Golden State Warriors president and COO Rick Welts has had a long and accomplished career as a professional basketball executive. He has served as the president of NBA Properties, where he played a critical role in the launch and early operation of the WNBA. He was also the president and COO of the Phoenix Suns, where his duties included oversight of the team's business operations.
In our first edition of Man Up, we talk candidly with one of professional sports' most respected marketers about the future of women's pro leagues, how women's sports are marketed and why the differences between the men's and women's games should be appreciated, not scrutinized.
Question from Val Ackerman: You've had the unique experience of serving on the front lines of both the NBA and WNBA at both the league and team levels. If women's sports are to succeed as viable businesses, what's going to make that happen? What are the strong points that should go into the sales pitches as women's sports look to attract sponsors and fans?
Answer from Rick Welts: I think there are some real advantages over men's team sports, and I think they start with the personal stories of the athletes themselves. If we successfully tell those stories, it's hard not to be drawn to the sport. This is not the path an NFL, Major League Baseball or NHL or NBA player takes. I mean, these are stories of women who have really had to take a different path and [show] a different level of commitment to get to where they are today.I think that is one of our continuing challenges, to tell those stories, to make people relate to the players themselves as people. ... I think the level of interaction WNBA players have with their fans is second to none in sports, and part of the reason the WNBA exists today. There really is no fan of the game out there who doesn't feel connected to these athletes and what they're trying to achieve, and their personal stories. You know, there are challenges, as well.
Q: Talk about them.
A: In many cases, the gatekeepers are male. They're evaluating [a women's sports property] the same way they're evaluating other -- I'm talking now at sponsorship level -- other opportunities in sports. Trying not to be viewed as a lesser enterprise was something we fought [in Phoenix with the Mercury], especially as a second team in the market paired with an NBA team. We have to establish an identity for the WNBA that stands on its own.
Q: When the WNBA launched, the NBA and its broadcast partners put tremendous media weight behind the league's promotional campaign. You had to almost be living in a cave not to have heard the WNBA was coming. Today, the sports landscape is more competitive than ever. How does any women's league now break through that clutter, particularly when they typically have small advertising budgets to work with? What innovative strategies could these properties use to let people know they're there?
A: I think that's the $1 million question. Because, you're right; as fragmented as the sports marketplace was when the WNBA was launched, it's [worse by] a multiple today. That's the bad news. The good news is, with social media, there are much more efficient and less expensive ways to spread that message than there are through network television advertising. I can't imagine a league ever being able to replicate [the WNBA's launch advertising campaign] going forward, just because of the media world we live in today. But that doesn't mean you can't efficiently and effectively get your message out. But [that message] is much more going to be through social and digital media today.
Q: What would you say are the principal differences between marketing a women's sport versus a men's sport?
A: [When the WNBA launched] we had this notion that we had all these people who were basketball fans and, given an opportunity to extend that interest to the women's professional game, that would automatically translate. Initially, we did get a lot of sampling from fans of the NBA who showed up to see what the WNBA was all about. [But] we discovered that what attracts people to the NBA isn't necessarily the same as what attracts people to the WNBA.
Some aspects are the same: great personal stories, dramatic competition. But [the WNBA] was a different game, and those who found themselves attracted to the WNBA had a real appreciation of the fundamentals of the sport and the way the women were executing as well as -- and, in many cases, better -- than the men were.
Q: Let's talk about the branding of women's sports. Assuming the goal is to win over fans, where do you think the focus should be? Is it about statistics or stories? And where do looks fit into the equation?
A: I don't know we have a definitive, proven viewpoint that we can implement when we're trying to answer those questions. I still believe it's about the perceived quality of play; it's about compelling entertainment; it's about the competition, first and foremost, and has to be, to establish the credibility of the game and the long-term viability of it. ... Just as in any entertainment venture, there will be athletes who, because of their appearance, choose to market themselves in a particular way, and I think we should encourage that. That happens in men's team sports, [and] it should happen in women's team sports, too.
Q: Is the sexual orientation of female athletes a marketing issue?
A: I think we're at a point in our societal evolution where the issue of sexual orientation isn't one. You know, my viewpoint might be a little different than some, but I think we're way past that. [Editor's note: Welts told The New York Times he was gay in a May 2011 report.] I'm not saying there are not fans or sponsors that would take issue, but I don't think that is a crutch to fall back on, to say, "Hey, this is really an issue that is preventing us from being successful." Because I don't think it is. We can't deny the issue occasionally is there, but it's not the reason people are interested or not interested in our sport. I think we aren't giving fans enough credit if we think that's some sort of overriding question that is on their minds. And, you know, we're going to benefit from that as time goes on, and as our society evolves into one where that's less and less of an issue.
