Laurel Richie addresses the media at the WNBA Finals

Shortly before game one of the 2011 WNBA Finals in Minneapolis, league president Laurel Richie addressed the media and answered questions on her first season, accuracy of attendance figures, the NBA lockout and more after making an opening statement on the status of the league.

PRESIDENT RICHIE: Good afternoon, everybody, or actually almost evening. Welcome to the 2011 WNBA Finals. Welcome also to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

You know, I’d like to begin first by congratulating Glen Taylor, owner of the Minnesota Lynx and Kelly Leoffler and Mary Brock, the owners of the Atlanta Dream. I think we can’t underestimate what it takes to put a team together to make it to the Finals. And the three of them have done that and they are here on our main stage. So I really do wish and send my great congratulations to them.

Before I head into any comments on the playoffs and the Finals, I’d like to make just a couple of comments about our 2011 season. We have had what I think is a great season. Now, I know it’s my rookie season, but I think, nonetheless, it has been a great one. We’ve had a terrific year in terms of partnerships, both at the league level and at the team level.

We are up in double digits. When you put that all together, the WNBA has formed eight new partnerships this year, and as most of you have heard, we have our first-ever league-wide marquee partner in Boost Mobile. And we’re thrilled to have them onboard.

We are thrilled for those partners who are new and those who have renewed this year. We really appreciate the support for the WNBA. And we appreciate their partnership coming together with us and making a difference in the communities in which we live and we compete. It’s not only what they do with us on the court but how they support and partner with us off the court. And we’ve had a terrific year in terms of fan engagement as well. Attendance is up for the fifth straight year. Our gate is also up. Our media partner, ESPN, has let us know that on ESPN2 we have reached the highest level in viewership since 2005, and that’s up five percent versus 2010.

And the other thing that I think that’s really interesting and fun is that we are seeing great engagement in the online digital space. Our numbers this that area are surging as well and that’s terrific news for us when we look at things like traffic to, WNBA Live Access and our social media sites. We’re really proud to be able to offer this whole suite of engagement vehicles to our fans and we are glad to provide them with many avenues to connect with our league, to connect with our teams, with our players and, quite frankly, to connect with each other.

I don’t know if you were online today but there was lots of discussion about tonight’s game and the finals that are ahead of us. So we’re thrilled with that level of engagement from our fans, and we thank them for their support in this season as well. I think the great season that we’ve had has left us really excited for the playoffs and for the upcoming finals.

I think as I look at the games that we’ve seen thus far in the playoffs, you know, more than a couple of them have come down to the wire to that third final deciding game. I believe we have the best female basketball players in the world playing in the WNBA.

And I have noticed, very gratefully, that they’re bringing their very best level of play to our playoffs. So I think they’ve been competitive games and they’ve been interesting games, and they’ve been — for us as fans and viewers — very rewarding to watch. But when it comes to today, there are only two teams left. The Minnesota Lynx and the Atlanta Dream. I think this is going to be a very competitive series. And the only thing today that we know for sure is we’re going to be crowning a new WNBA champion when this is all said and done. These are interesting teams to me.

I think they are extremely athletic. Both of them seem to have had sort of a steady build with the season and peaking in perfect time in the playoffs and now the Finals. The Atlanta Dream has only been around for four years and two of those years they’ve made it to the playoffs. Not bad odds right there. They are led with the very fiery Angel McCoughtry with Izi and Lindsey Harding coming through. And this is a team that loves to run. And I think they’re really going to try to drive the pace of the game through the series.

The Lynx are coming to the Finals for the very first time. One of the things that I love to watch in the Minnesota Lynx is this combination of the veteran in Taj and the rookie in Maya. I thought it was almost poetry that in the game that put them into the Finals, both Taj and Maya scored 21 points. Sort of bookending that team and then round it out with Rebekkah and Seimone and Lindsay Whalen.

So I’m really excited to see these teams go at it in the Finals. I’m really excited for the first time in WNBA history both of the teams in the Finals are led by female coaches. So I think that just adds another element for us to watch as the Finals unfold.

