Transcript: WNBA president Laurel Richie meets the press before Finals game 2

Tuesday night, before game 2 of the WNBA Finals, the league’s president Laurel Richie met with the media. The following is the transcript of the question and answer session.

LAUREL RICHIE:  Good afternoon.  Welcome to the WNBA 2015 Finals presented by Boost Mobile.  I’d like to begin by congratulating our two teams who are here today competing for the championship trophy:  Glen Taylor, Chris Wright, Roger Griffith, and coach Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx, and Herb Simon, Jim Morris, Rick Fuson, Kelly Krauskopf, and coach Stephanie White of the Indiana Fever.

As you all know, reaching the WNBA Finals is a huge, huge accomplishment, and I think that’s never been more true than it is this season.  Each one of the eight teams that competed in the postseason had a legitimate chance of being here today competing in the Finals.  That includes the Tulsa Shock, in their very first appearance in the postseason.

I think this is really a reflection of the level of talent in the league today.  From our seasoned veterans like Candice Dupree, Plenette Pierson, Tamika Catchings, from the perennial stalwarts like Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Candace Parker, Tina Charles, and the rising stars like Kiah Stokes.

The postseason tipped off with an incredible game at Madison Square Garden that went into double overtime.  It was an electric crowd that night.  From there, three out of the four series in the conference semifinals went on to a Game 3.  I’m sure you’d all agree that it’s been an exciting postseason filled with some really gritty, gutsy team performances and some really outstanding individual performances.

Elena Delle Donne and Maya Moore each logged 40?point games.  Brittney Griner set a single postseason game record with 11 blocks early on.  Courtney Vandersloot tied the postseason single game record with 14 assists.  And Tayler Hill tied the league postseason record with four made threes in a single quarter.

All of which brings us to today, to the Finals.  While some have chosen to characterize this as a rematch of 2012, I think it is so much more than that.  The Minnesota Lynx and the Indiana Fever are two teams, I think, that are equally matched in their will to win, and they have the track records to prove it.

Indiana has made its 11th straight trip to the postseason, and to get to the Finals, they had to compete in and survive four elimination games.  Minnesota has been to the Finals four out of the last five years.  Both of these teams are led by phenomenal coaches. The fiery Coach Cheryl Reeve and the steady Stephanie White.  Both of these coaches are former players, and I think they really know how to get the best out of their players.

Both of these teams at their heart and at their center have an incredible champion.  Maya Moore and Tamika Catchings both have won MVP in the regular season and in the Finals.  And I think the starting lineups for these teams, all the way through the end of the bench, the depth and breadth of talent that they’re bringing forward, I believe, is the envy of every general manager and president within the league.  So if Game 1 was any indication, I think we’re in for a very long and definitely exciting series.

Thank you all for being here today.

Q:  There maybe has been, in some people’s view, a little extra tumult in the season this year.  How do you feel like the league has weathered some of the things that have happened, leading through the season and end of the season.

LAUREL RICHIE:  At the end of the day, for me, it’s really about what happens on the court.  I think I couldn’t be happier with the talent, with the competition.  I acknowledge that there have been a lot of events outside of the game.  That’s part of our reality.

But I focus more on the game and on the competition, and as I said, I think I can’t remember, at least in my very short five years, a postseason as exciting and sort of balanced as this season with the eight teams that competed.

Q:  How do you evaluate the level of officiating in the league today?  Especially in the wake of the Phoenix?Minnesota Western Conference Finals, Game 2.  Just where do you think the officials are at in terms of skill level?  Do you have any concerns when coaches and others express dismay about those?

LAUREL RICHIE:  I would say officiating, I would put that in the camp of every other aspect of our game and our business, where we will always want to do better.  We put in the measures to prep, to monitor, to test, to improve, and we will continue to do that.

Q:   Laurel, with the league moving into a new market in Dallas?Ft. Worth, Arlington, I know obviously that franchise is going to be really trying to put an imprint on the area before the season starts.  Is there anything specific the league is going to try to do to help in really establishing that market?

LAUREL RICHIE:  We have been working with the announcement with Bill Cameron and the team that he is putting together.  I would say the formal announcement date is imminent, and we have a whole group within the league office that is working, supporting them on literally every aspect of their business.  It’s in our best interest to do so, and we’re excited about the possibilities in Dallas?Ft. Worth area.

Q:   Can you speak a little bit about the clinic that was held yesterday working with the kids, especially from the Spanish immersion program?

