Orender Eyes WNBA's 10th Anniversary
By Mel Greenberg
As the 10th anniversary of the WNBA looms on the horizon, commissioner Donna Orender, who begins year two at the helm, was asked what three things would really excite her the most this summer.
"I'd have to start with the game," Orender said. "I find the WNBA brand of basketball absolutely thrilling and compelling, and I can't attend enough games.
"The second thing is to continue to see the trend of our fan base growing. The last numbers I saw, our fan base increased about 20 percent, so we're nearly 30 million _ and we define those fans as people who actually touched the game _ attended it, watched it or bought our products _ so I'd like to see those numbers grow," Orender continued.
"And of course, the companies that are looking to partner with us. The companies that are looking for a league that represents leadership and inspiration and creating change. It's a league that speaks to women and families in a way that no other sporting league does. I also find that very exciting."
As the WNBA continues to evolve _ the franchise lineup returns to forward progress this summer with the addition of the new Chicago Sky to bring the total to 14 _ two significant rules changes will offer a different look.
There will be four 10-minute quarters as opposed to two 20-minute halves, and the shot clock has been reduced from 30 seconds to 24. The former American Basketball League used the four-quarter format in its short two-years-and-change of existance.
"We thought it was important to differentiate our game from the collegiate game," Orender said of the moves. "These are professionals, therefore, they should play a more professional game.
"And number two, all of our top players were Olympians, and played internationally, that's about 78 percent of our players, and they play with a 24-second clock all around the world, so they can play with a 24-second clock in our league," Orender continued.
"And for the four quarters, we just thought it would enhance the entertainment experience."
Finances are usually bought up in discussions about the league and Orender said the WNBA, at the league level, "was very close" to breaking even. "I can't speak to individual teams making money, those are individual team decisions. But if you can get me a chart on when all the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA teams are making money, I would like to look at that as well. The league is very close to breaking even."
Several years ago, the WNBA business model changed and owning an NBA team was no longer a requirement to land a sister WNBA franchise. While the WNBA drifted backwards from a high of 16 teams during the shakeout, the league appears to be stabilized with both NBA and and non-NBA affiliates equally committed to the summer cause, according to the commissioner.
"We have 14 ownership groups in the WNBA," Orender said. "Each one of them has contributed to a significant amount of their resources towards continuing the success of the WNBA. I don't know what more I can tell you than that because it's there and it's happening. There's sponsporship sales, ticket sales, there's players ... there's everything that you can imagine happening in every one of our markets."
The WNBA commissioner said the league tracks the operations of individual teams, even though the total entity is somewhat less centralized since the change in the business model.
Orender spoke of the differences between NBA owners in such places as Houston, New York, Los Angeles, and Sacramento, compared to the non-NBA group which includes Sheila Johnson in Washington, who took over last summer, the Mohegan Indian Tribe in Connecticut, and real estate mogul Michael Alter in Chicago.
"It works both ways," Orender said. "If I had to, I'd choose Sacramento (the defending champion) as a great NBA/WNBA model where you have focused success on two properties that actually drives both teams equally wel..
"In Connecticut, what keeps them ahead of the game is the fact they wake up every single day of the year thinking about the Connecticut Sun."
It was noted during the call by a reporter that ticket sales had declined in some places, but Orender was quick to counter that she expected to see an attendance rise this season and mentioned that in today's changing world with technology, the total reach must be considered.
"You can't ignore the fact that our numbers have also grown double-digits in terms of our ratings on television," Orender said. "Our internet traffic, which is already a significant number, has doubled. "And our end number has grown over 20 percent in just a few years time."
Orender discussed expansion, saying talks are ongoing with interested markets.
"We're looking at a couple of markets right now," Orender said, without mentioning specific locations. "I would think right now my personal focus is getting us through this season and enjoying it.
"Then, strategically, we're talking. The phone rings with all kinds of people interested in franchise ownership. Our job now is to strategically analyze that and then prioritize the markets that we would want to enter."
Orender listed several criteria for hopeful owners of teams. "I would tell you first and foremost (what we look for) clearly is passionate, committed ownership, supported by great fans and obviously a business base that will provide the ongoing financial support what would make the whole business proposition work."
She also spoke to the ongoing complexities, internationally, as the WNBA attempts to manage its operation and still provide its players to opportunity to compete in their native countries, especially in such events as this year's FIBA World Championship, and the Olympics.
Orender emphasized priority one, however, is building the WNBA.
"What we look at, is how to continue to build on making the WNBA the best women's basketball league in the world," Orender said. "We have owners who've invested in that mission. We have players, almost to a woman, who would agree that this is the place to play.
"We have a responsibility to ensure that this remains, and continues to build, as the best place to play," Orender said.
As a former star at Queens College, Orender was a world away a decade ago involved with the PGA Tour when the WNBA was launched.
But she had no reservations that the league could be successful, especially with the NBA's support.
"I actually thought that with the business acumen of the NBA and the way they were approaching the market with their great campaign (we got next), their messaging, the great players -- I said, `Listen, if there's every been a league that's had a shot, it's going to be this one," Orender recalled.
"I've always been a believer - I was born a believer."