President Orender Reflects on the Decade
Grateful for WNBA progress, inspired for the future.
by Ben York
There is an infectious optimism that exudes from WNBA President, Donna Orender, at all times.
Side effects of spending time with her include feeling encouraged, gaining a sense of reassurance, and becoming energized for things to come. Her love of basketball is indelible, her ambition unwavering. Not surprisingly, Orender’s leadership and experience is precisely what the WNBA needs to truly thrive.
The WNBA, as an organization, has endured a plethora of change over the decade. Teams have been dispersed while others have been created. The amount of parity in the league has increased dramatically. And despite several roadblocks that impacted the WNBA over the past few years, largely due to the stagnant economy, Orender remains steadfast in her devotion towards advancing the WNBA.
Taking over for Val Ackerman in 2005, Orender brought a business-savvy approach to the WNBA, combined with a personal passion for the game, that translated into immediate commercial success. In 2007, Orender helped structure an unprecedented television deal for a women’s professional sports league worth millions of dollars to the WNBA beginning in 2009.
The eight-year deal with ESPN would provide television coverage for the WNBA through the year 2016 with profits being dispersed among each active team. Not coincidentally, 2009 saw record-setting television ratings with the spectacular playoffs and finals leading to an 83 percent increase in male viewership, a 62 percent increase in female viewership, and an astounding 280 percent increase in viewers ages 12-17.
“The 2009 season, in terms of fulfilling what the league could be, was incredibly validating,” said Orender. She’s absolutely correct; the decade was capped in the best possible way for the league. Not only did it feature phenomenal talent all around, it created a distinct momentum heading into a new decade as evidenced by the surge in television ratings and in-game attendance. During the 2009 WNBA playoffs, average attendance increased 18.5 percent from 2008 which led to the highest-attended WNBA Finals ever with 82,018 people catching the game in person.
Orender’s use of the word “validating” also couldn’t be more accurate. Just three years earlier in 2006, the WNBA entered its 10th-consecutive season becoming the first team-oriented professional women’s sports organization to do so. Although several teams have ceased operations and many others have changed locations throughout its 13-year existence, there is now an indelible sense of hope for the future.
Orender has maintained a constant mantra of patience and exuberance for the league during her tenure that is becoming increasingly influential. Though Orender wasn’t comfortable saying 2009 was a turning point for the league, she did acknowledge the significance of the season. “I don’t know if it’s a turning point; I think it’s an inflection point,” Orender said. “I think what  does do is it takes the positive trends we’ve been seeing the last couple of years and continues them with an exclamation point.”
From a numbers perspective, the WNBA has seen positive signs over the past several years that fueled the tremendous season in 2009. Perhaps more important was the sheer influx of talent that filtered into the league toward the latter half of the decade. Orender believes the accumulation of talent directly correlates with recent prosperity. “We’re seeing the impact in attendance growth, we’re seeing it in viewership growth, we’re seeing it in ratings growth; but if you really want to see the impact of the WNBA we need to look at the growth in talent,” Orender said. “It took the WNBA to come along and put the spotlight on women’s basketball and you now see growth in programs at the youth level all the way through. We’re all now beginning to benefit from all the seeds being planted. We’re just at the beginning of what those benefits are going to be.”
Providing this goal to young women everywhere is, conceivably, the WNBA’s greatest accomplishment to date; and essential towards the future success of the league. Without generating excitement at the youth level, the continuing dream of the WNBA would surely wither away. Orender has made a conscious effort to promote the league to its younger audience not just with the goal in mind to be a professional athlete, but to inspire confidence and self-worth.
