Moving sport forward with the WNBA
Moving sport forward with the WNBA
On the heels of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s most historical season yet, we sit down with the league’s first-ever Chief Marketing Officer and 20+ year Nike veteran, Phil Cook. From exponential growth in viewership and social engagement to unique partnerships with Google, Amazon Prime and Coinbase, the WNBA is on fire—yet is only getting started.
Heather: Women’s professional sports have been on the rise and have created a new generation of iconic athletes for people to look up to. That’s why I’m so excited to be speaking with Phil Cook, an industry veteran with over 20 years experience at Nike and now the WNBA’s first-ever chief marketing officer. Phil joined the WNBA in December, 2020, just in time to usher the league into its best and most historical season yet. From exponential growth and viewership to unique partnerships with Google, Amazon Prime and Coinbase, the WNBA is on fire—yet is only getting started. Welcome, Phil.
Phil: Heather, thanks for having me. That’s quite a lead in. I’m humbled by that, but thank you.
Heather: Absolutely. All right, well, let’s just start, by looking back at the year, it was a historic season for the WNBA—its 25th—and it was also your inaugural year as its first CMO. So, what’s been most rewarding and what’s been most challenging as you look back?
Phil: Coming into the job, I thought my eyes were wide open. And boy, I didn’t know how much wider they could get. The amount of effort and passion it takes to operate a major league of sports in this country is enormous. I had no idea what it takes, the effort it takes, and the commitment and the always on…running a league is not for the faint of heart. It’s not for those who waffle, who can’t make decisions. You’ve got to go. The league goes, and time doesn’t stop. I’m learning, and I’m learning the pace and the quality of decisions that need to be made at pace. It has been exciting. And a big part of my learning around how this thing operates and what opportunities exist has probably been the most rewarding piece of it. Everyone is very focused. Everyone is very passionate. They do this because they love the league; and seeing that love and desire to continue to grow the league has been, again, a very welcoming environment for someone like me from the outside.
Heather: Even though it’s turned 25, it’s an adult now, it can rent a car, as you said…the WNBA is in transformation. You’ve spoken about the shift from playing defense to playing offense and moving from survive to thrive. I would just love to know more about how you’re seeing that transformation, where you’re seeing opportunities for growth and, as you said, to kind of “get it right.”
Phil: Yeah. When we look at the W and the growth opportunity that exists—and shifting from defense to offense or survive to thrive—it covers our fans, obviously, right? They’re the ones that we’re in service of and trying to deliver to them an amazing experience. It involves our sponsors, who are investing their very cherished dollars in our league because they see the transformation that’s taking place and they see the opportunity that’s in front of us. Our job is to put that opportunity in front of those sponsors and get them excited about the potential that our fans have been rewarding us with. They’ve been watching the games, COVID notwithstanding. They’ve been wanting to attend the games and they’re wanting to deepen their engagement with us. They’re investing their dollars in buying the merch, and they’re investing their very precious time and consuming the game—whether that’s on broadcast or in social feed or in highlights.
People are starting to recognize the quality of the game on the court; and I think that is, again, something that we’ve known for 25 years—just how good that play is. And it’s now just being recognized by a new audience, a younger audience; and equally important as the play on court is the quality of the people off the court, right? Their cool as hell, right?
These athletes really, really represent, culture and youth and design and all the things that are inspiring and fun about being an influencer in today’s society. And it’s hard not to lean into that. They are the heart and soul of the league. They are the league. And the more we can share who they are into the environment of our fans, with our sponsors and with our broadcast partners, I think the more we’re going to see success.
Heather: The, league unveiled a new logo and a marketing campaign this year to commemorate the 25th. Talk to me about what went into developing that whole campaign, “Count It,” and what kind of reaction you got from it?
Phil: Yeah. Thank you. When people take a job for the first time, they usually have a set of problems that need to get solved. I can tell you that this was the opposite when I jumped in. I was hired at the time when this thing was 80, 90% baked. So, I got to inherit amazing work.
I have a creative director named Roman King who led the briefing process. And it was clear that they wanted a mark that was going to be distinctive and disruptive and tell a story in and of itself. And they did an amazing job of bringing that to life. The “Count It” phrase itself kind of personifies what the league has gone through for 24 years up until this past year. It’s, you know, the classic double entendre. You can “count” 25 years of being a great league; but, in basketball, “count” is what you say after making a shot under adversity. You get fouled, you finish the play, you exclaimed “Count it.” That’s kind of how the W, the teams, the league, the sponsors have felt for 24 years. It was an expression of “Hell yeah, we’ve been fouled along the way; but, you know, we made the bucket and we’re getting better; getting stronger.”
