When it comes to nailing down sponsorships, the WNBA has long been ahead of the curve.
Nearly 10 years before the NBA started allowing teams to sell sponsorships for their jerseys, the Phoenix Mercury were already sporting LifeLock patches on their uniforms and now feature logos for Casino Arizona and Talking Stick Resort, as well as league sponsors Verizon and Nike. Since then, the rest of the league has jumped aboard, and the franchises have continued to involve their partners by displaying more logos on their jerseys and throughout arenas.
Now, 10 of the 12 WNBA teams’ uniforms include the logo of their marquee sponsor.
“You almost see that we’re the guinea pigs at times,” said Cay Young, director of corporate partnerships for the Los Angeles Sparks, who started with the Farmers Insurance logo on their jerseys in 2009 and have since transitioned to the life insurance company EquiTrust. “We’ve had the prominent logo placement on jerseys for around a decade, and it’s been a great asset for us in getting exposure for companies.”
Much of the WNBA’s innovative sponsorship approach is driven by pure necessity. In a league where TV deals, ticket sales, and merchandising may not bring in the same revenue that other professional leagues enjoy, sponsors open new revenue streams for the WNBA. According to Lyn Agnello, vice president of corporate partnerships for the Connecticut Sun, the team depends on sponsorships for about 40 percent of its revenue.
The key to success in the sponsorship realm is to have something that sets the team apart, according to Young and Agnello.
“Like anything to do with sales, companies are bombarded daily with sales inquiries from many sources of sales folks wanting to sell advertising and partnership opportunities,” Agnello said. “So, [from] sending something from the team to get their attention, to having a player call the CEO, we try to separate our approach.”
“The Lakers are a high-investment value, and not everyone can afford that,” Young added. “We pride ourselves on being affordable for fans and small business owners. A lot of companies need to get their foot in the door, and then they stick with us.”
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Carlissa Henry, senior vice president of marketing partnerships for the Mercury, emphasized the importance of teaching potential sponsors about what the WNBA can offer them.
“We educate our partners that we’re a thriving league with a different demographic,” said Henry, who is also in charge of sponsorships for the Suns and their G League affiliate. “We’re family friendly, and there is strong loyalty among our fans who support the brands that sponsor the team.”
When searching for sponsors, the teams take into consideration how a company may fit with their core values. Young discussed the Sparks’ partnership with their marquee partner, EquiTrust.
“[EquiTrust is] a company with a lot of women executives,” she said. “They really believe in what we’re doing, they believe in the product… It is culturally relevant right now to get behind a variety of cases that stem from women and LGBTQ.”
“We want the company to have some association within Arizona so there’s that commitment in terms of employees and consumers,” Henry added. “We’d like them to share the same values — forward-thinking, integrity, respect, accountable for the goals of the organization.”
Once the teams lock down sponsors, they turn their focus toward planning various programs and events. Together, the Sparks and EquiTrust offer a financial literacy program called Driven2Hoop, which educates underprivileged youth in Los Angeles on weekly budgeting, debt management, credit responsibility and other financial tools.
“We see a lot of companies that use us for exposure but also for the impact and meaning,” Young said. “We are the communities we serve, so we offer community-enriched sponsorship packages.”
The Sparks also come together with their sponsors to offer game day initiatives with themes like Pride, mental health, military service and breast health awareness. They even partner with Nike to present Sneakerhead Night, which taps into Los Angeles’s vibrant sneaker community.
“We work with the presenting sponsor so they’re braided into every part of the evening, so when you walk in, you see them right away,” Young said. “I think the great thing is, as partnerships grow, it allows us to do out-of-the-box activations.”
Executing a sponsorship activation is a comprehensive effort that requires cooperation from the entire team, according to Henry. Staff members from departments like community relations, public relations, and game operations are all involved to help it run smoothly.
“There is lots of collaboration, and we’re really fortunate to work with every single other vertical from a company standpoint,” Henry said.
Despite all that goes into the job, Young concluded that forming strong relationships with sponsors comes down to generating excitement and creating a connection between the team and the company.
“We look to tell our story through [the sponsor’s] current consumers and employees,” she said. “And my job is to take our fans’ passion for the Sparks and WNBA and direct that passion to the brand.”