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New WNBA president Laurel Richie does not see lack of basketball background as an issue in marketing the league

Published on April 27, 2011

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Last week the WNBA ended speculation surrounding the appointment of a new leader when the league announced veteran marketing executive Laurel J. Richie as the new president of the 15 year-old organization. Richie, the Girl Scouts of the USA Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer since 2008, spoke to the media Tuesday afternoon about the process of becoming a candidate for the position, the fact that she has not been a regular attendee at WNBA games and how she plans to tackle increasing the league’s visibility among casual fans.

While Richie says she admires the players in the league for their “their performance both on and off the court,” she also admitted that she has been little more than a casual fan and never attended games on a regular basis.

“I have been a viewer of games, not necessarily an attender of games,” said Richie. “That’s something as I take on the marketing portion of this work I think we’re going to need to address, really taking and converting the interested to the actively engaged.

Nevertheless, the new president and NBA commissioner does not see her lack of experience as a problem. Richie begins her new position on May 16 and says she will hit the ground running right away.

“I start on the 16th and my bags are already packed,” she said in response to a question about her immediate plans for the league from a marketing perspective. “A priority for me is to really get into the market, to get to a game so that I can wipe that off of my record, to really meet with players, meet with owners, meet with fans, meet with sponsors, meet with the media. I really think it’s important for me to really feel in my own experience what is happening because that is where the league is delivered on the ground. That’s my first task. My hope is to respond to that very quickly once I have had those discussions and had those meetings.”

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‎Full transcript of media call with Richie and Stern

COMMISSIONER STERN: It’s an exciting time for the WNBA. Actually it’s an exciting time for basketball. For the WNBA, we’re going into our 15th season with our league as strong as it has ever been. We’re looking forward to 30 games being televised this year on ESPN 2 and ABC and another 40 regular season games on NBA TV, which is now available in 55 million homes.

We’ve enjoyed, and are continuing to enjoy, terrific business support with returning sponsors like adidas and Nike and General Mills, Taco Bell and the like. But we also have recently had returning to us two sponsors, AMEX and Coke, which make this promise to be one of our best seasons ever in terms of sponsor support and the kinds of promotions that come with that.

We had a really exciting year last year. Seattle had a wonderful season, did a great job. Everyone’s looking forward to another one with the excellent draft choices that came into the league this year.

On sort of a global basis, the sport itself continues to be played by more and more people. The WNBA gives us the opportunity to speak to a broad audience together with the NBA that I think is particular to basketball. So we’re not only looking forward to the season, but we’re looking forward to the Olympics, we’re looking forward to the many teams that will be populated by WNBA players.

Against that backdrop, we began a search after President Donna Orender decided to step down, and we told everyone that we would have that person in place by the beginning of the season in June. Indeed, we have.

After a very, very intensive search, as far reaching as we could make it, we settled upon Laurel Richie, who is, as the press release says, a veteran marketing executive who brings years and years of experience in consumer marketing, corporate branding, public relations, corporate management. Most of all she has an extraordinary reputation in our industry as a team builder and working with teams and melding people into teams.

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.

It’s kind of interesting she’s coming to us from the Girl Scouts of America, where she rebranded it, has been the senior VP of marketing. That job was one of great interest to her and caused her to leave Ogilvy because she saw it as something that was important for developing young women, dealing with role models for young women.

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.

So we couldn’t be happier to have Laurel. I guess since I’ve been speaking for longer than I expected to, I’ll introduce you all of you to Laurel Richie. Take it away, Laurel.

PRESIDENT RICHIE: Thank you, David.

I am so, so thrilled to be joining the WNBA. This position and opportunity for me pulled together so many things that I am passionate about and are important to me in both my personal and professional life.

From a professional standpoint, sort of a track record of reenergizing and revitalizing iconic brands has been a passion of mine. I love to wrap my head around complex businesses. I would characterize the WNBA as that. A history of championing opportunities for women and girls, that’s both important work for me professionally and personally, and a real appreciation for the impact that sports has both on the individuals who play and for those who watch.

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.

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. I see tremendous opportunity to grow the game by building on what I believe is a very strong foundation.

This is a premiere brand. The WNBA is the longest women’s professional sports league in the world. I have had a chance to speak with and connect with some of the athletes. These are world class athletes. I am impressed by their performance both on and off the court.

There is a passionate fan base. I have been amazed at the number of people, literally fans, reaching out and saying, Congratulations, we’re ready for you to take it to the next level. I’ve spoken to several of the owners and shared their passion and a true spirit of partnership in which we’re entering into the next phase of the WNBA and our 15th season, and also the unwavering support of the NBA and its leadership I think will be critical to success on the go forward.