So that story, in and of itself, is amazingly ownable for us. We felt like it was a mark and a phrase that was uniquely ownable by the W. And the look itself—the logo itself with the XX and what I call the picket fence, or the tally marks to 25—again, disruptive in the space of 25 years, recognized in 25 years. A lot of teams, leagues, organizations do logos, do marks like that. And we wanted something that stood out, that told a story, that created discussion within our ecosystem and even spawns discussion and dialogue beyond the walls of WNBA fans. And we think it does.
Heather: I love that. And it really did, I think, break through in an interesting way. And it represents what you’ve said. It kind of goes beyond the game in terms of what the league and all of those that work for it are trying to achieve.
There was also the “Say Her Name” campaign. Tell me a little bit about that and about what the reaction was to that campaign and how you see, as you’re moving into what will be the 26th season, continuing that legacy of really meaningful campaigns to represent what the W is.
Phil: The “Say Her Name” campaign was really reflective of listening to the voice of the athlete. I learned that as a very strong tenet through my years at Nike, and it’s never, never proven me wrong. In this case, our athletes were very supportive of representing that piece of social injustice. And they wanted to use their opportunity and their place in society to remind people that social injustice is not to be ignored, is not to be forgotten. They wanted to ensure that their voice was heard. They were a collective of 144 behind something very powerful, and they felt very strongly that we should use their platform and their exposure to convey their feelings and their sentiments around something they felt was not being represented or recognized at the level it should be.
So we’re very proud at the league to have athletes that are united against social injustice, and it’s rewarding to know that the alignment—from athletes to teams to WNBA as a league—is very much there. We’re very aligned as a trilogy of stakeholders in this league and, to take it even further, to partners, sponsors and fans.
We reflect the sentiment of our fans and so many parts of society. What you want to represent and how you want your feelings conveyed and who you want to support are very strong sentiments around deciding whether you’re going to give your time and energy to something or not.
And in the world of influence, these athletes are influencers; and our fans are aligned with their sentiment and their positioning around social injustice. And that’s a big part of how we’re going to continue to grow this league. The W has a very unique stance, I think, in pro sports—where we have a set of athletes that are very strong, very vocal around social platforms, LGBTQ plus, Black Lives Matter and, of course, gender equity. Some of the platforms that are very important to not only our ethics but also our fan base and that connection between the two are what helps strengthen and grow our league.
Heather: I’m clearly hearing from you that very strong, undeniable sense of duty and passion for, again, beyond the court. Is there something that surprised you as you got to meet these women in a more, you know, intimate way in terms of partnering with them directly by being in the league?
Phil: I’ve been fortunate to spend time with some of the athletes and be on calls with them and, equally, just observing them. And I can tell you a couple of things: They’re competitive as hell, right? No matter what they’re getting after, they’re all in. And they don’t compromise, whether it’s how they commit on court or how they pursue business and social justice off court. They’re all in on things. They don’t waffle; they’re not inconsistent. They’re, very, very consistent in their measures, and it’s humbling and it’s enlightening. Marketing has a responsibility to help build these athletes in their brands, and they want to have a point of view on this. They’re not going to just allow me to sit in and represent the league without their points of view. And their points of view are strong, and they’re intelligent, and they’re inspiring, and they’re game changing—and we react to them, because they’ve been a part of it, and they’ve lived it at a level I cannot fully comprehend. They give great insights around how we should approach the league and our marketing and everything. And they’re not afraid to let us know. I think that’s the beauty, as I think through this—their willingness to share their perspective and their point of view is unmatched with other athletes that I’ve worked with in the past. They have a true passion for ensuring that the league is representative of what they want the league to be and whom they want to be within the league.
And that’s inspiring. And there’s a responsibility to keep up with that. I can’t take days or moments off. You just can’t. You’ve got to be continually working on your game. And my game just happens to be driving the marketing of the league—just like they work on their game day in and day out. And they inspire you to keep up which has probably been the biggest eyeopener for me as I’ve gotten to know them.
Heather: That’s amazing. I mean, the product is the people. You’re leading the W’s consumer data strategy. Tell me what you’re looking to better understand and how you’re seeing behavior changes.
