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Google’s Kate Johnson on partnering with the WNBA and investing in women’s sports

The Washington Mystics and Chicago Sky tip off their 2021 opening game on May 15. (Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)

When the WNBA reached a new collective bargaining agreement last January, the measures that would pay the players higher salaries and offer more benefits stemmed in large part from an innovative Changemakers program. AT&T, Deloitte and Nike signed on to be the leading investors and drivers of marketing and branding strategy for the WNBA.

As the league prepared to tip off its 25th season last month, it announced a fourth Changemaker with even greater ambitions.

Google, as part of a multi-year agreement with the WNBA, was committing not only to provide business support but also to elevate the visibility of the league and its players. The company partnered with ESPN to broadcast 25 regular season games on the network and became an associate sponsor of its 30 for 30 and ESPN Films Series. It also agreed to drive more awareness for the WNBA through its search engines and platforms.

Kate Johnson, Google’s director of partnerships for content and sports media, was at the center of the negotiations. A decorated rower at Michigan from 1997-2001 and a 2004 Olympic medalist, Johnson was uniquely driven to support a women’s sports league that’s a leader in both on-court performance and off-court activism.

Just Women’s Sports spoke with Johnson about the origins of the partnership, the importance of collaborating with a media company and the decision to get involved in women’s sports now.

You joined Google in late 2019. What can you tell me about the initial conversations with the WNBA and how the partnership came to fruition?

I would back up and say that we’re not new to sports partnerships. When I think across all of our different product areas, we do have long-standing partnerships. But search and consumer apps, this is really our first foray into this, and a lot of that stems from our desire to be helpful in the world. That’s been a real focus of Google’s over the last couple of years.

Through that lens, women’s sports makes a ton of sense for us because it fits and aligns completely with our brand values, and specifically with the WNBA. We’ve partnered in kind of shorter-term moments with various women’s sports entities, but when we were looking at where we could have a longer-term impact, the WNBA really is at the forefront of progress for gender equity, which has been an important focus of ours. And the same thing with racial justice. So there’s a real synergy with our values.

You were an athlete yourself who went to the Olympics. On a personal level, was it important for you to get involved in women’s sports in this way?

I didn’t always get to choose what I got to work on, but when it comes to getting to choose, yes. I definitely positioned myself as a women’s sports advocate, and I think sometimes you’re waiting for the world to catch up a little bit. And the time is so obviously right. I mean, it’s always been the right time to invest in women’s sports, but I think the cultural zeitgeist right now is at a place where I don’t think we’re going to ever turn back after this moment. This year was a big tipping point for women’s sports, and I think the momentum will just continue.

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Kate Johnson (second from right) after winning the silver medal in the women's eight final at the 2004 Athens Games. (MLADEN ANTONOV / AFP / Getty Images)

I love that the deal is centered on reach, particularly getting the WNBA in front of more people with the 25 games on ESPN this year. Why was that a cornerstone of this deal in your eyes?

We do media investments really well. We have deep relationships with ESPN, with Disney, with Turner, meaning that we are advertisers. But I think if you’re not using those relationships to also do good in the world, you’re missing an opportunity.

The conversation with ESPN was really looking at the impact that we can make through those relationships that we have there, knocking heads with female leadership over there to say, “Where can we, our two brands together, uniquely make a difference?” And then those things certainly rolled into the WNBA being absolutely the right fit for us.

We have all of these examples of when more games are aired on national television, the ratings deliver. We saw it last year when TV viewership for the WNBA was up 68 percent. What are your goals on the TV side?

Our goals are definitely to drive more visibility of women’s sports and, with the launch of our partnership, to drive discoverability and distribution. We can do that just by being Google, in the sense of making sure we’re connecting more fans to getting the highlights on the WNBA, the scores, where the game is playing, what time it’s on — all in just a one-stop-shop when they Google “WNBA.”

And then that translates to the work that we’ve done with ESPN, which was making sure that it wasn’t just doing a media buy with ESPN, which so often these partnerships require. It was actually looking at that media investment and saying, “Can we do more?”

Another part of the deal was Google becoming a sponsor of ESPN’s 30 for 30 and ESPN Films Series. We just had a chance to see ESPN’s “144” doc on the WNBA bubble season. Would you like to see more WNBA and women’s sports docs through this activation?

