WNBA, ESPN Partnership and New Branding Transcript
NEW YORK March 28, 2013 – An interview with: WNBA President Laurel Richie, John Skipper, President of ESPN Inc., Co-Chairman of the Disney Media Networks, Swin Cash, Bill Laimbeer and Hannah Storm.
HANNAH STORM: Good afternoon and welcome to this special event, along with a lot of old friends, familiar faces. We have a very special announcement, really exciting for women's sports here today.
It's an historic day. We have a special announcement about a league that's been around 16 years. I know that because my daughter is 16 years old and she was just an infant when I did play by play for the first WNBA games. I've been thinking a lot about the league lately and its inception, that great 'We Got Next' campaign with Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo and Lisa Leslie. And now we have three transcendent stars coming into the league. This feels like a continuation and at the same time a new beginning again. So a very exciting day and something that emanated really from a discussion at our espnW summit several months ago. It's very thrilling to have this here today, an exciting time for ESPN.
I want to introduce you to Laurel Richie, three decades of experience in consumer marketing and corporate branding. She is your president of the WNBA.
We'd like to also welcome John Skipper who holds several leadership roles at ESPN. We're limited on time so I can't really announce them all. One of the key architects, a champion of ESPN's women's sports initiatives, president and co chairman Disney Media Networks, John Skipper.
Also joining us for today's announcement we have some very special guests here. Among them Adam Silver, the deputy commissioner, COO for the NBA, who will take the role of NBA Commissioner in 2014. We also have Christine Driessen, executive vice president and chief financial officer of ESPN. Marie Donoghue, senior vice president of global business strategy and development.
I want to say as a female employee at ESPN, I'm so happy to work at a company that has women featured in such prominent leadership roles. Find that as a great source of pride. Goes with our theme here today.
We also have Swin Cash, four time WNBA All Star, three time WNBA champion, Olympic gold medalist. We could go on and on. She's getting ready to get back to Atlanta after this and get home.
And a guy that I covered back in the day when he was a player, I'm not so sure that you were suited and tied quite as you are today on a regular basis back then, but Bill Laimbeer, of course a legend as a player, and a three time WNBA champion as a coach. I love the whole arc that you bring to the WNBA. We're pooling the resources together in so many different ways of these two great operations.
We're going to hear from Swin and Bill a bit later on. But right now, let's get right to it, the big announcement of the moment. John, do the honors.
I'm very happy to be here with all of you to help make the announcement of our extension with the WNBA. We have been with the league since it started in 1997 as a partner. This new extension, which is six years, on top of the deal through '16 we already have, takes us out through 2022 and ensures we will be together a minimum of 26 years. We think this is a very propitious time to do this deal. We're very pleased with where the league is after 16 years. I'm sure you're happy with your 16 year old. Adam, Laurel and I are happy with our 16 year old. We, like you, think there's going to be continued development. We want to be active participants in that development.
We're not just announcing an extension and a continued business relationship. What we want to do is take advantage of this moment in time with these three transcendent superstars coming into the league to relaunch and restart what we're doing.
We're very happy to date, but we can take advantage of this. We're going to have the draft where I think it pretty likely you'll hear those three young women's names called one, two, three, prime time April 15th on ESPN. We're going to start the season with a doubleheader I believe April 27th, could have that date wrong. It will oddly enough feature the three teams that pick one, two and three in the draft.
So, again, we think we can promote that. You'll see us doing a whole bunch of new things. Laurel is going to talk about some of those later on. But we want to be active participants and continue to grow the league. I want to thank Adam Silver and Laurel. I want to thank Bill Koenig, Christine Godleski, all who helped us get this deal done. I want to thank our guys at ESPN. I, like you, am very proud that I can point to Christine Driessen, the CFO, Marie Donoghue, senior vice president of business development strategy, Leah LaPlaca, our senior programming executive on the WNBA. Doug White I believe is here, also a program executive on the WNBA. Laura Gentile, who runs espnW for us. This is a hallmark of our commitment to women's sports at ESPN.
The WNBA, we're very committed to women's sports. You'll see us doing the NCAA women's tournament this week. We've announced a nine for nine Title IX, nine women film makers making nine documentaries on women's sports.
