PHOENIX – Imagine the inner workings of a communications department for a women’s professional basketball team. Job responsibilities include popularizing the players, building the fanbase and working with opposing franchises and the WNBA league office to maximize revenue and excitement for the game.
Now, imagine learning a particular player – a two-time champion and seven-time All-Star who was honored with the June 2017 WNBA Cares Community Assist Award – is arrested in a distant country.
This is what the Phoenix Mercury communications team faced after Brittney Griner was detained on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport in February 2022.
“At first, none of us really knew what to do,” said Robyn Brown, brand and content strategy senior manager for the Mercury. “No one’s ever had your star player detained in a foreign country, so I don’t want to say a lot of it was trial and error, but it was just trying to figure it out as we went and always leading with our intention. That was saying her name, that was doing what we could do to bring her home.”
Griner’s arrest presented a unique challenge for a team and league in a constant quest to grow its audience. The Mercury took on the challenge and continue to work on building momentum for women’s basketball. Much of the WNBA is following suit.
Putting in the work
Griner, along with many other WNBA players, chooses to play basketball overseas during the WNBA offseason. She has been a member of UMMC Ekaterinburg – a Russian club out of the city of Ekaterinburg that competes in the International Basketball Federation’s (FIBA) EuroLeague Women and the Russian Premier League. She was traveling to rejoin the team when she was initially detained.
Back in Phoenix, the Mercury immediately went to work to keep attention on Griner and aid in her release. They placed decals on the outside of Footprint Center, logos on the floor and worked closely with Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and the Phoenix community at large. The Mercury and Cherelle Griner held a “Bring BG Home” rally last July within 24 hours of Griner pleading guilty at her trial half a world away.
Wasserman, a sports marketing and talent management company based in Los Angeles, joined the team’s efforts to build the #WeAreBG movement. What started as a Twitter hashtag grew into an entire brand and vessel for petitioning the United States government to work with Russia for Griner’s release.
“There was so much fan energy and media energy around what can be done for BG,” Mercury president Vince Kozar said. “Our responsibility was really to channel that energy into something positive. There were different ways to do it. One of them was WeAreBG, this acknowledgment that any one of us could have been in a situation like that.”
The WNBA joined the Mercury in keeping Griner at the forefront of everyone’s mind by honoring her at the 2022 All-Star Game in Chicago on July 10. Griner was named an honorary All-Star starter and every player wore matching No. 42 jerseys with Griner’s name on the back for the second half.
On July 27, reports came out that President Joe Biden made a “significant” offer for a prisoner swap for Griner. Months later, on Dec. 8, the news finally broke that Russia had accepted a one-for-one prisoner exchange and Griner was on her way home.
It’s unclear how much longer Griner might have been incarcerated – she was sentenced to nine years at a penal colony in August – if it weren’t for the efforts of the Mercury, the WNBA and Roger Carstens, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
In March 2023, the Sports Business Journal recognized these efforts by nominating the #WeAreBG campaign for their annual Best in Sports Social Media award. Nominated against Bleacher Report, the Golden State Warriors, the New York Giants, the PGA Tour and the San Francisco 49ers, #WeAreBG became the first WNBA media campaign to be nominated for this category.
Ultimately, #WeAreBG didn’t win the award, but Brown saw the nomination as a momentous step in the right direction.
“Is there room for growth? Yes,” Brown said, “but to be nominated against Bleacher Report and the Warriors and the 49ers, the big dogs that you’d consider in the industry, and to know that we’re just as good and doing the work here is a huge accomplishment. So although we didn’t bring the hardware home, I’m still very proud of what we did.”
Just as #WeAreBG was nominated, the WNBA received a nomination of its own for the SBJ’s Sports League of the Year. Many WNBA players have powerful voices and are known for their charitable community involvement, so in a climate where the WNBA is desperately trying to build relevance, award considerations can help amplify messages and boost league revenues.
“Our responsibility is just to give voice to these players,” Kozar said. “They’re activists in their own right, they want to show up for each other and for different communities, so the success of WeAreBG, the acknowledgment from SBJ, was really just an acknowledgment of the power and the agency of WNBA players. And if we had a small role in handing them our microphone, then it was a success.”
Building a voice for the WNBA
The WNBA’s social media teams face an uphill battle every day. They are attempting to popularize a product that is fundamentally similar to the NBA’s product without the elevated engagement, history and accrued revenue that the NBA has to offer.
