Guru Musings: The Business of New WNBA President Richie Will Be -- Business
By Mel Greenberg
For those who have watched the WNBA evolve into its forthcoming 15th season there were few surprises out of new president Laurel J. Richie’s introductory teleconference with the national media Tuesday afternoon.
When Donna Orender, the second WNBA president and successor to Val Ackerman, announced her resignation last fall, officials in the hybrid connectivity of the NBA and WNBA targeted the next leader to be someone with a strong business and marketing background to rebrand the league.
Richie, who shared Tuesday’s teleconference session with NBA commissioner David Stern, is all that and more having come directly from the Girl Scouts of America and previously Ogilvy and Mather, which is a global advertising agency.
Incidentally, she is also the first black female president of a professional sports league.
Meanwhile, though the league has excellent players who reach out to the community and provide outstanding female role models, one got the sense that that particular asset can now be viewed as one of the main components in helping to drive the league toward profitability.
Richie, who declared her “bags are already packed” for her coast-to-coast Tour de WNBA across the league’s 12-team cities after she is officially on board May 16th, said she initially plans to do a lot of listening to those connected with all aspects of the pro women’s basketball league.
But Stern made no bones of what the expectations are once Richie has been harnessed.
“Speaking for how we're going to judge Laurel is we want more fans to attend,” Stern explained. “We want more fans to watch. We want more sponsors to be interested. We want a broader recognition of the independent values of the WNBA.
“I think that for the early years, the women's game was measured against the men's game. That was something we struggled against. What we have here is the best women's basketball in the world. No one (in the world of tennis) usually compares Ms. Wozniacki against Rafael Nadal. She wouldn't do that well. Nevertheless, she can be ranked No. 1 because she's an extraordinary player. Or the Williams sisters are the best at what they do, the best women at what they do,” Stern continued.
“It's been sort of important for us to make that distinction because we want to really be firing across all the cylinders of attendance, ratings, recognition and sponsorship.”
In that regard, Richie displayed complete candor in saying she had watched WNBA games on television but had never felt motivated to actually purchase a ticket to attend a game in person.
Though she expects to quickly erase that slight from her record, Richie said a cause for the occurrence was she never felt the WNBA “approached” her as a potential fan to draw her to an arena.
She was quick to point out that in using herself as an example, that reason may not be universal among other persons who have resisted attending the WNBA in person.
But surely because of her own situation, making the WNBA more approachable from the league’s perspective will be a goal.
Stern again spoke of Richie’s mission as part of another answer concerning economic growth in which he jumped into the completed question.
“So the return of AMEX, the return of Coke, and the five marquee sponsorships (using uniform jerseys for sponsorship), they’re in place now before Laurel has gotten here,” Stern said. “Her working with our team marketing and business operations folks, working with the teams and enhancing their sponsorship and their ticket sales, she doesn’t have the plan, we gave her the plan, which is these guys better break even this year or come much, much closer to it than they ever have before.
“…We’ve got a lot of things. She’s going to feel like she’s been asked to go water skiing behind a bunch of canoes, but we’re paddling as fast as we can.”
Richie noted that during the interview process, which began sometime in February, she learned within the WNBA there is no shortage of opinions in terms of what courses the league needs to navigate.
"One of the things I really love about this organization is I have yet to meet anyone in any capacity who is shy about offering an opinion. So I think for me that just helps my learning curve," Richie said.
That variety of viewpoints has been obvious to many persons, be it media, college coaches, agents, etc., who have dealt with the league over its decade-and-a-half of existence.
Stern added that the healthy aspect of that situation is that out of the differences of opinions should come growth of the league.
Before Richie emerged as the winner from what Stern characterized a large field of candidates, the lack of a sports background for whoever would be named had many wondering how the business of basketball internally and otherwise in the WNBA would be conducted.
In these quarters it was felt that role would be filled in the manner of an ambassador who might already be in place to serve as Richie’s running mate.
Sure enough, Stern and Richie, when the subject came up during the teleconference, noted the presence of Renee Brown, who has been with the league since its outset in the inaugural summer of 1997.
“That's something that comes up on the basketball side on the WNBA side through Renée Brown, who is basically the senior vice president of basketball operations of the WNBA,” Stern said about discussions on such items as roster size, salary caps, and fines.
“We have the benefit of four times the length of time that the NBA has been in existence, all of the expertise that we have on the league side. But this is predominantly a WNBA series of questions. We labor hard to treat it like that. That will be, for the most part, in Laurel and Renee's hands.”
Richie said that learning the basketball issues was on her list of things to do when she takes over. But she also said she and Brown have already spent much time with each other in terms of discussing running the WNBA from the top.
“What I will say is that Renee and I have spent a ton of time together through the interviewing process,” Richie explained, “not necessarily on the specifics of policy, but really making sure that we both believe that we can be a great partnership.
“I think it's fair to say I know I have great respect for her work and her history and her expertise. I think if you were to call her and ask her, she would say the same thing about me.
“Lots of learning to do when I come onboard. But I feel like the partnership has already begun. I think that will be critical on the go forward.”
Though the WNBA, through the power of the NBA marketing machine, was able to quickly finish off the short-lived rival American Basketball League back in times of a more robust economy, pieces of former ABL philosophy have made their way into the WNBA fabric, such as independent ownership.
For a long time from the outset, the mantra for franchise existence was NBA cities and NBA ownerships and arenas in terms of placing and expanding teams.
When the women’s basketball-crazed state of Connecticut, driven by the success of the collegiate Huskies, continued to campaign for a replacement pro franchise after the ABL folded, the pleas were basically given a deaf ear.
Then the Mohegan Indian Tribe came along in 2003 to grab what had been the NBA Orlando-Big Brother owned Orlando Miracle from the discard pile to become the first non-NBA proprietor.
The team was re-named the Connecticut Sun, moved to the Tribe’s casino-entertainment complex near New London – the Mohegan Sun – which caused some initial skepticism in terms venue locality, but ultimately has become one of the WNBA’s most successful franchises.
Ironically, Connecticut Sun general manager Chris Sienko held a similar position with the New England Blizzard, operating in Hartford as well as Springfield, Mass., as one of the few successful ABL entities.
Apparently that model is now the way to go, according to an answer Stern gave Tuesday.
“We actually think the remaining NBA teams involved here are passionate about their WNBA teams,” Stern noted. “But going forward, we’re not going to try to sell W teams to NBA teams, it’s been very hard to get the attention that is necessary to allow this league to germinate, grow, and now prosper.”
A per chance February meeting in Seattle, home of the reigning champion WNBA Storm, between team CEO Karen Bryant, who held an executive position in the ABL with the former Seattle Reign, and Richie unwittingly started the path that led to Richie’s new job.
Richie was giving a keynote address and Bryant was on the scene with the Storm owners, who were being given an award.
“I had such a wonderful connection with Karen Bryant in Seattle that I was really excited to continue the discussions with folks here (in New York),” Richie said of a call she received from the league soon after her Seattle appearance.
“And, as David mentioned, this opportunity for me feels like the culmination of everything I’ve done at Ogilvy and all of the work with the Girl Scouts, where it was a premiere brand. It is an interesting opportunity that’s full of challenge, and it is a chance to sort of celebrate and recognize and elevate the great things women are doing.
“So for me it’s a dream job.”
And for the WNBA/NBA search process, which Stern said surviving is an accomplishment in itself, Richie is a dream hire.
But reality is just around the corner and in this instance the reality is: It’s time to get down to business.