Christine Simmons Blocks Out the Noise - How She's Changing Women's Basketball

In this three part series, we explore how the L.A. Sparks President and COO, Christine Simmons, is reshaping the way we think about women’s basketball

Christine Simmons Blocks Out the Noise

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Christine Simmons never planned to work in sports. In fact, she had her sights on becoming a doctor. “I was studying pre-med in school at UCLA,” Simmons recalled. Little did she know though that she would become a leader in women’s professional basketball.

A Los Angeles native, Christine, was athletic, competing in track, basketball, and volleyball. But after a couple knee surgeries by her junior year in high school, Christine hung up her jersey and cleats and started focusing on her academic career.

Her love for sports never disappeared though. “I always believed as a high school and middle school girl, that teen sports especially, builds a lot of values that stay with you like competitiveness and discipline,” she said. These values, she believes, stay with girls which end up helping them excel in other activities and interests.

Upon graduating from UCLA, Christine took those values she learned as an athlete and began climbing the corporate ladder, working for some of the largest media companies such as NBCUniversal and Disney, and worked as Executive Vice President for Magic Johnson Enterprises.

Then, when NBA legend Magic Johnson purchased the L.A. Sparks in 2014, he asked Christine to do something she never imagined: running a professional women’s basketball team.

“I appreciated women’s basketball, but I was honestly not as big of a fan at the time as I should have been,” Christine said. Like many, Christine was unaware of the power of the WNBA and how incredible women basketball players were.

But as a fan of business and women’s empowerment, Christine saw a special opportunity to help elevate the L.A. Sparks to another level.

While immersing herself in the WNBA and Sparks something special happened: Christine began to feel like she had missed out on being a fan of women’s sports. “Even the most aware women aren’t fully in touch with the power of women’s sports and how phenomenal women in sports are. When I started learning my players’ stories and meeting other women in the business, I was like, ‘What have I been doing my entire life?!’”

Christine Simmons holding the 2016 WNBA Finals Championship trophy after the L.A. Sparks won   

Christine Simmons holding the 2016 WNBA Finals Championship trophy after the L.A. Sparks won

 

With a newfound passion for the WNBA, Christine felt inspired to elevate the platform of her players. She a challenge at hand though, and that fighting the harsh stereotypes and stigmas women in sports still face.

Changing the minds of people to believe that women’s basketball is just as entertaining and exciting to watch proved to be no simple task.

“I had to get myself up to speed on how to combat the sexist views about female athletes because I was so surprised to see it was still so pervasive and such an issue,” Christine said.

She started exploring the various ways to make the team appealing without objectifying them. “I wanted to show that our players could be strong, be powerful, talented and gorgeous in their own personal way,” she said of her players.

In order to see the change take place, Christine had to remain patient. As a natural competitor, she wanted to see rapid change with the mindset of people, which was easier said than done.

But instead of allowing negative views of women’s basketball discourage Christine, she’s used it as an opportunity to try new approaches in garnering new fans to the game.

“One of our approaches is statistics: numbers don’t lie.  At one point in the season, Nneka Ogwumike had the highest shooting efficiency of any basketball player regardless of gender. Continuing to showcase those type of statistics is really important,” Christine said, emphasizing that part of her goal is to highlight that the NBA is not the only style of basketball that exists.

Nneka Ogwumike  - who won MVP in 2016 

Nneka Ogwumike - who won MVP in 2016 

“NCAA basketball is different, and the WNBA is different in that it’s more a team ball,” which according to Christine, does not make one style better than the other.

Her second approach has been to reach out to other women who are about breaking barriers. “I can transform those women into a Sparks fan quicker than I can convert an NBA fan. Once these women come to a Sparks game and they learn about the sport and the women, they feel inspired to support the team.”

Then, she looks at how to appeal to the younger generation. Last year the team made a parody video of Beyonce’s “Sorry,” which quickly went viral. The players clapped back at negative comments made about women’s basketball essentially saying, "We’re not sorry for being women’s basketball players and don’t care what you think about us."  Christine has also relied on the celebrity of Los Angeles, by having actresses such as Gabrielle Union dance in the locker room with the players after a game. And it doesn’t hurt when LA Lakers legend, Kobe Bryant, attends games with his daughter, Gianna, an avid basketball player.

And these efforts appear to be working. Attendance is up, and overall viewership of the WNBA has continued to rise.

Undoubtedly, the Sparks have been part of the WNBA’s boost in popularity. During her time with the Sparks Christine has been part of the team’s journey to winning the WNBA Finals in 2016, and making it to Finals once again in 2017 against the Minnesota Lynx. And there is no sign of the team slowing down.  

Sporting her Championship Ring on her right hand, one can see that Christine takes pride in being part of the Sparks and hopes to help continue breaking the stereotypes that women in sports face.

“People think women athletes are one dimensional. But they’re so complex as human beings. And also, they’re incredible athletes, and until one comes to a game and watches them in person, it will be hard to grasp the intensity of it and the phenomenal talent level these women have,” Christine said.

To learn more about the Sparks and to follow them next season visit http://sparks.wnba.com and follow them on their social media Twitter and Instagram @LA_Sparks

 

 

 

 

Anya Alvarez