What Lies Ahead for President Laurel J. Richie

WNBA President Laurel J. Richie speaks at the Inspiring Women Luncheon
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

The start of the WNBA season is a hectic time for players as they return from overseas, get situated in training camp and prepare themselves for five grueling months of competition. But the start of the season is also a busy time for the league's Manhattan office as various departments put the finishing touches on projects that range from finalizing player contracts to hashing out marketing campaigns. Offseason additions that are new to the scene now finally have a chance to see what the in-season atmosphere is like. Front office vets that have been a part of the league for a number of seasons have a little more pep in their step as they rush down the hall; an extra sense of urgency as the elevator works its way up to the next floor at a fast pace, but not fast enough.

For Laurel J. Richie, this is all new territory. As the newly appointed WNBA President, it's her job to continue the legacy left behind by previous league presidents Val Ackerman and Donna Orender. She has been appointed the responsibility of building the image of the league, growing its fan base, developing relationships with sponsors and brainstorming new ways to appeal to fans not only in the cities where teams play, but also across the country and throughout the world.

Having grown up a Cavaliers fan in the outskirts of Cleveland, Richie is no stranger to the game of basketball. But while she's quick to compliment a player's athleticism, Richie also believes a huge part of the league's success hinges on the positive images portrayed by some of the finest role models the sports world has to offer. The former Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Girl Scouts of the USA is a firm supporter of embracing opportunities that help empower and strengthen young women and girls and is already actively thinking of more ways to build potential partnerships with organizations that do the same.

Richie officially took office on May 16 and has since hit the ground running. She was an active participant during the WNBA's Week of Service, hosted the May 24 Inspiring Women's Luncheon and already has plans in place to visit arenas throughout the country. Despite the fact that her calendar is filling up by the minute, Richie was able to block out a few minutes of her day to chat with WNBA.com about her new role, the upcoming season and what lies ahead for the league and its fans.

WNBA.com: You’ve gone on the record as saying this is your “dream job.” What makes it so?

President Laurel J. Richie: I think there are four things. One is I’ve been a sports fan and a basketball fan for a long time. The second piece of it is a lot of the work that I have done has been products or initiatives that really empower women and young girls. Three, I really like working in an organization that values giving back and making contributions to the community. And the fourth piece of it is working on really cool brands. I think the WNBA is a great brand and the game is a great product, so that’s really the combination. And all four of those in one is what makes this a dream job.

WNBA.com: That’s exactly what got you here too, especially with regards to your work with the Girls Scouts of America. Take me through the part where you met with the Seattle Storm up until the point where you were named president of the league.

Richie: This is kismet. After re-launching the Girl Scouts brand, I would often go around the country and [give] key note speeches at annual meetings or at major fund-raising luncheons. The Seattle Council called and asked if I would come out and do a speech and I said, “Sure.” And then they said, instead of talking about the brand, we want you to talk about your personal leadership journey because Girls Scouts is all about developing future leaders. And I was sort of daunted by that because I was used to talking about the brand in my work and not about myself. So I said OK, but I can do it. So the story that I told at that luncheon was about my experiences being a woman in business, being an African American in business, some of the challenges I have faced, sort of what the trajectory of my career had been. I did that talk at the luncheon and the Seattle Storm was being recognized as the Women of Distinction, so they talked about their vision of the team and of the league and the importance of their work, and afterward we just looked at each other and said, “I love what you said, I love what you said. That was really cool, we should be doing something together,” and then two weeks later I get a call from the WNBA saying, “We got your name from somebody and it was from the owners of the Seattle Storm."

WNBA.com: So the Storm literally put your name in the hat for you?

Richie: Absolutely. Unbeknownst to me and I had no idea. But in some ways it was almost like an interview without knowing it. I didn’t know that there was an open position and it was just ironic that this point in time they asked me to talk about my career and my experiences and how I overcome challenges as opposed to the re-launch of the Girls Scouts brand.

WNBA.com: If you look back at the previous two presidents, both Val Ackerman and Donna Orender had a history of playing in addition to a solid business career. Do you think that the vision on the court is necessary for the role of league president?

Richie: I think everybody brings their own set of experiences and you sort of marry someone’s experience with the point in time in evolution of the league. I don’t want to put words in David’s [Stern] mouth or Adam’s [Silver] mouth, but I think their feeling was at this point in time, given the significant improvements that we’ve seen in the game over time, that at this point in time actual on-the-court experience is less important than the marketing of the league, the business of the league, the ways in which we can find to acknowledge and celebrate and lift up the players and get greater visibility for the players and therefore the league, that’s what’s really important. Do I wish I had some on-court experience? Yeah, I think that might make it a little bit easier, but I also feel that my experience as a fan and as a person who cares about opportunities for women and helping women, I feel like I have something to bring to the table in addition to my business experience and background.

WNBA.com: You mention the visibility aspect. You have gone on the record as saying that you never felt like the league targeted you or pulled you in. You were that person and now you’re in a position to change that by targeting people who are in that same position you once were. What do you have in mind?

Richie: I think part of it is really doing a little bit – and I know there’s a ton of research that has been done and I want to comb through that research – but I think there are ways to target different audiences. So whether it’s your alma mater. Where did you go to school? Was that a big basketball school? Or members of organizations that support women and support women’s issues. There are ways to think about reaching potential fans, those who are aware of the WNBA but haven’t actually gone to a game. So part of it identifying segments of the audience that we can efficiently and effectively go after. And then, from everything I’ve heard and it’s dangerous because it’s only week two, but how do we get somebody to a game? If we get somebody to a game the chances that we’re going to retain them as a fan are going to be great. So it’s not just a general offer of, “Isn’t the league great?” It’s the specific ask of, “Come to a game;” that specific invitation to get them to attend.

