I've maintained since the beginning of the WNBA's search for a new president that someone from outside the women's basketball world would be a good idea.
An "outsider" would presumably bring some fresh ideas, a frame of reference free from historical inertia, and perhaps a critical eye on some practices that have become accepted as common sense.
The NBA's search committee took that reasoning to its extreme with its choice for the league's third president to succeed Donna Orender.
New president Laurel J. Richie is not only from outside of women's basketball but has also never attended a WNBA game despite saying that she had watched on television in her first media teleconference with David Stern yesterday.
"I have thought an awful lot about that," Richie said when asked about why she never took the step of buying a ticket for a game. "I think it was a combination of not necessarily being approached. So what I want to think about is how do we reach out to people and engage them versus assuming or putting the burden on them to come and grab us."
In other words, Stern and the NBA search committee did not entrust the WNBA to a cheerleader, figurehead, or "personality" to fill this position; in perhaps one of the strongest signals yet that the NBA is serious about the sustainability of the WNBA, they hired a pure businessperson to take the league into the future by focusing on key objectives.
Yet more importantly, the underlying logic of the NBA's decision to hire someone who had never even been to a WNBA game might also illuminate how Stern envisions the league moving forward.
3. Collaborative leadership for the challenges ahead
The obvious response to Richie having no sports background and having never seen a game is a bit of healthy skepticism. Another way to look at it is that perhaps she's not expected to make every single decision about the league by herself.
"Most of all she has an extraordinary reputation in our industry as a team builder and working with teams and melding people into teams," Stern said at the beginning of the teleconference. "That's very important for the WNBA because we have extraordinary assets across our NBA that we place at the disposal of the W; that is to say, marketing, broadcasting, communications assistance. Adam and I have even been known to devote some time to the W.
"We think Laurel is going to be a person who will not only bring marketing skills but bring team‑building skills and be able to bring people together to move the W on to bigger heights, shall we say."
Often times when people thing about leadership they think about a dynamic command and control celebrity leaders who instantly command all the spotlight, whether it be due to Hollywood, holidays, or the media. Yet in hiring someone without deep basketball knowledge who is billed as a team-builder, the WNBA - especially in this first season - will have to take on a much stronger collaborative leadership model.
It's not exactly groundbreaking or profound to say that collaboration is a good thing - from elementary school classrooms to corporate board rooms, the benefits of collaboration as the cutting edge of "21st Century leadership" are rather well-established or at least accepted. As Stern notes, it's not as if the WNBA is devoid of collaboration and Richie will suddenly enlighten the wayward masses within the league offices - this is a league essentially built upon and often faulted for its collaboration.
However, as someone without professional sports experience, it's also fair to assume that there will be increased weight on Richie's team-building capacity relative to other potential candidates who might have had more basketball experience. Richie will have to rely heavily on "her employees", distribute decision making a bit, and spend more time listening and observing than people might traditionally expect from a leader. That's not a bad thing, but can challenge even the most humble of people.
And Richie said all the right things to indicate that she's up to the challenge.
"I learned a lot as a fan of sports in terms of how teams come together, the power of teamwork, people uniting for a common good and a common goal, the importance of individuals bringing their own unique skill sets to teams and making their unique contributions," Richie said. "In terms of this specific opportunity, my eyes are truly wide open to the challenges ahead. But I don't really feel daunted by that."
2. Continuing to promote the league as an inspirational force
If all that collaboration jazz seems like nothing more than fluff and spin, then maybe it will seem more substantive when talking about the value of the league as an inspirational force.
It's not uncommon to find people for whom the whole social value thing is more annoyance than motivation to attend a game and, yes, it sounds cheesy and unrealistically airy to talk about as a means of promoting a (profitable) professional sports league. But it's hard to avoid that aspect of a women's sports league's aims when hiring a leader from the Girl Scouts.
Rather than becoming a less prominent part of what the league does as some might find reasonable, it's not hard to imagine that an emphasis on inspiring women and girls might become more central to what the league does moving forward.
"When we came a calling with the W, she I think more than perhaps any other candidate saw the connectivity of what we could do with our strong, competitive, articulate women on a global basis with all of the demands that are always made on the WNBA for visits by present and former players to places near and far to show young women that there are strong role models by which they can be inspired," Stern said. "So we couldn't be happier to have Laurel."
Despite an affinity for the role model angle, I fully acknowledge that it's problematic in the context of talking about building a sports league for any number of reasons. However, as also explained previously, it's hard to imagine any person better prepared to promote a substantive youth empowerment agenda for any sports league, it's Richie as president of the WNBA. And although she's still acclimating to her new position, that's something that came through loud and clear as the thing that she's possibly most ready for.
"As David mentioned, this opportunity for me feels like the culmination of everything I've done at Ogilvy and all of the work at Girl Scouts, where it was a premiere brand," Richie said. "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 that women are doing."
1. Establishing the WNBA as a brand distinct from the NBA
Yet despite all the feel good talk about teamwork and inspiration, Stern was very concrete about what's most important: filling seats.
"I think the most important issue for me at least is what Laurel spoke about earlier, about how do we interest potential fans and families to sample us, because anyone that samples us wants to come back," Stern said. "How do we influence major corporations to recognize that investing with the WNBA is a good thing? How do we continue to get broadcast networks...to say, 'Yes, this is a sport that we believe in, that has arrived, and that we will continue to help grow.'"
That process of moving people from interested to actively engaged is obviously the subject of constant dialogue among fans and media and right now nobody can say they are privy to The Truth in that regard. But underlying the hire of a businesswoman touted for her rebranding ability and conscientiously hitting that talking point multiple times throughout her first interaction with the media is an emphasis on building the WNBA as a brand distinct from the NBA.
"Speaking for how we're going to judge Laurel is we want more fans to attend," Stern said when asked for quantifiable goals. "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...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."
The challenge of reaching those whose support the league has yet to earn
The challenge inherent in trying to establish the WNBA as a distinct brand should be clear: while indeed the NBA is a premiere brand in the world marketplace, it's almost impossible to legitimately make that claim about the WNBA even among U.S. professional sports. So while Richie has experience taking a well established brand and rebranding it successfully, the challenge in front of her with the WNBA is first doing the work of establishing it and then figuring out how to expand its reach.
Those of us that enjoy the league can go around singing the praises of beautiful team basketball played the right way and accentuating the virtues of collaboration and service all we want - the so-called purity of great bounce passes and layups is simply not as entertaining to the masses as Blake Griffin dunking over (the hood of) a car. Attempting to put these two things on par with one another is a losing battle. It's imperative that the WNBA has to find a way to frame itself as worthy of attention on its own merits - it's had next, but the mainstream still doesn't expect great(ness).
Stern reiterated that the WNBA has gotten to the point "where we think this may be the season where it's break even and better for all of our teams", which is an important point to continue pressing as the NBA faces the prospect of a lockout. But it's clear that in hiring a branding executive weeks before the league's 15th season that Stern's focus is on long-term objectives that can help build a sustainable future for women's professional basketball in the U.S.
That began with the public introduction of a newly committed fan.