How Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart will add women to fantasy sports

Over the past two decades, the world of fantasy sports has become a cultural phenomenon and lucrative business venture, offering a new way for fans to interact with professional sports leagues and their favorite players. In 2015 alone, the country’s top fantasy companies attracted $3 billion in player entry fees, and approximately 56.8 million people played fantasy sports. Few, if any, of those 56.8 million players engaged in a single game for women’s sports.

That’s because women’s sports, and notably the WNBA—the most established professional women’s league in the country— have been locked out of the fantasy sports equation.

In March, point guard of the Seattle Storm and three-time Olympic Gold Medalist Sue Bird lamented the lack of fantasy sports options for the WNBA in an article for The Player’s Tribune. “Fantasy brings fans into the game — it’s participatory,” she wrote. “Not only can our hardcore fans not participate in the game the way other sports fans can for other leagues, but neither can casual sports fans who might have a greater interest in the WNBA if they had some sort of personal investment.”

The WNBA is entering its historic 20th season having never benefited from an organized fantasy sports option. Last season, NBA commissioner Adam Silver voiced concerns over the WNBA’s slow growth, and expressed the need for better marketing of the game to fans.

In an interview with Excelle Sports on Tuesday, Bird expressed her view that including the WNBA in fantasy sports is one way to address the marketing concerns and drive fandom for the women’s game. “It can introduce new people to the game of women’s basketball. It might just start out as another way to play a fantasy sport, but before they know it, they’ll be actual fans,” Bird said.

While Bird recalls a few scattered efforts over the years to organize WNBA fantasy, the fantasy industry itself has essentially shunned women’s basketball, depriving it of the opportunity men’s leagues have to engage with an ever-increasing fantasy fan base.

The quest for women’s fantasy options on the web consists of a hopeless attempt at plugging search terms into the void, with the results turning up a few homegrown and self-funded sites like the NWSL Fantasy League. Scott Lewis, the fantasy league’s owner and operator, created the site during the National Women Soccer League’s (NWSL) inaugural season to ensure that the league had a fantasy gaming option. While Lewis’s site hosts about 1,600 active users, it lacks marketing and endorsements, rendering it less visible than fantasy industry giants like FanDuel and DraftKings.

FanDuel and DraftKings, the two largest companies in pay-to-play daily fantasy, do not include women’s sports on their platforms. DraftKings partnered with the New York Liberty last season and was sponsored on the Liberty’s jerseys, but the company has never featured a WNBA challenge on its site. Fans can visit the DraftKing’s Fantasy Sports Bar and Lounge in Staples Center, featuring tablets and computers for fantasy gaming, yet they lack the option to pick Candace Parker or Nneka Ogwumike for a fantasy lineup when the Los Angeles Sparks take the court.

The marginalization of the women’s game in the fantasy industry suggests that companies view women’s sports, including the WNBA, as a risk they simply aren’t willing to take.

Stacie Stern, the sole female member on the board of directors at the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA) and General Manager of Head2Head Fantasy, has worked in the fantasy sports industry since 2001, but has yet to see the inclusion of women’s sports.

Head2Head, which has provided fantasy sports contests since 1994, has never offered a WNBA contest. Stern attributes this to revenue concerns, particularly for pay-to-play companies like Head2Head where profit comes primarily from paid cash games.

“I liken it to the ratings. If I’m talking about ratings for NBA games, they tend to be higher than the WNBA. The Warriors have helped quite a bit. Having Kobe retire helped. But we don’t really have that excitement yet for the WNBA,” Stern explained.

To Bird, the perception that the women’s game is less exciting and appealing is a common one, particularly in the fantasy industry.

“People just think it, and therefore automatically assume it’s true, and then don’t take the quote-on-quote risk,” Bird said.

Even the platforms that don’t necessarily rely on paid cash games, such as Yahoo and ESPN, have remained risk averse to women’s fantasy. A search correction of whether ESPN offers a WNBA fantasy app on Google yields a telling result: “Does ESPN have an NBA fantasy app?”