“I was lucky enough to be in a reception in Atlanta recently, and I can’t tell you how many young players were there; and I’m talking about young — 10, 11, 12 years old,” said Orender. “They were with their Dads, their Moms, their coaches and they would tell me ‘this player is coming to you’ or ‘that team is coming to you’. It’s just fantastic! To be able to set a really admirable goal, to be able to project achievement, to be able to project success and what it takes to get there — it takes hard work and commitment; all of us need to learn what it takes to be successful in this world. So whether they make the WNBA or not, what they are learning is how to be successful in life. I think that’s incredibly important, way beyond making a WNBA team.”
In order to sustain and enhance this tangible level of ambition, it’s imperative that young women have someone to look up to — someone to admirably idolize and associate themselves with. The NBA had its Magic Johnsons, its Larry Birds, and its Michael Jordans that it used to appeal to the younger generation; thus, creating fans and supporters of the league for life. Having these popular, larger-than-life superstars over the past 10 years has given youth something to achieve and strive for.
Similarly, the WNBA has seen a return on its investment of marketable stars such as Candace Parker, Becky Hammon, and Diana Taurasi. For the WNBA, the use of these players and the league in general is key to building a bridge into the mainstream. “I think it has to do with one, they are very visible role models — they are visions for girls to compete and get sweaty, dirty, and compete on teams,” Orender said. “The WNBA gives everybody a green light for that. Secondly, because there is that spotlight it has just elevated the amount of resources dedicated to these young girls. There is now gym time when there wasn’t gym time before. There is a quality of coaching that wasn’t there before. When I played, maybe I was one in a couple thousand. Now, I’d be one out of a million.”
The WNBA has always featured a level of accessibility to fans that is unmatched in other professional sports organizations. Players make a continual effort to interact with fans of all ages and make them feel a vital part towards their success — at all times. The past decade has also offered fans unprecedented access toward their favorite teams with the newly created WNBA LiveAccess feature where fans can watch the majority of games online.
But the growth of the league deals with more than just basketball — it’s about setting an example of achievement and empowerment. The standard the WNBA sets for today’s youth transcends gender lines. Though Orender believes in the importance of giving back, she certainly didn’t have to do much convincing to encourage players to feel the same way. “A little known story of when I first got this job is that I wanted to meet the players to learn a little about them and what was important to them — and I fully expected they would ask about business issues,” Orender said. “But every woman asked about how I could help them give back more or help the league give back more. I was pleasantly surprised by that.”
“The desire to give back is authentically part of who these women are,” Orender said. “It’s not a conscious desire to be good people — we are good people. So it’s naturally a part of their lives everyday. The brand in and of itself is an iconic brand. It’s a brand that represents diversity and achievement. When you live these beliefs it becomes very natural to give back and adds so much meaning to our lives.”
Looking back over the last 10 years, it’s easy for the detractors to look at the negative publicity the WNBA has had to face and come to a consensus that the future is bleak. However, the sheer amount of progress the league has made, especially in the 5 years since Orender took over, should trump some of the more unfortunate circumstances.
“We really have to stop and remind ourselves where we are in our history and how far we’ve come,” Orender said. “Business is not patient, people by nature are not patient — it’s a ’show me now, what did you do for me yesterday’ world we live in. So, that’s why we have such an incredible group of owners. They believe we are making our own future and are doing it at a faster pace than anybody could have imagined. If you look at the track records of other leagues, we have surpassed what it took the NBA to get to in 30 years. That said, it’s a different world and we have to keep making progress.”
Although Orender is excited about how far the league has come, contentment certainly isn’t in her vocabulary. She is fully aware that both the success and progress the league has made recently could dissipate in a heartbeat. The desire and drive Orender has to advance the league is palpable, her passion encouraging. There is a genuine ‘fan’ in Orender that comes directly from her playing days at Queens College and in the WBL. Hence, she is personally invested in the future of women’s basketball and believes in its importance and future.
“I absolutely love the game,” said Orender. “I love being around the game and I love our athletes that have played this game. Everyday when I wake up and and be connected to that I find it exciting and gratifying. And I have to tell you, I love the fans and supporters of the WNBA – that’s what gets me up everyday.”