Transcript: WNBA president Laurel Richie meets the press at the 2015 All-Star game
Video of Richie’s opening comments
THE MODERATOR: Welcome everyone to Boost Mobile WNBA All?Star 2015, and WNBA president Laurel Richie.
LAUREL RICHIE: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to 2015 WNBA All?Star presented by Boost Mobile. We are thrilled to be back here at the Mohegan Sun. As many of you know this is our fourth time here at the Mohegan Sun, and the Connecticut Sun has always done a terrific job with our All?Star. Before I start talking about the league and about today’s game, I would like to extend a truly heartfelt thank you to the Mohegan tribe, to the tribal elders, to the tribal council, to chairman Kevin Brown, and to CEO, Mitchell Etess.
As always, they have made us feel incredibly welcome. They’ve done a terrific job here. They have been very gracious with our players, with our partners. We have some VIP fans here with us today. So they just, as always, it’s been phenomenal, and we couldn’t be happier to be back here at the Mohegan Sun.
We’re coming into this All?Star, I think, with some really terrific momentum. Our attendance is pacing four percent ahead of last year which is some terrific news. In our offseason, we entered into new partnerships with Kaiser Permanente, Harman, Nike, and Pepsi, and as of today, nine of our teams have marquee partners and we all know the significant impact in a very positive way those marquee partnerships can have on our franchises.
So we’re very proud and happy to be in those relationships, and also happy to see that some of our partners have renewed those relationships, which I think is a testament to the great work being done across the league at our 12 teams.
We’ve also made a very concerted effort to really pay attention to our presence in the social world. As many of you know, we upgraded our league and league website and the websites of our 12 teams. We have continued our focus on LiveAccess, and we’ve really worked with our content partners to increase our presence in the social media space.
What’s terrific about that is our social actions is up 52 percent, viewing of videos in the social space are up in triple digits, and we’ve seen increases both in terms of subscriptions and revenue, and perhaps most importantly time spent on our LiveAccess products.
So, we’re very happy to make sure that we’re offering platforms in that space and content in that space that our fans are responding to. So our All?Star weekend, well, that tipped off yesterday, as we always do with our FIT Clinic. I have to say, I think I speak for our players in saying that is often, next to the game, the highlight of our weekend. We did it this year in partnership with one of our new partners, Kaiser Permanente.
It took place with young girls and young boys from Ledyard Parks and Recreation and Mohegan Recreation Program. And I would say judging from the decibel level in the gym, I think it is fair to say that the kids had a really good time. And those FIT Clinics they are for us so important because the kids get to meet our All?Stars they get to hone new skills, they get to practice drills, get to work on their footwork, work on their shot.
But most importantly what they do is they get to experience the game that we all love from those who play it better than anybody else. And I think for our players, it really conjures up and reminds them of their early days with the game and reinforces their love of the game.
So it was a great, great session, and I’m very grateful to Kaiser Permanente for partnering with us on that.
From our FIT Clinic, we then went on to open practice, and I have to say, I think last year’s All?Star Game, you know, we went into overtime for the first time. It was record scoring and it was down to the wire. So I think the players brought a little something extra to this practice session, and I can absolutely guarantee that the East and West are really both ready to compete today.
The talent in the league as always will be on full display. We have 12 veterans and 10 first timers competing, and I think that’s a nice balance between the veterans and sort of an influx of new talent. I would be remiss if I didn’t start with Tamika Catchings. She now stands alone as the only WNBA player selected to 10 All?Stars, which I think is yet another significant milestone in a career of one of our greats and one of women’s basketball greats so we should all give her a special round of applause for that accomplishment.
Another veteran story I’m particularly excited about is Plenette Pierson. Here she is in her 12th year in the league, making her debut as an All-Star based on the incredible contributions she has made to the Tulsa Shock and the leadership role she’s played with that organization.
The Washington Mystics I think on the younger end of the spectrum, we have Stefanie Dolson and Emma Meesseman. I think we’ve seen and heard the story of their friendship and their partnership. I think that’s going to be a fun one to watch.
Then Elena Delle Donne, she’s three times been selected to the All-Star team, and today she’ll be taking to the court so we’re really excited to have her there.