Getting into the longform content, telling female athletes’ stories — that’s a really big part of the equation, which is why I’m really proud of that part of this partnership. My whole career has been about traditional sponsorship. This is not a traditional sponsorship approach. It’s not about just checking boxes, like doing the obligatory media by doing the obligatory activation. It’s, “OK, what uniquely can Google help the WNBA solve for? Where can we help in women’s sports?” And if we can help create more production of games on ESPN to drive more visibility, fantastic. If we can connect more fans through search to the games they want to watch, when they want to watch them, then we’re doing our job.

With the groundswell we’re seeing behind women’s sports and the WNBA, why was it important to invest in the league now?

I think there just comes a point where it’s like, what are we waiting for? I feel really good about the WNBA for so many reasons. But I think it’s really powerful that these women just played at the NCAA tournament and were kind of showing the inequalities in the game and in the tournaments, and then we get to roll it into taking a stand as an important brand for women’s sports with the W, and especially having watched the women last year use their platform for change. I think it’s giving them credit where it’s due.

Yeah, that’s important to note. You had all these outlets covering the inequities between the men’s and women’s tournaments, but then not covering the women’s games.

Yeah, I don’t think it’s enough for brands, especially in women’s sports, to just do the status quo. We have to look at the problem differently and solve for those problems differently.

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How integral was Cathy Engelbert to this? She’s only in Year 2 of her role as WNBA commissioner, and now you are the fourth Changemaker she’s helped bring on as a partner of the league.

She’s incredible, what she’s doing in terms of fundraising. It’s always a smart time to invest in women’s sports, but it also depends on the medium that you’re talking about and she’s looking for real-time investors to actually invest in a franchise model. I saw the quote where six of the 12 teams have actually been profitable over the last two years. Like, that doesn’t happen in men’s sports very often either. So what she’s doing is transformative.

For us, having an innovative thought leader over there, driving the W forward into this next chapter is another reason why it makes so much sense for us to join.

What else can you say about this partnership?

Somebody asked me about this other day: One of the greatest forms of flattery is actually copying. I’m not saying that we’re going to see anybody copying us yet in this space, but if that were a byproduct of this, I would be so proud because I think this is a territory where it’s not elbows out, like defend to protect your turf. It’s going to take a full-court press, everybody playing their role to elevate the game. We’re doing our job and we invite more brands to come to the table.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

Cameron Brink Suffers Season-Ending ACL Tear

la sparks rookie cameron brink being helped off the court after an injury
Brink had to be helped off the court after taking a fall during the Sparks' loss to Connecticut on Tuesday. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sparks rookie Cameron Brink will miss the remainder of the WNBA season after suffering a torn ACL in her left knee during Tuesday’s game against Connecticut. 

Brink will also miss the Paris Olympics after having been named to the USA Basketball's 3×3 Olympic roster earlier this month. 

The No. 2 overall pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft, Brink started in all 15 games for the Sparks this season. She entered Tuesday averaging 8.1 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks, while her blocks ranked her third in the league behind Seattle's Ezi Magbegor and Las Vegas's A’ja Wilson.

During Tuesday’s game, Brink appeared to slip on the hardwood while driving to the basket. After standing up with assistance, she then had to be helped off the court before being carried back to the locker room

"You never think it will happen to you," Brink wrote in an Instagram post on Wednesday. "And despite all the hard work sometimes it does. This is hard to fathom but I know it will only make me stronger. I will not be derailed and I will continue to love this life — I'm not defined by basketball, but it is something that I love deeply and I will work everyday to get back to it. It's not goodbye basketball it's just a see you later. I'm always so thankful for your thoughts and prayers."

In a statement, USA Basketball wished Brink a "speedy recovery" and noted that they will be looking for someone to fill her spot on the 3×3 team. Brink's 3×3 teammate Rhyne Howard also took a knock on Wednesday, although the severity of that injury has yet to be announced. 

After the confirmation, Brink's fellow rookies took to social media to offer up words of support, with Angel Reese writing “\"prayers for my sweet girl!" Aaliyah Edwards also sent prayers, as well as "positive thoughts your way, Cam."

"It just breaks your heart," Caitlin Clark told reporters Wednesday.

"You don’t want to see anybody deal with any sort of injury, obviously an injury of that magnitude," she continued. "I know she’s the type of person that will be able to get through it and come through it stronger."

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