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As women's sports emerge and expand, cable TV is playing a big role in the development of professional league sports starring women.

Advertisers are discovering unique roles to play within women's sports, a small -- but fast-growing -- niche in the universe of TV sports relying heavily on cable for its TV coverage.

So far the WNBA -- launched last year with backing from the NBA -- has grabbed the majority of the spotlight for women's team sports on TV. Now in its second season, the league continues to garner respectable ratings and new sponsors.


Among 15 advertisers that have committed to three-year sponsorship deals with the WNBA are Nike, American Express Co., Coca-Cola Co., Kellogg Co., Sears, Roebuck & Co., General Motors Corp. and Lee Jeans. The sponsorships range from a reported $1.5 million to $5 million, and often include integrated marketing tie-ins and promotions extending beyond the small screen.

WNBA divides its airtime among two cable networks -- Lifetime: Television for Women and ESPN -- and NBC.

Both ESPN and Lifetime plan to beef up overall coverage of women's sports this year, while another new women's basketball league, the American Basketball League just concluded its second season with games airing exclusively on cable TV.


The WNBA also rings in its second season this year with a vote of confidence from none other than Barbie. Mattel launched the WNBA-outfitted doll and assorted friends earlier this year, expected to hit stores in October.

"There's been a healthy, lively interest in [the WNBA]. They've had a very good inaugural year, an enviable one . . . and they're very well positioned for next season," says Brian Murphy, editor and publisher of the Sports Marketing Letter. He adds the WNBA significantly exceeded the expectations the NBA had for it in terms of game attendance, public awareness and sponsor involvement.

Women's sports began to enjoy a burst of interest last year, as more marketers began to recognize women as participants and spectators of sports.


The recent launch of two women's sports magazines -- Conde Nast Sports for Women and Sports Illustrated's Women/Sport -- also show advertiser interest in targeting active, young, often upscale women.

As a result, sports insiders predict continued steady growth in women's sports, led by basketball and followed perhaps by volleyball, soccer and even hockey, in the years ahead. Cable TV is predicted to be crucial to each category's growth.


For the three networks sharing coverage of the WNBA, its investment has been worthwhile so far. Ratings for the 1997 June-August season averaged 2.0 on NBC, 0.9 on ESPN and 0.5 on Lifetime. The NBC audience was divided fairly evenly among men and women, while Lifetime attracted about 60% women, and ESPN about 60% men. (The audience for an NBA game is generally 70% men.)

Observers agree the timing was particularly good for the WNBA launch in the winter of 1997, on the heels of the gold medal victory of the women's U.S. Olympic team in Atlanta in 1996, as well as a series of captivating women's NCAA tournaments.

WNBA's success is also helped by the fact that women's basketball seems to add a new dimension to the sport that viewers find refreshing: what audiences saw in Atlanta was refreshingly different from the men's Dream Team because of "the love of the game the women brought to it," as well as their higher reliance on "skill and cunning," Mr. Murphy says.

Women's basketball is also winning "a great deal of respect from male audiences," he says, and fostered an appreciation from advertisers for the spectator interest in women's basketball.


Potent marketing help from the NBA has also been instrumental to the WNBA's success in getting sponsors, plus an innovative plan of selling advertising in a revenue-sharing agreement among the WNBA's three partnering networks.

"Since it was a new league and a new entity, we decided that the best way to market it was to take all the different components that made it attractive and put them together, rather than selling them piecemeal," says Gary Stevenson, a consultant for NBA Properties. The selling strategy includes an integrated marketing package giving sponsors inventory on three networks (ESPN, Lifetime and NBC), as well as presence in USA Today, Glamour and Self, and exclusive in-arena presence. Sponsors also got national and local promotional rights with the league, and the rights to use a group of players in promotional activities. According to the NBA's Mr. Stevenson, the strategy was geared to provide the sponsor with "an ambush-proof property."