In 2022, the NBA brought in $10 billion of revenue compared to the WNBA’s $60 million. The average attendance for an NBA game was 17,184 to the WNBA’s 5,679.
The NBA averages around 450 players on 30 teams, offering hundreds more personalities and storylines than the 144 players on 12 teams the WNBA has to offer.
“In the NBA, every major news outlet is going to cover them,” Brown said. “But in the W, it’s not that case, so it’s my job to create that narrative for our team. Social is a 24/7 job. You’re always on. You’re always at practices, you’re always at games, you’re always telling the story you want to tell.”
Telling basketball-related stories is just one part of the social media team’s responsibilities. Showing players doing something unique on the court makes for an interesting TikTok or Instagram reel, but offering players a platform for their voices to be heard takes that responsibility to another level.
Closing the well-established gap in popularity between the NBA and WNBA falls on the shoulders of people like Rebecca Libby, social media coordinator for the Mercury and Phoenix Suns.
“For me, I’ve always loved being around women’s sports and being able to showcase the power and skill that these women have,” Libby said. “Their talent goes way beyond basketball. They make such an impact in the community and everyone’s lives on a day-to-day basis, so to be able to put content together to show the impact these players have and to bring some more light on women’s sports is just something I’ve always wanted to do, and I’m really thankful to have the opportunity here.”
Due to efforts by social media teams, players and management throughout the WNBA, the league has seen major growth within the last few years. The league is projecting between $180 million and $200 million in revenue for the 2023 season, nearly a 100% increase from the 2019 season, which brought in $102 million.
The pandemic decimated attendance numbers, yet this season is on pace for the most in-person spectators since the 2011 season.
The 2022 season averaged 379,000 viewers, up 16% from 2021, making it the most-viewed season during the 14 years of the league’s partnership with ESPN and the CBS Television Network.
The 2023 WNBA Draft was the most-watched draft since 2004, topping off at 572,000 viewers, up 42% from 2022.
Social media leader
After the hype around Griner’s return began to die down, the Mercury social team worked to brainstorm new angles and strategies for engagement.
Despite their national spotlight effectively switching off with the end of the #WeAreBG campaign, the Mercury are continuing to go viral. A Tiktok measuring the heights of players currently has 9.1 million views, over three times more views than anything the Suns TikTok has ever published.
As the WNBA continues to grow, other teams will be able to follow the Mercury’s example.
“Basically, it’s just about either hopping on trends before they get too popular or before anyone else does them, or finding things that really just engage the audience,” Libby said. “The height TikTok was really fun because it showed another side of our players, a personal side, and it also showed how cool it is to be tall. It’s really finding ways to engage with our fans and people outside of our fan bases in a fun and energetic way.”
At this point, Brown is the only “brand manager” for any WNBA team. She and Kozar designed the position so that she and the rest of her team could be as effective as possible in representing their players.
Everyone in the Mercury’s organization understands the value of providing as many ears as possible for WNBA players’ messages, and Mercury players benefit from this more than any other team.
Two seasons ago, the Mercury and Bally Bet entered a partnership deal to create “For the W,” a digital content series designed to expand the egregiously limited storytelling scope for women’s sports. The largest and longest-lasting deal in the history of women’s team sports offered exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the Mercury organization, its players, coaches and facilities, and the breadth of stories to be told about the trials and successes of professional female athletes.
Episode 11 of “For the W” debuted Sunday, offering an exclusive look into Phoenix’s 2023 home opener against the Chicago Sky and the tireless work the organization put in to make sure Griner’s Footprint Center reintroduction was exceptionally special.
The episode laid out the preparations of the Mercury’s communications team but only scratched the surface on the amount of work, collaboration and passion that goes into their work.
The world witnessed the electric atmosphere and joy that took over our arena on May 21st at the Welcome Home Opener.
But what you didn’t see was the 6 months of planning that went into its creation.
We filmed it all! The meetings. The prep. The conversations. It all debuts here… pic.twitter.com/sofAlv8OYt
— Phoenix Mercury (@PhoenixMercury) July 8, 2023
Griner, who will start in Saturday’s 2023 WNBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas, is well aware of the work put in by the Mercury social team.
“Seeing the love and the support … it just goes to show how much they really care and invest in you as a person,” she said. “Besides just a basketball player, how they really care about you, it lets me know that I’m in the right organization, lets me know I’m in the right place. It definitely makes you feel good. Makes me feel appreciated.”