Laurel Richie watches Thursday's Storm game from a KeyArena suite. (Neil Enns/Storm Photos)
Storm Q&A: Laurel Richie
WNBA President Laurel Richie stopped by Seattle last week to be part of the Storm's Women of Inspiration halftime ceremony. During a whirlwind visit, which included meetings with sponsors and a Q&A with the Storm staff, Richie took time out to chat with StormBasketball.com about what she's learned in her year-plus running the WNBA, how the league can utilize the airtime players got during the Olympics and more.
StormBasketball.com: Are visits like this one to teams different than last year, when you were just getting to know the WNBA?
Richie: Yeah, they are different. You know, one of the things that I love know is, entering my second season, I know the players. I know them as athletes, I know their game, I know their role on the team. I think that's quite analogous to how we build a fan base. You follow the game, follow the teams, but you're really following the players and their stories and their journeys. I don't know if I'm a veteran or an expert at this point, but I definitely feel experienced. I appreciate the game more because I understand the players better.
What's the biggest thing you've learned so far?
I think the biggest thing I've learned is that everything that I want to do with and for the league, all roads lead to the players. I have a great appreciation that people don't follow leagues - they follow their hometown team or a team they care about, but more specifically they follow a player that they love. They went to the same college or they played the same position when they were growing up or they like a quiet, steady performer or a volatile, sassy performer or they like the way somebody comes off the bench - whatever it is. You usually have a player you follow, so I think in terms of our fan base, that's critical. I think in terms of getting more coverage from the media, I think they like the story of the game but they also like the human-interest story. I think getting better at telling their stories and getting the media to tell their stories, it's a focal point and a key to unlocking our growth.
Do you think that's uniquely important to WNBA fans or common across sports leagues?
I think it's common. A reporter asked me the other day, 'What does success look like?' I said, 'One element of it is that our players are household names.' America knows who Charles Barkley is - in part because of how he played, in part because of the commercial that he made, in part because of the things he just says that you can't quite believe he says. They know who Michael Jordan is, and not just as a name. They feel like they have a knowledge of his game. They can probably name one or two key games - the one where he was sick in Game 5 of the Finals. That's part of following a sport and making it into the mainstream.
How does the exposure provided by the Olympics fit into that?
I think the Olympics were very helpful. Everyone who watched the U.S. Senior Women's Team play, you knew you were watching greatness. I think that can't help but be terrific for us. You knew you were watching greatness because they came back with their fifth straight gold medal, that they haven't lost in 41 games. Some of them said they were on the couch as a little girl watching the last time the U.S. didn't bring home gold. The media coverage - I think something like 10 million U.S. households viewed our gold-medal game. I think that's great for the WNBA.
What, if anything, can the league do to leverage the Olympics?
One of the things that I was really excited that we did this year is we created a congratulations and welcome home commercial. Hopefully, people liked it. I think it was a nice attempt to bridge 'Congratulations on this accomplishment' and 'Welcome back.' Really, what we were trying to do is let people know they could continue to watch this great level of play - they didn't have to wait another four years to see these players compete.
What have been the highlights of your first year-plus as president?
You know, the highlights for me are in the seemingly small moments that speak volumes. So it's two little boys that I sat in front of in Minnesota. I don't know how old they were, but they were at that age where their feet are huge - they haven't grown into them yet. One was three feet tall and one was six feet tall and their voices were cracking - that beautiful age. They were calling the game. Their parents had moved away from them to give them some room to enjoy the game on their own. They gave a running commentary on the game. They knew every player, they knew where she went to college, they knew the strengths and weaknesses of her game. They were upset with some of the calls from the ref. I sat back and thought, 'This is the future' because they were not viewing the game through a gender lens. They were sitting in the stands saying, 'I am watching great basketball' and they had an intimate knowledge of the game.
Or - the first time I saw it was here in Seattle - I love in the fourth quarter when the horn goes off and the kids come down on the court. I literally get goosebumps every time it happens because I think one of the things that sets the WNBA apart from all other leagues is the access to our game and to our players. I think of all those years when my dad was a Season Ticket Holder for the Cleveland Cavaliers - 30 years - and I never once walked on the court. These kids are growing up with that experience and exposure and memory.
The other moment I just love is, I believe it's in Phoenix, there's a Season Ticket Holder and she's probably five rows off the court. Every time the home team makes a three-point basket, she runs all the way up to the top of the lower bowl and back down, giving everyone a high five. So if there are three in a row, she just does three loops. What I watch in that is she is high-fiving what is the most diverse group of people you can imagine - diversity of age, gender, orientation, race, religious background - and they are all in this incredible community of WNBA fans. It's a simple little thing that she does, but I sit back and say, I know all fans are rabid and I know all fans do form some level of community, but I really believe that ours are more engaged and have a stronger community than what I've witnessed in other sports. It doesn't mean that others are bad - it just means that there is something unique in the sense of community that comes around the W.
Do you get a sense of ownership from WNBA fans?
Absolutely. Sometimes when I'm meeting with Season Ticket Holders before the game, it's as hard as going into a Board of Governors meeting for me. They're very knowledgeable, they're very opinionated, they're very passionate, they're very committed and I think the point they have in common with our real owners is they are invested in this league. They are emotionally invested in our players and our teams and our league.
How do stories like a group of Season Ticket Holders forming Force 10 Hoops LLC and purchasing the Storm play into that?
I think Ginny and Lisa and Dawn are the ultimate fans and the ultimate owners in that respect. I literally was meeting with some folks two weeks ago talking about, 'How do we really tap into that?' Is there a model where our fans can be owners or how do we use that in some way to acknowledge the role that they play and the connection that they feel?
Was it important for you to come to Seattle on Women of Inspiration Night?
Yes. I have really in this past year been trying to encourage everybody who works on the WNBA and with the WNBA to think about how we can aggregate our initiatives and our efforts and programs under two marketing platforms - one being inspiring women and the other being health and wellness, because I think at the end of the day those are two things that we offer very uniquely. They're our core competencies and our key point of difference. I love the notion of celebrating women. The group that was honored last night by the Storm, I was reading their bios on the way over here thinking, 'I am not worthy.' Just incredible women. The other moment that was really nice was the fact that so many of the Women of Inspiration alums came back. The whole program of Women of Inspiration is not a one-off, come to a game, come on the court, get a trophy and a bouquet - it's really people who are invested in what we're doing as we are invested in what they are doing. I love the synergy of that.