In A Company Pivot, PWRFWD Goes All In On Women’s Hoops

Luke Bonner is familiar with getting his ass kicked.

Growing up in Concord (NH), the youngest of three athletic siblings, Bonner watched his older brother, Matt, and sister, Becky, as they found success at every competitive level. Becky was a Division 1 player at Stanford, Director of Basketball Ops at Louisville, six years managing global outreach with the NBA and now, four years in as Director of Player development with the Magic, and Matt is a two-time NBA champion and current studio analyst with the Spurs.

“For me, since I was 12 years old, my family couldn’t really afford to go to all these tournaments and my parents were like, if you want to do this you have to get good enough to earn a scholarship, because you’re not going to have any college fund, because this is what your college fund is going towards,” Bonner says over Zoom. “I knew by the time I was 15 I’d be better and bigger than everyone, by the time I’m 17 I’m going to be getting offers, worst case, Division 2 somewhere.”

Bonner played a year for West Virginia and three for UMass before heading overseas to play in Hungary, the UK and Lithuania, plus some time in the D-League. While he notes he didn’t “make it to the NBA and have a prolific career”, he counts his basketball career as successful. Unbeknownst to him, it would also prep him for what was to come — fast-forward to Bonner launching PWRFWD in 2021.

“This is the first time I’ve felt like my experience as an athlete is actually transferable to my work,” Bonner says. “I always hated that. I found it patronizing if people were like, ‘Oh you’re an athlete, you’re going to be a good teammate, and work hard’. And it’s like, you can’t do anything without that.”

“I never felt like my experience as an athlete translated to my job for someone else,” Bonner adds. “With this, it 100 percent does. In terms of being an entrepreneur, there’s a lot of moments when it’s pretty scary. It’s terror and euphoria, constantly. And knowing how to keep going and paying attention to what’s going on around you but being able to focus in on, survival is success,” Bonner says.

For PWRFWD, it’s been a year of paying attention.

The initial idea behind the company was an online marketplace driven and exclusively controlled by the athletes in partnership with Bonner and his team. Every athlete (from the WNBA, NBA, NFL, MLS and more) had their own shop, selling merchandise designed by them in tandem with PWRFWD’s marketing team. Profits went back to athletes directly or were funneled toward causes close to them. Sylvia Fowles sold pieces that channeled her love for plants, Mo Bamba had candles, Breanna Stewart’s store offered a diner mug that said ‘STEWIE’. Those stores and products are still there, but the focus of Bonner and his team necessarily shifted.

“We found what we were doing interesting, and what we were really doing was building a community, but doing it backwards. We were putting products out with different athletes and it was a little bit disjointed,” Bonner says. “We would have something really do well, and instead of building on that, [the next drop is] like another thing from someone else who might be a completely different category.”

It was also difficult to spearhead so many drops for so many athletes. Given that each person was immersed in a totally different timeline dictated by their season schedules, focus would always be splintered, priorities mixed. But there was one area Bonner and his team continued to gravitate back to in their interests, the personalities, and the product.

“We all just really liked working with the WNBA players the most,” Bonner laughs.

The team also found that any WNBA drop, or item focused on the women’s game — like the now ubiquitous Kelsey Trainor ‘Invest in Women’ hoodie and line — would come with a boost in general chatter. A community was starting to form, and it felt like the right foundation to build on.

“We saw, not just from a personal interest standpoint, a passion standpoint on the women’s basketball side, but I think it’s a very high growth category within sports in general,” Bonner says, “We also just frankly saw women’s athletes, women’s basketball players, perform better than a lot of the other athletes that were using the platform.”

That online success included non-WNBA athletes on the PWRFWD platform rallying around women’s basketball and the products available. For Bonner, it was a green light he hadn’t necessarily realized he’d been looking for to go all-in on the women’s game.

“There is nothing else. That’s how we have to operate,” Bonner stresses, “That doesn’t mean only women’s basketball players to us. On the athlete side, we’ve made a shift [toward] athletes [as] our community members. If you connect with our mission, our messaging, then you are welcome here, you’re one of us. If you don’t, we don’t care. It’s just not for you.”

Hoping to create a space for the informal community they’d been cultivating to gather, Bonner and his team started by inviting people to focus groups via Twitter to talk about women’s basketball and the WNBA. They also brought on Olympic gold medalist, Nadia Eke, as PWRFWD’s head of community. From there, a Discord server was launched. Bonner, who admits to “lurking in” a lot of other Discord spaces, wanted this one to be very “hands-on”, and wanted it to be filled first by “true women’s basketball fans”.

