The WNBA’s Finally Coming Out of the Closet About Its Gay Fans

With a new pride initiative, the sports league hopes to appeal directly to LGBT basketball aficionados.

Brittney Griner, No. 42, of the Phoenix Mercury. (Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Jun 11, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

The WNBA’s finally acknowledging what anybody who’s ever sat courtside at an Atlanta Dream or Minnesota Lynx game already knows: Plenty of fans are gay. But after 20 years of pretending lesbian couples aren’t snapping up tickets and rooting for openly gay stars like Brittney Griner, the women’s basketball organization has, at long last, come out of the closet about its LGBT supporters.

In late May, the league’s president, Laurel J. Richie, announced WNBA Pride, a national platform that celebrates inclusion and equality while also combating anti-LGBT bias. While individual teams have had pride nights or a one-off “spirit” day, the initiative makes the WNBA the first professional sports association to make an across-the-board social responsibility commitment to the LGBT community.

The campaign isn’t just about providing pride T-shirts for fans who can make a three-point shot from half court. On June 22 the first-ever nationally televised pride game will air on ESPN2. But while players, LGBT fans, and their allies may see this as a social justice victory, Richie and the team owners may be thinking about the financial bottom line.

“We have looked at our marketing platforms and looked to strengthen each of them,” Richie told The New York Times, adding that the league’s market researchers found that 21 percent of lesbians have attended one of the 12 WNBA teams’ games, and a full 25 percent of lesbians have clicked on the television to watch one of the games. Continuing to pretend that LGBT fans aren’t cheering on the teams could create a backlash and boycott.

“Honestly, I think they should have done it a lot earlier because it was just pushed under a rug before, and [they] tiptoed around it,” Griner, who publicly came out as a lesbian in 2013, told the Times. “But that’s the older generation. Now, with more and more athletes coming out, it’s like they had to do something.”

At a time when out athletes like the NFL’s Michael Sam, the NBA’s Jason Collins, and the WNBA’s Griner are challenging professional sports’ unofficial “don’t ask, don’t tell” modus operandi, continuing to closet players could also hurt the league’s reputation.

“I didn’t want people who liked basketball to not bring their kids to games because they had a problem with homosexuality,” free agent Sharnee Zoll-Norman, who until recently played for the Chicago Sky, told the Times. “Everyone on my teams knew I was gay because I was open with it. It’s just that, for the league’s sake, I felt that I had that obligation to keep quiet about it publicly.”

Whether kiss cams will now be allowed at the Washington Mystics games—and whether the league will follow the lead of the International Olympic Committee to allow transgender athletes to compete—remains to be seen. But in the meantime, that rainbow basketball pride T-shirt can be yours for $21.95.