NBA Missing Its Shot to Reach Female Fans

Women and Basketball


Superstar point guard Ricky Rubio has done the unthinkable—he’s got me watching and following a professional sports team for the first time in my life. I suppose I should have seen this coming, after spending weekend upon weekend watching my son’s basketball team play back-to-back games, but nevertheless, my friends and family remain bewildered at my transformation.

Apparently, though, I’m not the only female NBA fan out there. Rob Mahoney’s article, The NBA’s Forgotten Demographic, states that 40% of NBA fans are women. Despite this significant demographic, women—such as blogger and Hornets season ticket holder Sarah Tolcser—reports that the NBA fails to understand female fans.

Sarah observes that scantily dressed dancers and advertising spots with sexist overtones fail to connect with her as a female consumer. And attempts to connect with fans like herself by offering pink jerseys (“Do you know that you’re wasting your time bedazzling things and making them pink, when my team wears teal?”) and “family friendly” promotions have little effect on her. In fact, Sarah identifies herself as part of a growing class of unmarried women, ages 25–44, without children.

As for my experience, I jumped at the opportunity to attend a game for just $20 as part of the Timberwolves’ Ladies Night Out promotion because the price was right. But given the nosebleed seats that came with the offer, I’d gladly trade the $20 spa and $10 restaurant coupons (which I’m sure I’ll never use) for first deck seats. Heck, I’d even throw in the free wine or beer (which, as my son pointed out, was different from the “beer-only” offer the NBA offered for Guys Night Out).

But it’s not just the NBA that’s missing the mark in appealing to folks like me. As a recent sports convert, I’ve found myself wrestling the sports section away from my husband to read about the previous night’s game and pour over the stats for my favorite players. In the process, I’ve encountered a bit of a language barrier; I struggle to decipher insider sports jargon that my husband seems to know intuitively. For example, even though I played basketball as a child, I struggled with terms like “hit it,” “at the elbow,” “getting to the line,” and dozens of phrases which all seem to mean “field goal.” I also searched in vain to find the key for the abbreviations at the top of the stats columns.

But it’s not just the jargon that feels off. The focus of the writing doesn’t feel like it’s for me. While sports articles center on male-oriented objectives that assess “who’s the best”—records, stats, and contracts —deeper “people” stories, more likely to appeal to women, are missing: Why didn’t Randolph play last night? How is Derrick Williams feeling about his rookie year now that it’s half over? Why is Love considered such a great player when he’s always blaming his hands or the referee? Perhaps it’s because as a whole, women comprise roughly only 10 percent of the sports journalism work force. Whatever the cause, there’s a missed opportunity here to present a more balanced perspective of the sport that will appeal to a broader audience.

My journey into the world of NBA basketball might have started with the flash and dazzle of a Rubio-ruled Timberwolves game, but it’s also presenting itself as a valuable lesson to me as a marketer and for others who market to women. What have I learned?

  1. Ask (and listen to) what your audiences want. If the Timberwolves had asked me what I had wanted for Ladies’ Night Out, I would have told them $20 off main floor seats. Getting feedback could avoid the sense in your audience that they’re “buying a product we aren’t even sure you want us to be buying. Because we love basketball. And sometimes I feel like we’re putting up with a lot, just to love basketball,” as Sarah Tolcser states.
  2. Don’t isolate potential audiences.Beer advertisements that air during games clearly continue to market to men. But with women accounting for approximately 25% of beer sales (but 55% of wine), there’s a growth potential for this market (that number goes up when you consider purchases women make for events).

    Beer advertisers take note: women turned out in large numbers for this beer event.

    In marketing to women, should advertisers be concerned about men running the other direction? In a word, no. According to Marti Barletti, “effectively targeting women generates higher customer satisfaction among both women and men”, in part because women want the same things as men—and then some. Fulfilling the expectations of women, she says, more than fulfills the demands of men. (Marketing to Women: How to Increase Your Share of the World’s Largest Market, 2006)

  3. Skip the jargon. Jargon, by its nature, is fun for people “in the know,” but excludes others. If your goal is to appeal to a broader audience, it’s best to stick to plain English.
  4. Strive to paint a balanced picture. Understand what your audiences want to learn, and work to present the information in a way that enhances the experience for both men and women.


As for why I like Rubio: it’s not because of his “twinkling eyes” or mischievous grin*,  as so many people assume when I talk about Rubio and the Timberwolves. It’s his love and passion for the game, and how he makes the people around him better. That’s a theme that should resonate with men and women alike.

*JERRY ZGODA , Star Tribune, “Ricky Rubio seemed to suggest with that twinkle in his eyes and a mischievous grin

Author Katrina Hase looks forward to attending the Timberwolves vs. Indiana Pacers game in the nosebleed section of Target Center tomorrow night.

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2 Responses to “NBA Missing Its Shot to Reach Female Fans”

  1. What an insightful article, Katrina! Would you consider sending to OpEd? As a fellow convert won over by the enthusiasm for lifting up everyone on the team, I’m looking forward to enjoying the game with you tonight! And for the record, I won’t be wearing a pink bedazzled jersey while I enjoy a beer.

  2. Nicole says:

    OMG! I love this article.. I am a HUGE NBA FAN.. my FAV team is the Los Angeles Clippers (yes I have others but CLIPS has my heart)..and battle it every day with my Laker Fans on FACEBOOK. A lot of my female friends, who read by post, say they learn more about basketball from me, than their own men.

    I would love to engage in writing about the NBA in a “jargon” we understand and will make watching sports more enjoyable because they will understand what is going on.

    Thank you for this article.. I am thinking of starting a blog to express my opinions of the games.. and I LOVE background stories.. it draws me into the player, therefore into the team, ultimately into the game.

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