WNBA president Laurel Richie meets the press, talks about the season, marketing and “the kiss”

MINNEAPOLIS - WNBA president Laurel Richie meets the press before game one of the WNBA Finals. Photo © Robert Franklin, all rights reserved.
MINNEAPOLIS – WNBA president Laurel Richie meets the press before game one of the WNBA Finals. Photo © Robert Franklin, all rights reserved.

LAUREL RICHIE: Good evening, everyone. It’s an exciting time in Minnesota on the eve of the first game of the 2013 WNBA Finals presented by Boost Mobile. I would like to begin by saying, by every account, our 17th season was just a terrific season. We saw new records, we saw significant accomplishments, and we saw members of our coaching and player rosters achieving new milestones.

Normally we begin with the players, but this time I would like to sort of start by acknowledging our coach of the year Mike Thibault, who just had a phenomenal season winning his third Coach Of The Year joining Van Chancellor as the third coach in our history to have that honor, and also tying Brian Agler as the second coach to have achieved that more than with two different teams.

The Chicago Sky for the first time in their seven years of the franchise made it into the postseason, and I think Michael Alter and his team are very, very excited about that.

Candace Parker appeared in her first All-star and in so doing scored 23 points and set a record. Riquna Williams, one for the little girls, she is small in stature, I mean, scored 51 points in one game beating the record of 47 that was set by Diana Taurasi and Lauren Jackson.

We also saw a rookie, Alex Bentley fresh out of Penn State, scoring a new record previously held by Diana Taurasi of 10 consecutive three-point field goals made. Terrific, terrific accomplishments there.

We also know that this season, two of our very, very greatest retired, Tina Thompson and Katie Smith. Just incredible athletes, incredible ambassadors of this league, prolific scorers. When they retired, they do so with the No. 1 and No. 2 rankings of total points scored in their WNBA careers, so that was a significant milestone for us.

Perhaps the latest one that I’m drawing great joy from is I would refer to it as the “tension diffusing kiss” between a friend, two players who are both friends and fierce competitors. We just checked before I came up here, and that has received over seven million views on YouTube which I think is just amazing.

From a business standpoint, the 17th season has also been terrific. Attendance is up and what I think is really interesting is, if you look, we are seeing that our season ticket holder renewal rates are up, so that bodes well for our base. But we saw an incredible increase in individual ticket sales which I think is a sign of growth among new and casual fans. Seeing both our core and bringing new fans into the league is terrific for us.

On the partnership front, State Farm joined us this year and Proctor & Gamble came back and activated with us behind their “My Black Is Beautiful” program, in partnering and helping to build self-esteem among young girls, a very important initiative for us. We have seen across the league teams in both cases, our sponsorship revenue is up this year.

As late as Friday afternoon, we had a new partner or a partner coming on board in new ways with us. That’s terrific! We have been happy. I have talked about it a lot this season, but very happy with our relationship with ESPN. During the offseason we came together and extended that through 2022, and that has done terrific things for us.

For the first time ever our draft lottery was televised. Our draft was televised in prime time for the first time across ESPN. Our players are blogging and featured and even within traditional print media, we have seen an increase in coverage.

I think the thing that we’re most intrigued by this year is the creativity that that renewed or extended partnership has brought us, so the ref cam will be back all throughout The Finals this year, and we’re proud in partnership with ESPN to be the first major sports league to bring the ref cam as a way of bringing the games closer to our fans.

Viewer championship on ESPN2 has been up and we have seen double digit increases on NBATV. We are thrilled more people are watching the game. Lastly I would like to mention that as a result of the rebranding initiative that took place during our offseason, we have seen incredible traffic on our WNBA.com platform.

We’re seeing however you look at the numbers, whether it is total visits or page views or unique visits, all of those are up in double digits. We made a strong commitment this season to story telling and we’ve seen that the videos that we have put up telling the stories of the game and of our players, those video views are up 55 percent. So all good news and a really exciting season for the WNBA.

Tonight is really all about the playoffs. We have two teams that are coming together. They have both been in the finals three times, and that’s pretty significant. Are coming to the finals for the third time with the best record in the league. And then we see Fred Williams bringing the Atlanta Dream to The Finals for the third time in just a four-year franchise history.

So I think both of those are amazing. I think what we’re going to see on the court is contrasting styles. There is a steadiness about the Minnesota Lynx that will go right up against sort of the explosiveness and the surprises that come with the Atlanta Dream. When you look combined in these two teams, we have 60 Olympians, four former No. 1 draft picks, four former Rookies Of The Year, and four current members of the 2013 All-WNBA Team.

So there is an incredible amount of talent on the floor, and I, for one, am really excited about this year’s Finals and sort of ready to get on with it. I think it’s going to be a wonderful way to end what has been a terrific season for the WNBA.

Q. Back on Taurasi and Seimone’s kiss, were you concerned that that would feed into the laughing stock mentality that people have about this league, and not give the league the true major league status?
LAUREL RICHIE: Not at all. It was very interesting. I think it was the next day after ESPN did what I thought was a fabulous piece on I think it was called “Smooching in Sports,” but it was great. It was a look back at all these infamous kisses that have taken place in sports. So for the WNBA to spur that conversation and for us to be viewed in that context, I think it’s great.

Q. Give us your assessment of the “3 To See” program that began the WNBA season?
LAUREL RICHIE: There is no doubt that Elena, Skylar and Brittney, there was tremendous excitement, all credit goes to ESPN for coining the phrase “The 3 To See,” but they brought great interest to the league. And one of the things that I think is so exciting is many may have come to the WNBA to see those three, and then when they got into the arena, they saw Tamika Catchings, Taurasi, Seimone Augustus, and Lindsay Whalen.