Q: Let's shift gears. Obviously, women are a big part of the fan bases for men's sports leagues. Are you doing anything specific with the Warriors in terms of marketing to the female demographic? Or does the female fan interest there just happen?
A: We don't have a separate strategy for it. We do it indirectly, but not specifically to women, when we're focusing on everything from the atmosphere of attending a game, to the quality of the food, to the family-friendly kind of attitude we want our employees and facility to exude when somebody comes to our game. ... So it's not a separate strategy; it's an inclusive strategy that probably is overarching to the Warriors. But I don't think we or any professional sports team could ignore half the potential market and still be successful.
Q: Can you talk about the growth in the number of women working in the sports business, not only at entry and mid-manager levels, but also at more senior levels? What sort of factors do you think are necessary for women to ascend to sports leadership positions? Do you think that base will continue to grow?
A: I'm really bullish on that front. We have a completely new management team here at the Warriors. Three of the senior executives holding senior positions in our organization are women. There are more women who are interested in being involved in sports as a business and as a career, and [as a result] we're drawing from a bigger and more talented pool as every year goes by. ... It is just a great time for women who are interested in the business of sports to be looking to get involved, because I think the opportunities are greater now than they've ever been.
Q: What is your advice for women who are looking to move up and assume leadership roles in the sports business? What skills do you think are most important for success?
A: Everyone I know, male or female, who has had real success in this industry [has had] a core love of the game or the particular sport [they're] involved with. For the number of hours you have to invest to be successful in this industry -- the amount of time away from family, the weekends and nights you're required to invest -- you need to love the game at your core.
Q: If women's sports properties are going to be successful, they need to have viable operating models. What makes for strong pillars there?
A: I think it starts with ownership. In my stump speech, I talk about the three most important factors in the success of any sports franchise, and that's ownership, ownership and ownership. This isn't a sidelight to another business. This has to be a passion and focal point that starts with ownership. And then there has to be a commitment that you're willing to try to build something [for the long term]. To be successful, there has to be a business future to a league. The WNBA has proven that you have to be in this for the long run. You have to be well-funded, you have to be well-supported and you have to have ownership that's willing to grow, and to know that it is not going to happen overnight.
There is a different vibe in a women's league than a men's league. There's much more of a "we're all in this together" [mindset] with the athletes, the coaches, the ownership, the business organizations, the fans. There's a collective will to succeed that will eventually prove to be the difference, because it's really easy to turn your back on something that doesn't work right away. It's a lot harder to make a commitment to see it through to success.
Q: What do you think it will take for more women to take ownership stakes in professional sports teams?
A: It's really an interesting question. I don't think we've tried hard enough to identify the people who would have both the personal interest and business acumen to add value at the ownership level. You look around the NBA Board of Governors meeting and, for the most part, it's a boys' club; and, I think, shame on us for not going out and finding women who, for all the right reasons, would be exactly the right type of owners for enterprises like this. Because I believe they're there. I just don't think we've looked hard enough.
Q: Where do you see women's sports in the next five or 10 years?
A: I think the long-term horizon is very attractive. It's inevitable that women's sports [will] become a bigger part of the landscape and have greater success over time. Any startup is hard, and most startups don't succeed in any venture or business; so, I'm not saying the next league or next women's sports venture is going to be successful. We're going to have failures and we're going to have successes. But I think if you can take the long-term view and look at how we're evolving as a country and society, and what's important to us, and the value of sports and the media landscape, and the amount of time it occupies most Americans' share of entertainment, there's nothing but optimism out there in terms of the long-term success of women's sports.
Q: Do you think anything can move or hurry that along? Or is there just something organic and natural in the way it will happen?
A: I think there are the things you can manage and control. You can work really hard every day toward building it in little increments, and then there are the things you can never predict. You know, there's the player who is going to change the women's college basketball game [that] will draw more attention. ... There are girls out there -- they might be in grade school, they might be in high school, or they might be in college today -- who are going to have unbelievably compelling personal stories that people relate to in a way that causes them to want to know those people and follow what they do.
It's always about the individual stories, and the individual stories translate into interest in sports. The unpredictability of sports is what makes it such an interesting industry to follow, and I think that unpredictability is just built into the system. There is somebody out there who is going to change the face of sports; we just don't know who she is right now.