Q&A: Sharon Robustelli, WNBA's senior director of communications

Sharon Robustelli, WNBA's senior director of communications, was previously VP at Marina Maher Communications, where she handled a number of their consumer products, such as Head & Shoulders, Cover Girl Cosmetics, and Audiovox.

Sharon Robustelli, WNBA's senior director of communications, was previously VP at Marina Maher Communications, where she handled a number of their consumer products, such as Head & Shoulders, Cover Girl Cosmetics, and Audiovox.

She talked to about the WNBA's place in history, the communications opportunities ahead, and why the failure of the professional women's soccer league is no portend for the WNBA's fate. Q. What unique communication opportunities and challenges does the league have this year? A. People tell me I joined the league at the right time. Overall, the talent that is coming into the WNBA this year clearly presents the best rookie class in the history of the WNBA. There is a lot of energy and lot of excitement around our new, young players this season. [Phoenix Mercury rookie] Diana Taurasi had been watched throughout her college career [at the University of Connecticut], and the NCAA women's championship this year was the highest, most-viewed basketball game - men's, women's, college, or professional - ever on ESPN. That shows what energy is out there for the women's basketball game right now. Q. The recent folding of the WUSA (women's soccer league) is more fodder for those who feel a women's pro sports league cannot succeed. Do you think a comparison linking this failure to the WNBA's chances is unmerited? - GF, New York A. I think it is unmerited. The league folding is unfortunate and it's not a good thing for women's sports. Being a part of the sports industry and being a woman, you have to root for the league. The country should have room for more women's sports. Overall, I don't think it's a valid [comparison] to the WNBA because we have a very different structure than I understand they had at the WUSA, and we're already planning ahead. We have broadcasting and marketing agreements that go through 2008. People are really looking ahead for this to be a lasting organization. We continue to have strong marketing partners, like Procter & Gamble, which has just added ten brands to its alliance with us in our multi-year partnership. This is the year that I believe people will look at the WNBA for the talent that exists in the league and take it beyond supporting it on an intellectual or cause-related level. Q. Many take umbrage when women are singled out for their ability as women. Rolling Stone's issue "Women Who Rock," for one, angered some female musicians. Will there ever be the opportunity for a league of women athletes that does not have the word "women" in the title and does this matter? A. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing for there to be a separate league for women's sports. Now, some people think that provisions should be made because it's a women's [sport]. That's the kind of thing that is offensive to me. For sports, it's proven that you have to look at women's basketball as a different game. Women's basketball is now leaps and bounds above where the men's game was at the same time. The NBA has been around since 1946. Going into our 8th season, our games are attended at a level that it took the NBA 20 years to get to. You have to recognize the women for the athletes they are, not for being women. Women's tennis is acknowledged to be a different game [than the men's], but it is judged on its own merit. Q. From a communications standpoint, how intertwined are the NBA and WNBA? A. From a communications and structural standpoint, the WNBA's communications team is within the overall NBA communications team. We're part of NBA communications. It's almost like an agency to the effect that we all handle different accounts. I was hired to head up the WNBA's communications for both the sports side and the non-sports side of the business. There are some synergies that exist that have been very helpful. There's NBA TV, which will be carrying about 50 WNBA games this season, in conjunction with our broadcast deal. Games will be carried on ABC, ESPN, ESPN 2, Telemundo, and Oxygen. Q. Since the league is only in its eighth year, do you feel there is a lot of room to change things and adapt more easily than for leagues that have been around for decades or centuries? - TA, New York A. Being a younger, newer organization, there are a lot of opportunities we have that some of the more long-standing operations may not have. We're able to be a little more creative in our marketing and communication strategies overall. We look to our audience, and that drives the way we communicate. We have a very different audience for a sports team. It is disproportionately female - heads of households, moms, and young girls. When you first start an organization, you have an idea who you want the consumer of your product to be, but you can't be certain. Once it all shakes out, you have the ability to adapt the messaging and communications to who that audience is. That's one thing we're able to do at this stage. Q. Community activism seems to be an integral part of sports, and especially with the WNBA? Why is this so? A. What makes it different is that we're dealing with athletes who are in the public eye for something that creates admiration. Whether they intend to or not, the players have to buy into the notion that they are inspiring because what they