LAUREL RICHIE:  I’m glad you asked that.  We had the WNBA Fit Clinic yesterday with 85, I believe they were third graders, running through drills with a host of Minnesota Lynx players.

So Anna Cruz came out, which was terrific because she spoke Spanish with the kids.  Maya, Seimone, Cynthia, Rebekkah, Lindsay, and it’s always a great day.  For those kids to be on the court less than 12 hours after a WNBA Championship game was played, you could see it.  We walked into the arena, and they had had a briefing from the gentleman who was running the clinic, and as soon as the players hit the court, all heck broke loose, and they turned around and got excited.

We took a photo at the end of the clinic, and all of us were sweating.  So I just think it was a great experience for them not only to meet the players, to be on a professional level court, and to really experience the joy of physical activity and team play.

Q:   Laurel, I wanted to follow up on the officiating question.  It’s so difficult, it seems, to find officials who work the winter a whole season, really good ones, who then want to add a summer onto it.  What’s the league doing to try to recruit some of the better officials or up and coming officials to work in the league?

LAUREL RICHIE:  I think you have to, first and foremost, remember that we are the longest running women’s professional sports league in this country, and we are the destination for the very best women’s basketball players, I would argue, in the world.

So the appeal of the WNBA, because of its stature and the level of play, I think, is critical.  We do a whole host of recruiting efforts that are led by Renee Brown and her team, Dee Kantner, Joe Borgia at the league, constantly looking for new talent, looking to the NBA and all the wonderful things they’ve done in the NBA that we can bring to the WNBA.

So we have a very comprehensive, both recruiting and training, program that we will continue to follow.

Q:   Were you happy with the way the draft lottery came out after you guys made the changes?  And my second question is, actually, is it good for the league when the New York franchise does well?

LAUREL RICHIE:  Yes, I think we’re happy with the way the draft lottery turned out.  I think we put ?? I know the committee that worked on that put a lot of thought into it.  Their motivation was to make sure we were doing everything we could to make sure that the ?? we were strengthening the league through the draft lottery process.  We feel good about that change.

Your second question about is it good for the league if New York does well?  I would say it’s good for the league when every team does well.  But there’s something special about Manhattan, New York.  There’s something special about a major media market.  And there’s something very special about Madison Square Garden.  So we’re happy for the Liberty and for their success this season.

Q:   Laurel, you said at the All?Star Game, there’s going to be a task force, I believe, in terms of expansion, talking about it from a lot of different areas.  Is there anything more you can sort of share with us about that?

LAUREL RICHIE:  No, nothing other than we’ve agreed to form a subcommittee of the Board to do that work.  Our formal Board of Governors meeting takes place in December, and that will be sort of the formal identification of the members of the committee and the kickoff of their work.

Q:   It seemed like for the entire existence, the WNBA you’ve been trying to grow your brand and expand your product in game popularity.  Do you have any metrics that would suggest that that is continuing?  I know some people are dismayed by Commissioner Adam Silver saying, well, we thought the WNBA would be farther ahead by now, and maybe some people in the league thought.  But as you said, you are entering your 20th season next year.

LAUREL RICHIE: I think part of the culture of the larger NBA enterprise is always wanting more and always wanting to do better.  We at the WNBA take that approach as well.  We are always looking at what can we do to strengthen and grow our fan base, to extend into new partnerships.

One of the things this year that I’m really proud of is the end of this season, 10 out of our 12 teams have marquee partners, and that is a real game changer in terms of their business model.  I am really impressed ?? and I know I keep saying it ?? but I’m really impressed with the depth of talent in our league.  I look, and it spans multiple generations.  You’ve got Tamika Catchings to Kiah Stokes and everybody in between bringing it.  So I think, first and foremost, we’re a sports and entertainment vehicle, and when the talent is good, good things happen.

Q:   Is the situation with Isiah Thomas and the ownership of the New York Liberty going to be taken up again?  It was tabled, for lack of a better word, during the season.  Will that be taken up at the next Board of Governors meeting?

LAUREL RICHIE:  There’s been no decision.  In June the decision was made to table that, and it remains tabled.

Q:   Laurel, refresh my memory.  I think, when you were here last year in the playoffs, you were telling us that half the franchises in the league were either breaking even or making money.  I’m wondering what’s the overall outlook?  What’s the overall number now and what your thoughts are on the overall financial picture of the league?

LAUREL RICHIE:  We’re still getting all the final year-end numbers in, particularly the teams that have been in the postseason.  I believe we’re going to be in the range of somewhere four to five of our teams profitable this year.  Again, we’ll see when the final numbers come in.

