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Candace Parker Graces NBA 2K Game Cover as First WNBA Player

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·6 min read
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(Bloomberg) -- When the latest edition of the blockbuster video-game NBA 2K hits store shelves in September, the cover will feature a female superstar, Chicago Sky forward Candace Parker, for the first time.

It’s a step that’s two decades in coming for Take-Two Interactive Software Inc.’s best-selling basketball video game – just three years ago, the game didn’t include female players at all. The studio has been adding features to its Women’s National Basketball Association gameplay since then, including a mode for last year’s game that lets users direct a WNBA team or create their own player and guide her through her career. Parker will grace the cover of a special edition of the game in North America sold at GameStop and EB Games.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Parker, who spent 13 seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks before joining Chicago this season, said in an interview. “Being able to see women on the cover, visible in leadership positions, it helps not just in sport but also just in the boardroom, in business or everything.”

Parker, one of women’s basketball’s biggest stars and a surefire Hall of Famer, has proven to be one of the most marketable players to ever emerge from the WNBA. At 35, she’s a two-time league MVP, a six-time All-Star, WNBA champion and has two Olympic gold medals. Her endorsement deals include Kellogg Co., JBL Audio and Adidas AG, which has signed Parker for her entire athletic career to date. Now Take-Two has chosen Parker to be the face of the investment to grow its WNBA product.

The video game also will give the WNBA, which turns 25 this year, more exposure as its teams look to attract more fans, sponsors and financial backing. The league’s stars still make just a fraction of the salaries commanded by top NBA players and pull in fewer lucrative endorsements at lower pay. It’s a similar picture in other women’s team sports like soccer. There’s not a single women’s team from any sport in the Forbes list of the most valuable franchises.

Brands across consumer categories, from footwear to packaged goods, that fail to put female athletes front and center are missing out, said Parker. Within basketball, women have often been left behind, unable to get the sponsors and partnerships of their male counterparts, she said. For instance, why have more sneakers not co-branded with women athletes?

“It’s been a long time since I’ve taken marketing, but I took it in college and the first thing was you definitely have to know your consumers, and women buy -- within the household women are the ones that purchase,” she said.

Women's sports are garnering more interest in TV rights and sponsorship deals globally, and they're starting to monetize much more after showing they can draw large audiences, according to an April report from Deloitte LP. The consulting firm called for more access to larger stadiums, investment from broadcasters and female representation on the boards of sports federations.

WNBA stars are hoping to build a history to rival that of older leagues like the NBA, which had a half-century head start. Parker is a Chicago Bulls, Bears and Cubs fan because her parents or grandparents were, but the Sky don’t yet have a provenance that allows for tradition and fandom to be handed down. She urged patience as they try to get there, building a generational following that can take women’s basketball into the future.

There’s been progress lately, with a new collective bargaining agreement signed last year that more than tripled the maximum salary for top players and raised the average compensation to six figures, at nearly $130,000, for the first time. Viewership at the start of this season spiked, following 2020’s “Wubble,” where players spent nearly 100 days inside a bubble due to Covid-19 protocols amid the pandemic.

To keep growing, Parker said the league has to stand out from NBA and a key will be to empower players to be involved in decision-making. While WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said expanding the 12-team league is being considered, Parker wants roster growth first — letting each team have more than the current 12 players. With injuries, teams sometimes aren’t left with enough players for a five-on-five practice session, she said. She doesn’t like that lower-seeded teams in the playoffs play a single elimination game rather than a series. She wants to see the league play abroad and take games to cities where it doesn’t currently have teams.

Crucial to this effort will be encouraging kids to get involved. Parker hopes the league will take steps like packaging league games with Amateur Athletic Union events. “That's our audience – young girls coming up,” said Parker. “We got to get young girls that play basketball watching the WNBA.”

Promotion in a popular video game may help with that. Parker, whose cover is the WNBA 25th Anniversary Edition, joins NBA All-Star Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks, who’ll be on the cover of the standard version, plus two-time NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets and retired stars Dirk Nowitzki and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Edition.

About 2.3 million gamers play 2K daily, Take-Two said in May. The last version sold more than 10 million copies through that same period, and the game’s eSports league just entered its fourth season with 23 teams across the U.S. Competition is also waning as EA’s rival basketball game is on indefinite hiatus. “We see a significant opportunity to grow the franchise further,” Take-Two Chief Executive Officer Strauss Zelnick said of NBA 2K on a conference call with analysts.

For the next iteration, developers brought in Parker to help them better understand the WNBA. She showed them how the sport was played in different eras and how the offenses are run differently from the men’s game, in order to make the gameplay feel more true to life. Parker was a big gamer as a kid, playing titles from EA and Midway like FIFA soccer or Mortal Kombat, as well as NBA Jam and NBA Street with her older brothers. She remembers her excitement when she was a kid in the late 90s when her brother Anthony Parker was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers on draft night. She just wanted to sub him onto her team and play with him in the game.

“Fast forward and now my nephew is like the first in line to get 2K, so he can play with his aunt,” she said. “It's full circle."

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