Swish Appeal's Parham noted the players might get noticed if they stuck around longer, he also said the players can't be blamed, especially when you look at the opportunities abroad. Candace Parker, a forward/center for the Los Angeles Sparks, for example, pulls in a salary of $105,000 with the WNBA; playing for Russia's UMMC Ekaterinburg earns her $1.2 million.

"Building my brand is a natural extension."

"Going overseas pulls them out of sight in the US market, but the opportunity is huge: Why would they stay here if they can make four times their salary?" Parham said. "Yes, they want to promote themselves, but they also want to make money and live life. You can't knock a player for that."

Some WNBA players, like Skylar Diggins, opt to stay behind though, and it's believed this is one of the reasons she's has made her way into the spotlight. She told us that training was her number one priority, but the time she spends in the States certainly helps her marketability.

"When planning my schedule, training and practice always come first. I work on my range, speed and shooting with both the left and right," she said. "Building my brand is a natural extension."

So, would ceasing to play overseas help WNBA players gain access to endorsement opportunities? ESPN's Fagan said the amount of money they'd receive from various deals wouldn't even touch the pot of gold they could make playing abroad.

Photo: Getty Images

"There really isn't opportunity for them to stay here," she explained. "If you look at the money they make from endorsements, it's so minimal. Yes, Nike might sign them but all they'll get is free gear and maybe $5,000. It's not like the majority of their endorsement deals or appearances could even cover the few hundred thousand they make overseas."

Poor media relations don't help the league either. Fagan added that the press is rarely pitched features and scoops on the WNBA. Plenty of players have interesting stories to tell, she said, but reporters don't necessarily do the leg work and need the league's press department to clue them in. More media coverage means more visibility and, yes, more brand interest.

How the WNBA Is Stepping Up

WNBA President Laurel Richie believes getting players more face time will help the league's reputation and overall fan numbers. Richie, who joined the WNBA after serving as Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Girl Scouts of the USA, told Racked this has been one of her goals since taking up her post in 2011.

"We know that the players are central to our growth and success," she said. "First and foremost, we're a sports and entertainment vehicle, so that's our primary focus. But we know that, to a degree, our fans need to get to know players off the court."

"If you look at the money they make from endorsements, it's so minimal."

Richie said the WNBA works with companies like Nike, American Express and Pepsi to broker player partnerships and hopes more brands will approach the league. In the meantime, the league has taken other steps to help its players gain visibility. In 2012, the WNBA signed a contract with ESPN to have their games shown in primetime and televise their draft; last year the league was completely rebranded with a new logo and website.

Acknowledging the WNBA's small fan base, Richie said the league is constantly looking to claim new fans: "We have very specific targeted initiatives to attract fans, whether its dads and daughters, reaching out to military personal, or hosting events for schools and camps."

Back in May, the WNBA also launched a LGBT Pride campaign, becoming the first sports league to do so. While the WNBA has many players who are openly gay—like Brittney Griner, who's received significant media attention for speaking out about being a lesbian in the sport—experts say the league previously tip-toed around the fact that the LGBT community is a large part of their fan demographic.

Brittney Griner has gained visibility for speaking out about being a gay athlete. Photo: Getty Images

But can embracing the WNBA's current audience and continuing to build on it lead to players' acceptance by the fashion and beauty worlds? "I don't know what the time frame is, but there's a shift in our culture now towards more authenticity," Fagan said. "There are definitely women who resonate now that have substance. It seems like society will be willing to talk more about how we view women in sports and in the entertainment world and whether it should shift."

It helps that the LGBT community has never had such a strong representation in sports, between the WNBA's historic campaign and players like the NBA's Jason Collins and the NFL's Michael Sam coming out publicly. Lindsay Kagawa Colas, a WNBA agent for Wasserman Media Group who reps players like Griner, said she believes these changes will pave the way for more WNBA attention.

"For somebody like Brittney Griner, the fashion world is full of potential. It's a community that celebrates androgyny and where tomboy style has been thriving for years," she said. "You see the aesthetic appearing more and more in popular culture. Ultimately, we'd love to see Brittney work more in the high-fashion space. Things like same-sex marriage and celebrating female athletes for performance over just sex appeal are becoming increasingly relevant, and that will equate to more opportunity for a broader range of female athletes—including those in the WNBA."


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