But that’s a steady process, and we keep moving forward with that.  Things like a move and a relocation from a city and announcing that midseason can have an impact.  Moving into a different arena can have an impact.  But I think we feel great momentum behind our business model because we spent a lot of time thinking about it. I think, when you look at measures like 10 out of our 12 teams having marquee partners, that speaks to that path to profitability that our teams are on.

Q:   Laurel, as far as the league schedule, I know next year is an Olympic year, and we sort of go back and forth with Olympics and World Championship schedules.  I’ve had conversations with a couple of folks who very much like the World Championship schedule model in that it starts a little earlier and finishes up so that you’re not bumping Sunday games into the thick of the NFL schedule and you’re not going up against five and six NFL games on a Sunday into October.  Is there any thought about making adjustments to the schedule that might sort of just capitalize on the league having a little bit more exposure rather than pushing into fall?

LAUREL RICHIE:  So the schedule is an incredible jigsaw puzzle.  Within our own world of our 12 teams and the arenas in which the teams compete, and then when you expand out to include our broadcast partners, and then when we think about the Olympics and being part of the global women’s basketball community.  So we are constantly trying to optimize our schedule to meet all of those objectives.

So we will do our very best, as we have in the past.  I don’t see a significant change in the footprint of our schedule for this coming Olympic year versus prior Olympic years, but within that footprint we always look to optimize based on the days that we know are advantageous and preferable, both to our teams, to our arenas, to our partners, and to our fans.

Q:   With the 20-year anniversary coming up, are there plans to do something throughout the year as opposed to just waiting till March to start talking about that?

LAUREL RICHIE:  So we are knee deep in plans for our 20th season, and I think there will be some exciting things from marketing to other initiatives sort of across the board.  I don’t know exactly when our start date will be.  While it is a celebration all year long, my guess is we will concentrate it within ?? you know, I kind of think of the Final Four tournament as sort of the gateway to the WNBA as the college season winds down and we ramp up with our draft.

And there’s some nice coincidences this year, where the Final Four is going to be played in Indianapolis, home of the Indiana Fever, literally in that arena.  And then we have the Olympics, and in many ways, the 1996 U.S. Olympic team was the genesis and catalyst for the WNBA.  And then we have our 20th season.

So I really want to make sure that we’re pulling together all of those events in a celebration not only of the WNBA but a celebration of elite women’s basketball.  So that will be the focus, and that will guide the timing of the events that we plan.

Q: [Nomicrophone].

LAUREL RICHIE: Yeah, we launched a new website this year, and we did that to optimize our presence and to make it easier for our digital platform to work in a very integrated way. I’ll admit that there were some kinks that needed to be worked out. We did that, and we’re seeing our digital numbers at year end, some nice increases as a result of that.

So perhaps a slower start than we would have liked, but I think the end point was worth a little bit of struggle along the way, which always comes with a little bit of innovation.

Q:  To follow up on a question I asked about the celebration, it’s always been a concern that the WNBA is almost out of sight for too long. So is there some way, some thought about using the NBA season starting in November, all the way into the Final Four, where you talk about WNBA periodically, on NBA TV or something like that, so people can keep the focus a little bit?

LAUREL RICHIE: I think our footprint will be longer. I don’t think it will quite get all the way to 52 weeks, but I think it will be longer than it has been in the past.

Q:  Did you have a conversation at any point with FIBA about bringing the World Championship to the U.S.? With U.S. women’s soccer, even to have the tournament in North America in Canada and to have the TV exposure, there was such momentum for U.S. soccer after that and exposure for the players. Was there a conversation at some point about bringing the World Championships and trying to set something up where these players get to play on that stage here?

LAUREL RICHIE: I think that’s a great question. I know Mark Tatum, deputy commissioner, serves on that board, and I don’t know directly from him whether that has been the degree to which it has been brought up and seriously considered, but I think you’re absolutely right. I think that would be an incredible opportunity.

Q:  And something that the league might try and champion if it sounded like something that would work?

LAUREL RICHIE: Yeah, that’s always one of those where there are great ideas, and then there’s great execution of great ideas. But I would be open to having that conversation.

Q:  I’m going to ask one more follow?up. We had a little interesting dinner conversation last night about integrating some WNBA players, perhaps during the off?season, into the pop culture sphere? Trying to place somebody on Dancing With the Stars, for example, or talk shows or things like that. Is there, maybe with the 20th anniversary season, an effort to put some of the players in a more mainstream spotlight that way?