Screenshot.
The Google search return on whether ESPN has a WNBA fantasy app. (Screenshot)

Whereas DraftKings, FanDuel and Head2Head are driven primarily by revenue accumulated from pay to play, ESPN, which offers platforms for men’s basketball, soccer, baseball, football and golf, relies on clicks and engagements from viewers. But Stern believes that once someone finds sponsors willing to deliver fantasy to WNBA fans, other platforms will follow suit.

“Once that step is taken, a glass ceiling will be shattered,” Stern predicted. “Once someone can deliver a good product, you’ll see a lot of people doing it.”

Nick Lawson, the owner and co-founder of SQWAD, a new fantasy platform, is hoping to deliver the product that can break through the fantasy industry’s lock-out of women’s sports.

This season, SQWAD is teaming up with Bird, Diana Taurasi, Jewell Loyd, Maya Moore, Breanna Stewart, Seimone Augustus and Brittney Griner to launch the WNBA’s first-ever live-fantasy platform.

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Lawson, a former college football player and longtime sports fan, developed the idea for a live-fantasy platform, which enables users to pick and change players during the course of live play, as opposed to the more traditional route of selecting players before the game.

Lawson shopped his idea around until he found a home for it in an unlikely place for fantasy sports: a women’s basketball team. In the 2015 WNBA season, Lawson did a successful soft-launch of his app exclusively for the Storm. After realizing the potential to further capitalize on the women’s game in fantasy sports, he connected with Lindsay Kagawa Colas of Wasserman Media Group, an agent who represents some of the top names in the league, including SQWAD’s athlete partners.

“Lindsay is a real go-getter, and she saw the opportunity there. She wanted her athletes at the forefront of that, and Sue got the conversation going in The Players’ Tribune,” Lawson explained.

The conversation is an important one, vital to the development of stories for the growing number of readers and followers of fantasy sports.

Fantasy sports writers like Aaron Bruski, the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers’ Association basketball writer of the year, have made careers out of pushing content on stats and predictions to fans. Bruski has authored hundreds of fantasy articles for over a decade as a contributor at NBC Sports and Rotoworld, and recently developed his own fantasy startup. But he’s never published content on the WNBA, because the fantasy lockout of women’s sports has also resulted in non-existent coverage of the women’s game from fantasy writers.

If the opportunity to cover the women’s game presented itself, Bruski says that he and other fantasy writers would be pressing it and marketing it to fans.

“Given that the product is developed, and there’s marketing muscle with the WNBA, you could get enough fantasy players in year one to gain the momentum necessary for people to embrace women’s fantasy basketball. There might not be Russell Westbrook jumping and leaping over buildings with a vicious slam dunk, but once you get over those optics, the game is very exciting,” Bruski said.

The WNBA may lack advanced analytics, but the core ingredients for fantasy games, or what Bruski refers to as the “popcorn stats”— points, rebounds, assists, steals, three-point percentage, field-goal percentage— are available for the taking. It’s just a matter of when and how the numbers will finally be used to drive the women’s game down the same lucrative path that professional men’s teams have taken.

The true incentive for the typical fantasy fan isn’t the mere excitement of the game, or even the chance for a payout. It’s the bragging rights for those who can strategically piece together the numbers and stats to achieve a winning combination. Men’s players might jump higher, run faster and dunk more, but the popcorn stats and the numbers themselves remain the driving forces of fantasy, regardless of whether they belong to a male or female player.

So while Westbrook’s dunk may indeed soar over skyscrapers, it’s still worth the same two-point advantage as 6-foot-5 Elena Delle Donne—who had a higher player efficiency rating in the first 10 games of the 2015 season than any player in NBA or WNBA history— gliding effortlessly through defenders to lay it in (or dunk, since she can do that too). Steph Curry’s three, even if launched from a mile away, remains just as valuable in terms of fantasy numbers as Diana Taurasi’s three-point dagger.

