Lisa Borders at the 2017 WNBA All-Star Game: Transcript from the league president’s press conference
WNBA president Lisa Borders meet with the media in a televised press conference before the start of the 2017 All-Star game in Seattle. Below is the league-provided transcript of the press conference.
LISA BORDERS: Well, good morning, everybody. It’s good to be with you all. It’s terrific to be in Seattle today. I’d like to start with a few thank yous and then talk a little bit about basketball, the game we love, and then talk a little bit about the business.
So let me start with thank yous first and foremost to Verizon, our marquee sponsor, bringing us the All-Star Game today. We’re thrilled to be partners with Verizon, and you’ll hear more about them later on today. Certainly want to thank our Storm ownership group and the team that put this together, not just our basketball team on the floor, but our administrative team that worked so hard with the league to deliver just an extraordinary All-Star weekend. So our owners here, Ginny Gilder, Dawn Trudeau and Lisa Brummel, have done an exceptional job with this team. They’ve owned it for about 10 years, and you can see in all the events that have happened this weekend so far, they have really, really done a terrific job.
That leads me to the city of Seattle, and this is the first time we have been here, and we are thrilled with how we have been received and how the team has been embraced. Council president Bruce Harrell was with us last night at the Chihuly Garden and offered remarks on behalf of the city, but suffice it to say, he was the iconic elected official that was with us, but we feel as if the entire city is with us, from all the activities being able to raise our WNBA flag above the Space Needle on Friday, having the city turn orange, when we look at venues like Century Link and the Ferris wheel, that made us feel really good. It looked like they were welcoming us. And certainly the Chihuly exhibit being orange and red, it seemed quite emblematic and apropos for us to have this opportunity to have our All-Star Game in Seattle.
So we are thrilled, thrilled, thrilled to be here.
Let me just say, I want to thank our players. This is an All-Star break for some of them, but for those who are playing, this is an added responsibility. They are incredibly talented, but we know that it takes a lot of work to stay in shape and to play all the games that they play, and this is an added dimension to a regular season. So let me thank all of our players, our starters, our reserves, our coaches, the training staff. It takes a village to put on an event like this.
Let me move to basketball, the global game that we love, played in more than 200 countries. You all might recall that this is our 21st season. We are the youngest of professional leagues, but the longest-running women’s professional league. Let’s talk X’s and O’s if I might. Let’s start with points. When you look at the points on average for our teams, we’re right at 81.7, and we’re right on pace as we were last year. The average was 81.9. To give you some context for that, in 2015, our average points per game was 75.1. So you can see the athleticism gets better and better. The points get better and better, which is how we measure the success, a win and a loss for any given game.
Let’s move to possessions. The possession number is right at 81.6. Last season it was 81.5, so you can see just a minor improvement there, but incremental progress is not to be understated.
If you look at free-throw percentage, it’s at 80.2, which is pretty incredible, across all basketball, whether you’re looking at the WNBA or any other league. That’s a remarkable percentage for free throws at 80.2.
And then the last statistic that I would call your attention to is three-point shots. You might remember we moved the hash mark back in 2013, so this is the fifth season at the hash mark that we have today, and they are attempting, our players, 17.6 shots per game, a remarkable achievement.
You will see [Connecticut Sun guard] Jasmine Thomas play today, and she has added the three-point shot and improved dramatically during her tenure, but certainly in this last year, so I call your attention to that three-point shot.
Let me talk about the business for just a moment. Everyone is asking are we going to have a great crowd today. Is there any doubt in your mind after all that Seattle has done and the team has done and the players who will be here to showcase their talents? There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s going to be a fantastic, fantastic crowd here at KeyArena.
So we are on pace to have another extraordinary season in the W. Attendance is up, and we are really excited about that.
When I think about not only our traditional metrics, I am excited about those, to be able to point to progress, but also I would call your attention to some of the new metrics and the strategies that we talked about. When Jay Parry, our chief operating officer, and I arrived last year, we talked about gaining new fans, new audiences, folks that were unfamiliar with our game who were unenlightened, and we said, we’re going to change that.
