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Corporate America buys into the WNBA, and that's a good thing

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published April 27. 2010 4:00AM   Updated April 27. 2010 4:43AM

New London - News item: A third WNBA franchise signed a $1 million corporate sponsorship agreement last week. That means the Seattle Storm are awash in cash, from forward Swin to the nifty chunk of change coming from Bing, the search engine from Microsoft.

The updated scorecard gives Seattle, Phoenix and Los Angeles, or 25 percent of the league, million-dollar sponsorships in the past year, in spite of an economy that may or may not be dire, but is certainly perceived that way.

This, of course, contradicts many blatherers who find the WNBA a nuisance, boring, or about to fold any minute. This much we know: The WNBA doesn't have considerable national appeal, but it does have better cash flow. Maybe Oscar Wilde was right after all when he wrote, "It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating."

But all those who inexplicably want the league to go away, as if it's violating their daily airspace, might have a wait longer than in a line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The WNBA is emerging slowly and steadily, one fan and one corporate sponsorship at a time.

We should care about that here in our corner of the world, especially with a franchise whose significance to the league grows with every all-star game it hosts.

"Corporate America buying into the league should bring optimism, because another company is willing to do it and associate with our brand," Sun guard Kara Lawson said Monday during the team's media day, the beginning of the franchise's eighth season.

Bing, which is Microsoft's answer to Google, actually complements the WNBA brand. Danielle Tiedt, general manager of Bing marketing, told the Seattle Times that 20 percent of Bing users are mothers, reflecting the WNBA's pitch of family friendly entertainment.

"The thing that was really exciting about this opportunity was the (Storm) fan base," Tiedt told the Seattle Times. "The ability to engage with that really active base, for someone building a new brand, is gold."

The Bing logo, much like Lifelock in Phoenix and Farmers Insurance in Los Angeles, will replace the words "Seattle" and "Storm" on the team jerseys, although the color scheme won't change.

"Advertising on jerseys isn't on the pro sports landscape in the U.S., unless it's the company who makes the jersey," Sun vice president and general manager Chris Sienko said. "But if this is what we need to keep ourselves afloat, great. It's a unique opportunity. The Bing logo on Sue Bird's jersey and Lauren Jackson's jersey are images that will go around the globe. People try to push this league aside, but it's here for a 14th season. It's not going anywhere."

To be fair: Sacramento folded (lazy ownership) and Detroit's franchise went to Tulsa. To an outsider, it's a sign of collapse. But the Tulsa ownership group is already investing more time and money into its franchise than Detroit did. If the WNBA were swirling the bowl, coaches would not be signing contract extensions, ESPN wouldn't have an extended television contract and investors wouldn't have this much interest.

"But I bet we'll still be talking about the WNBA's imminent demise in our 30th season," Sun coach Mike Thibault said.

Sorry if this comes across as cheerleading. Or in this case, rampant cheerleading. But after covering the league for the last seven years and meeting some very fascinating people whose insights are far greater than their egos, it's hard not to root for it. Unfortunately, I can't say it better than Ben York of Slam Online did last year:

"The players are, for the most part, real grown-ups," York wrote. "They have had to live overseas, some of them in several different countries, and navigate their way in a foreign society with different customs. They have to manage their time and their finances in ways most of them never thought about while in college. They tend to offer insights that reflect more a feeling of global perspective than you might get from the average person in their age group."

The Sun's media day drew all four state television stations for the first time, not to mention five newspapers and three columnists. There is a renewed interest here with Lawson, Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery, among others. If last season's WNBA finals are evidence, there may be renewed interest, period. The Mercury and Fever averaged 548,000 viewers, up 73 percent from 316,000 in 2009 and attendance for the series was up 43.3 percent, from an average of 11,448 to 16,404.

The WNBA will never appeal to everyone. But its appeal is becoming more appealing to corporate America. And that counts.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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