“We just had (Israeli-Russian professional basketball player) Egor Koulechov [drop in],” Bonner grins, “He just introduced himself organically in our Discord like, ‘Hi, I’m Egor, I play in Israel!’ And I’m like wait, Egor? And he had no idea I’m involved either.”

Understanding that the support for and behind the women’s game can often seem secondary, or an afterthought, Bonner wanted the next steps in launching this new aim and arm of PWRFWD to be as intentional as it was big and bold. The company bought courtside season’s tickets in every WNBA market (“I think we’re second row in two or three of the markets”, Bonner clarifies) and the pairs will be given to PWRFWD community members.

“Women’s basketball is awesome,” Bonner says happily, “People are nominating each other — it’s a nomination process, not just a raffle — so it forces everyone to interact and get to know each other. It’s been super powerful already, but from our perspective, this is something long-term.”

It’s the combination of physical presence and financial support that PWRFWD wants to replicate with each of its next big steps to support the women’s game, all the while funneling energy back into its community. On April 12 an initial, exclusive round of “Day 1” NFTs went out to the company’s closest supporters as a means of marking symbolic membership into the PWRFWD community. Included in the social promotional campaign for the drop was a link to the Discord server so that anyone who felt like they may have missed out could jump in.

“You participate in whatever you connect with,” Bonner stresses when asked why NFTs felt like the right avenue for growth. He notes that while plenty of early NFTs have looked goofy, those that have been most successful are the ones with a big community behind them. It’s also a more fluid means of membership. “Rather than monthly subscription you own that piece, you can sell it if you want out,” Bonner says.

The first drop was a spinning, holographic ‘W’, much like a pin. That’s the point. It’s part of what Bonner describes as a “futuristic, digital varsity jacket” that will be released as the next NFT in a mint of 1,000 on April 29. More patches and pins will be released over time and eventually, the option to create its mirrored, physical pairing. A very exclusive, modernly imagined letterman jacket.

There will be other perks to membership with PWRFWD, like online and in-person events, early access to future drops, WNBA League Pass subscriptions, and more. Bonner and his team hosted a Twitter Spaces in the hours leading up the this year’s WNBA Draft that saw Mystics player Erica McCall Bird, ABL and WNBA vet Val Whiting, and Becky Bonner come through to share their draft stories. Through every effort, the point is to offer tangible tokens of real-life moments and thanks, even from a company as small as PWRFWD (eight employees, at present).

While Bonner notes the initial response to PWRFWD’s first few releases have been “insane,” he says it’s important for “us to do our own thing” when it comes to emerging partnerships.

“For us as a team, there’s been a lot of confidence in prioritizing ourselves and what we are building,” Bonner says, “That is something that can be nerve-racking at times, but everyone that’s touching anything we’re associated with, or doing, are the exact type of people I’ve always dreams of working with. That is going to bleed out to anyone that comes into the PWRFWD walls.”

All of this, Bonner notes, allows PWRFWD to continue to “put products out, tell stories, all of that stuff” but now includes who he calls the company’s key stakeholders — the community.

“One of the things we had been talking about was building a community that really brings the athletes and the fans more so together, to work towards a uniform mission and bigger goal. We were seeing that in the context of what was happening on the NFT side, and we were kind of like, holy shit, there’s a pretty big opportunity here for us to take our own approach,” Bonner says, when asked to trace the shift PWRFWD took over the last year. “Pivoting a business is not easy no matter what size you are. It requires you to balance real-time changes and keep everyone informed while you’re figuring things out. Sometimes that involved pressing the brakes for a bit and keeping everyone engaged while you did that.”

“This is a really interesting way for us to build a community together,” he continues, “to work towards having an immediate business impact on the WNBA, growing the game, and eventually being a catalyst for expansion — like I really think we can do that.”

It’s one of the last big components to being all-in on women’s basketball for Bonner and PWRFWD, to gain an ownership stake in the WNBA. Bonner acknowledges that PWRFWD is uniquely positioned between fans, athletes, league executives, and ownership groups to operate as a bridge to make something happen.

“Expansion is long term. There are a number of ways we can help drive that. We can show the business case for expansion ourselves. We can amplify messaging of expansion. We can maybe eventually invest in expansion — either via a new franchise or even by helping create a farm system for expanded rosters,” Bonner says.

By riding the ups and downs of PWRFWD’s past year, occasionally getting his ass kicked, Bonner’s compulsion to “just not stop ever, even if it seems illogical at times” has not only renewed his focus but has helped to bring the kind of community — genuine, purposeful, joyful — that he and his team were trying to reach outside, in.

“I can’t tell you how much better it feels,” Bonner smiles, “I really loved what we were doing [before], but I think everyone feels 1,000 times more excited about what we’re doing now.”