When the Women’s National Basketball Association first rolled out its inaugural Changemakers partnership program in January, the league couldn’t have known just how much life was about to change in the coming months.

The unique initiative involved a set of sponsorship deals with the likes of AT&T, Nike and Deloitte meant to help fund the league’s ongoing business transformation as it accounts for benefits and salary raises won by the players’ union in a collective bargaining agreement struck at the start of the year. Weeks after the announcement, though, the league’s roadmap was thrown into flux when the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the country and made the future of the season uncertain.

Executives at the WNBA and its partners were able to pivot the deal to better accommodate a year that nobody saw coming, according to WNBA chief operating officer Christy Hedgpeth and AT&T assistant vice president of sponsorships and experiential marketing Shiz Suzuki, who spoke at the Brandweek Sports Marketing Summit this week.

“We had to get a little bit more creative about it on how we do things,” Suzuki said. “For us it was about, ‘How can we best support the women that are going to be in this ‘wubble’ [the WNBA’s counterpart of the NBA’s quarantined tournament bubble] for the next couple months?’”

Part of that support involved free HBO Max memberships and 5G phones for the players as they spent months in isolation. The carrier also compiled a video of messages of support from big names like LeBron James that helped kick off the season.

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Gestures like these are part of what the WNBA called a reimagining of the traditional sports marketing deal that puts a greater emphasis on working with companies that share social values in common with the league’s mission to elevate female athletes.

“Changemakers is really a collective of like-minded companies around this ability to recognize that women’s sports is so underdeveloped and there’s an amazing opportunity and every reason in the world to support it,” Hedgpeth said.

Hedgpeth has tied the program to support for the collective bargaining agreement reached between league management and Women’s National Basketball Players Association, which guarantees a 53% pay raise, maternity benefits and performance-based bonuses, among other things. “It was really groundbreaking in a lot of ways in that it was timed with this business transformation,” Hedgpeth said.

She added that the program is even more relevant for the uncertain times being faced now than it was when it was launched, and hopes to continue to grow it going forward.

“We believe that there’s still so much opportunity out there—especially in the current climate—to continue to build on that collective,” Hedgpeth said. “It’s an opportunity to play a major role in taking this leap to a completely new place, one where [the league is] really, really thriving and healthy, into the future.”



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