But this is part of our overall commitment to women's sports. There's nothing more important to us in women's sports than this deal and this relationship.
HANNAH STORM: This really emanated from an espnW summit. It's fitting that Laura is here, too. We had a very difficult discussion, I think, and addressed some very hard issues about where ESPN was, where this league was, and what both sides needed to do to come together to really take advantage of Griner, of Diggins, of Delle Donne, of this incredible opportunity, how we were going to really push this league forward in a very practical business sense. I got to really credit both sides here for coming to the plate. I'm having some pretty serious discussions in coming up with this great game plan that Laurel is going to fill us with in.
LAUREL RICHIE: First of all, I don't know a better day in the world of the WNBA. We are thrilled, Hannah, to have you joining us, everyone that Skipper has recognized. I feel like we've spent the last three or four months meeting with literally every department within ESPN to talk about how these two great companies can come together and really take women's sports to the next level.
As president of the WNBA, there's nothing greater than having a partnership with you, Skipper, and with all of ESPN where the commitment to women's sports is deep and it's true. I think this renewed extension is a manifestation of that. So we're happy.
I thank Adam for coming out today. Swin and Bill, we're glad you're here to round out the story.
But this is going to be great for us moving forward. In addition to the two things that Skipper talked about in moving forward, our teams have had some great discussions about a whole host of new initiatives. They're premature, they're not all linked up yet, but they're great. We've had discussions about putting cameras on the refs so we can give our viewers and fans a really up close view of the game from the officials' point of view. We want to bring in some of our current and former NBA players to sort of give their take on the women's game, where the women's game is today.
We are opening our doors to ESPN, our locker room doors, our practice doors, so that we can share in what it takes to bring a team to the championship level. So the access will be open. The exposure will be great. I think that's going to be all to the delight and benefit of our collective fans.
You're so right, Hannah, that espnW summit was a groundbreaking day for us. We from the WNBA perspective, we left that summit and went back and said, We're going to set on a course of reimagining the WNBA. We really want to take advantage of the draft class that we think and hope is coming into our league. We have looked at almost every aspect of our business. So in addition to coming together today to announce this partnership, we've also had some conversations with adidas. We're looking to introduce in 2014 a new uniform that reflects the diversity of today's women's basketball player. Today we're unveiling a brand new identity for the WNBA. I think it's important we do that.
We took a look at our current logo and we felt as we looked at her, she didn't reflect the athleticism, the diversity, sort of the competitive nature of our game as we're entering into our 17th season. We talked to our fans. They told us the most identifiable and iconic element of our visual presentation is our ball, the orange and oatmeal. We're very proud of our affiliation and partnership, being part of the larger NBA family. As we move forward, we want to make sure we honor and respect that relationship.
Here we are with a brand new logo. For me the most exciting part of it, in addition to the color that's true to the WNBA, really is that silhouette. When I think of Swin and Diana and Tamika, I just feel like the logo woman now is a woman who reflects all that I see when I go to our games.
We're thrilled to be bringing that out. We also have a new typeface we're launching. We're excited about that as well. It's got the curve of the ball, the seams of the ball. We have upper and lower case letters. All the stuff that the design geeks love, but it's actually intentional. As I talk to our partners and fans, one of the things they tell me differentiates us from any other sports league is how accessible our players are and how accessible our game is. This is a professional sport where they can get up close and personal and really get connected to us. We're kind of excited about this. It's going to be great. We're launching it today.
I suspect one of the first questions is, Who is that new logo woman? I think everybody knows in the NBA it's Jerry West who their logo is modeled after. The truth is I'm not telling. Instead of telling, we're going to launch with a social media campaign that engages our players and our fans, #Iamlogowoman. We're going to start the great debate on who is the logo woman of the new refreshed and updated WNBA logo. So here is what you may see on Facebook and Twitter in the next coming hours.
LAUREL RICHIE: Again, I couldn't be more excited. I think we are heading into what I think is the next chapter in the evolution of the WNBA. I am thrilled to be doing that in partnership with ESPN. You guys have been there from the beginning, and you're going to be there all the way to the end with us. I thank adidas for taking a look at our uniform and working with us to bring it to the next generation of athlete. We had great partners in Boost and State Farm. I'm grateful to our fans who are tuned in today, many who have been there since that first tip off with New York and L.A.