do and the level of attention that sports receive in this country. Organizations need to [provide tools for the players] so they can go out into the community and reach people in a productive way when they're off the court. The WNBA and NBA has three key platforms that allow our players to go out to the community and reach young people in situations where they can have a lasting impression: Mind, Body, Spirit. It deals with health and well-being. There's also "Read to Achieve" for WNBA and NBA, where our athletes go into school assemblies and encourage reading. Q. The NBA has had more than its share of brushes with the law, while the WNBA has maintained a better image. Why is that? A. I can't speak to the NBA question, but the WNBA athletes do have a certain worth ethic. They've been in the public eye in their college community and they grow up so fast. They are already stars in their respective markets that they are pretty well-seasoned in terms of handling themselves. Q. Does the WNBA provide media training for rookies, or is it left to individual teams to handle their players? A. It's a combination. The league sets up rookie orientation. That takes places over three days. They go through a number of seminars and panel discussions and media training is covered within that. The teams will also often have their own media training sessions. Q. How closely do you work with the PR people for individual teams, and do they have the ability to embark upon their own marketing and PR strategies? A. They have a lot of latitude at the team level to create their own marketing programs. We have an overall umbrella theme that serves as our national marketing campaign. The campaign, called "This Is Who I Am," focuses on players from different teams and gives a well-rounded view of who these women are. There are also very active PR departments at the teams. The Washington Mystics have an award for perfect attendance. They give out t-shirts and promote the award. We help team shape programs like that for their market. Q. Last year the LPGA initiated a PR drive to make some of their players seem more feminine or glamorous. How does the WNBA view the current image of its players? Would your league ever consider this type of PR move? A. I don't think that would be a deliberate strategy for us. We have some of the best athletes in the world and we also have a game that is incredibly competitive. So we try to showcase that. At the same time, we don't ever lose sight of the fact they're women, and we want to show their personalities. There are various athletes in the league who might be glamour girls in their natural life. If that is part of their personality, we want that to come out. Q. How has media coverage of the WNBA changed over the past few years - are there more or fewer opportunities for coverage? A. I think the coverage has definitely been good. It has continued to evolve. There is definite room for growth, both in terms of the quality and quantity of coverage that we receive. This year is going to be pivotal in making that change. The coverage will naturally increase and evolve because the skill level on the court will be such that it will command that attention. Q. There has been some criticism of the WNBA from gay groups that the league hasn't done enough to reach out to what many consider a high-concentration of lesbian supporters. Some teams have done some outreach individually catering towards a lesbian fan base. To my knowledge, there hasn't been a league-wide campaign. Do you feel the criticism is unmerited? Do you think that the league is doing a good job of promoting inclusion? A. We really promote the game of basketball. We know who our audience is, and I think our audience varies between who is watching at home and who is physically in the arena. We reach all women. Our core audience is women. Beyond that, there are certain ways in which we're looking to broaden the appeal, but that would be more looking at sports fans, in general, whether they are male or female. Outside of that, we promote the game to whoever is interested in the game. We welcome you with open arms. We're happy that it appeals to women in such a strong way. Q. So do you think that sexual orientation - either way - doesn't need to be part of the discussion? A. We're promoting a sport. I don't see where there would be room for that. We want sports fans and women and young girls who can identify with these young girls. That's who our core audience is. Outside of that, I wouldn't say that there would be a strategy, I guess, targeting specific groups. [Our strategy is] based on selling the game and the talent that is out there. I would say that - after this season - that our audience would continue to evolve. Q. What things do you want to accomplish this year from a communications standpoint? A. There are a couple of things. One is to really broaden our coverage in the sports pages and have the game start to own its own real estate. So that reporters don't feel that if they write about the WNBA that means that they have less space for something else. With this being an Olympic year, we can use that to take advantage of the fact that all eyes are going to be on the women's game this year. I was at a meeting recently and our president Val Ackerman said it best. She said, "Years from now, people will be writing history books discussing what we're doing right now with the WNBA." We are going to be an example for future women's sports leagues.

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