Attend a game of the WNBA's Orlando Miracle, and your seatmates will include quite a few children and their parents, some teen-agers, a scattering of single men, plus lots and lots of women. In fact, 75 percent of the Miracle's audience is made up of females from ages 25-34, according to the director of business operations Robb Larson. And, though no one is asking for a show of hands, many of those women are lesbians.
While the Miracle has been busy promoting itself to traditional families, booking post-game concerts by the likes of kid rapper Lil' Romeo, MDO (formerly Menudo) and even Christian-music ensembles, at least two rival teams have launched marketing campaigns directly targeting the gay women who -- though usually unheraled -- have been the backbone of their fan base all along.
Players for the Miracle's arch-rival, The Miami Sol, are making regular team-sanctioned appearances at two Broward County lesbian bars, Kicks in Wilton Manors and J's Bar in Fort Lauderdale. The team also advertises in She magazine and is an official sponsor of this summer's Aqua Girl festival on South Beach.
On the other coast, the Los Angeles Sparks have teamed with a 12,000-member lesbian social club called Girl Bar for a series of promotions that began with a big preseason pep rally at a West Hollywood nightspot last month. Almost all of the players showed up to sign autographs and pass out team memorabilia. In turn, Girl Bar is an official sponsor of two Sparks games this month, including a "Gay Pride Kick-Off" night. According to Girl Bar co-founder Sandy Sachs, "The Sparks have said, 'OK, no more head in the sand ... Someone had to be the first to do it.'"
Her statement, reported in The New York Times, has led to a new rivalry with the Sols for bragging rights as to which was the first professional women's basketball team to reach out publicly to lesbians. "It's being talked about in L.A., but it's nothing new," says Mike McCullough, chief marketing officer for the Sol (and the NBA Miami Heat). "We did it last year. We go anywhere we can to find our target audience."
Like Orlando's Miracle, the Sol and the Sparks do plenty of promotions aimed at schools, churches, Girl Scout troops and even soccer-mom clubs. But is the Miracle ready to join the party and publicly celebrate its lesbian fans?
According to Larson, the Miracle cannot survive with a women-only audience, when its goal is to average 10,000 patrons a game. (Last year, it averaged from 7,000-8,000.) "The kids, especially, are important because we'll see the long-term effects of them getting older and bringing their kids to the games. ... So we came up with the concert-package idea." Plus a half-time show that regularly features hip-hop dancers, clowns and Uncle Sam stilt walkers who toss T-shirts and logo caps into the crowd.
Lani Brito, director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Community Center of Central Florida, says she doesn't mind the way the games are being promoted. She describes the Miracle as "an alternative to the lesbian bar scene, and since the games are so family-oriented, [lesbians] can feel comfortable bringing their children or non-gay friends but still feel comfortable being who they are"
Besides, Brito says, there's not a lot of need to market the team to gay women. "For lesbians, the term WNBA automatically means 'lesbian fest.'"
Nonetheless, the Miracle began its season by making a fledgling effort to court them. It didn't quite work out. For opening night, the team joined forces with the gay women's group Girls in Wonderland to offer a "lesbian-pride section" in which fans had the option of purchasing seats together.
Of the experiment, Larson concedes, "We wound up selling so many tickets [for the game] that we weren't able to block off" a large enough grouping of seats.