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How the WNBA’s Changemaker sponsorship programme is delivering for women’s basketball

SportsPro breaks down the WNBA’s partnership strategy and looks at how the likes of Nike and Google are playing an active role in driving the development of the competition.

19 May 2023 Sam Carp

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In 2020, the WNBA made a bold move by reimagining its sponsorship strategy and launching the Changemakers programme.

The goal, it said, was to find commercial partners who weren’t interested in a straightforward branding exercise, but who also wanted to leverage the relationship to ‘significantly enhance the player experience’ and ‘drive the business transformation’ of the organisation. 

Even for a league as renowned as The W, there was no guarantee it would work. Brands were still trickling rather than racing into women’s sports and the launch of the platform came just months before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced some sponsors to tighten their marketing budgets. Plus, brands weren’t being asked only to invest their money, but also their time and resources.

Three years on, as the WNBA prepares for the start of its 27th season on Friday, it would be fair to say that Changemakers has been a success. Six major brands are now signed up to the programme and accelerating the development of a competition that is entering an important moment in its history.

Here’s a quick breakdown of how…

Deloitte’s fingerprints are all over the new WNBA app

Deloitte was one of the inaugural Changemakers, which was perhaps no surprise given that WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert was once the professional services firm’s chief executive.

But Deloitte has been far from a passive bystander. It has spent much of the offseason working with the WNBA to overhaul its mobile app and website, which from this season will be kitted out with a new look and customised features, while also giving fans the ability to watch games, enjoy social-style vertical video and access influencer content.

The development of the WNBA’s digital properties has long been a source of frustration for fans and the league has only started building out a dedicated digital and content team over the past 18 months. So Deloitte will earn some goodwill if its part in the revamp results in a better experience for users and growth of the WNBA’s following.  

Google searches for greater visibility

It’s well known that coverage of men’s sports is easier to stumble across than women’s competitions, but Google has been working to address that since joining forces with the WNBA in 2021.

Whether it be via its search engine or on YouTube, Google’s partnership with the league is designed to enhance the discoverability of the competition, making it easier for fans to check scores, standings and player stats.

Nike has hedged its bets on the growth of The W

Not satisfied with only being the apparel provider of the WNBA, Nike participated in a US$75 million investment in the league in 2022, giving it a vested interest in the long-term growth of the competition.

There are also several links between the two organisations. Phil Cook, the WNBA’s chief marketing officer, spent nearly 25 years at Nike, which previously ran a two-year programme to provide work experience for retired female basketball players.

That has helped to influence the design of the WNBA’s jerseys, the most recent of which include either overt or more subtle messaging that pays tribute to some of the key traits associated with The W, such as equality and social justice.

Nike has also played an active role in several grassroots initiatives geared towards getting more young girls into basketball, including the ‘It’s Her Shot’ tour.

US Bank is helping players manage their money

The gender pay gap continues to be a contentious issue in basketball, but while that slowly narrows US Bank is helping WNBA players manage the money they are earning now. 

A key focus of the Changemakers partnership announced last year was the creation of a league-wide financial wellness programme that would give players access to advisors and other resources to help plan their financial futures.

Since then, US Bank and the WNBA have teamed up with the Project Destined social impact platform to provide mentoring and financial education to women of colour from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

AT&T ensures players and fans stay connected 

Another founding member of the Changemakers programme, AT&T sponsors the WNBA’s All-Star Game but has also used its technological expertise to provide a better experience for fans.

Last year, it released the latest iteration of its 5G Game View, giving users of the WNBA app the opportunity to access more real-time data and customised stats during live games through augmented reality. 

Plus, WNBA stars feature regularly in AT&T commercials, with A’ja Wilson and Sabrina Ionescu both involved in its recent March Madness campaign. The company’s #ShesConnected initiative has also provided women’s basketball players with storytelling, corporate mentorship and personal brand building opportunities.

CarMax jumps on the bandwagon in time for the new season

The WNBA announced existing sponsor CarMax as the latest addition to its top-tier sponsorship programme earlier this week. The used car retailer has already run commercials in the past starring the likes of Candace Parker and Sue Bird, but the new relationship aims to turn more WNBA athletes into household names.

CarMax plans to host annual player media sessions, where the company and the league will help WNBA athletes understand how they can use their platforms to build their personal brand, while it will also run a content series focusing on untold stories of some of the players.

It is also putting its name to – or, in other words, paying for – a new initiative that will give fans free access to the WNBA League Pass streaming service for the first ten days of the season, a move which should further boost the visibility of the competition as it gets underway this weekend.

Why Coca-Cola thinks AI > Web3

With the advent of Web3 and the wider adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies in recent years, marketers would be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed with choice.

So brands might be interested to hear that Coca-Cola is prioritising AI for now, with the soft drinks giant saying in its most recent quarterly report that it is looking to leverage the technology to improve customer service and ordering as well as point-of-sale material creation.

The company has already collaborated with OpenAI and Bain & Company to launch the ‘Create Real Magic’ platform, which allowed consumers to generate original artwork with creative assets from the Coca-Cola archives.

Speaking to VentureBeat, Pratik Thakar, the brand’s global head of strategy, explained why Coca-Cola believes AI is currently better placed to enhance its marketing capabilities than Web3.

“I think AI is a more approachable technology,” he said. “I can collect NFTs if I’m a big fan, but then I don’t use it every day. [Generative AI] is available to you – you use it, you can turn that into your profession, your marketing efficiency machine, you can create and it’s happening now. 

“So I feel the utility value of this technology is much higher.”

Top dealers

Fifa has been making headlines recently for the broadcast deals it hasn’t been signing, but it has at least been making some progress on the sponsorship front.

Last week saw Unilever’s personal care brands become official sponsors of the 2023 Women’s World Cup in a deal that also covers Fifa’s men’s and esports properties. Then, on Tuesday, the global governing body announced a renewal of its longstanding partnership with McDonald’s until 2026, with the fast food giant joining the tier below the top Fifa Partner category under the organisation’s new commercial structure.

Those deals come around a month after another 2023 Women’s World Cup contract signed with network infrastructure provider Cisco.   

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