East takes All-Star game, festivities a success under the reign of Laurel Richie

Swin Cash receives the MVP award from Laurel Richie

SAN ANTONIO – The last time the WNBA All-Star weekend featured an East vs. West contest was in 2009 at Mohegan Sun Arena. The West won that contest 130-118 but this year the East got revenge. Led by New York Liberty guard Cappie Pondexter who scored 17 points, the East All-Stars defeated the West All-Stars 118-113 in a game typical of the annual event with a lighthearted yet competitive contest between the league’s top players.

"The win was good," said Pondexter. "We came in yesterday, when we got together during practice and the first thing we said was that we wanted to win. Alongside having fun, we wanted to be victorious today and we accomplished that."

Fellow Liberty teammate Essence Carson who made her first appearance as an All-Star, was happy not only with the win but the opportunity to relax and have fun during the weekend’s festivities.

"It was a great time," said Carson. "I had a great experience. I had a fun time. It was a great game. We came out with the ‘W’ but the most important thing is we had fun out there. It was everything I expected and more. Hopefully, I can make it back to a couple more."

While the West lost, Swin Cash of the Seattle Storm won the MVP award. Cash, who finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds, also won the accolade in 2009.

It was the first major event under the reign of WNBA president Laurel Richie who took over the league’s top job in late April. The veteran marketing executive was pleased with the game which drew 12,540 fans and had a halftime highlight of a ceremony announcing the top 15 players of all-time in league history.

"I thought it was great. You know I think the San Antonio team did a great job putting the plans together," said Richie. "And then to have the halftime recognition of the top 15 players of all time just made it even more powerful, to see them all together really speaks to what the league is all about."

While the choice for San Antonio to host the All-Star game was made before Richie arrived, the success of the event which included community service events attended by players, panels and activities for kids may help to alleviate concerns longtime fans may have about someone who had never attended a WNBA game before taking the president’s job.

Richie has been making the rounds of teams in the league, meeting with owners, coaches, players and fans on her tour. She met with the media face-to-face in a press conference just an hour before tip-off of the All-Star game.

She answered questions about the NBA lockout, marketing the league, visibility as an African American leader of a professional sports league and plans for future All-Star Games.

Full Transcript of Laurel Richie Press Conference

PRESIDENT RICHIE: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you here. I am thrilled to be here in San Antonio.
Before we get started, I’d like to give a really big thank you to the City of San Antonio for hosting us, to the San Antonio Silver Stars team who have put on a great event and great series of events here, to all our sponsors who make this day possible on a national and local level, and most importantly to our players and coaches who have taken a break in their season and come to be with us here today.

Our fans are incredibly excited about today. We have more than 12,000 here with us. They’ve been lined up since 10:30 this morning. I have heard there is a woman who has come all the way from Japan to be with us today. So I think that bodes well for just how engaged and passionate our fan base is here at the WNBA.
We’ve been here for two days and busy with the WNBA Cares event. Our players spent time at Fort Sam Houston with military families and with wounded warriors, and that was a powerful and moving day for all of us. They’ve been doing fit clinics and Dribble Against Diabetes clinics all throughout the city.
But today is game day. That’s what we really are excited about.

I think this All-Star Game takes on added significance because we’re in our 15th year and celebrating that along with the All-Star Game. It’s really given us a chance, me personally, to reflect back on our 15 years.

It is an amazing run that we’ve had. I think the players are stronger, faster, more skilled than they have ever been. Our 2011 rookies have had sort of the pleasure of growing up in a world where the WNBA exists, so their role models have been the women of the WNBA. I think they have been motivated and inspired by the fact if they do their best in elementary school, middle school, high school and college, there is a professional women’s basketball league waiting for them. It’s really quite marvelous to hear them talk about it. It’s something they don’t take lightly.

As a result of our being here for 15 years, I think the talent pool is incredible. We have our I call them the established stars of the Sues, Dianas, Tamikas of the world, Cappie is out there. Then we have the remarkable rookies coming in with Danielle and Liz and Courtney and Maya. So when you get this combination of those who have been around for a little bit and those who are coming in fresh, I think it just raises the level of play.

I was at the rematch of the inaugural game earlier this year in Los Angeles and reflected on the point that in that original game the score I believe was 67-57. This year, 15 years later, it was 96 to 91. That’s one of the many proof points of how far the league has come.

Also I’m excited that we’re moving beyond sort of the novelty of a national professional women’s sports league and what we’re really talking about is the level of play. Our friends at ESPN, even this week, two times we have been featured in the top-10 plays. Again, it’s 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 the level of play today in the WNBA. I think our fans recognize that and they support that.

Attendance is up. It’s been up for the last four years. We’re on track for it to be up again this year. The average attendance per game is up 6%. Gate receipts are up 3%. Renewals are at an all-time high, up 35%. Visits to WNBA.com are up three million in terms of page views as people follow our 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.