So I think anytime there is news and a good heightened awareness about the quality of the athletes coming into the league, then that opens a door and creates opportunities for others to see, I think that’s terrific.

So we were happy to welcome them into the league and very happy with the results.

Q. You touched on TV the deal with ESPN, but can you talk about television presence this year and whether you were satisfied with the number of games that fans were going to get to see? And did you feel like that satiated an appetite for people who want to see more games on television?
LAUREL RICHIE: If you ask me the question, I’m always going to say I would love to have more of our games televised, so until every single game is televised on TV, I’m going to say there is more that could be done.

But I think the fact that our viewership numbers are up, I understand that part of our responsibility as a league is to show increases in viewership. So I look at this year and hope that it bodes well for the future.

Q. I want to ask you about the collective bargaining agreement. It’s expired, but I wonder if you could sort of give your characterization of the discussion so far. Do you have a preferred timetable of when this might get resolved?
LAUREL RICHIE: Yeah, with all questions related to collective bargaining, I really want to honor that process, and it is a process. I want to keep the nature of the conversations until we have reached the end point between the league, players, our owners and the union.

I think you all know that we met in Connecticut after All-star and those conversations have continued, and they continue in a way that I continue to look forward to a point in time where we have a new agreement that bodes well for the future of the WNBA.

Q. You discussed the rebranding initiative you took, the color scheme to logo change. What would you say led to that? What other areas do you think could see makeovers or retooling?
LAUREL RICHIE: The refresh of our branding for me came first and foremost from our players. I want to make sure the way in which we represent the WNBA reflects the diversity and athleticism of the players. So that was the genesis for that.

The second piece was there were visual elements that are distinctive to the WNBA, starting with our ball, and I wanted to make sure we were continuing to create an identity that was unique and distinctive to us.

The third piece of it was really a commitment to do, I would say, a better job of telling the stories of our players. That we represent the WNBA absolutely reflects the diversity and athleticism of those players, who they are as athletes, and who they are as human beings off the board.

So we spent more time thinking about creation of content that told those stories, and that’s why I believe we’re seeing the increases on our digital platform is as a result of stepping up that commitment in the area of story telling.

Q. I know you’re not going to talk about the CBA, but in terms of certain elements like injured reserve, that’s been a topic that’s been talked about a lot the last few years because of the year-round nature of the sport, people having to sit out this season, how that can hamstring teams. Do you feel like that may be something that’s on the table in terms of changing roster size or bringing back a different sort of an injured reserve type thing or can you address that at all?
LAUREL RICHIE: This is my third season with the WNBA. I have had two and I’m about to go into my third meeting with our competition committee, and every year the topic of our roster size comes up and every year we evaluate it in the context of multiple measures and multiple dimensions through which we keep our arms around the quality of play, the financial outlook for the league and for our teams. So we have discussed it in the past in our competition committee and I’m sure we will discuss it again this year.

Q. With this being your third Finals and the two teams that are matched up are the same teams as your first Finals, is this a déjà vu moment for you?
LAUREL RICHIE: I don’t know if I’ve been around long enough for a full déjà vu, but I am excited. Anytime you get to this point when you’re at the end of the season in the Finals, it doesn’t really matter what happened in the regular season or in the conference Finals. These two teams know that there are a maximum of five more games before they’re hoisting a trophy. That just makes it incredibly exciting for me. It truly doesn’t matter which two teams are in it, it just matters that we’re at the Finals and ready to bring it on.

Q. What is the climate right now for having a conversation about expansion, whether or not there are cities or communities that might want a team and whether or not the league is ready to talk about that?
LAUREL RICHIE: Yeah, I think a lot about expansion and I’m very heartened by the fact that there are potential owners out in cities that we haven’t been in, cities that we have been in. So I always want to nurture those discussions so that when we’re ready to expand, we’re poised to do so.

My take on this season is I think the level of competition has been phenomenal, from our most seasoned veterans to players who have been in the league for two to three years to rookies who came on strong. Right now I think we are focused on those 12 teams and sort of the level of competition across all 12 teams.

While we continue to have those discussions, and I always describe it as sort of like having a dinner party and they’re in the bun warmer, I want to make sure that there are a group of potential owners who are passionate about women’s basketball and passionate about the WNBA, have connections in their communities, have the financial wherewithal to be the owner of a sports team.

I’m always happy to have those conversations, have been having those conversations, and I think that’s just one of those things that we’ll know. We will get to a point where it just feels right to expand. So it’s not like I’ve got a specific timeline in mind.

Q. Chicago struggled in terms of getting the local sponsorship and the thought was in a city as big as Chicago, there would be more of that. From the league office standpoint, how much can you guys get involved with that and specifically with that being something you have such a strong background in, how can the WNBA move forward in terms of getting local sponsors involved who are involved in other sports in their cities?
LAUREL RICHIE: We still as a league are telling our story and working very hard to bring more and more fans and more and more potential partners sort of into the fold. I believe from a league and team level, we partner incredibly well together in doing this. I was very actively and happily involved with the Tulsa Shock as they were in discussions with Osage, so I think there is a lot of back and forth and collaboration between teams in the league and that takes all different forms, whether it is helping them identify potential partners, working with them to create materials, sharing best practices across our league and from other leagues, to literally attending meetings and having the conversation.

I think we need to continue those efforts, continue to do it in partnership, and continue to have a great season.

You know, nothing is more attractive than success, and I suspect that for Michael Alter, conversations are going to be easier for him this year than they were for him last year. They had tremendous success with that franchise this year, with the addition of Elena Delle Donne, and she just sort of rounded out the mix of an impressive roster and they saw increases in their key metrics this year and I suspect that will continue.

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