A Final Farewell

Donna Orender assumed the role of league president in 2005 and spent six seasons with the WNBA.
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images


On a balmy Tuesday afternoon in New York City, WNBA president Donna Orender sits in her office answering e-mails while her assistant casually begins to clean up around the space and box up her belongings. The piano ensemble overheard on speakers above is serene and surreal, as if any second now the room will fade to black and the credits will roll.

There’s no sense of rush to the whole ordeal, and Orender is situated in such a way that she is almost expecting company and casual drop-ins, further indicated by the open box of chocolates angled toward the two seats across from her desk. The mental calendar scratches off another day since announcing her resignation from the league on Friday, Dec. 3rd, as six years of selflessly promoting the WNBA and all that it has to offer will soon culminate to one final day.

“I could tell you that I move on feeling so incredibly proud of what’s been accomplished in this time frame on behalf of the people who work passionately for this league, and the people who buy the tickets and the athletes who pursue their passions,” said Orender. “It’s been very gratifying.”

As someone known for her enthusiastic personality, the highlights of a six-year long career are easy to come by. From watching the league's pioneers pass to torch to the next generation of players and seeing those baby-faced rookies come into the league and elevate to superstar status, to witnessing franchises spring up in new markets across the country, Orender’s tenure encapsulated a sense of accomplishment for the league, the sport and fans of women’s basketball. Keeping an open line of communication with fans via e-mail, press conference and letters allowed Orender to remain in touch with the ones who mattered most; the fans.

“The league exists for the fan. If not for the fan, then for what?” she said. “We could have a closed gym and play high-level basketball but that wouldn’t be what we are aiming for. The entire experience of seeing the best basketball players in the world in an entertaining environment that’s really focused on families and kids and really being presented in a way that’s personal is important.”

Yet despite all the positive memories Orender could relive, perhaps it’s the challenges she often faced that will ultimately keep the league in a position where it strives to outdo itself year in and year out.

“I just think there’s a lot more work to do,” said Orender. “I’m glad there are a lot of good people here who continue to embrace the challenge with a lot of passion and they’re going to continue to move the needle and raise the bar and move this business ahead, and that starts obviously right with the owners who have invested their own personal equity, both in sweat equity and dollar equity, to make this business a sustainable success.”

Expanding the league and building a concrete fanbase in cities across the country is obviously all part of the big picture. Between paving the way for an eight-year television extension with ABC and ESPN2, to establishing marquee sponsorships in a number of markets, Orender’s efforts merely scratch the surface of what she believes is a bright future for the league. Even so, the road ahead is not an easy one.

“I think that the league, even entering its 15th year, is still new,” Orender said. “It really represents an absolutely new definition, a new framework for how women participate in sports not only on the court as athletic champions, but off the court as sports consumers. And it takes time when you are really shifting a cultural paradigm, which is really where the WNBA sits at its core.”

Since Orender assumed the role of president in 2005, the league has gone through a number of changes. Three teams -- the Charlotte Sting, Houston Comets and Sacramento Monarchs -- disbanded. Two, the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky, sprouted up in new cities. And one, the latest on the list, relocated from Detroit to Tulsa. Often perceived as a fault or perhaps even a “failure” to some, the testing of markets is just another way of forming stronger roots for future franchises to grow from.

“Building a sustainable business is about finding your market. This is not science, it’s an art. Some of it’s trial and error,” said Orender. “Sometimes it’s the right market and maybe it’s not the right ownership group. Or maybe it’s not the right time, or whatever it is, but the idea is that you’re going to continually try to experiment to find the right places at the right time with the right ownership support, the right fanbase and that’s OK.”

“In the future we’ll see what will happen,” she added, “but I just see it as part of doing business.”

Business is ultimately what Orender has in mind, even now as she steps away from the WNBA and heads back home to Florida to start up Orender Unlimited, a strategic consulting company that will cover all aspects from marketing and media to public relations and organizational structure.

Cliché as it may seem, there’s a big set of shoes to fill for the next league president. If Orender would offer any advice to her successor, it is to love what you do and give it your all, something she believes people should possess in anything they do.

Change is in the air in Orender’s corner office overlooking the busy New York City streets, just a few short blocks over from Rockefeller Center and the highly-visited tourist trap that is the Christmas tree. It’s hard to say what’s racing more – the yellow cabs below or the memories of her time with the league, particularly in her direct interaction with the fans.

“I love the fact that we were responsive. When our fans said we don’t have enough coverage and we want to see more games, we were able to go and develop LiveAccess, which is a great project, and within 18 months of those requests were able to make the WNBA, virtually 99 percent of all those games, available to every fan to see,” she said. “I take a lot of pride in that. It’s going to only continue to grow and from that we were able to develop much more local coverage. I’m very pleased with our ability to connect with the fan, the consumer, in a very real way and be responsive.”

In that sense, not much will change.
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