WNBA.com: Is that as simple as a magazine advertisement or a billboard in Times Square?

Richie: One of the things I’m really intrigued by is how do we use social media? Just because it’s viral, sometimes it is more cost effective, so I think there are great opportunities there. The other thing that we need to tap into is that this is a crazy, wild, loyal fan base. People who have gone to a game and been with us for 15 years, I think about how we can tap into their passion and energy and encourage them to reach out to people that they know and invite people to games. So I think that there’s also something in building and leveraging a really strong base. And any client of any product of service that I’ve worked on in the past 30 years would die to have passion the way that we have passion.

WNBA.com: So the viral approach of friend-to-friend is a primary focus?

Richie: Yeah, I think that’s something we should explore and how we can make it easier for our loyal fans to invite people. How do we reach out to organizations that have large memberships? I talk a lot about how I think there is some connection between Girl Scouts and the WNBA and I don’t know exactly what that program is yet, but I think here are 3.2 million girls in this country who want to be leaders, who need role models and the Girl Scouts organization wants to encourage them to lead healthy, active lives. And what better way than to have them attend a game with the WNBA? If young girls can meet the women of this league I can think of no better pool of role models than our players and our owners.

WNBA.com: Which transitions nicely into Tuesday’s Inspiring Women event. What was it like having the opportunity to take part in that event in only your first week on the job?

Richie: Here was the really cool thing: I’m a big Katie Couric fan and have been for years. It was great to actually have the opportunity to sit next to her and talk about the league and talk about the women. I really think by the end of this luncheon, she had sort of turned and said, “Gosh I’d like to help,” or “I’d like to participate,” or “This is really cool.” I think she was impressed by the players who spoke, she was impressed by the league and our absolute commitment to community service and giving back to the community and you could just kind of see her say, “This is just cool.” Like, “It’s great that I’m being honored, but now that I’ve met the league I want to be part of this.” And I think a part of that is she’s a woman who’s been a trailblazer. Part of it is she has two young daughters so she wants to expose them to things. It was just one of those moments where I feel she left the luncheon really impressed with the organization. Coming in with a good impression and leaving with an even better impression. I think she got bitten by the WNBA bug today. And who knows what he next venture is going to be? If she chose to give us some support and give us some air time or talk about the work that we do, I would love that.

WNBA.com: You’ve already said there is a lot of work to catch up on with regards to the league. What do you have planned to get you up to speed on things?

Richie: There are a couple of things that I’m really intrigued by. One is the discussion we were just having about how do we reach people who we think should be interested in attending a game? How do we reach out to sponsors who can see the power of the game as well as how impressive our players are to create a relationship that works for them and works for us? I think really celebrating our players is critical to everything we do. It’s good for the fans, it’s good for the league, it’s good for the sponsors because they’re amazing, amazing women. Yes, you follow a league but at the end of the day you also find your favorite player and what you love about their style, their life story or their energy or where they went to college. There’s a human interest part of this that I really want to focus on. How do we get people to know our players? Because if they get to know our players, they’re really going to want to become a part of the WNBA family.

WNBA.com: And of course it also starts with you getting to know some of the players as well. You met a few players from the Mystics and Liberty at the luncheon but you also had a person like Lisa Leslie who is a namesake in the league. What was it like talking with them? Were they as excited as you were?

Richie: I can’t imagine they could possibly be as excited as I was. I’ve seen them, I’ve watched them play a little bit. I sent emails to a lot of them when I accepted the job and they wrote back. They’re so supportive, they’re so energetic, they’re so talented and for me – and I’m almost teary – but they were so welcoming that I am just honored and proud to be their leader.

WNBA.com: You mentioned sponsors before and building lasting relationships with them. They are obviously a huge part of the league, more so than others perhaps because their names literally show up on the jersey. There are now five teams in the league with marquee sponsorships – three of which developed this partnership in just the past year alone. Do you foresee that being a trend for all 12 teams in the league?

Richie: I hope so. I think our league, this game, our players – companies, corporations, brands and products would love to be associated with this group. It’s good for sponsors and it’s good for us and I think it’s a win-win situation that is a very strong symbiotic relationship that sorts of lifts everything for everyone so yes, I would hope that we would have more of that.

WNBA.com: Another big question with regards to the state of the league is expansion. How do you see that playing out in the future?

Richie: The more we can do to support, nurture and grow the existing teams the easier it is to expand to additional teams. I think one is just a precursor to the next. But I will say that I had a great conversation last week with someone who is interested in a team. And so I love the fact that there are people out there who say, “I understand what you’re doing. I love this game. The players are fantastic. I want to be part of that.” It’s a delicate balance to make sure that we grow but that we can handle the growth and that we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves. And credit to the team that’s here and my predecessors and to Adam and David, we are starting to see some really good things happen so I think we just want to sort of continue to push that and, I love the way Adam says it, get all the arrows pointing in the right direction.

WNBA.com: What’s your message to the fans as we get ready to tip off the league’s 15th season?

Richie: The first thing I would say is thank you. Thank you for your support, thank you for understanding and appreciating sort of the magic of the WNBA and I guess to our earlier point, bring some friends along the next time you come and help us in our efforts to share the wealth, share the good news and share the experience with people who they think would enjoy the game as much as they do.

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