Most importantly it is the women and the athletes of the WNBA, all of this work is done in honor of the skill that they bring day in and day out which I am humbled to be the leader of 132 I think of the best athletes in the world, and to be working with sort of the arbitrator of all that is good and wonderful in sports in ESPN. I'm going to remember this day. Just doesn't get better than this.
JOHN SKIPPER: Glad to hear it.
HANNAH STORM: I like the logo, too. I love the fact that she's looking upwards and onwards, which we all are in regards to women's sports. It has not been an easy battle. Nothing worth fighting for ever is. But this certainly is a seminal moment, business moment in terms of the league and ESPN, which really sets the conversation about sports in this country. What does today say about the growth and the state of women's sports right now as you see it, John?
JOHN SKIPPER: We, of course, as you know, are very bullish on the growth and the importance of women's sports. Today we're putting a financial commitment, we're putting a commitment of our time on the air, commitment of our executives, our company, to continue to help grow women's sports and the importance of those sports in this country.
HANNAH STORM: What are the challenges?
JOHN SKIPPER: The challenges are unrealistic expectations. We're doing great. We're thrilled with where the league is, how we're doing. I go to arenas, I see happy fans, skilled athletes playing well, appropriate ratings for where the league is right now, and I see growth. I think it's mostly people wanting to compare it to men's sports and say, Gee, is this the same as the NBA? One thing I like about the logo is it distances itself a little bit from the NBA. It's not an appropriate comparison right now. It should be viewed on its own terms and should have the terms of its own success.
HANNAH STORM: There is success that we've seen in the past. I was from Houston, there for the Comets era, sold out arenas. It was literally the hottest ticket in town. It's something that can touch a lot of people in a lot of ways and has in the past. Really looking forward to reaching that many more people, inspiring that many more young women. You touched on the branding. Can you expand on that, the importance of the reboot, somewhat of the rebrand along with the ESPN identity?
LAUREL RICHIE: I think this season is going to be a seminal season for the WNBA. I think we're doing all the right things in terms of reexamining our business, going to our partners. We're thrilled at the extension of this partnership, for me mostly because of the kinds of conversations that have taken place and the ideas that we collectively have generated to take the game and to take how we showcase these athletes to the next level. I think then we've got sort of what I hope, I'm sure all of you have been watching a lot of basketball and a lot of women's basketball on ESPN. So when you have a night when Brittney Griner scores 50 points, Skylar Diggins takes Notre Dame to triple overtime, and then Elena and Brittney play their final home game in college, you see three dunks, you just think that this is a moment in time that we collectively are poised and primed to capitalize on.
I agree with John. I try to calm myself and say, given that we are in our 16th year, heading into our 17th year, not that I'm at all resting on my laurels, we're in a pretty darn good place to spring and take advantage of all the good things coming forth. For me it is not just about the young girls of the next generation, it's about the young boys, too. I think that they benefit as much from recognizing and seeing what the women of the WNBA and the athletes in the WNBA do, what they bring on a daily basis.
HANNAH STORM: You have such a diverse fan base. The people that watch it, the people that go to the games are really all across the map, so many different types of people. You really do have an opportunity to reach many different types of people. There's so many people in this room that are passionate and invested in the growth of women's sports. I was going to throw it out to the media, but what do you want to say?
LAUREL RICHIE: We spent a lot of time in the last year really marveling at the diversity of that audience. How the heck did they all get in there together? What we've learned through some good and in depth research, the single unifying factor is they love sports, but on top of that they have very progressive views on the role of women in society. That's what brings such a wonderful mosaic and cross section of America into arenas and to the TV and online and everything else to view and support the WNBA.
HANNAH STORM: That's a very powerful common denominator. We really want to thank the members of the media who are here today. Obviously this only resonates with you covering it and the way that you do. So thank you for being here. We have a microphone and would love to open it up to questions that anyone in the audience might have.
Q. Laurel, what kind of message does this send to the WNBA about ESPN's commitment to the future of the league?
LAUREL RICHIE: Great. You know, I think the message to me is that ESPN is as dedicated as we are to shining a light on women's sports. So to be in partnership with the global leader in sports, have them shine a light, enter into a partnership, bring their best people and their best thinking to our league, I'm flattered that they're doing it with us, but I think it speaks volumes to the priorities and focus and forward thinking of ESPN.