I could not be more thrilled to be at the helm as we head into the next 15 years of the WNBA. I am really proud to be the leader of the 132 women of this league. I had a meeting with them this morning over breakfast. They’re amazing women doing amazing things on and off the court.

We’re going to see the top 15 players of all time. I’ll tell you up the front I’m not giving the names out because I’ve been asked that all weekend. That will be revealed at halftime. I’m sure there will be lots of debate after the fact.

I’ll thrilled to be in San Antonio, thrilled that it’s All-Star Weekend, and thrilled to be recognizing the 15 greats that have brought us to our 15-year anniversary.
So thanks for coming.

THE MODERATOR: We’ll take questions at this time.

Q. I know you visited all 12 franchises. Could you give us some of the main takeaways from that. Secondly, there has been some concern with the possibility of an extended NBA lockout. How might that affect the WNBA or will it affect it?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: Let me address the second one first.

We’re having our All-Star Game today and we are moving ahead full steam. We’ve even begun planning for next year. While we are obviously affiliated and associated with the NBA, the WNBA is moving ahead full steam.

In terms of what my takeaway is from the 12 team visits, other than a little bit of exhaustion, has been just how many very talented people there are working within each of our teams. There are a lot of great examples of initiatives and programs.

I was in Phoenix, and there was an event with the Girl Scouts that had over one thousand girls meeting with the players, enjoying the game. So all around the league I saw great examples of programs and initiatives that we want to replicate as we work to increase our fan base and increase our sponsors.

Q. As far as the information you gather, was there a timeline as far as looking over and implementing information gathered from the teams?
PRESIDENT RICHIE: Yes. Our Board of Governors gathers at the end of this year. My plan, after I will be through with the visits to all 12 teams, I will have one All-Star under my belt, then the rest of the season as I continue to go to games, I really want to focus on putting plans in place for the future. I’m going to do that in partnership with my colleagues at the league and the people that we’ve been working with at the team level. So my target is to have a plan in place that I can share with the teams at that point in time.

Q. What are the plans for next year’s All-Star Game? I know you said you have been already talking about that. Next year is an Olympic year. Also, what about in the future making this a two-day All-Star Weekend where you have things like skills games the first day, more for the fans as part of a permanent part of All-Star Weekend for the WNBA?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: So with respect to next year’s All-Star, it is an Olympic year. I think that’s a terrific opportunity to showcase the talent of the WNBA on an international scale. So we’re thrilled that it’s an Olympic year and we’ll obviously build our schedule to accommodate that.
We have begun the discussions of implications for All-Star, so I don’t have an answer for you on what we will do next year. Whether or not we have an All-Star next year or not, we will continue to have All-Stars.

I’ll probably be better able to answer your other question once I’ve been through this experience. You know, I have had the pleasure of talking to many of our fans here in San Antonio, and they seem pretty happy and pretty jazzed with the plans that we’ve got. Anytime you do an event like this, you do a postmortem afterwards. If we find that’s an opportunity for the go forward, we’ll obviously do that.

From what I’ve heard so far, I spent a good chunk of time with a good chunk of fans last night, and they seemed really thrilled with the plans we have had for this week.

Q. So next year you’re not sure if there will be an All-Star Game?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: Yes. You know, you always want to have some way during the year to have East versus West, but I can’t tell you exactly what that’s going to be, what it might look like, or if indeed it will happen. We’re still talking through the schedule, getting the Olympics set. That’s a discussion we’re right smack dab in the middle of.

Q. You’ve talked about a strategic plan for the league. Given your background in marketing, the fact that you were a casual fan before you stepped into this position, what do you foresee as the biggest challenges to capturing those casual fans across the years?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: You know, my opinion at this point in time, and I reserve the right to change it as I do more work, but I think the most important thing is to get a fan or a prospect to a game. 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 unlike any experience I’ve ever had at any other sporting event.

Part of that is figuring out how to describe that to people, how to communicate that to people. But the marketing end of it is getting somebody to go from, I’ve heard of them, I’m interested in them, I support them, I think it’s a good idea, to actually going to a game.

Q. Earlier today I posted a story about the WNBA. I equated it to the historic nature of President Obama and his election, how the country was able to embrace a black president. We really put aside a racial issue and took this leader. I look at the WNBA and I look at how there’s gender inequity. I’m wondering in your perspective what do you think it will take in order for women’s basketball and women’s sports, for fans and for people to really just put aside gender and really embrace women’s basketball? Do you see the league in the future ever really just taking a stand on gender in sports and just saying, We’re women, we can play, too?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: You know, I think we have taken a stand. 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 also hope that we all look back on the summer of 2011 and say, between what happened with soccer and the 15th anniversary of the WNBA, that was a milestone and a turning point. I think at the end of the day what changes perceptions or expands perceptions is when people can actually experience the game.
So I’m thrilled with all of the attention on soccer because I think the general public saw women competing at a level that might have surprised them. I think we just have to keep going at it. I invite all of you in the media to help us with that, to really showcase what women are currently doing today, because I think that’s the best sort of ambassador for women’s sports.

