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WNBA Predicament Makes Case for Targeted Sponsor Funding

At the same time it is riding a swelling tide of interest in women’s sports, the WNBA is also experiencing significant growth pains, not the least of which is the ability of teams to field a full roster of players while meeting the terms of the league’s hard salary cap.

As commissioner Cathy Engelbert noted last week, the WNBA needs to grow in multiple ways, and even though it is raising capital and increasing revenue, it does not have the resources to do everything all at once. “There is a point in time when hopefully we’ll have the economic strength to have these conversations (about roster sizes), but right now is not that time.”

When similar economic issues arise—as they will for almost every rights holder save the upper echelon of global and national sports and entertainment—it creates an opportunity that sponsors should take advantage of—playing the hero by helping solve a critical need.

Through the years, there have been myriad examples of sponsors stepping up and helping properties in distress. One of the most successful was insurer John Hancock becoming principal sponsor and rescuing the financially strapped Boston Marathon in the 1980s, a partnership that continues today.

So successful was the sponsorship at burnishing John Hancock’s image and changing its reputation from an old-fashioned mutual insurance company to a forward-looking financial services firm, that the company quickly added other sports partnerships, including title of the Sun Bowl and a global TOP sponsorship with the International Olympic Committee.

The success of Hancock and other “angel” sponsors is predicated on a dynamic that has been proven both in practice and by multiple academic research studies: When fans believe that sponsorship is instrumental in the operational ability of the property—enabling it to field a team, produce an event, etc.—they reward the sponsor with positive attributes and brand loyalty.

However, properties and sponsors aren’t taking advantage of this dynamic as much as they could and are thus missing out on a powerful way to forge connections with fans and consumers.

Taking the WNBA example, sponsors who would sign on—or expand an existing commitment—with a statement that they are committing funds to address the roster size issue in the interest of creating more opportunities for women athletes and improving the game for players and fans alike would create immediate relevance, in addition to receiving all the other tangible and intangible benefits of being a sponsor.

To be clear, this sponsor-targeted funding is not literally underwriting specific programs or projects. It is not to be confused with donor-directed or restricted funding as is often seen in the nonprofit world, where an accounting must prove that the dollars were allocated to their specific purpose.

Instead, the messaging surrounding the partnership would state the sponsor’s intent to address a critical situation facing the property while the rights holder remains in control of its budget allocations.

Communicating such a commitment as part of a sponsorship announcement and reinforcing it with fans through ongoing messaging and education could very well make the difference between a sponsorship that’s perceived as just another commercial endeavor versus a partnership with a purpose.

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