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06-09-2006, 04:23 PM
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N.B.A. Wants Women to Talk Basketball
Published: June 9, 2006
THE National Basketball Association, long a male-driven business, wants more female fans. It wants more women, especially those 18 to 34, to watch its games, talk about its players and wear the jersey dresses, leather jackets, pink caps and tank tops with Swarovski crystals.

To reinforce the strategy during the playoffs, which culminate with last night's start of the finals between the Dallas Mavericks (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/sports/probasketball/nationalbasketballassociation/dallasmavericks/index.html?inline=nyt-org) and the Miami Heat (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/sports/probasketball/nationalbasketballassociation/miamiheat/index.html?inline=nyt-org), the league is advertising in several magazines — People, US, In Touch Weekly and Entertainment Weekly — to stoke viewership among women.

The campaign, which posits that "the game is only part of the fun," plays off the league's belief that women prefer stories about the players to their scoring averages. So the campaign's "conversation pieces" that promote the finals offer anecdotes about five stars, including one about the smiling, law- enforcement-minded, 7-foot-1-inch center for the Heat: "Getting pulled over by the police has never been so surprising in South Beach now that Shaquille O'Neal (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/o/shaquille_oneal/index.html?inline=nyt-per) has been added to the Miami Beach reserve police force."

Only Mr. O'Neal, among the ad's quintet, made it to the finals.

The N.B.A. commissioner, David Stern (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/s/david_stern/index.html?inline=nyt-per), said: "Men are more advanced in the water cooler conversation category. This was a way to say that women want to understand the entertainment aspect of the game."
Carol Albert, the league executive who developed the campaign, added: "Women connect with sports on an emotional level. That's their entry point. We wanted to give an inside perspective to pique their interest."

Although it is too early to measure the success of the campaign, the demographic the ads aim at is already flocking to the playoffs, which have been more competitive than in recent years. At ESPN, the rating for women 18 to 34 has risen 33 percent (triple the jump for men in the same category); at ABC, it is up 18 percent; and at TNT, 7 percent.

The increased attention on the men's game by women carries risks, said Jen Drechsler, a director of brand insights at Just Ask a Woman, a marketing firm that specializes in reaching female consumers.
In recent years, she said, the N.B.A. has been a "bad boy league" that has attracted the kind of attention that turns off women.

"You see criminal cases that you don't see with the squeaky clean girls of the W.N.B.A.," Ms. Drechsler said referring to the Women's National Basketball Association. She acknowledged that player misbehavior in the men's league has declined, but, she said, "Women have powerful memories, and will repeat bad customer-service memories for 21 years."

The N.B.A.'s ad campaign is a modest element in a long-term effort to increase women's interest in basketball. The W.N.B.A., which started 10 years ago, has been a laboratory for reaching women and families with its brand of fundamental basketball.

"We've started to see a generation of young women focus on role models in the W.N.B.A.," Mr. Stern said.

The goal to reach more women is supported in research the N.B.A. has culled to demonstrate that women are the dominant consumer decision makers, that basketball is the most popular team sport for girls and young women in the United States and that TV viewership is growing for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/n/national_collegiate_athletic_assn/index.html?inline=nyt-org) women's basketball tournament.

A seminal moment for women's basketball might have been the 2003 appearance of Diana Taurasi, the former University of Connecticut (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/u/university_of_connecticut/index.html?inline=nyt-org) star now with the Phoenix Mercury of the W.N.B.A, on the cover of Sports Illustrated with Emeka Okafor, a star of the Connecticut men's team.

Still, a major challenge remains in converting women from basketball fans who will read or talk to friends about the sport into viewers. While the female audience for the N.B.A. ranges from 26 percent of viewers on ESPN to 36 percent on ABC, women are not even a majority of W.N.B.A. viewers.

"The difference between women identifying themselves as N.B.A. fans and watching is a huge opportunity for us," Mr. Stern said, referring to an ESPN poll that showed 46 percent of women said they were fans.
A primary off-the-court effort to reach women was the creation in 2002 of the nba4her line of merchandise. Before that, the league's licensees created little or nothing made specifically for women, who, if they wore team replica jerseys or T-shirts, donned those made exclusively for men.

The women's apparel, jewelry and accessories have evolved into a $100 million business, the fastest-growing segment of the league's $3 billion in licensed retail sales, said Sal LaRocca, the N.B.A.'s senior vice president for global merchandising.

"With fashions changing rapidly, this presented challenges we didn't experience with men," he said. "There are really no accessories for men, except maybe for headbands and socks, but women accessorize differently, so that led us into earrings, bracelets, hair scrunchies and pocketbooks."

This spring, as a natural extension of the jersey dresses that first appeared in 2002, Reebok created jerseys made for women (with smaller armholes, a tapered silhouette and shorter length than the men's versions) that have been sold primarily at the arenas of the 16 playoff teams.

"Eureka, somebody give them an award!" Ms. Drechsler said. "Sizing doesn't take a genius." She paused briefly, then added, "Maybe it does."

Throughout the playoffs, Reebok said it had been responding to the requests by teams for apparel that reflects local trends. The company, for example, created products like white-on-white jerseys with sequins for the Miami Heat, said Greg Grauel, a vice president for Reebok International, which is being acquired by Adidas-Salomon.

The shopping habits of women have altered the way the league and retailers sell products. "A guy might buy a jersey or sweatshirt and he's good for the year," Mr. Grauel said. "But women are always looking for something new, so we're changing products every four to six weeks."