Q. Going back to the lockout question quickly. I know you said plans are set for next year. Does the situation in the NBA right now present any uncertainty for you, specifically for the teams that aren’t independent?


Q. None at all?


Q. Maybe you’d like to talk a little bit about the financial model of the WNBA, how the league through its responsible financial endeavors could be a good example of how a league should be run.

PRESIDENT RICHIE: In a nutshell, I think you just gave my job description from David Stern and Adam Silver.

The great thing is the level of play right now is absolutely where it should be, so the challenge on the go forward is within the marketing and the business plan. So I can’t tell you what that plan looks like. I can tell you that’s my mandate, that’s what I’ve been brought here to do, and that’s the work that I will be doing between now and the end of the year, to really chip away at what that looks like.
The good news is the reason I opened this by sharing with you 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.

Q. Commissioner, in your plans of doing the marketing, things like that, are you having any plans of talking to media partners to see how they can better expose this league? An example is Minnesota didn’t send any reporters here despite the fact there’s four players here. Have you thought about how you’ll get them to see this league as a major league sport as opposed to a novelty?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: Absolutely. I think in our society, in our culture, you cannot underestimate the power of the media, both to communicate and validate.
Part of the plan will be thinking about how to step up our outreach to the media to have them understand what the WNBA is all about.

Q. A majority of your players have to supplement their basketball income by playing overseas. Is it even possible to maybe make the WNBA their primary source of employment and income? Is it possible to make the season longer, to keep them playing here more so than overseas?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: I absolutely think about that. I don’t three months in have the answer to that. But I’m encouraged by the fact that despite the length of our season, our compensation package, we are still are able to attract the best in breed in women’s basketball.

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.

Q. We talk about the fact that it’s televised. Yes, I did check out Live Access. But what about radio simultaneously of any game in any particular venue? We used to have that in New York City. We don’t have that anymore. A couple of my colleagues are here to help you in any way that we can get that done.

PRESIDENT RICHIE: All of that is open. I’m up for it. I realize my job is to not only create the plan but to sell it in so that we get that coverage. But, yes, the more coverage we get, the more people see the level of play. The more people see the level of play, the more they want to come to a game. That is absolutely part of the work that I believe needs to be done.

Q. Back to this weekend. You made a president’s decision to have Liz Cambage as the replacement player. Can you talk about that decision, that executive decision you had to make?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: Yes. Knowing that Candace and Lauren were out, I felt that the addition of Liz was a great addition to the team. I think she’s 14 points a game and 6 rebounds. I think that’s a nice addition to the team.

Q. I’m sure you’ve probably had some discussion with some of the greats that will be honored at halftime. Any advice they gave you coming into this job on what maybe they’d like to see more of, what might be missing, or maybe they were pleased with things the way they are.

PRESIDENT RICHIE: The first thing I would say about meeting the greats is that has been a highlight. To sit in a room with these 15 women who you are about to see unveiled at halftime, the fan part of me, it doesn’t get any better than that.

And they’ve been very welcoming, as have the current players. While I’ve been visiting teams, that’s been with players, with sponsors, with staff, with fans. It’s not that they have given me very specific, or all of them have given me the same advice. They’ve all given me lots of advice. I think it all centers around we all recognize that when we get someone to come to a game and experience it, more often than not they are hooked. They have expressed sort of back in the early days we had great, great media coverage, how wonderful that was.

So they’ve given me advice that has been across a broad spectrum. I’m piling that in with all the other really great advice I’ve been getting.

Q. Does it bother you at all a lot of newspapers, unfortunately with the economy, have had to cut back on the coverage? Does that make your job more challenging to get the league more publicity?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: Does it bother me, yes. And your second question?

Q. At the beginning of the league it almost seems like there was more coverage. Talk about what the league has done to keep the league actually going. And then talking about that it’s 15 years old, talk about that a lot of people weren’t born yet who are now seeing the league.

PRESIDENT RICHIE: I think we all know the media landscape is changing dramatically. Then when you add the economy on top of that, it’s a big, big storm of events that we’re all navigating our way through.

One of the benefits I think in the last 15 years is the growth of the online space. So that gives us the opportunity to build really robust websites that are refreshed frequently where we can tell stories, do features, take some of that communication in-house, take some of that burden off the media, or share the opportunity with the media.
We at the WNBA really try to leverage every opportunity within the online and social media space to do that.

And, yes, I think as the landscape changes, I hope that we have a presence in every media outlet that can help us get the word out about the game and about our players.

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