In Good Hands
Laurel Richie is ready to take the WNBA to the next level.
“The league is in good hands,” I remember saying with a smile to a random passerby inside US Airways Center last Friday night. Clearly, this person had no idea what I was talking about given their look of confusion and abhorrence but I was too excited to care.
I had just spent nearly 30 minutes chatting with WNBA president Laurel Richie and never before had I felt more secure about the future of the league.
We sat down inside the Al McCoy Media Center before the Phoenix Mercury tipped off against the visiting Washington Mystics. That night was a special one as the Mercury were recognizing former coach (and one of the greatest women’s basketball players of all-time) Cheryl Miller as part of their 15th Anniversary celebration. In spite of a hectic speaking schedule, Richie was kind enough to set aside a considerable amount of time to talk about the WNBA as a whole.
That, in and of itself, should give you an idea about Richie both as a person and as a leader of the WNBA. There was never a feeling that I needed to rush or ask the easy questions; Richie was happy to talk about anything and everything.
The phrase “hitting the ground running” is tired and overused but there really isn’t a better way to describe Richie’s first eight weeks as WNBA president. As two months of exhausting travel came to a close, so did Richie’s nationwide tour of the WNBA visiting each city to introduce herself to team personnel, meet the players, participate in Q&A’s with fans, and develop a tangible plan to guide the league toward sustainable success.
Make no mistake about it – the past two months for Richie were far more than just a casual meet-and-greet.
“Through visiting all 12 teams, the first thing that comes to mind is that I’ve been so impressed with the level of play,” Richie says when asked about her observations during her tour. “I knew it was going to be great but now I really know how great it is. I had the pleasure of sitting on the court for a couple games and I can’t do that anymore; it’s too stressful! With the speed of the game and power of the game, I’m much more comfortable sitting a few rows up. The whole trip has been terrific.”
Richie’s glowing assessment of the quality of play is hugely important and the first thing I’d be looking for as a fan. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met who have actually come to a WNBA game and were blown away with what they saw. In this case, having a first-hand account from the president of the league speaks volumes.
It’s nearly impossible not to get excited when you speak with Richie; she has that “it” factor. Her genuine kindness and stoic presence translates into feelings of security and know-how. But more importantly, it becomes instantly clear within minutes that her ideas and bold vision are precisely what the WNBA needs. The most significant of which is finding a way to get people to make the transition from wondering about the WNBA game to actually going to one.
In order to develop a sound marketing strategy, Richie met with thousands of fans over the past two months to get a sense of what keeps them coming back to the WNBA.
“I am just amazed at the passion and knowledge of the fan-base,” says Richie. “They know a heck of a lot about the game, about the players, the stats, and the history. They’re vocal about every aspect of the game and I think that bodes well for the league because it says when we get it right, we really connect with people. It [the WNBA] also has a diverse fan-base; it has women, it has men, it has families, it’s black, it’s white; it’s really a true representation of society that’s engaged in the game.”
It’s widely known that one of the calling cards of the WNBA has been its passionate fans. The WNBA is an incredibly unique league in that its fans feel very much a part of the game. Fans are able to interact and connect with WNBA players more so than, perhaps, any other professional sports league.
Capturing that feeling in an articulate way will be key in attracting new fans. And what better way than experiencing it yourself?
“I watch how fans get to go onto the court during a timeout and think how much I would have loved to do that,” Richie says about the connectivity the league has with its fans. “I would’ve taken a picture and brought that to show-and-tell at school the next day. I think that is really one of the things that differentiates the WNBA from almost any other sports league that I know – the accessibility to the game, to the players, and the experience.”
That’s why the best part of Richie’s journey shouldn’t surprise you.
“It has to be getting to know the players,” Richie says with confidence. “I knew they were athletic and very talented when it comes to playing basketball but they, to me, are as amazing off the court as they are on the court. They’re interesting, they’re funny, they’re very diverse, and they have interests outside of basketball that I find fascinating. They’ve been very welcoming and I’ve really appreciated that.”
These key observations that Richie has picked up early on are exactly what a WNBA president needs in order to be successful and effective. Look at the words and phrases she used – “diverse,” “passionate,” “quality of play,” “connect,” and “engaged.”
Simply put – Richie gets it.
Still, it’s hard to ignore the numerous franchises that have folded or moved over the past 15 years. And while this is all part of the natural growth process of a unprecedented organization like the WNBA, there have been times when the league has felt stable but, conversely, there have also been times where we’ve wondered if its days were numbered.
During our talk, however, the one word that kept popping into my head was “stability.” Richie has an impeccable track record of excellence and her calm persona puts you at ease. There is an immediate sense of trust and confidence in her vision for the future of the league and her ideas for a fresh approach are invigorating.
“I want to figure out how we talk about it,” Richie says in regards to the marketing of the WNBA. “How do you describe something magical in a way that’s tangible enough so people actually get it. Then, thinking from a marketing standpoint, how do we get people to take that first step and engage with us? The nice thing is that we have lots of good examples of things happening all across the league. I want to do sort of a cross-pollination from teams to the league, the league to its teams, and team to team to make sure that we are sharing really good initiatives that I’ve seen across the league.”
In order to communicate that magical feeling all WNBA fans have in regards to the league, there has to be an appreciation for the players and what they go through on a yearly basis not just here in America but overseas as well. Richie said that learning about the everyday lives of WNBA players was remarkable both on and off the court.
Her initial goal is simple – get people to a game. The task, however, is daunting. For Richie, the next step is developing ways to promote the league that resonates with all sports fans including those who have previously written the league off. Developing the right way to communicate the essence of the WNBA to a legion of new fans is Richie’s priority.
“Fans across the spectrum have said it [the WNBA] is different but not less-than,” Richie says in reference to those who have negative views on the league’s quality of play. “I think that’s absolutely true. I think the more people we can get to that first game to experience it will be key. It’s a hard thing to describe. I think fans appreciate the game even more live than on broadcast. I’m very, very thankful for all the sponsors and partners but there’s some x-factor that happens live…you can’t describe it. You literally have moments where you back up out of astonishment. I want to share what women’s basketball is all about with the public and with potential sponsors so that they can really see it and join the journey with us.”
Richie’s tour of the WNBA was, essentially, a hands-on learning experience. After all, in an organization like the WNBA you have to start from the bottom up and Richie certainly has done that. The encouraging part is that Richie seems more passionate about the lasting success of the WNBA than she was when she accepted the job.
Perhaps more accurately, she’s now personally invested in it.
Everything she’s touched in the past has turned to gold. There’s little reason (if any) to think the same won’t happen for the WNBA.