LAUREL RICHIE: Absolutely. I think, particularly, two reasons?? one, in anticipation of our 20th season. And, two, we’re finding that more and more of our players are choosing to stay stateside in the off?season to pursue a whole host of interests, whether that’s increased training or going back to school or doing internships or whatever that may?? running their own foundation. So I think that would be fabulous. I think that’s how you start to get a little bit of traction and some awareness beyond the core basketball fan.

Q:  Laurel, did you see?? Sheryl Swoopes said some comments about feeling like today’s players don’t have the same passion. Frankly, she had some things to say about putting your business out there. I don’t know if you had a chance to read it, but were you at all disappointed that a league alum might have said that?

LAUREL RICHIE: I guess my first reaction is, you know, I talk to a lot of players. Particularly by this time of the season, I’ve been to each market at least once. That’s not my personal experience, both watching the game, meeting with players, talking with players, having casual conversations with them way outside of the realm of the game.

I never leave a conversation with a player with anything other than incredible admiration for their passion, their drive, and their commitment. So I can’t speak to Sheryl’s experience. I can only speak to my own experience and say that it is 100 percent counter to what she shared in that article. And with respect to—

Q:  She’s fairly critical of Brittney and Glory specifically. Those comments could be taken as being almost counterintuitive, I feel like, to be frank, to the openness that the league has had to LGBT lifestyle.

LAUREL RICHIE: I can only speak again through my experience in working with Brittney and Glory through that process. I have spent significantly more time with Brittney, and from my experience, I think I am incredibly proud of the way she has handled this. I think she’s admitted that she made a mistake. She’s gone through counseling that the court asked for, counseling that we asked for. She did not push back and argue with the penalty portion.

And every time I hear her speak about this, she speaks to what she’s learned, what she will do differently. So she didn’t walk away from it. She owned it, learned from it, moved on, and had a terrific season when she came back.

So from where I sit, I couldn’t be prouder of the way she took a very serious and unfortunate event and learned from it. And also, I think, particularly from for young people, she’s sharing what she’s learned. So not only is this really good for Brittney, but I think she’s helping young kids who may find themselves in situations that they shouldn’t be in and don’t want to be in. I think the way in which she’s now talking about her experience is, I think, quite frankly, a gift to other people.

Q:  Is there a positive around all this in that mainstream media actually paid attention to that story?

LAUREL RICHIE: I don’t know how to answer that question truthfully. I think I always welcome people following the league and want them to come and experience our product. So that’s the way in which I would always prefer that they come to us through the game and through our players. But, again, as I said, I think the way in which Brittney, in particular, because I’ve spent more time with her, has handled herself in this situation has made me very proud of her.

So if people see that part of that incident and that event, then I think it’s?? I think it bodes well for the league.

Q:  One other thing with that, did it seem like there was a lot of attention given not only to that but also to Diana’s decision not to play? I guess what I’m asking?? and I didn’t phrase this very artfully, and I apologize. Does it say something about the league that off?season stuff is now more and more mainstream media are paying attention to off?season stuff? Do you see what I’m saying?

LAUREL RICHIE: Yeah, I think the media paying attention to us, I think, is one of the indicators that we are achieving some of our goals of being?? of heightened awareness and heightened relevance. So, yes, in that respect, I do feel like we had significantly more coverage this year, and I think it was coverage of the game. However people got to us, they eventually got to covering our players and the game, which is what I’m most interested in.

Q:  Were you relieved to see that no other players followed Diana’s lead and sat out the season? 
LAUREL RICHIE: I truly believe these are decisions players are going to have to make on their own, based on their life and their career. The piece that I think I’m most excited about is I think I’ve seen Diana a couple of times, and she looks great, and she seems happy. I think it was more than a coincidence that I believe our first player of the week this year was DeWanna Bonner. And I think one of the upsides of Diana choosing to sit out is I think there’s some people in Phoenix and beyond who got to see the depth and breadth of talent in the league, and very particularly within the Phoenix Mercury team.

Q:  To follow up on that, Karen [indiscernible] said yesterday she feels there’s still too much attention given to the league when it’s negative things, as opposed to talking about positive things like the great postseason thing. Does she have some validity on that statement when she says that, that it’s still more on the off?season incident where Isiah Thomas is trying to become an owner and not enough about the champions?

LAUREL RICHIE: In full truth and transparency, I really focus on those who cover the game, the league, our players. I don’t think it’s the highest and best use of my time to worry about nay sayers or negative press. I spend my time thinking about what more can I do and what more can we do to promote the great stories, to promote the great players, and to promote the great competition.

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