When WNBA president Laurel Richie came into the league, the talk was about Girl Scout cookies and her casual sports fandom. Questions revolved around marketing plans, answers started with I am not sure yet. But now, after the league has played a half of a season, after the president has her feet fully immersed in the waters the answers are stronger, more self- and league-assured.
Before the All-Star game, Richie fielded some tough questions about the viability and sustainability of the league in a tough economic market that has caused lockouts and fissions in other leagues. When NBA counterparts are talking about taking their talents to Turkey or Spain, she addressed the issue of the fact that women's basketball players have no off-season and already supplement their income overseas. She spoke candidly about the growth of women's sports into just sports. And Richie talked about a plan to get more fans of the game she called magical.
The lockout in the NBA is, perhaps surprisingly to some who aren't familiar with the WNBA, not a concern to Richie.
"We're having an All-Star game today and we are moving ahead full steam," Richie said when the subject was broached. "We've even begun planning for next year. So while we are obviously affiliated with and associated with the NBA, the WNBA is moving ahead full-steam.
When asked again about the potential concerns of the effects of the NBA lockout, she answered with a smile, a shake of the head and a succinct, "No".
She began the presser with some league metrics to show just why she is confident in the growth and stability of the W.
"Attendance has been up, it's been up for the last four years," Richie said. We're on track for it to be up again this year. The average attendance is up 6%, gate receipts are up 3%, renewals are at an all-time high up 35%, visits to wnba.com are up 3 million in terms of pages views as people follow the stories of the league and our teams and the players.
"Our partners are really engaged. Sponsorships are up 25% this year. I think most of you know five of our teams have marquee partners so I could not be more thrilled to be at the helm as we head into the next 15 years of the WNBA."
While many NBA stars talk of where they'll play if there is indeed no or a shortened NBA season, the W already has players use their offseason to go overseas to supplement their income and grow their game. Even though her tenure with the league is still in it's infancy, she's already thinking about ways to continue to make the WNBA the premier destination for women's basketball and someday eliminate the need for players to almost have to go overseas to make a living.
"I'm encouraged by the fact that despite the length of our season, our compensation package, we still are able to attract the best in women's basketball," Richie said. "I would love a world where players who feel they have to go somewhere else to supplement don't feel that. We're not there yet. It's probably going to take longer than I think it should and they think it should to get there but in the meantime we're going to do all we can to get us there and to make their experience while they're here one that they want to come back to."
She went on to say later, "The good news is, the reason I opened with you by sharing some of our key metrics is I have confidence that with the arrows pointing in the right direction, the job now is to accelerate that."
To accelerate the process, she goes back to her marketing roots, the plan to continue to foster and build the WNBA fan base.
"I think the most important thing is to get a fan or prospect to a game," Richie remarked. "When you come to a game and you see the level of play and you experience all the great stuff that happens in an arena at a WNBA game, I think it's magical and I think it's unlike any experience that I've had at any other sporting event."
"So part of that is figuring out how to describe that to people and how to communicate that to people, but the marketing end of it is getting someone to go from I've heard of them to I'm interested in them, I support them, I think it's a good idea to actually going to a game."
Part of the communication is done through media outlets, and ESPN is even making a point to embrace the league as a legitimate source of sports entertainment and not a novelty. The network has been broadcasting games and showing highlights on the regular, something that can not always be said for any sport involving women.
"I'm excited by the fact that we are moving beyond the novelty of a national professional woman's sports league and what we're really talking about is the level of play. And our friends at ESPN even this week, two times we have been featured in the top 10 plays and again shifting the dialogue from 'isn't it interesting they're here' to 'oh my gosh, look what they're doing'. I think that really bodes well for just the level of play today in the WNBA."
In a year where men's sports has been dotted with stories of frustration and futility between players and owners, women's sports has been about competition at the highest level, whether it be in the WNBA or in the World Cup. Richie notes how special it is to see women succeeding in every sport, not just her own in an effort to cross the expansive divide of gender inequity in sports.
"I think we have taken a stand [for women's equality]. I think every time the 132 players of the WNBA take the court, in my opinion they're taking a stand because they are showing their athleticism, their skill and their talent. I hope that we all look back on the summer of 2011 and say what happened with soccer and the 15th anniversary of the WNBA that was a milestone and a turning point.
"Because I think at the end of the day, what changes perceptions or expands perceptions is when people can actually experience the game. I'm thrilled will all of the attention on soccer because I think the general public saw women competing at a level that might have surprised them and I think we just have to keep going at it. I think that's the best sort of ambassador for women's sports."
As the ambassador for the WNBA, Richie expressed her pride in the league and its women.
"I am really proud to be the leader of the 132 women of this league," she said. "They're just amazing women doing amazing things on and off the court."
After an All-Star weekend filled with highlights of basketball skill that could put a smile on any fan's face, after completing the first half of a milestone summer for the 15-year old league maybe it's time to take that NBA slogan for their own. After all, we don't know when they'll be using it again, anyway - "Where amazing happens".