Prototype image of SQWAD game. (Photo via SQWAD homepage)
Prototype image of SQWAD game. (Photo via SQWAD homepage)

Lawson and Bruski agree that the challenges of the industry, and of convincing fans to get to know the female players who sometimes remain invisible to large portions of sports viewers, are solvable. In their view, the transition to fantasy women’s basketball isn’t such a stretch given the scheduling of the WNBA season, which begins when the NBA season concludes—the time when fantasy basketball fans are looking for their next fantasy fix.

SQWAD’s incorporation of the WNBA can hook the diehard fantasy basketball gamer, and also reel in another substantial viewing demographic of the WNBA: women themselves, who are currently engaging in fantasy sports at higher rates than ever before. From 2011-2015, studies from the FSTA demonstrate that women went from being 10-11 percent to 34 percent of the fantasy sports players.

“Women are coming out of the shadows with fantasy gaming,” Stern explained. “It’s not gender specific, like we thought it was, because everyone loves to watch these games.”

The key appeal of SQWAD is its ability to inspire a core following for the women’s game while setting it on equal footing beside men’s fantasy options. If all goes as planned, Lawson hopes that SQWAD will offer the WNBA, and eventually the NWSL, right next to men’s sports like the NBA and Major League Soccer.

For Lawson, attempts to segment women’s sports and create platforms solely for the WNBA are inherently problematic. “Why can’t I have someone interested in NBA also get interested in the WNBA?” he asked. “Why can’t I get them engaging on the same platform?”

SQWAD also carries the promise to be even more engaging than traditional fantasy through its incorporation of real time, live-fantasy challenges. Users will be able to pick players for a challenge when the Phoenix Mercury play the Storm, but have the ability to change those players even as the game is live. Bird can go up for her signature mid-range jumper and swish it, and a user can accumulate points for that, with the freedom to switch her out on the next possession.

The stats support a jump in engagement with the incorporation of live fantasy. On average, fans change their players 38 times per game, compared with 8 per day in daily fantasy.

In addition to real-time fantasy, SQWAD also offers a free agency function, with players valued game-to-game based on their stats and performance. The players have already been ranked with a “SQWAD score,” which is based on game stats and used to dictate player prices.

Player

SQWAD SCORE

Elena Della Donne

12.7

Maya Moore

11.7

Angel McCoughtry

10.9

Tina Charles

10.4

Skylar Diggins

9.9

Nneka Ogwumike

9.7

DeWanna Bonner

9.4

Brittney Griner

9.4

Diana Taurasi

9.3

Chiney Ogwumike

9.2

Though Bird, Taurasi, Moore, Loyd, Augustus, Stewart and Griner won’t personally participate in the SQWAD challenges, they’re expected to be featured as sponsors for certain games. Additionally, since SQWAD won’t offer a pay-to-play format, the players will be featured in certain brand rewards and offerings for users.

Lawson’s pre-season value picks for a potential SQWAD lineup are Crystal Langhorne, Loyd, Griner, Bird and Taurasi. While his picks are admittedly Storm heavy, Lawson’s choices reflect what many SQWAD users will likely have a chance to bet on this season: Loyd to follow up on her rookie of the year performance, Langhorne to be a monster on the boards, Griner to host a block party, Bird to dish even more assists with Stewart on the floor, and Taurasi to return with a vengeance.

As for Bird, SQWAD will be her first real experience with fantasy sports, but she’ll be on the lookout for SQWAD scores to make her own predictions for a valuable SQWAD lineup this season.

“I’m going to have to go check out those numbers, just like everyone else, then pick from there,” she said.

If Bird’s penchant for winning is any indication, it’s safe to say she’d assemble quite the squad.

To sign up for the beta launch of SQWAD this season, visit http://sqwadapp.co.

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