WNBA: Seven Reasons Why the Writing Was On the Wall for Laurel Richie’s Exit

Each WNBA team has its own subdomain based on its nickname. As of today wings.wnba.com was still showing a 404 error.
Each WNBA team has its own subdomain on wnba.com based on team nicknames (for example, lynx.wnba.com). As of today wings.wnba.com was still showing a 404 error.

The WNBA announced today that president Laurel Richie is stepping down after five seasons. For many fans, the announcement was no surprise. Here is a list of reasons why her departure was imminent and necessary.

Lack of Visibility

When Richie did not show up to the announcement for the new name and logo of the relocated Tulsa Shock on Monday, fans and media raised their eyebrows. In the weeks leading up to the Dallas Wings press conference, local newspapers and the University of Texas at Arlington, the new home for the franchise, indicated that Richie would be in attendance for the unveiling.

NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum attended the event instead of Richie and recited the usual spin about excitement for the move and the onset of the league’s twentieth season.

However, even before this week, Richie seemed largely invisible to fans who often had a “Where’s Waldo?” refrain when discussing the president and her absence at more than a handful of regular season games.

She was most visible during All-Star festivities, the Finals and also began hosting a cocktail party for media during the NCAA DI Final Four. Yet overall, it seemed she was nowhere to be found.


Social Media Absence

In addition to being invisible in real life, Richie had a paltry social media presence. For a league that needs to market itself in every way possible in order to keep and attract fans, especially the younger generation, an active social media life is crucial.

Richie has not posted an update on Twitter since July 24, 2015. Her first Twitter update was on Jun. 3, 2011. Since her Twitter account was started she has posted 106 tweets including about a dozen retweets. Let that sink in. If you are a fan, are you screaming now? That is about 26 tweets per year since she came to the league.

No Expansion During Tenure

Richie’s standard answer during her tenure when it came to expansion barely changed until this year. Each season it was the same story:

“It is a few years down the road.”

“Every year we get closer.”

“We are talking to interested parties.”

She even told the Seattle Times in 2013:

“I don’t feel a rush, having arrived at this point, to change it right away.”

If you are fan, go run around the block now. You will feel better.

This year Richie indicated that the league’s board had formed an expansion subcommittee to take a harder look at how to approach adding more teams. Seriously? That should have been done in 2011 shortly after she took the reins in the front office.


No Interest in Building Coverage Outside of ESPN or LiveAccess

Lack of regular television coverage is one reason why die-hard fans and potential WNBA followers have a hard time catching a game from home. Yes, there is an ESPN deal and LiveAccess online. But:

  1. You need a cable subscription to view the games on ESPN. And most of the games are actually on ESPN 2. Cable is expensive and sports channels are considered a premium. Realistically, unless you are willing to shell out at least $100 per month for premium cable, you are SOL. The All-Star Game is traditionally broadcast on ABC, a network that is in the Disney umbrella that also owns ESPN, but still, that is just one game.
  2. Watching LiveAccess is not convenient for many people, especially those with vision problems who have no desire to view a basketball game on a computer screen, smartphone or tablet. Plus, you need to shell out money for high-speed Internet access that can handle seamless video streaming. Furthermore, the quality of broadcasts varies. Some teams do a great job broadcasting from their home arena while others throw up productions that are just plain embarrassing with horrible commentators, shaky cameras and amateur graphics.
  3. Believe or not, some people do not have computers at home and watching LiveAccess at work or school is not possible.
  4. There are literally hundreds of other networks that broadcast on TV, why not pursue some of them? During her tenure Richie was asked about getting games on other networks but made it clear that she had not actively pursued that avenue. “It has not been on my radar screen.” Dear fan: pick yourself up off the floor.

2015 Preseason PR Disasters

Early 2015 was tough for the WNBA. Diana Taurasi announced that she would sit out the 2015 season. Candace Parker announced she would sit out half the season. The New York Liberty appointed Isiah Thomas to be its president and offered him a portion of ownership. Plus, there was the unbelievable circus of the Brittney Griner-Glory Johnson fight-marriage-annulment-divorce complete with TMZ coverage.