Phil: Data, to me, is good if you leverage it, and you mine insights from it and then act upon those insights. Otherwise, it’s just noise. How are you using data to get to something? I have a saying: You don’t want to be a great hunter and a lousy gatherer. You don’t want to go get the data and then just leave it to sit and ride and not use it. You have to be quick with the data and be responsive, because the reactions and the data that we’re getting shift very quickly.
We have a robust, data organization at the league, and we do a lot of vertical efforts so that we can get our own sets of data and start to leverage those and learn. We A/B test things and do all the things that marketers are supposed to do, and it’s made us more efficient, for sure. It’s taught us where fans are attracted and where they’re not, where they’re engaged and where they’re not. And we’re going to continue to lean into that.
The piece of information that continues to come back over and over again when we look at the data is: the more our fans get access to who the athletes are and athlete storytelling, the more willing they are to engage. And when a fan or consumer is more engaged in your product, they’re more willing to spend time and spend money against it. And that’s a big part of our approach here; we want to do more athlete storytelling. There are 288 stories across 144 athletes: the stories of the athletes on the court and the stories of the athletes off the court. And the more we can get that out into the ecosystem of the fans we want to attract, we know that the engagement levels are going to go up. And, really, that’s how we’re leveraging the use of our content to create the data and learn from that so that we can further serve the fan. They will decide what they find interesting, and they will decide whom they find interesting. And we’re going to put things out there and learn from that. The best marketers do that, and it is a big focus of how we will move this organization going forward.
Heather: What’s something that you can share that you think is a representation of some of that more future-forward marketing prowess that you’re bringing to the league?
Phil: There are engagement platforms that exist within sport right now that are absolutely blowing up. And wagering on sports is no longer a four-letter word. It’s really becoming an amazing engagement tool to attract and retain consumers of your sport. The gamification of sport is phenomenally growing and an exciting platform, so you’ll see us continue to grow into that space.
We’ve just come off our first year of NFTs and, you know, digital investments, if you will. I call them investments. A lot of our fans are investing in these as collectibles and the opportunity to not only partake in the ownership of these but also in the exchange of these as an investment vehicle. And it’s a fun proposition, I think, in a new innovative platform for our fans to, again, deepen their engagement. When we watch the engagement of NFT purchase and exchange, that data in and of itself can tell you so much about who are the athletes, who are the teams, what are the matchups, what are the moments that are most exciting and compelling to our fans. The use of that knowledge in real time will really help dictate what we do moving forward.
We dabbled with on-court data metrics at our Commissioner’s Cup Championship game this year. We had a couple of partners come in and really teach us what’s possible by getting on-court data, on-court information about the game and about the performance nature of the game and bring that to our fans. And, again, you’re giving that fan an opportunity to deepen their engagement within your game and see you as an innovation platform. I think that’s where we want to be.
We’re inviting innovation partners to us. We’re innovating with them within our game. They’re bringing their innovations to us, saying, “Can we try these within your ecosystem?” And we welcome that, because we want to move sport forward. We’re not just trying to move the WNBA forward; but if we can innovate and find those partners who want to innovate with us, we think we can move sport in its entirety forward and really be the tip of the spear on how fans engage and consume their game as they move forward.
Heather: So cool. And so many opportunities to experiment and to be unafraid of what may come of it. And I do love the fact that it’s about “capital A” Athlete and the sport. And, quite frankly, gender doesn’t really come into play there. It’s just about being innovative.
Phil: This isn’t about women’s basketball. This is just about basketball. These athletes are the best basketball players in the world. If you’re a fan of basketball, you’re a fan of the WNBA. The way these athletes compete and their abilities and their skills on court are phenomenal. They’re unmatched. The league is a very competitive place. There are only 12 teams, and there’s room for more. We’ll get there one day, but we’re very proud of, again, the product that’s on the 94 by 50 every night. It’s just fantastic.
Heather: I love all of the terms that you’re using—”94 by 50.” I’ve got to remember them next time I’m talking to my kids about the game. I love it. So, Nike…you know, it’s hard to have a conversation and not talk about Nike, given your tenure there and just the fact that it’s one of the most loved brands in the world. You’ve talked about some of your proudest work was work that you were doing more recently. Tell me about that and something that you’ve brought with you to this new role as you’ve taken it on.
