SHE’S GOT GAME!
Q&A with WNBA President, Laurel J. Richie
Interview by Jamil Fletcher
My friends, summer is upon us. That means the women’s game is about to take center stage. The ladies are anxiously lacing up their high-tops in preparation for the 2015 season of the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBA). We had a chance to chat with WNBA President, Laurel J. Richie, as she makes plans for what promises to be a very competitive and entertaining season.
SWERV: Congratulations on an exciting season last year. What should fans expect from the 2015 season?
Richie: This will be our 19th season and we are incredibly excited. I believe that the level of competition just gets better and better every single year. We ended on an incredibly high note with our playoff viewership numbers up 91%. I really feel that the community and quite frankly the country was getting very excited about the WNBA. So, we’re looking for the season to get up and running. We have such a depth of talent between Elena Della Donne, and Skylar Diggins, and Maya Moore. I just think it’s going to be a great season.
SWERV: I know over the years, the league has faced a few financial challenges. How is the league doing financially?
Richie: We’re on an incredible trajectory of growth in terms of our financial performance. When I started four years ago, we had one team that was profitable. And now we have five to six teams that are profitable. I think it has been steady progress in that area and we believe that it is going to continue.
SWERV: I’m a big tennis fan and I know that with superstars like Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Li Na that tennis is at the top of women’s sports internationally. How does professional women’s basketball fit into the overall scope of women’s sports.
Richie: The WNBA is the longest running women’s professional sports league in the country. So, we have a great history, albeit a shorter history. And I think when you look at our beginnings with Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, and Rebecca Lobo; then sort of the middle era of Temika Catchings, and Kara Lawson, and Sue Bird; and now this next generation of Elena Della Donne, and Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins, and Maya Moore, we are seeing some really good growth in both the awareness and coverage of our players. I will always want more, but I look at where we are, entering our 19th season, and I think the women are becoming household names and I look forward to that continuing.
SWERV: A lot of your players play overseas during the traditional basketball season. How does the popularity of the WNBA compare with the success of other professional leagues internationally?
Richie: We believe that we are part of a global community of women’s basketball. I think we are widely recognized as the destination for the very best players in the world. In playing here in the WNBA, they know they will be competing amongst the best and the competition will be at its peak. Each league has its different business model. They all work differently, but we are really proud that we are the longest running women’s professional sports league in the country. And that players want to play in the WNBA, whether they are from the US or from other countries because it is the destination for the very, very best in women’s basketball.
SWERV: Last year you launched the WNBA Pride initiative. What are your plans to expand this program for this season?
Richie: We will continue with our Pride Initiative this year. Almost since inception, all of our teams had done some sort of outreach to the LGBT community just as part of their both community outreach, as well as their fan development. And that includes the League. We all had initiatives in the Pride space. What we didn’t have was a unified effort and sort of packaged together program under the Pride initiative. It was a terrific success for us. That bundling process really made a difference in terms of impact. ESPN came on board with us. Our Pride T-shirts have been our #1 merchandise item. So, we are really excited to continue the momentum that came from bundling disparate activities and unifying underneath the Pride Initiative.
SWERV: I see the All-Star Weekend is scheduled to be held in Connecticut again. Outside of the success of the University of Connecticut’s women’s program, what makes this area such a hot spot for women’s basketball?
Richie: It’s women’s basketball operating on all cylinders. It’s a very strong college market. It’s a very strong market for the WNBA. I just think success breeds interest, so the fans in Connecticut are very knowledgeable, very well informed, and very passionate. I also believe our fans love the destination of the Mohegan Sun Arena. It’s a great facility in which to compete. It has the benefit of being a destination for other forms of entertainment. There aren’t any other professional leagues in the state of Connecticut. Perhaps that’s the reason that those who crave seeing the game played at the highest level really appreciate the Connecticut sun, the WNBA and the facility as an arena.
SWERV: What would you say has been the greater impact of the League’s presence in society?
Richie: It struck me when we were celebrating the 40th anniversary of Title IX. I think that particular legislature is now baring fruit. So, we’re seeing players, coaches, and trainers who have grown up in a world where girls have an opportunity to compete from the very youngest of ages. It’s a combination of the impact of Title IX with the presence of the WNBA. So, young girls who have the interest and the skills — the system supports them when they are in elementary, middle, and high school. And if they are really talented and disciplined, they can set their sights on the WNBA. The opportunity, training and grooming that happens and the ability to set sights on a destination, has infused the League with incredible talent. More and more people are appreciating the game, and I look forward to more to come.
SWERV: Unlike the NBA, most of your athletes tend to stay in college and graduate. Do you ever envision a time when you will see “one-and-dones,” and possibly high school players coming directly into the league?
Richie: We’re really comfortable with, and proud of the way in which young players enter our league. So, that isn’t something I foresee changing since its working so well for the league and our players.
SWERV: Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?
Richie: I would invite everyone to attend a game in their local city or watch us on TV. We are always encouraging people to come out to a game because we find once they see one game, they become fans for life.