I can’t believe there’s anybody on the planet who is more excited about or committed to helping the league, helping the teams and the players achieve their fullest potential. I’m just ready to get started and roll up my sleeves.

TIM FRANK: We’ll be glad to take some questions.

Q. Laurel, how familiar are you with the WNBA and its history?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: I am learning along the way. I have been, as part of the interviewing process, spending lots of time with many, many people, both within the NBA and the WNBA and outside. So I am on that learning curve. I have been a viewer of games, not necessarily an attender of games. That’s something as I take on the marketing portion of this work I think we’re going to need to address, really taking and converting the interested to the actively engaged.

Q. Commissioner Stern said the league came calling. Who made contact? Was it you expressing interest in the job or was it the league approaching you?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: I was giving a keynote address in Seattle. At that luncheon, an award was being given to the owners of the Seattle Storm. We made a terrific connection there. Coming out of that meeting, the league actually reached out to me and we started the process.

Q. What was your reaction when they first started talking about it?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: I had had such a wonderful connection with Karen Bryant in Seattle that I was really excited to continue the discussions with folks here. And, 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. 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.

So for me it’s a dream job.

Q. Can you speak upon the importance of being a role model for young black woman, being the first black woman to lead a pro sport. Also, Commissioner Stern, are the president’s responsibilities different than the previous two presidents in terms of responsibilities and reporting duties?

COMMISSIONER STERN: I’ll just say that with us it’s a continuation of the great work that Val Ackerman and Donna Orender did in forming, initiating, then establishing the strength of this league. This is just the next iteration of succession. No special goals other than a simple one: it’s Laurel’s jobs to make all of our teams in the league very profitable.

But something that she said earlier, beyond that, a key part of what we do, that is celebrate, elevate and recognize our extraordinary women of the WNBA, what they can mean to our fans.

I’ll let Laurel talk to you on the issue of race.

PRESIDENT RICHIE: Thank you for that question, because I do take the notion of being a role model very seriously, a role model for women, a role model for African Americans. That is, in fact, a big reason of why this opportunity is so interesting and important to me.

So I hope in this role to continue to do that, to partner with the owners and players who do that, as well.

Q. President, is there anything you feel you need to do right away as you get into the job or things that would naturally evolve as you move forward?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: The first thing I want to do is listen and really talk to and continue to speak to people and get input, perspective. There are a lot of people who have been involved with this league for a very long time who are very passionate about it. I want to make sure I’m listening to the owners, the players, the folks here at the league, the fans, season ticket holders, our sponsors, and really wrap my arms around both the challenges and the opportunities.

So for me that’s job one.

Q. Laurel, can you pinpoint what it was that kept you from buying that ticket? Obviously you were interested enough to tune in on television but didn’t take the next step to buy the ticket and see it in person.

PRESIDENT RICHIE: You know, I have thought an awful lot about that. I can give you an experience of one, but I would never presume that my personal experience is going to be the universal experience.

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.

So, obviously, lots more work, lots more thinking to do. I want to cover all the research that has been done. But from a very personal perspective, I think that’s what it was.

Q. Commissioner, you talked about profitability of franchises. You’ve given us a snapshot of the men. Can you give us a snapshot of the P&L on the WNBA side?

COMMISSIONER STERN: We’re doing okay, making a living. Our teams are doing better than they’ve ever done. I don’t have the specific results in front of me, and many of them are still a bit at a minus. I still think we have five or six teams with marquee sponsorships, and those are big ticket items, together with the fact that from a league perspective we’re distributing more television money to the teams.

We’re getting to a point where we think this may be the season where it’s break even and better for all of our teams.

Q. President Richie, last season there was only one cash positive team. Do you have a different plan to grow the league economically? If so, what specifically is your plan?

COMMISSIONER STERN: You know, I want to help her out on this because she just got here, in fairness. I mean, when I talked about team building, we have the top marketing partnership sales force in all of sports, and they have been devoting a fair amount of time to improving the sponsorship opportunities of the league and working with the teams on the marquee sponsorships.

So the return of AMEX, the return of Coke, and the five marquee sponsorships, they’re in place now before Laurel has gotten here. 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 haven’t sat Laurel down with the profit and loss statements yet.

When do you formally begin?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: May 16th.

COMMISSIONER STERN: That’s why I stepped in.

The idea is for us to break even as a league while we continue growing, including international television where we’re well over a hundred countries that are seeing the games of the WNBA, and the games that will be played in Manchester by the Atlanta Dream in May, and then leading into the exposure that’s going to come from the Olympics in London.

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.

