WNBA CEO Resigns, Leaving Future in Doubt
The WNBA took another hit this week, raising serious concerns.
by Clay Kallam
It’s not good news, that’s for sure.
Yes, Donna Orender had her critics, but she was the model of a professional sports executive. Was she annoyingly upbeat all the time? Of course, but if she wasn’t in all-positive mode, who would be? Did she make the WNBA decision-making process as secret and impenetrable as China under Mao Ze Dong? Regrettably, yes, but she clearly controlled the message.
But now she’s leaving — or already gone, really — and left behind is a vacuum of unanswered questions and troubling speculation.
Monday, Dec. 4, she announced she was resigning as WNBA president to start her own firm, and would be gone Dec. 31. This is more than a little unsettling because her departure was essentially immediate. After all, the holidays pretty much gut the month of December as far as getting any work done, and so she basically gave two weeks notice. Two weeks is fine if you’re checking at Target, but this is the CEO of a high-profile business, and that kind of short notice is almost like walking away from the cash register in the middle of a shift.
On top of that, Orender didn’t really have another job to go to. Sure, she’s starting her own consulting firm, but she could just as easily have started that Jan. 15 or Feb. 1 or even in the middle of March. Any of those dates would have ensured a smooth transition, and given the WNBA owners plenty of time to install a successor. As it is, the league is being run by an NBA executive, and it can hardly be considered his first priority.
So Orender lets it be known over the weekend that a major announcement is coming Monday, and then abruptly quits to essentially “pursue other opportunities.”
The next question, then, is did she jump or was she pushed?
Possible justifications for Orender executing a graceful swan dive:
1) She felt the league was about to fold, and wanted to leave one step ahead of the avalanche — and thus avoid some of the blame.
2) She had different ideas than the WNBA owners about the next steps for the league.
3) She got tired of fighting a losing battle, and decided she needed a rest.
Possibile justifications for Orender getting a shove in the small of the back:
1) The owners had tried her plan of growing the league more through sponsorship than in-arena attendance, and wanted to change direction — and she didn’t want to go along.
2) The owners are desperate and felt they needed to do something dramatic to save the league, or least distract people from the bleak financial situation.
3) An unspecified personality conflict with somebody who had more juice.
Of all these scenarios, only the last can remotely be called good news — and the personality conflict is a positive only because it eliminates so many negatives.
Pretty much every other scenario does not paint a rosy picture, though in this economy, with a marginal entertainment enterprise, sunshine and butterflies are in short supply.
Now it is possible that the league will wind up with Ann Meyers in charge, and her work as general manager in Phoenix has erased the sordid memories of her career as a TV analyst, so that might be an improvement, as would someone both qualified and charismatic. It’s possible that the new CEO will either arrive with or implement a brilliant new plan to save the league.
But it’s also depressingly possible that the reduced TV exposure is because no one is watching, the blatant padding of attendance figures reflects a genuine lack of interest, and the league’s hoped-for long walk will be abruptly ended by a short pier.
If so, Orender acted with the intelligence and foresight many refused to credit her with, and has skated away relatively clean. If, on the other hand, a different leader can produce different results, then a lot of people will be forced to agree with Orender’s critics that she was indeed a big part of the problem.
It says here she wasn’t, and that her departure is simply more bad news for a league teetering on the brink of a Humpty Dumpty fall. It’s not a death blow by any means, but it’s more than a flesh wound — and it’s hard to disagree that the future of the WNBA is a little more uncertain than it was a week ago.