We, as many people did, have joined in celebrating Becky Hammon. We like to call her “our Becky,” but the incredible accomplishment of Becky Hammon in the NBA Summer League, we are proud of her, and we are equally proud to yet again feature two women as head coaches going head?to?head in a WNBA All?Star Game in Pokey and Sandy.
So very, very excited about the talent, and the coaching ranks as well as the All?Stars themselves.
The last thing I’ll mention is ESPN has been with us today. SportsCenter on the road has been broadcast and brought to you from here in Connecticut and we were very, very proud to be one of six on?the?road locations selected by ESPN. And I think that just speaks to what we’re going to see in under an hour in terms of our WNBA All?Star Game. Couldn’t be more excited about our season, and couldn’t be more excited about the game ahead.
MODERATOR: Once again, we’ll open the floor to questions.
Q: First off, talk about the move to Tulsa, which obviously from Tulsa to Dallas, which came up by the board of governors approving it the other day. Secondly talk about expansion and what you have planned. I think you said there may be a committee being formed to look into it?
LAUREL RICHIE: Yes. Bill Cameron, majority owner of the Tulsa Shock, who has been with that team for the past six years, came to us and said that through his thinking, discussions, and investigation, he was interested in relocating the team to the Dallas market and his belief is that the potential within the fanbase, the potential within the corporate community offers a great opportunity for the Shock team. And he’s fully committed to making that move and making great things happen in Dallas. The board of governors unanimously approved his request.
But as excited as we are about that move to Dallas, I would be remiss if I didn’t genuinely thank the people of Tulsa who have been supportive of that team in the time that it’s been in Tulsa, and we’ll see they may be rewarded with their first appearance in the postseason.
The second question was about expansion. That’s a conversation that it seems we have every year, and I always say it gets closer and closer. This year we’ll be forming a committee, an expansion committee to really take a look at it and to think about making a concrete plan and a concrete strategy for how we think about it, how we approach it, the timing.
So it’s not that I am saying that expansion is absolutely on the horizon, and if the follow?up is when it will be. There is no date. But I do feel like based on the calls that we’re getting, the expression of interest from owners, potential owners from different geographies and the depth of talent in the league that I think is prime for expansion, we will now formally begin that to form a committee to talk about that.
Q. I wonder if I could follow up just a little bit to the degree that you can share the timetable. Was Mr. Cameron talking about potentially moving at the end of last season?
Was it this season? What point did he bring this up and did the league feel that Tulsa was given a completely fair chance in terms of proving that that franchise worked when you consider they haven’t had a playoff team or particularly competitive team for the time they’ve been there?
LAUREL RICHIE: Yeah, obviously for ?? and I don’t want to speak too much for Bill. I know that it is something that he thought about and thought about very carefully being from Oklahoma himself and very proud to be from the state of Oklahoma.
We’ve had some initial conversations when it was an early thought. But until the formal recommendation or formal request comes through to us, that’s the moment where we, as a league, and the board of governors take action.
Q: Couple of things. I’d like to ask every once in a while what you’re thinking about what is on your mind in terms of what your prioritizing as the critical issues in the league at this point when you convene your leadership group? What is on your mind? Just to piggyback briefly Doug’s question. Is a league larger than 12 good for the business model of the league or in terms of its growth, would you say 12 is a good number? Do you need it to be 14 or 16?
LAUREL RICHIE: I’ll start with the second part of your question. That is exactly the kind of question that I would like this committee to take on, to really think about. For me, expansion is not just about the process and the timing. It’s about thinking about the league in total, thinking about the impact, the upsides, the potential risks, and really just doing that due diligence.
Also, the work of the committee will obviously have the support and engagement of key personnel with the league who have lots of experience and lots of history. I’m glad that you asked about one of the other things that happened this week is we had a meeting with our leaders from all 12 teams, presidents and COOs, and what we are really focusing in on right now is our 20th season that is just around the corner. We are so excited to think about our 20th season, not so much as a look back at our first 20 years, although we’ll do that and celebrate the heck out of it.
But what we’re really excited about is the next 20 years and what does that look like for us and what’s developing as a shared vision of 20 years from now.