Brian Donlon, vp-sports for Lifetime, says the association with the WNBA was a marketing coup for the network. "When you have a partner like [the NBA] out there pushing your brand in association with theirs, it helps solidify the identity of the network, especially with younger viewers."

He sees this upcoming season as a more serious challenge for Lifetime, since last year the league was a novelty.


Mr. Donlon says since Lifetime is bringing a new audience of women to the sport, "It is incumbent on us to present basketball games in a way that is different." He says the network strives "to create a bond between the viewer and the players."

Broadcasts present the storylines of individual players, along with personal interviews and features like "Girl Talk," in which girls ask the players questions.

New features are now in the works, such as one called "Coaches Corner," as well as a half-time spot inside the locker rooms, designed to give the programs a behind-the-scenes flavor.

The growing celebrity status of several WNBA stars is also helping push the sport's awareness with general audiences. Sheryl Swoopes has appeared in TV spots for Discover Card and Nike, and will soon act as a spokesperson for Kellogg Co.; Rebecca Lobo has appeared in ads for Reebok, and MVP Cynthia Cooper recently finished shooting a spot for Bud Light. Nikki McCray has also been selected as a spokeswoman for Fila in upcoming ads.


Nova Lanktree, president of Lanktree Sports Celebrities Network, says that a "new recognizability" of female players is helping them to emerge as viable ad spokeswomen, and to broaden the exposure of the league. She notes that much of the "bad news" that's been linked to men's sports heightens the attractiveness of the women's league, which provides "a good, old-fashioned value system."

Kenna Bridges, manager-product publicity for WNBA sponsor Kellogg, says the cereal marketer joined as a partner because "the strong family and all-American appeal" of the WNBA, as well as its "tremendously diverse consumer audience."

John Labbad, director of event marketing and sales promotion for WNBA sponsor Sears, Roebuck & Co., says that his company's association with the WNBA "supports a changing Sears positioning," enhancing a compelling image for the department store chain.

Sears runs four commercials per game, rotating its ads to suit each TV network's unique viewership. For instance, women's apparel ads with the "softer side of Sears" theme go to Lifetime; the Die Hard brand gets flagged on ESPN.

Sears is also leveraging its women's basketball connection in its role as presenting sponsor of WNBA's Be Active program, a touring fitness initiative directed towards young people in 18 cities.

Mr. Stevenson says that while most spots are filled for the upcoming season, WNBA is currently in negotiations with a health and beauty advertiser, which would be a breakthrough category for the league.

Meanwhile, WNBA is pushing its new "Join In" campaign to hype its sophomore season -- which brings two more teams into the league, bumping the total to 10.


The other women's professional basketball team, the American Basketball League, just finished up its second October-February run, with games running entirely on cable TV.

The ABL has broadcast deals with BET, which just upped its commitment from 8 to 12 games, and Fox Sports Net, which broadcast 20 games on its six regional networks last year. ABL co-founder and CEO Gary Cavalli says the league is currently in negotiations with Fox Sports Net for an increased program next year.

Jeffrey Mahl, senior VP-advertising sales for ESPN, says that each year brings increased ratings and advertiser support for women's sports, and the network is pleased with the ratings of WNBA.

ESPN has also recently signed new deals for women's volleyball and World Cup soccer, and Mr. Mahl says the addition of more women's sports, he says, will depend on viewer and advertiser interest.


Mike Trager, director of sports marketing agency Marquee Group, New York, says, "The issue for the WNBA and for women's sports is being able to sustain it." He advises, "The more, the better in terms of exposure. It makes people want to come out and see it."

He adds that viewership on the part of women is key to its success. Since such participation and interest is increasing with each generation, he says, "I don't see a phenomenal explosion -- I see firm, steady growth."

Mr. Donlon notes "We're in the midst of nurturing a movement. It has the chance to get to those levels [of men's sports] only if we nurture it instead of going for the quick buck."

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