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The Storm Ahead: Our champion franchise is about to be a positive disruption on the WNBA

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The Storm, with an assist from Tim and Tod Leiweke, are set to shatter expectations about the WNBA. I wouldn’t bet against them.

“We already have an anchor tenant, and it’s the Seattle Storm, and we will treat them as such.”

Tim Leiweke at an Oak View Groups press conference in June of 2017.

Frankly that comment seemed a bit like pandering at the time, or if nothing else a politically expedient exaggeration given the well documented economics of the WNBA, where star players earn the bulk of their earnings by playing overseas and many, if not most, franchises lose money despite the NBA’s support of the 22 year old league.

We haven’t figured out a winning formula, to be quite honest.” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN in April. “We have a lot of empty seats in our buildings,

“It’s interesting: Women’s basketball is largely supported — just in terms of the demographics — by older men, for whatever reason, who like fundamental basketball, and it’s something I’ve talked a lot to the players about,” he said. “We’re not connecting with almost the same demographic that our players are. I’m always saying our players are roughly, let’s say, 21 to 34, in that age range. I’m saying [to the players], ‘Why do you think it is that we’re not getting your peers to want to watch women’s basketball?’

“So in a way I think it’s a good problem to have in that I think the game looks fantastic, and it’s amazing where the league now is from over 20 years ago when it launched,” Silver said, “but we still have a marketing problem, and we gotta figure it out. We gotta figure out how we can do a better job connecting to young people and how they could become interested in women’s basketball.”

Washington Mystics star Elena Delle Donna responded to those comments with some fire, calling out the league on Twitter and pointing to the need for an increased spotlight on the players to drive interest in the league.

“I just believe that young women haven’t seen us. And you can’t follow something that you haven’t seen.” she told Slam Magazine, “And it all goes back to visibility again and connecting with people more than just on the court.

“People know so much about the NBA guys off the court—about their style, about their interests, about their wives, and all about their lives. But with us, you don’t know that, Seimone Augustus collects cool old cars. That’s a cool interest.

Cappie Pondexter, Stefanie Dolson, they’re huge into fashion. Like, huge. That’s something that for sure would connect with women our age.

“It’s just that, who knows those stories? Not many people because it’s not covered.”

“It’s hard to fall in love with a sport or a team or a player if you’ve never seen them and don’t know much about them.”

So can a league that averages just 7,716 fans per game and mostly drapes off the upper bowl be considered an anchor tenant for a modern day arena?

The half dozen or so somewhat “legitimate” prospective NBA owners I’ve spoken to in the last decade didn’t seem to think so. Those who mentioned women’s basketball and the city’s commitment to the Storm at all generally considered the WNBA as a financial liability that would have to be subsidized 17 or more nights a year at the expense of other, more profitable, events. While each brought varying levels of support for the Storm, there has always been a sense of “it is what it is” or “we have to be realistic about the economics of the game”

I’m starting to understand that Tim Leiweke does not accept “it is what it is,” as a limitation over what is possible.

Tim is more of a “what if?” kind of person than an “it is what it is” guy, as in:

  • What if one of the world’s most successful salesman chose to sell the Storm... intensely?
  • What if the combination of OVG’s massive influence within the sports and entertainment industry, the Storm’s franchise excellence, and shared excitement around the building and hockey convinced sponsors to give the WNBA a bigger shot than they ever have before?
  • What if everybody does contribute the resources necessary to push the WNBA to the next level?
  • What if this really special team of players, owners, and staff delivered on that sales pitch?
  • What if the fans delivered too?
  • What if every night at the new arena had the same energy as the last few games?
  • What if it all worked?

”I was with [Storm owner] Ginny Gilder last week just to sit down and say, “Hey, we want to make this great for the Storm,” Tod Leiweke told Softy Mahler and Dick Fain on KJR Sept. 3rd. ”It’s still tough, the league is still pioneering and finding its way. This has been a Bellwether franchise in the league… They’ve just got to keep a perspective about this because sometimes it can feel very hard, but they’re not too far into this relative to time. If you look at the history in the NFL, it becomes 100 years old next year, and they played in some small venues in their early years. I think it was 1983 that CBS tape delayed the NBA Finals.”

This perspective that the league is still growing and evolving both on and off the floor is important. For those who haven’t watched the game recently, you should. On the floor, the product is better than ever with legitimate superstars and a higher level of physicality than in years past, and as a result the W is gaining the attention and respect of their male peers.

Keeping the positive attention on our city is a good thing for Sonics fans also.

The Oak View Group’s motto is to be “a positive disruption to business as usual in the sports and live entertainment industry,” so when Tim said the Storm could be an anchor tenant I think he meant exactly that. Disregarding all the reasons it hasn’t worked in the past and all the people who have tried and failed, he intends to turn expectations about what the WNBA is and what it can be upside down.

The Storm are a model franchise, with great ownership and a legacy of superstar players. Their biggest star, Sue Bird, is an exception to the rule, having retired from overseas play and available to be the face of the franchise in Seattle full time. They are the right team, in the right place, and at the right moment to test Elena Delle Dona’s theory about building star recognition.

With a new building on the horizon, the support and joint-marketing opportunities offered by the NHL’s arrival, and the presence of charismatic star players, the opportunity exists to push this franchise to a level beyond what the WNBA has ever seen, creating a third anchor tenant and in the process doing Adam Silver a solid by showing how one of the NBA’s biggest problems can be solved.

Get ready basketball fans, this Storm championship was not the culmination of a wild ride but the start of something much wilder.