So I think that’s where we’re spending a good deal of our time. I would say that I talked a little earlier in my opening remarks about where we are in terms of partnerships, and while I always want to keep that growing and getting bigger and bigger, I’m very, very proud. I can remember a couple of years ago we collectively set a goal of securing marquee partners for each of our teams, and to think in a relatively short time we’ve gone from zero to nine is just incredible.
So part of our work on the 20th season will be to think about that season, but not just in and of itself, but where it takes us and how it sort of increases the trajectory of our growth.
Q: Two questions ??
LAUREL RICHIE: What is with the two questions today, guys? I’m glad I had breakfast.
Q: USA Today ran a front page story on the sports section of the WNBA All?Star Game, which I think might be the first time ever. If you could comment on that? And second question, 50 percent of your head coaches are women, only one is a black woman. So if you could speak a little bit on diversity as well?
LAUREL RICHIE: Yeah, so, yeah, we’re very happy to have coverage. Media coverage is always so hard to, with a finite point, gauge day?to?day or event-to-event. But I do feel like the level of talent in the league, the personalities that are coming in, young players who think about their brand, all of that I think makes it so much easier for us to tell the stories of our game and of our players.
I think it makes it easier for the media to find those stories and to talk about those stories. So we are always, always looking to increase coverage of the W, and when it happens, we’re thrilled. And what better time than our All?Star Game when the very best of the best are gathered and their talents are on display. So, very excited about that.
I’ve known you now for five years, Charles, and you know that diversity is very, very important to the WNBA as a league, and to me very, very personally, given my life, my history, and the parents that I am blessed to have, and the family that I’m born into. So we are always looking to encourage and support and identify and promote diversity within every single level, sector of our business, and we are incredibly proud that for, I believe it’s two years running, we have received an A?plus rating on that front.
But we are never ?? that doesn’t have us resting on our laurels. It keeps us very, very focused. And there is going to be a natural ebb and flow of coaches. We have 12 teams, and our heads of our teams and our GMs are going to make decisions about coaches and assistant coaches and trainers every single day. So there will be a natural inflow.
But it is absolutely a priority, and it’s something we are proud of our track record and use that as motivation moving forward.
Q: Just to piggyback on the first part of that question. With SportsCenter here, and the fact that the game is on ABC this year, just I’m curious what you think it says about where the league is positioned relative to the sports landscape, and the social landscape here, and just in terms of women’s sports here in 2015, if we’re seeing if not a tipping?point moment and something significant happening?
LAUREL RICHIE: Yeah, I can’t say whether we’re at a tipping?point moment. I can say as head of this league and as a fan of sports and of women’s sports, I’m loving this summer. I’m watching with baited breath to see what Serena does. I’ve celebrated and cheered on the Women’s World Cup. I’m excited that there seems to be lots of attention around the WNBA, our All?Star and beyond. So it does feel like there is incredible momentum, and I’m always looking for a little bit more.
Q: Ready for another two?part question?
LAUREL RICHIE: I guess so (laughing).
Q: Last time you were here just two years ago there were some concerns voiced by players about coming back to the Mohegan Sun Arena when you were having breakfast with them. Were any of those concerns voiced again in this go around? Also, do you see plans for expansion of the All?Star activities? Maybe some kind of skills competition or anything like that?
LAUREL RICHIE: You could have been in the breakfast I had with players this morning. The really positive thing is we didn’t hear any complaints whatsoever from our players. They’re excited to be here. As I said earlier, the team here really does a terrific job of putting together a great weekend and perhaps having had some time in Phoenix last year, a little mixing it up a little bit. But we heard absolutely nothing, and I’ve spent the weekend with them and haven’t heard anything, but they’re excited to be All?Stars. What was the first part?
Q: The skills competition.
LAUREL RICHIE: So that was the piece they did talk about this morning is thinking about at the right time in the right way. We want to bring ?? I don’t think it’s so much that we would bring it back the way it’s done before, but we’d look to identify ways to showcase talent beyond the game.
So I can’t promise if that will happen next year. We’ve had lots of ideas, even from many in this room with respect to what we might do. But I think we are interested in playing around with our format, and that’s the thing as we think about the next 20 years that falls underneath that umbrella of how do we enhance some of our initiatives and platforms.