You had to feel empathy for Richie as these situations gave the league the type of publicity a struggling professional sports organization does not need. While she eventually handled the Griner-Johnson situation in a manner that was forceful, admirable and levelheaded, the announcement of the verdict about the league’s punishment for the two players seemed to take forever. Copy that for the Thomas situation, a mess that is still ongoing as a decision about his ownership was tabled by the board earlier this summer.

More often than not the league has been silent for too long on pressing issues, slow to respond to media and deaf to the concerns of fans. This was not something new in the Richie era but unfortunately, the wall of silence only seemed to get worse.


Pride Mishaps

In 2014 the league launched a Pride initiative to reach the LGBT community and support its lesbian and bisexual players. Highly touted by Richie, the initial announcement about the Pride marketing strategy indicated that teams would have Pride events during the summer and players would wear t-shirts supporting the marketing program before Pride games.

However, after grumblings from some, a few of the Pride efforts were shelved quietly. One team did not wear Pride t-shirts because a player complained that it would make her feel left out and ostracized if she did not wear the shirt since LGBT equality did not match her religious beliefs.

Getting anyone from the league or teams to talk on the record about the derailed Pride events was near impossible. Until this year. In a brave move, the Indiana Fever’s Layshia Clarendon opened up about the controversy on the Player’s Tribune website.

Last season, our team and many across the league were going to wear t-shirts acknowledging Pride Night. I was excited that the community was finally being accepted. Hours before our game, a few of us were wondering, Where are our shirts? We were told they were cut from the evening and they didn’t have them. What do you mean? The league had done away with them. There wasn’t enough time to ask more questions. We played the game but I looked for answers later.

We were told that there were players who didn’t feel comfortable wearing Pride t-shirts; it was against their moral beliefs. My own Christian family, who believe in the same message of love and acceptance, morally objected to a t-shirt. Instead of having negative press surrounding the issue and perhaps opening a much larger dialogue around faith, the league just decided to not send the t-shirts out.

The Complete and Abject Failure of the Website Overhaul

At the beginning of the season, the league announced the launch of a new design for its website. The new WNBA.com would be responsive and easier to view on mobile devices. However, the WordPress-driven site launched days before the official announcement and out of the blue with a myriad of problems including:

  • Missing graphics
  • Broken links
  • Missing or incomplete player bios
  • Inaccurate statistics
  • Missing features that fans loved
  • Boilerplate content with “Lorem ipsum” text

In short, it was a disaster. And fans let the league know it. Again and again. And the problems remained. All summer long.

Team employees also complained behind closed doors. The launch of the website caught some off guard. Franchise employees were left in the cold when it came to having clear instructions on how to update their sections of wnba.com.

It is shame that Richie’s tenure included an overall decline in league visibility, a decrease in attendance and a lack of concrete expansion efforts. However, the bottom line is that after five seasons of a president with no basketball background, the league needed to cut the cord. When she was hired, her marketing background was the selling point but the league has faltered and many of its marketing efforts have fallen flat.

While the official word is that Richie is stepping down, it was clear her days were numbered when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made comments about the league’s stability during a sports business conference in September

“We thought it would have broken through by now,” he said.

His remarks came at a weird time, right as the league’s playoffs were set to begin, effectively criticizing an NBA Enterprises product at a vulnerable moment when all ears were listening. He is in his second year as commissioner and Richie is gone.

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  • […] “WNBA: Seven Reasons Why the Writing Was On the Wall for Laurel Richie’s Exit”–C. Coward (Hoopfeed) […]

  • We need a marketing guru who is not going to implement sexist uniforms or standards (lower rim) and appreciates the athleticism of women.

  • The firing of Richie was definitely needed as she was in way over her head. The new president will have an extremely difficult job in fact I see a long line of candidates lining up for the position. The new president will face opposing forces from day one on the job, from hard core wnba supporters and longtime bottom line NBA season ticket holders. The new president must quickly end the practice of using the wnba as an agenda platform and must show too the NBA hardliners that the wnba can be good for the NBA and is not a charity league. The most difficult issue facing the league is without a doubt the salary structure, this will take a bold move and may require taking 2 steps back in order to move in the right direction because you can’t allow other league’s to raid your players. I believe that the next president will be a man out of the NBA financial tree, with a directive to move swiftly.

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