Q. I was reflecting on the 40th anniversary of Title IX, thinking all of the energy that we saw around that historic event, and what as a sports community were we going to do to keep that energy going. I think this is definitely a testament to that. As you look at 2022, could you talk a little bit about do you have a vision for where the league will be and where the partnership with the WNBA and ESPN will be at that time?
JOHN SKIPPER: Look, the vision we have is that the league is going to continue to grow and have more success. We do think we'll see that reflected in attendance at arenas. We think we'll see that reflected in ratings on television, commitment of sponsors to the league. At the end of the day, we have a commitment. Remember how this started. This started at a espnW conference where we had 200 people gathered to talk about the state of women's sports. It was on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Title IX, so we were thinking about that.
So what we thought was, how can we sort of stimulate, push it forward. I think we see an environment in 2022 where women's sports will be dramatically more important than it is now. You have 40 years of women participating in sports that's beginning to manifest itself in women becoming professional athletes, being more fans of many sports, men's and women's sports, and you're going to have through 2022 10 more years, up to the 50th anniversary of Title IX. You'll be close to the 50th anniversary, which the way we do things at ESPN we'll make a big deal of. We'll announce 50 films, 20 initiatives, 30 other things. I think that's what we're building towards, a bigger, more robust future for women's sports, women's fans, and all sportsfans.
HANNAH STORM: : Said beautifully.
JOHN SKIPPER: Actually, I'm still stuck a little bit here on you resting on your laurels. I don't think you can actually do that, right (laughter)?
LAUREL RICHIE: I don't want to try that with cameras rolling (laughter).
Q. Laurel, last year you had three teams that were profitable. You had mentioned that you wanted to learn lessons from what those teams and markets had done. Are you any farther along pinpointing what it is about CT and San Antonio and Minnesota that has made them profitable?
LAUREL RICHIE: Yeah, we are. I think lots of it has to do with the on court performance. It's always easier and folks always seem to get behind a winning team. That's not always in the control of the team. But we've learned an awful lot. The larger NBA organization has a group solely dedicated to optimizing and partnering with our teams to fundamentally add value day in and day out to the running of those businesses. So we've undergone a process where that group has met with literally every team in our league, and in the process of putting a very detailed and customized plan in place. So we're tailor making all the information we have across the NBA, WNBA, and the D league, and writing very specific and focused plans. We're on our way with that and learning every day and making sure that we're sharing the knowledge every day.
JOHN SKIPPER: It's something we're cognizant of together. It would be silly of me not to recognize there is a financial component to this deal, and that is intended to help the league get more of their teams to profitability. I will not comment on what that amount is no matter how many times you ask me. But clearly that's there. I mean, that's important that the teams have financial stability so they can grow and market and add to player salaries. Although I'm not getting in the middle of Collective Bargaining (laughter).
HANNAH STORM: Swin and Bill, do you want to come up because we'd love to hear from you, as well. Appreciate having both of you guys here. Bill, I'm just wondering from your standpoint how you've seen the WNBA evolve since you've joined the league.
BILL LAIMBEER: I came in 2002. Fortunately having players like Swin on my team we won in 2003. The difference now to then is the talent level. The talent level is phenomenal coming in every year. You can see it's so hard to make a team right now. Getting a roster spot is brutal. The players are bigger, faster, stronger, smarter, better coached.
Back to the '80s, I went to college when there was no cable television, there was only one game a week on TV. When ESPN came along, college basketball was on TV. The name recognition factor started to grow. People followed their college players all over the country. New fan bases emerged for somebody living in Oklahoma could follow somebody in Texas. So it generated a huge groundswell for the NBA of name recognition which then became the '80s, which was a phenomenal time for growth of NBA basketball. I think the same thing has happened in WNBA now. The name recognition factor is following them into the professional ranks which is creating a groundswell of fan sport.
HANNAH STORM: You look at Bird and Magic.
BILL LAIMBEER: Cable television had a tremendous impact on that time.
HANNAH STORM: Swin, as you've been sitting there, soaking all this in, from a player's perspective, what does this mean to you?
