Monday, August 31, 2009

Basketball Games as Religious Events: A Really Bad Marketing Plan?

While reading the Women’s Hoop Blog recently, I found my way to this thoughtful article in Full Court Press, the women’s basketball journal. The article, written by Lee Michaelson, publisher of Full Court Press, raises some really interesting questions about mixing sporting events and religion, WNBA marketing strategies, “promoting diversity and tolerance” and homophobia. It is a fairly long article, but I recommend that you read all of it.

The event sparking the article (pardon my terrible pun) was a Gospel Night sponsored by the LA Sparks as one of the many theme nights that WNBA teams have to entertain fans and highlight various events, groups and educational efforts. As part of Gospel Night in LA, gospel choirs sang at half-time and an evangelical Christian minister took the microphone to exhort fans to “put your hands together for Jesus” and “wave your hands in the air if you are a believer.” You can read the article for a more complete description and discussion of the event, but this abbreviated description provides the core issue for me.

While writing Strong Women, Deep Closets several years ago I attended a UMass Women’s basketball team exhibition game before the season started. They were playing a touring team from Athletes in Action. AIA is an evangelical Christian sports ministry. This is apparently a common practice for some men’s and women’s college teams. I had not experienced an event like this, however, and I remember being offended by the open proselytizing that occurred during half-time. The audience was invited by the AIA spokesperson to “accept Jesus,” A Christian testimonial was delivered by Nancy Lieberman, one of the players on the AIA team, and AIA informational brochures were distributed throughout the crowd. I was appalled and embarrassed that UMass would sponsor such a blatantly religious event. Partly because I knew of AIA’s position on homosexuality (it’s a sin and you can pray your way out of this deviant lifestyle choice), but the source of most of my discomfort came from the belief that this was an incredibly inappropriate event at a public education institution. What happened to the separation of religion and state? Who thought this was good for women’s basketball? Who approved this event? The incident spurred me to include an entire chapter devoted to the issue of evangelical Christian sport ministries and their relationship to homophobia in sports.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one was upset about turning the Mullins Center into a Christian revival meeting. After receiving complaints from me and others, the athletic department has never sponsored such an event again.
I find myself having the same feelings of discomfort, uneasiness and, yes, anger that some WNBA teams are also sponsoring religious events featuring only one variety of Christianity (evangelical) under the guise of “appreciation of diversity and tolerance?” Gospel Night is, first and foremost, a marketing strategy. I understand that, but is it smart marketing to risk alienating segments of your audience?

How could they not get that this could be, at the least, uncomfortable, and at the most, seriously offensive to non-Christians and Christians who just came to see a basketball game, not a religious celebration or who believe that the principle of separation of religion and state serves an important function in a country that believes in freedom of religion.

Then there is the whole gay angle. First, I am sure there may have been some gay Christians who enjoyed Gospel Night, but given the role that many evangelical Christian groups play in opposing civil rights for gay people, safe schools programs for LGBT students, and passage of hate crime legislation that includes sexual orientation or gender identity, for example, I bet there are many more gay people and heterosexual allies who are offended by events like Gospel Night.

Michaelson notes that some people are offended by WNBA marketing outreach to lesbian and gay fans, but makes the point that equating Gospel Night with marketing to gay fans is not analogous. Rarely does any WNBA team acknowledge gay fans in the arena and I don’t know of any team that sponsors an event during a game that “celebrates” lesbian and gay fans and their families. Most “outreach” to gay and lesbian fans takes place safely out of sight of other fans who might be offended – at pride events, in gay bars, on web sites, but in the arena during a game with an actual gay person holding a microphone asking fans to kiss your neighbor if you are gay – not so much.

OK, before someone thinks I am advocating that WNBA teams start sponsoring “Gay Kiss-In Night, I am not. I just think it is worth noting, as Lee Michaelson does way more articulately than I can, that some WNBA teams seem to be a lot more concerned about offending some fans than others. I wish the WNBA could hit on a successful marketing strategy that was based on a real principle of appreciating and respecting diversity that embraced all fans, Christian and non-Christian, gay and straight, black and white. We could all learn something and we could all feel happy to embrace differences if we are included in the definition of what is valued in a diverse fan base.


Helen said...

Pat - I wouldn't be made uncomfortable by the singing - the preaching, yes.

But, to your point: You are incorrect on your take on W marketing (not for the entire W, of sourse) Take this from Jayda's June Blog:

As one of the signature events for Seattle Pride this weekend, the Storm is offering ticket discounts and four "Pride" nights this season as part of their thanks to the lesbian and gay community for its support. The first is Friday's "Girl's Night" where the team hosts Los Angeles. Members of the champion Washington women's softball team are slated to be recognized.

I think Sacto did something, too, as did... LA?

And didn't Cal do something last... year?

How does this jibe with the separation thesis.

Anonymous said...

I find it amusing that gays want diversity yet when it involves Christians the tune changes.

Dicveristy involves everyone, not just a select few.

Pat Griffin said...

Helen, if I am wrong about the "out of the arena" promos to the LGBT community, I stand corrected. And I agree with you about the difference between the singing and the preaching. Singing, yes. Preaching, no.

Pat Griffin said...

Anonymous, you missed my point entirely. I don't believe WNBA games are an appropriate place for "preaching religion or sexuality. I agree with you that Christians should be included when we talk about diversity, but the programs I was discussing here were not inclusive at all. It was only a Christian perspective and the crowd was invited to put identify themselves as Christian and "put your hands together for Jesus." I would feel equally uncomfortable if any other religious or spiritual perspective was celebrated like this at a WNBA game. It is just not the appropriate place for this.

I also agree with your final sentence: Diversity is for everyone, not just the select few. What do you know, you and a lesbian agree on this.