#FromtheArchives: Marketing Sue Bird
"She's like the anti-Britney Spears."
Hi, friends. How is everyone doing? I, personally, am emotionally exhausted after a week that’s involved saying goodbye to two absolute legends of women’s sports who both burst on the national stage in 1998 and dominated their fields for almost 25 years.
I’ve got Serena thoughts in the works, I promise, but last night when the Seattle Storm lost to the Las Vegas Aces in game four of the WNBA semifinals, and Sue Bird stepped off a basketball court for the last time as a player, I started perusing early newspaper coverage of her career, and found a piece that is, well … a lot. So I thought I’d share immediately.
But first, take a break to cry by watching Sue’s final on-court interview:
Are you a blubbering mess? Perfect. Let’s go.
The Hartford Courant; July 16, 2002: “WNBA Puts Fresh Face Forward”
Sue Bird’s professional accomplishments are exhausting even just to type. In her 20-season WNBA career, she was a four-time WNBA champion, a 13-time WNBA All-Star, a five-time member of the All-WNBA first team, a three-time member of the All-WNBA second team, a three-time WNBA assists leader, a five-time Russian national League champion, a five-time EuroLeague champion, a five-time Olympic gold medalist on Team USA, and a four-time world championship gold medalist (and one-time world championship bronze medalist). She’s first all-time in WNBA games played, assists, minutes played, All-Star appearances, and I’m sure she’s leading other categories that I completely forgot to check.
Her career exceeded all expectations, which is REALLY SAYING SOMETHING because she did not come into the league under the radar.
Bird was the No. 1 overall draft pick by the Seattle Storm in 2002. At the time, she was coming off of a UConn career that included two national championships, in 2000 and 2002. In 2002, UConn went undefeated and Bird swept awards season, taking the Naismith Award, the Wade Trophy, and being named the USBWA Women’s National Player of the Year award and the AP Player of the Year.
She came into the WNBA at a time when the league was struggling for an identity. And executives at all levels of women’s basketball were drooling at the thought of a player who could help the league piggyback off of UConn’s mainstream success.
Oh, and crucially? She was white, petite for a basketball player, and presented as — or at least was styled to be — very feminine and heterosexual.
Reading this profile from the Hartford Courant in June 2002, about a month into her WNBA career, is quite unsettling both as a stark reminder of how fucking awful the media was to women in general in the early aughts, and at how desperate the WNBA and sports marketers were to find a white WNBA player who men would be attracted to, but who could still fit the “role model” criteria necessary in women’s sports.
There’s “saying the quiet part out loud,” and then there’s whatever is happening in this article.
I could honestly annotate the whole article, but that seems complicated so let’s just hone in on a few beats:
“She is articulate with fresh-faced, girl-next-door appeal.” (That’s a long-winded way of saying “white.”)
This entire quote, from Constance Schwartz, the vice president of strategic marketing with The Firm, is just so, so very 2002, particularly the completely unnecessary pitting of women against each other, just because. But seriously — this is a quote a marketing executive was willing to give ON THE RECORD. What was/is being said behind closed doors? :
“She’s like the anti-Brittney [Spears]. She’s cool but credible. She goes out and plays her hardest, but she’s a team player and that comes off in every interview. She’s a beautiful person, and that definitely helps. One of the strongest qualities about Sue is that she transcends her audience — young girls like her, young boys, all races. I told a friend of mine who lives in Manhattan [about her] and he was like, ‘She’s so hot.’ He went on and on about her.”
(I bolded the part that gave me the most ick — you know, the fact that her “strongest quality” is that this guy’s friend found her hot — but it’s all way, way up there on the ick scale.)
I audibly laughed at this line: “They have secured her a multiyear deal with Nike, not just selling shoes or basketball clothing, but what Schwartz called, ‘lifestyle clothing.’”
Look, while Bird undoubtedly got more marketing and sponsorship opportunities than most/all of her Black teammates, I think it’s safe to say that if turning Bird into a full-on lifestyle brand with shoes and merch was Nike’s plan in 2002, the follow-through in that arena wasn’t the best, unless I missed all the Sue Bird signature shoes in the mid 2000s.
Finally, I was incredibly disturbed by this entire anecdote:
“To that end, the WNBA also has tried to appeal to a broader audience, helping book Bird on the ‘Best Damn Sports Show, Period,’ hast month. The hosts gushed about how beautiful she was as Bird appeared uncomfortable. This, of course, is all part of her appeal.”
Ah the sweet spot for a woman: We’re going to force you to be objectified, but you better not enjoy it, that would take away the fun.
Overall, this just made me sad. It made me sad for all the Black and queer players over the WNBA’s 26 years that have been overlooked and discarded for not fitting into a mold, and it makes me sad for Bird that she had to be forced to be this emblem of femininity and heterosexuality that she so obviously wasn’t comfortable with, because it wasn’t her true self. (Despite the “This is Who I Am” slogan.)
It makes me realize how far we’ve come over the past 20 years, and how much fucking further we have to go because of how many years were wasted trying to fit into mainstream molds that were created explicitly to exclude powerful athletes in women’s sports.
Finally, it makes me happy that Bird has received arguably the most mainstream attention in her professional career in the last five years, since coming out and sharing her relationship with Megan Rapinoe with the world. Trust me: Between being heralded as the WNBA’s Straight White Savior in 2002 to her status today as half of a high-profile and heavily-sponsored queer power couple today, there were many years — over a decade, really — where Bird went largely under-the-radar and underappreciated.
I could write a lot more, but we’ll keep exploring these themes in Power Plays going forward. For now, I’ll leave you with the sidebar from the 2002 Hartford Courant feature, which looked at the marketing plans for the other three UConn rookies in the WNBA that year. (Swin Cash was selected second overall, Asjha Jones was selected fourth overall, and Tamika Williams went sixth overall. A decent year for the Huskies, I suppose.)