Q: Piggybacking on Howard a little bit. Just given the excitement I think surrounding sports this summer, is there any tangible thing you can point to within the WNBA, be it attendance or anything you can look at and say I think we’re getting a little bit of that over here as well?
LAUREL RICHIE: No, I can’t give you a concrete, beyond I think lots of us both internally, at our teams, among our fans and, quite frankly, with the media, we’re all talking about it. We’re all talking about just the incredible display of talent from the female athletes across a multitude of sports, whether it’s individual sports or team sports.
One of the things I’m really proud of that I think really speaks to the DNA of the WNBA, is the Washington Mystics have now made it ?? have come together as a team, and they’re going to see the women’s soccer team in their market. They’re going to see the women’s tennis team. So what I think I love is instead of just saying this is something that’s happening out in the media or something we want our fans to do, they’re saying that we can play a role and we can demonstrate some leadership in this area.
So I think we’re going to see lots of large initiatives and lots of sort of seemingly small grassroots initiatives that sort of propel and lift all of us up.
Q: Two things, if we can go back to the Dallas move for a moment. First of all, I think to the best of my memory this is the first time a move announcement like this has been made in the middle of the season. I’m wondering if there was concern about the effect that might have on the Tulsa fans and so forth, particularly in light of the fact this is the best season the Shock have had since they made the move there? And secondly about the decision to move to Dallas, were other possible alternate destinations considered? Or are Dallas folk coming in as part of the ownership group and so forth?
LAUREL RICHIE: I’m thinking that’s a three?part, so keep me honest with that. So the first piece is absolutely. The last thing we want to do at any point in time in any initiative is being disruptive to players, coaches and our fans. Part of this process, and I don’t want to go through too much of the detail, but it was apparent, I think to Bill Cameron and his team that as they were having these discussions news of their consideration and their ultimate decision might get out. So we collectively felt that it was important for the team to hear it very directly from the ownership group.
So, yes, we considered it and did it, in fact, because we were very conscious of the impact that it would have.
This was a decision by Bill Cameron, our majority owner, so you could speak to him about whether he considered other locations, but this is a majority owner saying I have done some due diligence, and I am choosing and requesting a move to a very specific market.
Then the third piece is this is the work of the expansion committee to think about how, when, and in what order.
Q: As the league started back in 1997, all the NBA teams had WNBA teams and unfortunately they got away from that. Do you think because they’re seeing that the league is doing so well and so solvent, would maybe go back to that model, and with expansion, get some NBA teams to come up again and be sponsors of WNBA teams?
LAUREL RICHIE: So as we look at our business right now, half of our teams are affiliated and half of our teams are independent. If there is one thing that I’ve learned in my five seasons with the WNBA, is there is no single model. What it really boils down to is a great ownership team, a fanbase that understands, appreciates and supports us in a community that supports us as well. So we have shining examples in our affiliated teams, and shining examples in our independent teams.
So I don’t believe that one model is better than the other. They are different, and they have benefits associated with them. So, again, I don’t mean to be passing the buck on your question, but this is the work. It is why I want to form a committee of our Board of Governors to have lots of discussions to think about and be very strategic about how we approach this.
Q: Considering how the season started with the issues and some tough decisions you had to make and tough questions you had to answer, both with the Brittney Griner-Glory Johnson suspensions, and the Isiah Thomas ownership issue, has this season been the most challenging for you in terms of being an executive? Can you maybe talk about that, if it has been?
LAUREL RICHIE: I don’t know that it’s been the most difficult. In many ways I think back to my first season when I was brand new and had an entire industry to learn. That is a different kind of difficult. But when you step into a position as president of a league, I remember a feeling from day one wanting to know everything possible so that I could contribute in significant ways from day one. So I think from a leadership standpoint that’s a certain set of challenges.
What I am very proud of, of the challenges that we faced at the beginning of this season, is the way in which the team at the league came together, and we were very thoughtful. We were very focused. We were very committed to letting the process unfold. I am a very big believer in when you follow the process and stay true to the process and all that that entails, whether you’re investigating, vetting, deciding, all of that. When the process is in place and you follow it with great rigor, nine times out of ten you’re going to get to the right and very good place at the end. So I think that’s just been reaffirmed. The importance of that has been reaffirmed for me given some of the things we dealt with at the beginning of the season.