So let me call your attention to Twitter. We struck a Twitter deal, as you might recall, about six weeks, eight weeks ago. We have played 10 games thus far. We are averaging more than 800,000 viewers on a regular basis, and a third of the games that have been played have shown more than 1 million viewers. Everybody get the number right. More than 1 million viewers.
We are now seeing 40 percent of those viewers in the United States and 60 percent of those viewers in our international markets.
What does this tell you about attendance in arena, in our traditional metrics? They metrics like Twitter tell us that there is a hunger for our game and women’s basketball in particular. This is a global game, as I mentioned earlier, played in more than 200 countries. Our athletes are amazing, 144 of them strong.
I would also call your attention to FanDuel, the fantasy space. We are seeing more than a million people playing the fantasy game. I’m not smart enough to do that, but clearly if a million people are doing it, somebody must be having some fun. So FanDuel and Twitter, both new platforms for the WNBA and relatively new platforms for sports, are equally successful in our league, again, the youngest of all the professional leagues.
Let me just say in closing these remarks that I am incredibly proud of our athletes. It’s a privilege to lead this league. To be here in Seattle with one of our model franchises, not just because they operate their franchise well on a daily basis or because they have executed this All-Star weekend flawlessly, but equally important because they have the courage and the intestinal fortitude to stand up for what they believe in.
Our players are amazing athletes. They display their talents every single day. But that’s what they do. That’s not who they are. There are dimensions to their personalities. They have passions. They have purpose in life, and they understand that they have a platform to share what they think about any and possibly everything.
Now, I’ve told many of you, I will celebrate my 60th birthday this year, and so many of you know I grew up in an era before Title IX. It wasn’t passed until 1972, and I was in high school. And I come from the segregated South. Atlanta is my home city.
So recognizing that women still appear to be a disenfranchised group where folks think they have the right to tell us what to do with our bodies and who we should love, that’s not happening here in Seattle, and that’s not happening in the WNBA. So I applaud our athletes who do amazing, amazing feats on the court, and then who still have the intestinal fortitude to reach out to their communities, to support them on a regular basis, whether we’re talking about the Boys and Girls Club, or whether we’re talking about Planned Parenthood here in Seattle.
So I thank all of you, too, for being here. You’ve been with us on this journey. I invite you to continue. I want to give a special shout-out to ESPN, our broadcast partner, who’s been with us since the beginning of this league, and 1996, and who is with us clearly today and will be with us for years to come. Carol, we’re glad that you’re here representing ESPN. Thank you for all that you and John Skipper and the entire ESPN family have done for us. We’re going to be on ABC today. Disney is the parent company, obviously, but we’ll be on ABC today at 12:30, so thank you. We are truly grateful for that.
With that, I’ll open the floor for questions.
Q. Lisa, you mentioned Twitter and FanDuel and DraftKings. Have all of those initiatives maybe opened some or doors seeing how successful they’ve been, and if so, what do you think those doors could be and other things that could lead to?
LISA BORDERS: Sure, thank you for that question. Yes, I do think that FanDuel and Twitter and possibly other platforms in the future will open additional doors for the W. We’re talking about exposure here. In the fantasy space as well as the social and digital space, we saw tremendous growth, or we’re seeing tremendous growth in terms of numbers.
The first thing with any product in any business is making sure that people know you exist and they are aware of where you are and what you’re doing. So FanDuel in the fantasy space, completely new to our league, which means a new pool of people and a deeper and broader set of interests.
The same thing is true of Twitter. Clearly we play our games during our season, our six-month season, from April until October in the U.S., but our players, many of them, are global citizens and play during the second six months of the year in the international markets. So those markets are now able to follow our players on a consistent basis throughout the year on a platform like Twitter and can even broaden the reach of the W today.
So we think it’s going to increase the number of eyeballs watching the WNBA, making them more aware of the league, of our players, and what an extraordinary sport that we play.
Q. Last year with the anniversary season and the Olympic year, there was a lot of momentum — and the change in the postseason format, there was a lot of momentum for the league. Do you feel like that momentum has carried forward into this season? How would you sort of assess say the momentum of the league in 2017?
LISA BORDERS: Sure, thank you. That’s a great question, as well. Yes, when we look at attendance being up, you might recall last year it was up 4.6 percent. We’re up again. I’m not going to give you a discreet number; you know I like to hold something back and share it at the end of the season.