Q. I wanted to ask, you talked about the Seattle story, they mentioned that luncheon, the connection. I wanted to see if you could go into a little bit more detail. Also, have you had the chance to talk to Ginny Gilder at that time who also doesn’t have much experience in basketball but has got into it from the Storm experience?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: Sure. In retrospect, that was a unique opportunity. Usually when I was speaking on behalf of the Girl Scouts, it was telling the story of the brand revitalization. In this particular case, the Seattle Council asked me to talk about my personal leadership journey. Unbeknownst to me would be my next opportunity to sitting in the audience.

The talk was really about both the challenges that I had faced as a woman in business, as an African American navigating my way, talking about my lessons learned along the way. I think it probably gave Ginny and Karen an opportunity to get to know me on a much more personal level than one would think when you hear someone giving a keynote address.

When they were speaking and being recognized, it was very, very impressive to me to hear their commitment to and passion to, and quite frankly their success, in the Seattle Storm. It was just one of the those things, a very unique coincidence where my role in this meeting and their role in this meeting really gave us a chance to get to know each other.

Q. How long after was it then that you were approached?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: I believe the meeting in Seattle was in February, and I think I heard probably within a week or so, then went through the process. To the credit of the WNBA, and credit to myself as well, we wanted to make sure this was a good fit. I have met through the interviewing process with lots of the people that I will be depending upon very heavily to partner with.

Nothing is achieved by an individual; it really is a team that comes together. I really wanted to make sure that I was spending the time to get to know the organization, to get to know my peers, my partners, to know those who are already on the WNBA team.

So that was our process.

COMMISSIONER STERN: If you get through our search process standing, that gives you real cred for the job itself. Kerry Chandler, our executive VP for human resources, led this particular search for us. She’s insistent that all candidates, and there were many, meet as many people as possible.

Democracy may have its shortcomings, but in this case it was a very good process for us.

Q. President Richie, could you give us an idea what you think your first couple months on the job might look like. For instance, are you going to visit all 12 franchises? You mentioned earlier maybe you thought you hadn’t been approached in the right way in terms of buying a ticket. With your background, family friendly products that you successfully marketed, do you think you can use that for people who don’t know much about the WNBA and haven’t thought about buying a ticket and be able to sell tickets to those people?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: Sure. Yes, I absolutely plan on hitting the road. I start on the 16th and my bags are already packed. A priority for me is to really get into the market, to get to a game so that I can wipe that off of my record, to really meet with players, meet with owners, meet with fans, meet with sponsors, meet with the media. I really think it’s important for me to really feel in my own experience what is happening because that is where the league is delivered on the ground. That’s my first task. My hope is to respond to that very quickly once I have had those discussions and had those meetings.

You are spot on in terms of my plan and desire to tap into my experience working with consumer products and to bring that to the WNBA. What’s great is sometimes in marketing you have a great product and sometimes you have a not so great product. In this case I feel like there’s a terrific product to work with, and that makes the job so much easier. It’s not without its challenges, but a lot easier than a tough sale.

Q. You talk about in terms of needing a lot of different people who have a lot of background. Are you specifically going to talk to some of the more prominent players and former players to try to get a gauge on what they think might be some good ideas?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: Absolutely. I’ve already begun that process, reaching out to players. I’m very, very encouraged by the speed of their response, their passion for the game, their willingness for partnership.

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.

Q. The last two presidents have had a heavy basketball background. Commissioner Stern, hiring somebody without a basketball background, was it any source of trepidation?

COMMISSIONER STERN: It was not for us because I think having an interest in sports, which Laurel does, and I’m going to embarrass her, having participated as a swimmer, a synchronized swimmer, I’m not going to get into the cheerleading part of her life, but we found somebody who was adept with respect to sports she’s blushing now, by the way culturally adept at understanding what impact the game and the players could have on the community, the global community, was a real plus.

I guess I can say that all politics is personal. My own basketball background was ripping up my ACL in a lawyer’s league. So I don’t think it’s essential to have played the game at a high level at all.

Q. Laurel, in terms of the connection between the Girl Scout experience and the experiences of the WNBA, where do you see the connections?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: A couple of places. One is sort of the structure of the organizations where there is a headquarters. In the case of Girl Scouting, there is Girl Scouts of the USA, and the relationships we have with councils is analogous to the league office and the teams.

I think obviously these are both organizations that focus on women and have a deep strength in setting the stage for the contributions that women can make to society. They are both organizations that are full of role models for women and young girls, and young boys as well.

Both of the organizations to me are well loved, iconic brands in need of a little bit of refreshment, with their DNA strong and solid, but the challenge of ensuring continued relevance.

The more I met with people here the more I realized these are very, very similar organizations. And the membership, the membership of the Girl Scouts organization to me is very similar to building a strong, robust fan base.

