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I recently had the opportunity to speak with Karen Bryant, the Vice President for Storm Operations, over the phone for about 40 minutes. Below is a transcript of our conversation. My goals were to ask some of the questions that concern fans, find out how the organization works, and to learn what’s in store during the offseason and next year. I want to thank Karen for taking time out of her busy schedule for this interview and for answering my numerous questions – Scott

Scott: In terms of attendance, we know where we ended up this year and some of the reasons why that happened. Could you give a quick recap of what some of the challenges were?

Karen: The biggest challenge was the ownership change that came during the strategic planning time for the Storm. Learning in January that we had an ownership change pending was crippling to our efforts, and I think equally importantly, to the morale of our organization. Secondly, we anticipated a sophomore slump in attendance which we had seen around the league with other expansion teams heading into their second year. The first year we obviously had the novelty of an inaugural team. We also had the momentum of our “Drive to 5500” campaign which we didn’t have in year two. The third thing that had a significant impact on the second season was the fact that we didn’t have dedicated staff here specifically focused on the sales and marketing efforts for the Storm. I also think that the hype around the Mariners season this year has definitely taken its toll on media coverage for the Storm. While there may not be a huge crossover in fan base, there is some because of the family audiences for both products.

S: Should we hope that they have a bad year next year? I’m just kidding [not really – Scott].

K: It’s great for the city. It’s great to see the city rally around a sports team again. All of those who were around Seattle during the championship run for the Sonics can certainly relate to that. It’s exciting. And I think that all of the sport organizations will benefit from reigniting that passion between a community and a sports team. They have certainly raised the bar in terms of fans’ expectations and the thrill of winning and having a team that’s contending for a championship.

S: So moving ahead for next year, you and a couple of your staff have said that season three started on August 15th. What does that mean and how is this offseason going to be different? What are some of your plans?

K: Well, what it means right now, is that we have begun our efforts to recap the season – having internal meetings, taking a look at everything that we did these last two years, figuring out what we can learn from our successes, from our failures, looking at the ticket sales numbers and the attendance numbers. We’re also doing focus groups this week. So, there’s just a lot of information gathering happening right now and that will continue for the next, probably, two to four weeks. And then we will take all of that information and sit down and start having brainstorming sessions to develop a comprehensive marketing strategy for year three. And unlike years past, we have dedicated staff who are charged with that mission of building a successful WNBA organizaton. We feel like we’ve had a tremendous amount of success in certain areas the last couple of years and it’s just a matter of building on that and really positioning ourselves for a really important and successful third year.

S: On our forum, a lot of people have posted suggestions or things that they’ve heard about or things that their friends have talked about who happen to be fans for other teams on some of the things that other teams have done. How much communication is there between the management group for each team on sharing ideas and coming up with things that maybe work for Miami that you guys might want to try up here?

K: Yes, a tremendous amount. We have regular conference calls almost on a weekly basis with other teams. There is a lot of conversation amongst the teams and at a league level, league wide between ticket sales managers and their counterparts, marketing managers and their counterparts about things that have been successful in certain markets. There is a tremendous amount of “copycatting” that goes on around the league.

S: One of the things about attendance that people have noted is that there’s about 2,000 or 3,000 core fans right now. What kind of specific things are you thinking about for this next year to expand that group?

K: Well, what we are focused on right now is that we’ve had over a 150,000 people come in our building over the last couple of years to watch Storm games. And we’ve got to do a better job of identifying who those people are, and coming up with a strategy, to not only get them back next year, but increase the frequency and number of game they attend in year three. And that’s really our focus right now. We not trying to grow our fan base by going out and attracting 4,000 new fans. We’re going to start by focusing on the fans that we already know have sampled our product and coming up with a strategy to a) get them back in the building and b) more importantly, increase the number of games they attend. And then we will grow from there. But the first step, and we’re underway with this, is our season ticket renewal process and retaining that core group of fans that you identified. We need to work really hard on retaining as many of those customers, if not all of them, as we possibly can. The whole concept of building attendance is focusing on your existing fans and increasing their frequency.

S: One of the things that, just because we’ve been in contact with fans from other countries through the Web site, is that they’ve kind of been scratching their heads a little bit about our attendance “problem” because their attendance at women’s basketball, or even men’s basketball, is so low compared to ours. Should the WNBA’s attendance be compared to the NBA and other American professional sports, or is there a perspective where you should be looking at how it’s attended in other countries as well?

K: There was another women’s professional basketball league recently called the ABL that folded about two and a half years ago. It averaged 3,000 fans per game. We’re now in a league that’s going into its sixth year. That’s unprecedented in women’s professional sports. And we’re averaging right around 10,000 fans a game as a league. That is a heroic effort. The panic around attendance, the negativity around it, the perception about low demand for this product is nonsense. It’s absolute nonsense.

S: Well, that’s what I was kind of getting at. Has it been overblown a little bit?

K: We had such a successful inaugural season in the WNBA and it exceeded everybody’s expectations. So in the first couple of years we were compared against that. And yes, attendance declined after that first year. Again, you had that novelty factor and then, starting around year three, year four, that comparison went away and now people are comparing us to long standing professional sports leagues. The NBA did not average 10,000 fans until its 25th season.

S: Wow. That’s the kind thing that people don’t hear. They just hear the one argument.

K: You know, we’re playing women’s professional basketball in the United States of America. We’re going into our sixth season and as a league, a sixteen team league, we’re averaging just under 10,000 fans a game. In the second year of the second women’s professional basketball organization in this city during a non-traditional time of year, during a season when we had an absolutely awesome summer, and our baseball team is contending for a world championship, we still averaged around 5,500 fans a game. I’m celebrating. Are we happy with the decline from our first year? No. Did we expect somewhat of a decline? Yes. And are we working tirelessly to make sure we get back to that benchmark? Absolutely. That’s our goal. And we just need to keep plugging away and doing what we know we do best and maintaining strong relationships with our existing fans and empowering them to help us spread the word about this great product. The WNBA is a great product. And I think everybody who has come into KeyArena over the last two summers and experienced Storm basketball has really appreciated the entertainment value and what this league is all about and the opportunities it creates, the role models it creates. We’ve all got our work cut out for us over the next eight, nine months to spread the word about what happens in Key Arena 16 nights every summer. And just get more people to be a part of it. That’s the only thing that I often get frustrated or disappointed by is that there are often magical moments in that building between players, between players and fans and more people need to experience that because it’s something unique and something very special.

S: That’s certainly something that we’ve tried to focus on. And I think more people are starting to hear that. So I’ve got a couple of questions about players. One of the things that seems like it’s a pretty big issue is player fatigue just because so many of the players play internationally in addition to the WNBA. And a lot of them end up playing year round it sounds like. Is there something that the WNBA is doing with FIBA, and the WNBL to coordinate schedules or allow for more rest? I’m sure those leagues are getting just as frustrated as we are when their players come back to them tired and injured.

K: Well, all I can tell you is that it is a topic of discussion every year amongst league officials and team officials, the players’ union, the players and it’s something we’re going to have to continue to work through as this league evolves. We obviously have to be respectful of the European leagues and other basketball organizations. But it’s definitely a concern and it’s first and foremost a concern of the players. Their health, their ability to stay injury free. We have such a short training camp followed very quickly by a very intense season. Starting a professional sports league is an evolution and it’s going to have some growing pains.

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