Phil: The final few years of my Nike tenure gave me an opportunity to, what many people call, work in white space. I worked in the global basketball category; and at Nike, you know, we had a very significant share of the basketball marketplace. And scratching out those remaining share points is a heavy lift. I think the opportunity that we presented was: Can we just make a bigger pie? Can we just invite more people into the game through the lens of performance, through the lens of culture, and then take our share from that? And, that gave us an opportunity to think of the game differently and think of new consumers who could enter into the world of basketball maybe through less traditional lenses or find the underserved marketplace.
So, we looked at it with a sense of curiosity and found a couple of areas that gave us an opportunity to grow the game. And the most underserved piece of the game was the women’s game. That led me to years of working internally at Nike to try to serve that woman consumer around the world—knowing that there’s a drop-off of women’s sport. Young girls drop out of sport at twice the rate of young boys as they go through high school. And we knew that we wanted to reverse that trend. We wanted to serve the athletes that stayed in the game with the products and the marketing that they rightfully deserve. And we were able to unlock the opportunity of actually making products with women basketball players in mind, as opposed to “shrink and pink” or just duplicate the product but put a new size stamp on it. It gave us a huge unlock to go ahead and look at the game and to serve the game differently. And it worked well, because it told the women basketball players that, yeah, we now have products for you. That brings a level of trust to this consumer that the Nike brand does think of them—and it then allowed Nike to speak to these consumers in a different way: Okay, we’re starting to solve your basketball needs. Why don’t you come take a look at our other products? Why don’t you come take a look at our sportswear? Why don’t you come take a look at our Jordan products, which are amazingly curated for the female consumer, at our yoga and come be a part of our membership platforms. And that unlocked this new trust that female basketball athletes had in the Nike brand, that we were listening, and that we were serving their primary needs as athletes, and that would spread into a much larger and deeper relationship overall.
That type of work is what led me to the WNBA position. I remember meeting with Cathy Engelbert while I was at Nike and having a conversation. We were talking about marketing the athletes, and she was very bold and said, “Look, you guys do a crappy job of marketing my athletes. Why, why, why, why?” And I shared with her a couple of things that we were planning around how we were going to elevate the U. S. Olympic team that were heading to Tokyo in 2020, which turned out to be this past summer. We had created this thing called “the greatest dynasty ever” and were going to put the athletes on a pedestal that no other team could ever achieve. And a light bulb went off. She could finally see that, okay, someone’s listening here. And we needed to lead the charge; as we go as Nike went at the time, other brands would follow it. If Nike started to invest in women and in these athletes, we knew the trickle-down effect would be similar brands who share the same consumer would also follow suit. And it turned out that, boy, a lot of brands jumped on—and you now see so many consumer brands and platforms really starting to elevate not only the WNBA athletes but also the soccer athletes and the Olympic sport athletes. They’re all starting to be a part of where they should be in terms of their recognition and their ability to be the right voice for a massive set of consumers out there. And the Nike work gave me that opportunity to, again, mine those consumers who are underserved or ignored.
So, as I move into the WNBA role, I’m really trying to instill this sense of curiosity and not being bound by what we’ve done for the first 25 years. If I gave you a white sheet and said, “Let’s start marketing the WNBA for the first time,” what would you do? And where would you go? There is no such thing as, “Well, we did in the past, and it didn’t work out.” Those days are gone. And I’m encouraging everyone in the organization to think differently and be curious and see what’s out there. That opportunity then lends itself to finding new partners and new sponsors—a partner like Coinbase that comes in and says that they see an alignment with where we’re going and who we’re attracting with where they’re going and who they’re attracting. And that’s wonderful. I don’t think that that alignment would have existed a few years ago.
Heather: It’s really an incredible career, and you’re an amazing marketer just in terms of how you talk about storytelling and taking risks and encouraging curiosity. As you look toward talent that you’re bringing on or that you’re partnering with, what do you think makes for an amazing marketer today?
Phil: Putting the consumer at the center of everything you do, solving their problems or solving problems that they don’t even know they have yet, I think, is very important. The sense of curiosity and wonderment—and being willing to look outside of your very tight environment to see what other brands are doing—is important.
