BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Although it has been one of the worst kept secrets in professional sports, the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) is finally coming out of the closet with a series of monster slam-dunk marketing projects aimed at the LGBT community. The league recently announced that each of its teams would be turning its marketing efforts towards the LGBT community, becoming the first pro sports league to specifically recruit gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender fans to its games. At some point in the season, each team will stage an event acknowledging and honoring the LGBT community.
According to the Associated Press, "The launch of the effort coincides with a surge of political and legal advances for the gay-rights movement in the U.S., and shifting public opinion behind many of those advances."
As LGBT issues have gained wider support both politically and legally, the sports world has been part of the changing landscape. AP pointed out that "NBA player Jason Collins became the first player in men's professional basketball to come out and played with the Nets. Former Missouri football player Michael Sam, who came out in print and televised interviews earlier this year, was drafted in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams. And Derrick Gordon, a UMass basketball player, recently described his experience as a gay Division I player."
The WNBA campaign "includes having teams participate in local pride festivals and parades, working with advocacy groups to raise awareness of inclusion through grassroots events and advertising with lesbian media. A nationally televised pride game will take place between Tulsa and Chicago on Sunday, June 22. All 12 teams will also have some sort of pride initiative over the course of the season."
"For us it's a celebration of diversity and inclusion and recognition of an audience that has been with us very passionately," WNBA President Laurel Richie said. "We embrace all our fans and it's a group that we know has been very, very supportive. I won't characterize it as 'Why did it take so long?' For me it's been we've been doing a lot of terrific initiatives. The piece that's different this year is unifying it," Richie said.
As might be expected, some on the Christian Right did not greet the news enthusiastically. Longtime anti-gay activist Peter LaBarbera of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality told the American Family Association's OneNewsNow that while the WNBA was free to market to whomever it pleases, "it's quite another thing for the WNBA to actually, consciously affirm homosexuality in its marketing – and, as so many other companies have done now, basically pander to the homosexual activist movement. It's like selling your soul to a sin movement."
LaBarbera added: "Corporations these days pander to the homosexual movement much more so than they do to people of faith. But I think that the sad thing here is there are a lot of Christian women who like the WNBA. They play basketball, they want to go to games, but now [if they continue to do that] they will be effectively subsidizing an organization which is rewarding sin."
In a WNBA-sponsored study in 2012, the league "found that 25 percent of lesbians watch the league's games on TV while 21 percent have attended a game," AP reported.
Over the years, a few WNBA players have come out during their careers, but most waited until their playing days were over. More recently, however, Brittney Griner, one of the league's marquee stars, publicly announced they she is a lesbian. Griner, who was the No. 1 pick by the Phoenix Mercury in the draft in 2013, plans on wearing rainbow-colored shoes during the month of June in support of the initiative.
"We'll pave the way and show its fine and there's nothing wrong with it. More sports need to do it. It's 2014, it's about time," said Griner, who served as grand marshal of the Phoenix Pride parade last season.
Former WNBA star and current broadcaster Rebecca Lobo, noted that there is "a natural affinity" with the lesbian community. "The league has been around for so many years [since 1997] they can do these sort of things without worrying about what some people might think," Lobo told Associated Press.
According to a WNBA Press Release, the league "will continue to work with a number of leading LGBT community-based organizations, including GLSEN, GLAAD, and Athlete Ally to raise awareness of inclusion through grassroots events, public service campaigns and other local activities. "GLSEN and our chapters are proud to continue our partnership with the WNBA during LGBT Pride Month," said GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard. "The WNBA is a sports leader in creating diverse and inclusive environments for all players and fans, and the league's commitment to supporting the LGBT community is sending a powerful message of respect to youth across the country."
"For a long time they were happy to have those lesbians fill those seats in the stands, but not willing for a long time to embrace the fan base," said Pat Griffin, professor emeritus in the social justice education program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "I attribute that to the homophobia, fear that somehow acknowledging the fan base would encourage other fans not to go to games. What they've learned is that the fan doesn't keep other people from going to games."