But to be able to build on what we did last year and hopefully accelerate it is very helpful. These new platforms that I just spoke about a moment ago demonstrate not only are we being successful on ESPN, but we are successful in new frontiers, so that’s exciting for us, and we’re seeing — and we expect that we are seeing a younger audience, too, embracing the league, when you look at Twitter. I use Twitter. I’m soon to be 60, but I’m told by my friends I’m unique in my age bracket. That’s not to say no one at 60 uses Twitter, but a lot of folks younger than myself are using the social and digital platforms. So we think it’s, again, more people, a volume of folks that we are delighted to have watch the game and learn about our players.
Q. You spoke about the players speaking out, and you have not hesitated yourself to speak out not only publicly but even on your Twitter account about issues that matter to you personally. I’m just wondering if you could take me through the evolution of that and coming to embrace that as a league, number one, and number two, how much it relates to the business plan, to be able to relate to some people who might be interested in progressive politics as a likely new audience for the league.
LISA BORDERS: Sure, so let me start with the players because they are the ones that you hear from most often. They have perspective on many things in their lives, their professional lives and their personal lives. So I am always heartened to see young people become civically engaged. Our players first among equals. It started last season, it has carried right over into this season, whether it’s [New York Liberty center] Tina Charles talking about race, or [Seattle Storm guard] Sue Bird talking about being gay.
I think these women are strong. That’s who they are. And we really love that about them. I mentioned that I grew up in the South in the 1960s. It was a difficult time. I would submit to you that this is an equally difficult time. We used to think that you could legislate behavior, you could just pass a law and everything would be okay. We know that’s not true. You have to change the hearts and minds of people and put a face on some of the issues that we encounter.
Having served in public office in a former life from 2004 to 2010 in the city of Atlanta, I got a first-row seat in having to deal with the public and public perceptions about how far we had come or not come in Atlanta, which is the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement. I would tell you that women’s rights are also civil rights today, and this is the next iteration is what I would tell you of where our society needs to focus.
So our players are engaged. They are focused like a laser on the work that they do with their bodies and on the court when they perform every day, but equally so on what’s going on in the community, in our country, and in our world. That means we’re in awfully good hands with this next generation taking on leadership roles, whether they are truly elected in a traditional sense or whether they are leading by example here in arena or out in the community.
Thank you for the question.
Q. I wanted to build on that actually a little bit.
LISA BORDERS: Sure.
Q. Last summer was in my opinion a pivotal moment for the league. I know at least there were some fines and you rescinded those very quickly. What did you learn from that, and also, am I reaching in thinking that it was a pivotal moment for the league?
LISA BORDERS: I think in terms — first of all, thank you for your question. The league has been running for 21 years. While that sounds like a long time, it’s not. 21 years, I can remember being 21. It was a long time ago. I thought I knew everything at 21. You know very little at 21, but you’re maturing at 21.
So we are the middle child in the NBA family. Big brother is 71; little brother, the Gatorade League, is 16. We are 21.
Like all middle children, I think it took us a while to find our voice. We have found our voice. We’re clear on who we are and what we stand for, and so, yes, I would tell you like any maturing adolescent and any maturing adult, it takes time to get your sea legs, if you will. We have them now. We are clear on who we are, and we are articulating our positions every day.
When the players play the game, they score. A W [win] or an L [loss] is a result at the end of the day. When we speak up on social issues, it is not always as clear, but we do know that incremental progress is not to be understated. So we work at it every single day, our own maturity and our own positions, and then we take them and we move forward.
What do I always learn when I have a course correction? I have to stop and think, did I learn something specific for this situation? Probably yes. The bigger question is is there something that I can learn that’s fungible, that I might apply to future situations, and the answer is yes.
These are young women who are mature, who have very clear ideas about who they are and what they want to do, so I’ve learned to listen better. My grandfather, the pastor in Atlanta, who is now deceased, used to tell us, “God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason, so you can listen twice as much as you talk.” So I’m learning to listen more and listen better to our players.
Q. Madam President, a couple weeks ago, maybe last week, an ESPN writer wrote about the NBA Summer League and claimed it would be a death knell to the WNBA. Perhaps you can comment on that as well as Mechelle Voepel’s piece on Sue Bird when she talked about racism and homophobia is still a problem in this league. If you could talk about both of those.
