July 21, 2003
There is such a thing as bad publicity
Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm, one of the fresh, marketable faces of the WNBA, has a bet with a radio DJ in her town that involves...I'll let Steve Kelley of the Seattle Times describe it:
Sue Bird has agreed to be spanked. In public. By sports talk host Mitch Levy. Bird has even agreed, if she loses a bet with the morning maven of misogyny, to cry, "Harder, Daddy, harder," during the spanking.
The bet goes like this: If Bird has better than a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio at the end of the season, Levy, a broadcaster's Bobby Riggs, will buy a Storm season ticket next year. If the ratio is lower than two-to-one the spanking will begin.
Bird believes that if she can get Levy to a Storm game, she can make him a convert.
"He symbolizes that guy the league is trying to attract," she told Seattle Times staff reporter Jayda Evans. "He's talking to that guy every morning. I believe that if I can get him in a seat to attend a game, then maybe his opinion will change and he'll talk about it on the air."
Kelley does a good job explaining why this is a really bad idea on Bird's part. I tend to get less wound up about this sort of thing than perhaps I should - when in doubt, I prefer to err on the side of "all in good fun" - but this is one of those times where we should listen to all of those naysayers. The thing is that Sue Bird loses just entering into a bet like this. Now the DJ gets to talk for the rest of the season about what he gets to do to Sue Bird if she loses. He gets to take calls from his mouhtbreathing listeners who'll egg him on and probably boost his ratings in the interim. He gets to do O'Reilleyesque selective editing and microphone cutting on any detractors who call in if he so chooses. In short, he's a media-savvy attention hound smack in the center of a potential feeding frenzy, and any way you look at it he's going to come out a winner.
In return for all this, if she wins the bet (as it appears likely she will), the guy has to buy one lousy season ticket to the Seattle Storm. Even if he actually uses that ticket for himself next year, the most likely result will be that he'll generate more material for his show. When Lisa Harrison comes to town, he can talk about how she won Playboy's Sexiest WNBA Player poll. He can speculate about which players are gay (Sue Wicks, the one openly gay player in the league, retired before the 2003 season). The one thing I'm sure he won't talk about is the quality and style of the game, the athleticism of the players, the enjoyability of the games - in other words, all of the things that Sue Bird would like for him to talk about. You can bet on that (whether spanking is involved or not is up to you).
Thanks to Women's Hoops and Eric McErlain for the tip.
UPDATE: As Eric notes, Bird has backed out of this bet. Good for her.
Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 21, 2003 to Other sports
I was following women's basketball long before it became cool to do so (I actually attended the first New York Stars WBL game at Madison Square Garden), so I do find it interesting that a player with Sue Bird's talent would even dignify herself to consider such a bet.
The WNBA is trying to promote itself to as many groups of people as possible, unfortunately with conflicting results. The New York Liberty have tried to market itself to families, however, MSG has developed a reputation as the "world's largest lesbian pickup bar" when they play. While this may or may not be true, my landlord will not take his 9 year old daughter (who is a basketball enthusiast) to a game.
Marketing to 18-35 year old men is simple: Sex sells. Marketing basketball should be easy as well: When you get tired of the street ball that the NBA has become, come see the game as it should be played in the WNBA.
Personally, I think Theresa Weatherspoon is the best point guard on a professional basketball team in New York City limits. She also defines the words "intense" and "decaf".
I think Sue Bird was guilty of naievete, and fortunately for her own reputation, she came to her senses pretty quickly.
There's no question that gays and lesbians make up a sizeable portion of the WNBA's audience. Some places, like New York and LA, are better equipped to handle this. There's a large G/L presence at Comets games, but as far as I can tell, any marketing done towards these folks is done sotto voce, an arrangement that seems to be OK with everyone, including the families-with-kids who attend (and for all I know are mostly oblivious about it). I suspect any overt "sex sells" marketing aimed at the Howard Stern demographic would upset the apple cart.
The fact that there is a large gay or lesbian audience at a WNBA game or anywhere else is irrelevant to me. I can enjoy the game regardless of who is in the stands. When I mentioned my landlord, I must point out that I live in what is probably the most conservative section of New York City (South Shore SI is majority Republican), and he is the typical "family man", so you must consider what I said with a grain of salt.
The problem that the typical 18-35 year old man has with the WNBA is that it is not the NBA. Personally, I would much rather watch the fundamentally sound, below the rim, team oriented game that the WNBA offers than the NBA any day of the week. Then again, we both grew up watching the Knicks of the glory years, so there are similarities.