I think marketing is inherently a very simple function. Of all the people in the organization, we’re the only group that gets to spend money; we don’t have to make it. And who doesn’t love to spend money? So you have a set of money and now you just decide, like any decision you make, how you prioritize how you make that investment. To help solve that, you think, well, what does the person we’re investing on behalf of…what do they want? And it’s no different from how you solve your own spending decisions. But it ebbs and flows, and not everything has to be long-term; not everything has to be a guaranteed win. I think that’s where the risk of curious marketers comes in; let’s try something, let’s try something new. That only comes from new and courageous and curious thinking. And that’s what I’m looking fo—people who are willing to go down that journey with me.
Heather: Speaking of journeys, as we started the conversation, you’ve made this pretty significant shift, both personally and professionally. Having been at Nike for 20 years on the West Coast, you’re now on the East Coast. Right now, broadly, I think people are in a space where they are reevaluating what they want to do and maybe looking to make a pivot. What advice would you give to people who are not necessarily at the beginning of their careers but feel like they certainly have a lot more in them to give and to achieve and really are looking to make the change? As they make that change, what lessons can you share with them?
Phil: I’m a voracious reader of editorial content. I just consume a lot of information, and I’m in constant learning mode. I think so many things have come out of my understanding of where things are headed, not where things are. And a role at the WNBA is different from a role at maybe another league. I think the WNBA was on this precipice of something amazing. And it was going to get somewhere if we aligned with things that I understood were happening in the sports ecosystem, in the cultural ecosystem, on the influencer ecosystem and how the world was working. My decision to join the WNBA was because of my ability to understand what was possible, where the W is and where it’s headed. I could see that intersection in the future, and I wanted to be a part of that journey. I wanted to be a change agent for the W. I wanted just to be a part of something new and exciting.
I would encourage people who are deciding if they want to move on to go and find that environment where your interests and your passions are and the things that you spend time with. If you have the very luxury that I had—when those personal passions and understanding intersect with a business that is not yet there but is getting there—I think that’s the sweet spot. So, I got very lucky, and it worked for me; but I would encourage people to work hard to find where those intersections are. And if you can’t find the fit, then open up the aperture a little bit and look differently. You don’t have to find it today. You might get there on your next job or the job after that. These journeys are not linear at all. There are more switchbacks in life than there are straight paths, for sure; and I’m a very strong believer that that’s what makes you stronger. As you try to move north in your career, it’s the east and west movements that are often setting you up for the northern moves. But it’s about trying to figure out where the world is going to go and finding that organization or that opportunity that is at the beginning of that journey. I encourage people to go find that.
Heather: That’s amazing. And I think really good advice. I think about people who are listening to this right now and thinking, gosh, Phil is an icon and he’s just continuing to do amazing things. Who’s your icon?
Phil: For me it always comes down to an individual. My brother has been a phenomenal influence on me for my entire life. He’s seven years older than me, and he’s always approached life in a way that I aspire to do. He’s a very humble, hardworking individual with an unbelievably strong moral compass. He was real all the time and never let anything become bigger than it was. You know, he had a very, very good sense of looking at what was in front of him and solving that and not trying to bring more into it. I know when he retired, he left this massive chasm where he was last employed, and we can’t fill it with an individual. He was truly a genuinely good person.
In terms of icons, he’s the one individual. My father was the same way. But as I look beyond the personal side of it, as I look in business, I’ve been phenomenally impressed, with Kathy Engelbert, my boss. She’s a big reason why I made the jump over to WNBA. She is a trailblazer, she’s an icon, she’s brilliant. She works harder than anyone. You know, it’s hard not to want to go into work every single day. She has this great balance of what has to get done and what we don’t have to worry about. So, I really have learned a lot, again, in my short tenure with her. She truly is an icon—not only in the sports industry and not only for women but just a really, really good leader of people. I’m proud to have an opportunity to learn alongside her for the next few years.
Heather: Well, Phil, I have to say that I loved this conversation. We started out by talking about WNBA at 25—and it’s got a lot in front of it to achieve and to do. I think you’re just getting started, too. I know there has been a lot that you’ve accomplished in your career, but there’s a lot more—and we’re excited to watch from the sidelines.
Phil: I’ve been very fortunate. And again, I’m along for the ride. My job is just to continue to shepherd and guide and inspire the people around me who do all the hard work. I feel extremely fortunate to be in the situation I’m in with the group I’m with.
Heather: Well, you’ve inspired me. I know you’ve inspired everyone who’s listening. Thank you so much for being so generous with your insights and your learning—and I can’t wait for next season.
Phil: Thanks Heather. Take care.
This isn't about women's basketball. This is just about basketball. These athletes are the best basketball players in the world.
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