Give Me Liberty

The WNBA’s New York Liberty tips off season 12 with stronger athletes,
better-quality play and a renewed commitment to embracing their LGBT fans!

Once again, the fans pour into Madison Square Garden for a summer of hoops. This year, they are talking about the Liberty’s first-round draft picks: Rutgers star Essence Carson, and North Carolina’s Erlana Larkins. These are rookies who grew up with the league, who have dreamt of making the Show since they were little girls.

The W’s twelfth season kicked off May 17, with 14 teams competing for the league title, the newest franchise playing its first game ever in Atlanta. A new multi-million-dollar broadcast deal with ESPN/ABC will extend through 2016. Its fan base is solid, and several teams now operate in the black while the league’s first profitable season is imminent.

This year’s fans talk about a return to the playoffs, and wear their Janelle McCarville and Shameka Christon jerseys, the old-school fans still sporting Theresa Weatherspoon and Sue Wicks-wear. There’s a strong tradition of winning with the Liberty, and after retooling a veteran franchise with young talent the last few seasons, the fans want a return to the finals. They’re demanding and knowledgeable, taught to expect greatness from their team in the league’s first decade, when the Liberty was led by players like Weatherspoon, Wicks, Kym Hampton, Vickie Johnson, Rebecca Lobo and Becky Hammon.

But getting (and keeping) a New Yorker’s attention—even with a winning pro sports team—isn’t easy. Half of the city evaporates to cooler vacation spots in the summer, in the heart of the WNBA season. (And of course, every four years, the league takes a month-long break in August as the world’s best players head for the Olympic games.)

The Liberty constantly shifts and refines its marketing efforts to keep the fannies in the seats. A prime target has always been families, with the team reaching out to parents and kids with the most affordable pro game tickets in town, along with giveaways, on-court competitions for the fans, the Torch Patrol cheerleading squad and theme nights.
The families, of course, include plenty of two-mom and two-dad families, as well as the “family” presence that’s been in the stands since Day One.

In a league where “don’t ask/don’t tell” seems to be the unwritten rule, there are still few out lesbian players (in 2002, the Liberty’s Wicks was one of the first WNBA players to come out). Since then, All-Star Sheryl Swoopes, a four-time champion with the Houston Comets, came out in a big way: on the cover of ESPN: The Magazine. But while it earned her some major media, Swoopes believes— like other athletes gay and straight—a player’s sexuality should be a non-issue.

“The talk about the WNBA being full of lesbians is not true,” Swoopes told ESPN in 2005. “There are as many straight women in the league as there are gay. What really irritates me is when people talk about football, baseball and the NBA, you don’t hear all of this talk about gay guys playing …Sexuality and gender don’t change anyone’s performance on the court.”

Still, this is women’s sports, and only a few out gay WNBA players in 11 years of existence raises some questions. Is it the league, the players or the management? Or is Swoopes making the point that there are no lesbians or straights on the court—because they’re all straight-up athletes?

If anything, the women of the WNBA identify as “pro athletes” and their issue is to be recognized as that. They aspire to make the 11 o’clock news for their points and rebounds, not their fashion sense or their girlfriends (or lack thereof).

Wicks agrees. “After I came out, I thought there was too much attention on it and it was taking away from my team and the focus on basketball,” said Wicks. “It wasn’t that I didn’t think it was amazingly important—it was. [But] I was, first and foremost, a member of a team, and I had obligations to fulfill to them.”

Some lesbian fans have turned activist on the issue that the Liberty snubs them, asserting that other teams seem to be more active in reaching out to LGBT communities. In 2002 a group called “Lesbians for Liberty” staged a “kiss in,” aiming to get on camera during the MSG network’s TV broadcast and on the huge “GardenVision” screen. Media attention was garnered, even in venues that weren’t covering the Liberty’s chase for a playoff spot.

Of course, there’s hardly a monolithic community of lesbians in New York City; where one group of women in a bar might be heatedly debating the definition of a “charge,” the group next to them might not be quite sure how many players are on a team, and aren’t really interested in finding out. The sportsdyke is but one color in the rainbow.

The Liberty’s President and General Manager, basketball Hall of Famer Carol “Blaze”Blazejowski and V.P. for Marketing and Communications Amy Scheer are both out lesbians, and are certainly aware of their status as role models, both as women in pro sports and as gay women. Success, for them, is good attendance and a winning team.

“I think our general philosophy is: we’re a sports team, we’re not a political platform,” says Scheer. “We treat all of our fans equally.” This overriding sentiment has steered Liberty management to cast a wide net for building its fan base.

“The beauty of the Liberty is that our fans are a microcosm of New York City,” Scheer adds. “We’re proud of that collection, that melding of different people. I’m not sure we would want to tinker with that environment. We break them down a few different ways. One is what we call the ‘women’s sports enthusiast,’ and that is a woman, thirty-plus, who has an interest in sports either as a fan or someone who participates; we have families, and that’s
moms and dads or moms and moms or dads and dads with kids between the ages of 5 and 13; we have the ‘Male Hoopster,’ a guy who just loves to watch basketball and loves the purity of our sport.”

The team’s outreach efforts include queer organizations, community groups, schools, sports leagues and women’s groups. The Liberty has worked with and recognized the New York LGBTQ Center and PFLAG, donated gear for fundraisers, and sponsors an annual Human Rights Campaign event. During Pride Week, the Liberty Torch Patrol sports rainbow colors and the Garden flashes “Happy Pride” announcements on its GardenVision screen.

Attorney Roz Quarto, former president of the Gay Games, has held Liberty season tickets since game one. She says she has never felt anything but welcome at Liberty games. “They have a variety of fan bases that they have an obligation and business incentive to reach out to,” says Quarto. “Two years ago they did a promotional video—it ran on MSG network all season—and I was one of the fans….Now, nobody mistakes me for being overly feminine, so when they chose me, they didn’t choose a ‘lipstick lesbian’ that only other lesbians would know.” And though she knows activists will by nature ask for just acceptance, she reminds us that running the Liberty is a business.

And the Liberty seems to think that marketing to the lesbian community makes good business sense. The team advertises in various LGBT publications, including this one. This year, with GO the Liberty is sponsoring “GO Cheer on the Liberty” away-game viewing parties at several New York lesbian bars.

“It makes sense that the Liberty has gradually come of age in the lesbian community,” says GO Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Amy Lesser. “When I go to games, It’s great to see dads enjoying the play with their daughters and sons. I’m excited to see everyone—the lesbians are there, but it’s not about the lesbian community. It’s about the game.”

For the 2008 season, the Liberty has scheduled a number of theme nights to attract a mix of New Yorkers, including “Inspiring Women Night,” “Dads and Daughters Night,” and of course, “Fan Appreciation Day.”

The team is also planning an historic “first” at Arthur Ashe Stadium. On July 19, the Liberty will take on the Indiana Fever at 7:30pm in the “Liberty Outdoor Classic”—marking a professional basketball team’s first-ever regular-season game played outdoors. A Fan Fest will kick off at 4 pm, and $1 of every ticket sold will go to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

Above and beyond events like these, it’s the WNBA touchstone of finding and showing the strength and power of women that attracts New Yorkers of all stripes to the Liberty. After all, New Yorkers like to be the loudest, the first to know and the most unique. Even today, recognizing women as legitimate athletes remains fairly cutting edge.

“The game in itself is a celebration,” says Wicks. “Let’s face it, that’s what it is. When you go there and see the women playing, that’s a celebration—there’s something beautiful right there.”

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