SWIN CASH: It means a lot. I think it makes you really feel valued. I think back to when we came into the league, we looked at Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo, Lisa Leslie. They were the trailblazers of helping this league grow. As you go through the years you start working really hard and you see winning championships, you see the growth of women's basketball not only at the collegiate level but also youth leagues.
Now with ESPN making this commitment to us, I look at Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins, the fans will have accessibility to now see them in the WNBA. As players it's great to feel that commitment not only financially from ESPN but the visibility. I think the platforms they have, espnW, ESPNU, all those different platforms we can capitalize on and really show the fans the great players we have in the WNBA.
HANNAH STORM: What does that visibility translate into?
SWIN CASH: That translates not only into television, but the Internet is booming right now. I think ESPN does the best job of telling the stories, not only the basketball on the court, but the stories leading up to the game, the rivalries, all those different things are very important for our league. Because when you see March Madness right now, women's basketball, you see the insides, you see the outsides, behinds, blogs. All those different things have to tell our game. People have to get familiar.
We have 132 women that are ready to ball. When you see people like Brittney Griner dunking three times, it's time to get your game up.
HANNAH STORM: Coach, with these three talents that we all have high hopes for them having tremendous pro careers, what sort of effect do you see that having on the league?
BILL LAIMBEER: Like I said earlier, when you have the name recognition coming into our league, eyeballs will follow. There's no question about that. They've already grown up with them through ESPN in the college ranks, now they're going to follow them in the pros. As long as the product with the WNBA is high, you'll keep the fans that follow in there.
The WNBA right now is a brutal, brutal sport to break into. It is so good. The players are so talented. They compete very hard. I look at my schedule, I say, All right, where are my easy games? There are no easy games right now. It is very tough.
HANNAH STORM: What is it that you'd like people to know who don't already know the WNBA, but having been in it from the perspective of a former NBA player, what is it you would like people to start understanding about this league?
BILL LAIMBEER: These are the best athletes in the world at what they do. Don't compare it to the men. Compare it to the women. These professional athletes take their game very seriously. They take pride in their physical abilities, the condition that they're in. They compete. I mean, they compete really hard. They swear with the best of the guys, too. It's a competitive atmosphere second to none. They just happen to be women playing sports. JOHN SKIPPER:They may have role models in terms of profanity.
SWIN CASH: I think it's great that our fans are beginning to have the opportunity to see the players more and to see those personalities, Bill coming back, players switching teams. This is phenomenal. I'm just really excited. Thank you, Skipper, all the executives at ESPN. This commitment is huge, especially from a player's perspective.
HANNAH STORM: Swin, I think you're a great ambassador for the league. You put yourself out there, that's what it takes. You spend a lot of extra time, effort, you're always out at the summit, here today. I think you've done a lot for the league. Thanks for that extra commitment.
SWIN CASH: Thanks.
HANNAH STORM: And you have a new book.
SWIN CASH: I have a new book out called 'Humble Journey, More Precious Than Gold'. You can go to Amazon.
BILL LAIMBEER: Am I in it?
SWIN CASH: Oh, you're in it (laughter).
HANNAH STORM: So, John, how about some final thoughts.
JOHN SKIPPER: Speaking of the physicality of the game, when Swin Cash was sitting in that seat, I didn't get a chance to recognize Carol, as well, who has been important to women's sports and has taken on a new job with the content at espnW.
I want to make it clear I agree completely with what Bill and Swin have been saying about the visibility of the athletes. We want to sing the praises of Brittney and Elena and Skylar. They're important because people know their story. People know about Elena and her sister. It's a beautiful story. When she comes in next year, she's not only a spectacular 6'5" point guard, people know her and they care about her. That will translate to people watching. We want to be there to take advantage of that.
That's what this whole day is about, about our partnership to work together with the WNBA, to expose those sports which lead to people seeing that athleticism and the quality of that game and then sticking with it. The league will grow based on that.
We're thrilled to be here for that. Laurel, Adam, Bill, Swin, thank you.
HANNAH STORM: 2013 WNBA draft presented by State Farm comes your way ESPN 2 Monday, April 15th. Thanks to all of you for being here. Thanks for your commitment. Thanks to all of you. Really looking forward to the future with the WNBA. On behalf of all of us at ESPN and the WNBA, have a great day, everybody.