Q. Commissioner Stern, I wonder whether the day to day basketball decisions that are made about the WNBA are made by the WNBA front office or by the NBA regarding player rosters, salary caps. Could you explain what the distinction is, how much Laurel Richie will have to say about that.

COMMISSIONER STERN: She’ll have a lot to say about that. 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.

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 Renée’s hands.

Q. President Richie, have you had time to study what the basketball specific issues might be as you come into the league, aside from obviously growing the league financially in terms of the product itself?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: I have not. That will be absolutely on my list of things to do when I’m officially onboard on the 16th.

What I will say is that Renée and I have spent a ton of time together through the interviewing process, 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.

COMMISSIONER STERN: I would just add that we believe, having surveyed the entire 15 year history of the WNBA, that the quality of the game, the level at which it is played, is extraordinary. It’s by far, in our view, the best women’s basketball in the world, of course, but with the best female athletes. They’re playing a game that is getting the acclaim that it and they deserve. We’ve seen it continue to improve.

When your draft choices come from powerhouses like Connecticut and Australia, those two powerhouses, it just means that more and more young women are staying in school and perfecting their skills, or those whose primary focus is their national teams are recognizing that the WNBA is a place to get to for the pinnacle of your career.

Q. We talk about the next level. It’s unquestionable this is a great product. The level of play has risen steadily. But the novelty of 15 years ago has worn off. What do both of you see is the next level you’re shooting for and in what ways might the league be a bit rebranded to push it up a notch?

COMMISSIONER STERN: I hate to take a different course than our new president before she even begins. But what I said on day one, year five and year ten, is that actually the acceptance of a sport is a process by which you convince people both that you’re here to stay, that you offer something extraordinary, and that they should sample it for all that it’s worth both as a game and as an inspirational force.

I often liken our development of the WNBA to tennis. I grew up in an age where women’s tennis did not have similar prizes to men, and they played in complete obscurity really compared to the men’s game.

So my view was for the naysayers that said in year one or year two or year three, up to year five, this is going to be the last year. Now all of a sudden we’re coming off of four straight years of increased ratings, we’re coming off a year of increased attendance, we’re talking about guaranteed television exposure, we’re talking about global interface.

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. 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, and I think in this case ESPN, which has been terrific in its support of the NCAA women and the WNBA, to say, Yes, this is a sport that we believe in, that has arrived, and that we will continue to help grow.

So I think it’s more about taking the game and seeing what we can do with those. Fresh approaches, terrific. Anybody has a better idea, new idea…

One of the things that Laurel said is we have a lot of opinionated people in this place, a lot of different view of who we appeal to, how we should appeal to them, how we should be televised, not only televised but streamed, how our increasing numbers on social media can be enhanced even more, what’s our digital relevance and the like. There is an enormous amount of work to be done. Out of all of that, out of sort of the clash of ideas, I think will come continued growth for the WNBA.

PRESIDENT RICHIE: I would never at this juncture put forth a concrete plan of action. But I think the places where I want to put some great thoughts are in how do we communicate and demonstrate the quality of the game so that people truly understand that? How do we get people to experience a game and what it feels like to be there in person?

I think another place for great exploration is getting to know these players. These are amazing women. So I think people follow leagues and they follow games and they’re fans of basketball, but they also become fans of the individuals that play the game.

Those are the places where I’m looking to create opportunity and create traction.

Q. Do you have a vision of what that next level is? Is some kind of quantifiable description be given to what the next level might be?

COMMISSIONER STERN: Speaking for how we’re going to judge Laurel is we want more fans to attend. 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 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. 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.

Q. As more and more teams have moved into separate ownership, do you feel perhaps that’s a way to go more because they’re not doing it as sort of an afterthought but really with a passion for the WNBA?

COMMISSIONER STERN: It’s interesting for us. But I think the way we’re going is a good one. We’re getting some combinations that are extraordinarily passionate. Sheila Johnson is a passionate owner. You’re able to fundamentally able to leverage the resources of the Capitals and the Wizards. San Antonio has been doing a great job because they’ve had the ability to step aside and devote the kind of assets that are necessary to have this grow. The same is true of the Liberty and our teams like the Mercury, et cetera.

We actually think the remaining NBA teams involved here are passionate about their WNBA teams. But going forward we’re not going to try to sell W teams to NBA teams. They’re going to have to come to us and demonstrate to us that they can do the job that’s necessary. We’re tending to like very much the independent model because in the case of certain teams that we’ve moved on from, NBA teams, it’s been very hard to get the attention that is necessary to allow this league to germinate, grow and now prosper.


 

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