I have been getting tons of e-mails all day about how big the crowd is. I believe we have topped 14,000. This will be the second largest crowd in the history of the Minnesota Lynx franchise, topped only by Lindsay Whalen’s homecoming. So we’re really, really excited to be here today. I can’t wait to watch what happens today. I have no predictions on who the winner will be, but I am absolutely confident that we are all in for a really exciting ride through the Finals. So happy to be here and happy — it feels like a fitting end to our 15th anniversary season.

Q. You’ve been through almost a full season now. If you could just talk about what are maybe the main things that you’ve picked up on that you feel like the WNBA can improve upon with your leadership, and what are you most going to be focusing on in the offseason of the WNBA?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: During the offseason, there are two things I really want to focus on. One is taking the time to really think through what kinds of programs and initiatives we can create to increase in-arena attendance and our viewership. I have said before and I continue to believe the game within the WNBA is a phenomenal game in terms of the game of basketball and the way it’s being played by these world-class athletes.

So the one thing I know is I’m not going to be spending a lot of time thinking about how to improve the game, I’m really going to spend a lot of time thinking about how to bring the wonderful experience of the WNBA to more and more people.

A second thing that I really want to focus in on is finding opportunities for sports fans and the general public to get to know the women of the WNBA. Primarily the players, but also many of our owners as well.
I continue to be impressed with our players as athletes, as citizens. They give so willingly. I’ve had so many moments where I’ve seen young girls and young boys literally light up when they come in contact with our players.

And I just think that’s a really important piece to growing the league.

Q. Could you please tell us on the subject of attendance, it sort of brings to mind the old saying about how a person drowned in the river and it was just three feet. There were spikes in attendance in Minnesota and couple of other franchises but we’ve perennially had a problem with the stated attendance not matching our eyeball counts, crowd counts, first of all, can we get a release attendance year-to-year comparisons at all arenas in the league and secondly what those figures are made up of? Do they include give-away tickets, do they include everybody in the building, including concessionaires and tickets that are sold and given away to sponsors but never actually used and so forth?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: We have a ton of different measures when it comes to measuring our attendance, and we look at the number of tickets that are sold, the number of tickets that are out. We look at the number of people who actually make it into the game as fans. So not the concession folks, but as fans coming to the game. So we look at our attendance across a whole host of measures. And I will admit it is much more complex than I thought it was coming in.

And that will be just in terms of my growth and development and my leadership of the league, one of the things that I really want to look at, how we report and really decide of all the measures we look at, which are the ones that are most important and which ones tell us where we are in terms of growing and building a sustainable business model for the league.

Q. Could we get a release of the attendance figures for all the franchises in the league? And also do you see at this time any franchises that you see either in jeopardy of closure or any potential franchises that you think might warrant expansion?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: At this point in time, and I have spoken with all of our owners across 12 teams, my knowledge as of right now today all of those teams will be back with us again next year and back with us in the cities that they are currently in, which I think is great news for the league.

Q. If you could speak a little bit about ESPN’s coverage in terms of pregame stuff, doing some buildup stuff, competing with NFL and Major League Baseball, you still don’t get a lot of information from your partner about this league, and any conversation with ESPN about improving their coverage throughout the league?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: Well, I am very proud to have ESPN as a partner. I believe that ESPN is the premier sport media vehicle in this country. I will always want more, and I will always want broader and different kinds of coverage. I have found ESPN to be very welcoming to me in my first year.

And we are hoping to meet together at the end of this season to talk about opportunities and possibilities for us on the go-forward. But I have seen some moments in time and some — I think their coverage of us leading up to this Finals is pretty good.

We have the human interest part of our game. We have had features on some of our key matchups. So, again, I think, like everything that I’m doing right now, we’re starting where we are and looking to see what we can do through partnerships to build to an even better place.

Q. I understand you just got back from the ESPN W summit. I’m curious to know if you can share with us perhaps any outcomes that came from that conference, any discussion about the future of women sports and attracting more fans to the league?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: It was a great conference. It was wonderful to be with those of us who work together to promote women’s sports. And what was most impressive to me was the willingness and the understanding by this collective group that we need to help each other, that I feel like the WNBA gained from what happened in soccer this summer.

