Courting big-time commercial success

Women's hoops have come a long way. Look for more TV deals, endorsements and pro league.

BY WARREN COHEN

December 11, 1995 (897 words)

Teresa Edwards is on the team bus heading for practice, but she's not lacing up her sneakers or studying zone defenses. Instead, the 31-year-old guard for the women's Olympic basketball team is busy conducting business on a cellular phone. Edwards is the only American basketball star to play in three Olympic games, but the former University of Georgia standout has languished in obscurity like most female hoopsters in this country. The anonymity of women basketball players is changing fast, however. Edwards has recently signed several major endorsement contracts. She posed in an ad for Georgia Power, uses AT&T for her long distance calls and wears Nike sneakers. "Nobody knew much about us before," says Edwards. "But now, I've been quite busy doing promotions, which is good."

A number of companies believe that Edwards and her teammates will become household names during the coming year. This optimism is basedon the growing popularity of women's basketball. Last year's NCAA championship final, featuring the victorious University of Connecticut Huskies, pulled a 5.7 TV rating, which surpassed the 4 rating generated by an NBA game that same day. During the season, nearly 4 million people attended women's basketball games, up from 1.5 million a decade ago. At some schools, like Southwest Missouri State, the women's basketball team outdrew the men's team. But perhaps the best indicator of female hoops' new prominence can be found at Rutgers University, where women's basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer now earns a base salary of $ 150,000 a year, more than her male counterpart.

Tuned in. Corporations will have more than ample opportunity to reach enthusiastic women's basketball fans because there will be 64 games on ESPN and ESPN2 this year -- versus just 27 last year. In addition, ESPN has bought the rights to the entire women's NCAA basketball tournament.

Companies are especially attracted to women's basketball because the sport appeals to crucial segments of the market: young professional women and young families. Olympic organizers hired NBA Properties to promote the women's national basketball team, and eight companies -- including Sears, Roebuck -- have become official sponsors. "We now have a major commitment to women's athletics as partof our overall strategy of targeting Middle American women and their families," explains John Costello, senior executive vice president of Sears. "Sponsoring the Olympics is a way to increase awareness of Sears."

State Farm Insurance is another supporter of women's hoops. About four years ago, the Bloomington, Ill.-based company spent its sports advertising dollars on professional football and Major League Baseball games. The insurer eventually began to fear that consumers were linking higher premiums with increased advertising expenditures on pro sports. At the same time, the company realized that the proportion of female customers buying insurance was growing. State Farm believes that women now represent nearly half of all new car- and home-insurance purchases. To reach this audience, the insurance concern has funneled its sports marketing budget into college athletics such as women's basketball. Says Richard Bugajski, State Farm's advertising director: "We feel we need to be on college campuses, where there is more excitement about women's sports."

New cards. Topps is backing women's basketball to expand the appeal of its trading cards to girls, who currently account for just 15 percent of the company's sales. Topps has made kids' collectibles since 1951, yet it derives most of its $ 265 million in revenues from baseball and football cards. As part of its diversification effort, Topps is releasing a 24-card set of women's Olympic basketball players, the first-ever collectible featuring a women's team. "We're not naive to think once girls buy this, they'll start buying football cards," explains Topps spokesman Marty Appel, "but there is no reason to think [girls are] not collectors if we have the right product."

Sporting goods makers hope to net more sales from women's hoops, too. Spalding, the $ 850 million equipment maker, for example, is introducing two new women's basketballs. The company's Zi/O ball is made of a new composite material and will be available for a suggested retail price of $ 40. And the Rebecca Lobo autograph ball -- named after the former UConn star -- will sell for $ 14.99. So far, orders forthe Lobo ball are running strong.

Next year promises to be the biggest yet for women's basketball. Aside from the Olympic team's quest to regain the gold medal, many fans are already primed for the 1996 NCAA championships. No tickets remain for the final four games in Charlotte, N.C., the earliest sellout on record. And the new American Basketball League has raised $ 4 million to start an eight-city professional women's circuit after the Olympics. The ABL has already signed up nine of the 11 Olympians, including Edwards and former Texas Tech great Sheryl Swoopes. Elite players will earn between $ 100,000 and $ 125,000 -- less than overseas teams pay but still an attractive sum because it allows former collegians to play in the United States. If the league clicks and the popularity of women's basketball continues to soar, Teresa Edwards may find herself spending as much time pitching products as shooting jumpers.