LISA BORDERS: Sure, thank you for the question. So let me start with your first question about the Summer League. I normally don’t talk about my big brother except to praise him, and so I’m going to do that. I’m going to praise him. We like talking about basketball and having it available 24 by 7 by 365. Highlighting the Summer League, highlighting the W, we’re not fighting for space, it’s all about basketball, and this is the game we all love, so we think it’s helpful when everybody is focused on basketball.
In terms of Mechelle’s piece, I already told her she’s an extraordinary writer, but she outdid herself in the piece on Sue Bird. Mechelle, did I not say that to you? It was an extraordinary piece, and it was amazing that Sue, in addition to all of the things that she’s done as a player, a four-time Olympian, a 10-time All-Star, she’s an amazing leader in and of itself on the court and off the court, that she felt like she needed to have this conversation publicly.
I support Sue in her comments and in her statements and in her rationale, all of it. But at the end of the day, she shouldn’t have to do that. She’s a person. She should be able to live her life without people judging her. There’s no reason to judge her. She demonstrates who she is every day on the court and how she lives her life.
So I think Mechelle did an amazing job of pulling back the covers and letting us see into Sue, her heart, her thinking and all of that. I applaud it.
But at the end of the day, I want our players embraced for who they are, period, full stop, without the judgment. This league is comprised of people, women in particular. We should be able to choose who we love, what we do with our bodies, how we feel about public safety, how we feel about education. I’m not sure I agree. In fact, let me restate that. I’m sure I do agree, we shouldn’t have to defend ourselves and our right to speak up and have perspective on anything we want to talk about.
Women are 52 percent of the population in this country, more than half of every community. We’re not yet half of the people in Congress or half of the governors in this country or half of the CEOs, but trust me, my friend, it’s coming. It’s coming. Women are today, I think, in better position to make the statements they want to make than they ever have been before, and I think players like Sue Bird leading the march and saying, feel free to talk about whatever you want to talk about, professionally or personally, sets a shining example and inspiration to little girls and little boys everywhere.
Q. The WNBA All-Star Game has now gone from the East Coast to the West Coast.
LISA BORDERS: Yes.
Q. Would you like to talk a little bit about the possibility of expansion and where the league is going to go in the future?
LISA BORDERS: You always ask me the expansion question. I love that. Thank you for that question.
So as you know, we have 12 teams across the country, and I am consistent in my statement that we want to make sure that every team is operationally sound, financially viable. We don’t want to expand too quickly. We have three inaugural teams left: New York, Phoenix and Los Angeles. New York, Phoenix and Los Angeles are all 21 years old, but then we have Dallas that is one year old. This team is — and Atlanta I think is 10. Our owners here have owned their team for 10, and there’s everybody in between.
We want to make sure that each and every one of our franchises is doing as well as they possibly can before we expand. But will we expand? Of course. We want to make sure when we do, though, that the market demonstrates its viability to support a WNBA franchise. What you never want to do in business is expand too quickly and have that fly back on you and have a team close down. So I promise you, we will expand. I’m just not able to tell you exactly when right now.
Q. I was just wondering how closely the league is monitoring the ongoing efforts to get a new arena in Seattle and its effect on the Seattle Storm.
LISA BORDERS: Sure. So first and foremost, let me thank the Seattle Times for the features that you all have done on our teams and our owners and on myself, as well. The coverage has been extraordinary. That’s not always been the case for the WNBA, for our teams, either, in different markets, so thank you. Hats off to you for that.
On your question about KeyArena, we of course follow what’s going on. We do take the lead of our teams that are in franchises that are dealing with arenas, arena leases, whether they move, whether they stay, renovations. That happens in sports all the time, so we are not the tip of the spear. I would tell you we are the tail of the spear. But you need the tip and the tail to pierce whatever you’re going after. So we follow our owners and our teams, so we are watching what’s going on, and we are invited in — if and when we are invited in to participate in any way, again, we will follow the lead of our team in the market.
Thank you all for coming today. Excited to have you with us. We appreciate the coverage. Let’s go play some basketball.