The Thinking Fan’s Guide To The WNBA’s Growing Pains

Corporate sponsors remain a necessary evil.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

If your inbox looks anything like mine (and here’s hoping it does not, for your sanity), it’s recently been bombarded with giddy announcements about new sponsors and initiatives for the impending WNBA season. Which is, it should be said, exactly the way it should be — what’s annoying for me is necessary to cut through the noise for people who don’t spend objectively too much time thinking about women’s sports. There’s a new season of women’s professional basketball in America, it’s starting today, and we (the people who watch it and want it to succeed) should all be shouting that fact from the rooftops.

But it can be challenging to muster enthusiasm for these updates, especially since many of them are tied to investments made by the kinds of monopolistic, exploitative corporations that many of the kinds of people who seek out women’s sports — that is to say, people who take a broadly progressive view of people and their potential — might otherwise criticize. But as Deloitte, the mega consulting firm where WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert worked prior to taking the commissioner job, put it in a recent report, “women’s sports is ripe for greater monetization.”

The space between accepting it and rooting for it… is where I struggle.

They certainly need money, and it has to come from somewhere, and big companies have more to spend than small ones — and, obviously, this has been a fixture of men’s sports forever. The space between accepting it and rooting for it, I think, is where I struggle.

Google, perennial fixture of antitrust lawsuits domestically and abroad, was announced as a “WNBA Changemaker,” a title attached to the league’s most prolific sponsors that happens to be a perfect case study of the kind of reputation laundering that any major corporation could glean from a highly visible investment in women’s sports. There are plenty of ways that Google could, structurally, make the WNBA and other women’s sports thousands of times more accessible with minimal effort — making teams appear at the top of search results, or first on their YouTubeTV property, or just not having a search for “uconn basketball” always yield results for “UConn Men’s Basketball.” 

But they’re not doing that. They’re slapping their name on a bunch of preexisting properties, and, somewhat perversely, sponsoring a new women’s-only highlights segment on SportsCenter — why not just include them alongside the men? — when a search for the WNBA on YouTube, owned by Google and the primary source for most sports highlights, yields player fights and numerous falsehood-filled videos by anonymous vloggers about why the WNBA is bad.

The announcement that 16 WNBA games will be aired on Amazon Prime is even harder to parse. Accessibility is a central problem for WNBA fans and newcomers, and more people have Amazon Prime than they do most of the perplexing array of WNBA outlets, which range from Facebook and Twitter to local sports affiliates on cable. But Amazon is the worst for about a million different reasons — most urgently because of the working conditions of employees in their distribution warehouses, where they have continued to suppress unionization

It is, at its core, a necessary growing pain. If I want women’s sports to be respected, unfortunately they need the fuel of a hefty corporate pocketbook. But advocacy for the W is more and more often manifesting as advocacy for its corporate sponsors, and I can’t wait until the league and women’s sports as a whole feel secure enough that we can confidently give these companies — whose interest in women’s sports is, as the Deloitte report shows, self-serving — the finger they deserve instead of our applause.