I know that next year is the fortieth anniversary of Title Nine, and there was lots of discussion about how we might all come together and really use that as a moment to make a very large change in awareness and acceptance of female athletes. So it was a great session with a great spirit of partnership and a great bias toward action.

Q. You spoke a little bit about Angel’s emotion and fire. I wonder as a president watching the league do you encourage or like to see players get emotional and showcase those emotions? It’s been a hot button issue in the NBA before. Just wondering what your thoughts were on that.

PRESIDENT RICHIE: I think passion is always great. And passion, I know, is what drives many if not all of our athletes. That being said, we also have very high standards for sportsmanship and sportsman-like conduct on and off the court.

So I think it’s really the, we need to think about passion in both of those, both sides of that.

Q. Next year is an Olympic year, can you just talk about the plan for the league schedule and how you guys as a league hope to capitalize on the interest in the Olympic year as you move through the league season?

RESIDENT RICHIE: Very excited about the Olympics. That gives our athletes and the women of the WNBA an international global stage in which to show their ability. So we will do everything we can to accommodate the Olympics and make it easy for us to both manage our WNBA season but also give our athletes a chance to compete in the Olympics. So we’re still sorting that out. My guess is our season will start a little bit earlier and it will end a little bit later with a break in the middle for the Olympics.

Q. Could you comment on how the labor negotiations and the difficulties with that and the NBA might impact the WNBA, particularly for those franchises that are still sister teams to NBA teams?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: As I’ve said before, I am solely focused on the WNBA. There’s nothing that I have heard from my NBA partners that causes me to have any questions about impact on the WNBA. I realize the conversations have been happening with greater frequency, and there’s another one tomorrow morning, beginning tomorrow morning again.
And I wish them all the very best in getting to an agreement that works for all.

Q. Couple of seasons ago the roster size was at 13, and then trimmed to 11. Is there any thought as to increasing it back up to 12 or 13 in the near future?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: You know, I think this will always be a topic for discussion, because we are constantly trying to manage lots of variables that are often opposing. So as I have traveled around visiting with teams and fans and coaches and players, that has come up as a question.

We will look at it again. I have no bias at this moment in time toward changing or not changing, but I think that’s one of those questions that we will ask ourselves every couple of years or maybe even every year and just revisit it.

Q. You talked about passion. Are you worried a little bit that some of the reactions to the officials, in particular, have gotten out of hand from some players? I know there’s fines that are levied. Those tend not to be made public. But do you feel like there needs to be a stronger message to players and coaches about respect for officials, especially their conduct towards officials during games?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: You know, we have rules and regulations in place, and I think we need to make sure that we are exercising those rules and regulations consistently and appropriately. Because that’s the mechanism that we have to make sure that our players and our coaches are conducting themselves in the way that we believe that they should be as part of the WNBA. So I rely very heavily on those, and I know we don’t make the fines public, but from where I sit, I think the fines that we have levied have been consistent with what we have seen happen in the context of the game.

Q. I had the pleasure of speaking with three sets of WNBA owners the last month, the team from LA. The team from Seattle and the team from the Dream. And each owner in their own way articulated that they’re very pleased, they’re very happy with the product on the court. And every owner has said we’ve got a great team, what we need is just more people to know about what we have, and if we can just get them into the door, just get them to tune in, they’ll see how great the WNBA is. So I was just wondering if you could perhaps — perhaps if you could speak to the stray fan, the fan that is thinking about tuning in to the game, to the WNBA Finals these next couple of weeks, what would you say to that fan to keep them to stay on the channel and don’t turn the game off?

PRESIDENT RICHIE: Yeah, you know, I have to say not just as president of this league but as a woman who loves sports and who has followed sports for 52 years, this is a really good, exciting game.

I would encourage people to come to a game in arena, because I think when you get the full experience of not just the game but all that comes with it, it’s a wonderful experience. I think the game is faster, stronger and more competitive than people imagine. So I think that’s sort of an ah-ha that people have when they come to a game.

And I would encourage people to tune into these playoffs. I have been glued to my TV set when I haven’t been in arena with just how competitive these games have been and people really leaving it on the court and going down to the wire. So to me it’s about watch and come join us and I really believe that is the conversion metric for us.

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