WNBA's Richie sees significant progress

Laurel Richie

INDIANAPOLIS -- WNBA President Laurel Richie traveled to Indiana to help the Fever celebrate its league championship, but she also took time Friday evening to discuss the recent and substantial successes of her basketball organization.

It's been a strong year for the WNBA, one that deserves acclaim.

“We're going to look back and say, in the very long history of the WNBA, 2013 was a pretty significant year,” Richie said before the Fever collected last season's championship rings and hoisted a commemorative banner in a pregame ceremony at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Foremost among the WNBA's advancements is the league's six-year extension of its television contract with ESPN. The new deal, finalized in March, runs through 2022. One of its first highlights involved prime-time coverage of the WNBA Draft on April 15.

“To have (ESPN) extend their partnership with us is recognition of where we are entering our 17th season of the WNBA,” Richie said.

With the new TV contract come some intriguing innovations. As the WNBA and ESPN moved into their discussions, fertile imaginations went to work and devised plans to better depict the league's action and provide a close-up look for viewers.

Enter “Referee Cam.”

The WNBA plans to put mini-cameras on its refs during selected games. It's thought to be the first time such a telecasting idea has been used in a United States professional league. Fans will see on-court action, and hear players' and coaches' interactions, from the same angle that a game official does.

“I like it when the WNBA leads the way,” Richie said. “I think this is an example.”

ESPN and its affiliated networks also will expand their coverage of WNBA players and their backgrounds, showing their lives away from basketball. That's already begun, in part, with the network's focus on the league's top 2013 draftees -- Phoenix's Brittney Griner, Chicago's Elena Delle Donne and Tulsa's Skylar Diggins.

“I think we are seeing a draft class that is really game-changing in its depth and breadth,” Richie said. “This is 40 years after Title IX, 17 years after the league. Young women … are entering the league stronger, better, faster, more disciplined, well trained and well coached. The game, I think, is at a new level.”

With the WNBA on an upswing, Richie was asked about the possibility of league expansion. There are currently 12 teams. Six are aligned with NBA teams, including the Fever, which is part of the Pacers Sports & Entertainment organization. The Connecticut Sun, Tulsa Shock, Atlanta Dream, Seattle Storm, Chicago Sky and Los Angeles Sparks are not partners with NBA clubs.

Richie envisions expansion but didn't put a timetable on it.

“There are both cities and individuals who have expressed interest,” she said. “When we're ready to expand, they would like to be at the head of that list. And the nice thing is, through the informal discussions I've had, they have the means and the passion to do so. I think we've learned a lot about what are the qualities and characteristics that increase our chances for success with a team.”

What are those ingredients for success in the WNBA?

“I think it's a passionate owner who believes in the product and can open doors and build strong relationships,” Richie said. “I think it's a market that understands the women's game and really likes the women's game. And then it's the larger community that supports that, so that you know you have a sponsorship base and you know you have a potential fan base. And then it's about bringing those two together.”

The WNBA has linked with Boost Mobile as its league-wide marquee partner. Also, five teams in the league have connected with companies as jersey sponsors. Indiana signed a deal last fall with Finish Line, which displays its logo on the club's 2013 uniforms.

New TV deals, expansion talk, sponsorship enthusiasm -- it all points to a sound future for the WNBA.

“I think we see unprecedented interest in women's basketball,” Richie said.