Donna Orender - WNBA President
Donna Orender: Hi, everyone, good afternoon, or almost evening. First off, let me start by congratulating our two teams that are in The Finals, San Antonio and Detroit. It's great to be with a franchise such as the Silver Stars who are making their first appearance in franchise history in The Finals, when you get a sense of the energy that's in the arena, you'll know how special it really is.
And of course, we have to talk about Detroit. I think it's fair to say that it is a dynasty, fourth trip to The Finals in six years, and it does make them one of most successful sports franchises in any league in this decade.
I have to tell you, having traveled city to city and watching all of the games that I have this season, of course, in the last two weeks, it is definitely the quality of the game that is driving the growth in the WNBA. This season, we have asked our fans to expect great, but at the same time, we ask our players to deliver great, and I think the fans got what we told them they were going to get, and I think our players are continuing to deliver what we promise.
Two-point field goal percentage up, along with assists per game, and I think that speaks to the strength of the game, which is team work. We just finished our 12th season, and what we see is the impact that being around for 12 years can do for a business.
And we start with the most heralded draft class in the history of our league, we see a new generation of talent rising to the forefront. We see Candace Parker and Sylvia Fowles and Candice Wiggins make their marks. In fact, 36 rookies made their teams' rosters. And I guess we started with three times 14, do that math real quick, how much is that, 41? And we have 36 of those who are on rosters at the end of year. I think that speaks to the great talent coming long in the collegiate ranks. We had nine of them play in the Conference Finals and we have four rookies that will contribute to these Finals, what we hope will be a five-game series; of course I have to say that, right.
The veteran talent also matured, Sophia Young, Lindsay Whalen, Sue Bird, Becky Hammon, Seimone Augustus, and of course, Lisa Leslie, they competed this year, and their competition was remarkable and also comprised one of the most closely-contested MVP chases in WNBA history. The improved quality of play and marquis players are transforming our league and help driving our business. We have many terrific longtime business partners, including our presenting partner of The Finals, Adidas.
And just this past season we added several new partners who are very engaged in our game. I think what you will notice most of all is how prominent they are in activating their brands along with the WNBA, including: McDonald's, Pitney Bowes, and Kia Motors. McDonald's is part of our most successful tip-off initiative in history yielding a ten times return on their initial investment.
We have seen very proudly increases in all of our important business markers this year. Our telecast this year with ABC and ESPN, a fantastic partner. We saw a combined 19 percent ratings increase over 2007; a good indication as we reached an extended agreement with the networks last season that begins in 2009 and continues through 2016. The partnership with ABC/ESPN is a terrific one, one that sees both partners absolutely committed to the success of the WNBA and our growing fan base.
The WNBA completed its second consecutive season with increased attendance, that's been a focus of ours, which included a record-setting 46 sellouts. Our fans also helped us set new records for WNBA.com traffic and a number of Web casts, with the number of unique visitors to the site increasing by a remarkable 52 percent.
League merchandise sales were up more than 36 percent, including more than 46 percent increase in WNBA jersey sales and I have to tell you, like everyone else here, I have my own trouble getting my own Candace Parker jersey. I think what you see by the growth in all of these numbers is the fact that the fan base continues to grow and broaden and deepen behind the fantastic play of the WNBA.
We also have several new events this year and for those at the first-ever outdoor game being played underneath the stars, you knew that it was a special night. The New York Liberty hosted a terrific event. They were so nice in their hosting, they even let the guests beat them, the Indiana Fever. But the feedback has been very, very positive as we continue to look towards this kind of events in the seasons ahead.
We continue to recognize inspiring women. It's the third year that we've held our Inspiring Women Luncheon and recognized a woman of national stature. This year, we honored the very, very special and inimitable Good Morning America host, Robin Roberts. And while she was there, she helped us send-off the USA Women's Basketball Team.
We definitely cheered them on in Beijing. They certainly let the women know the great talent on the USA team but between 41 former and current WNBA players across all of the Olympic rosters, we again once fortified to know that the greatest players do play in the WNBA. The dream of winning gold was realized, and we had another dream realized this year, as well and that was in the city of Atlanta where we added our 14th franchise. It was only fitting that we tipped off the dream of the WNBA in 1996 with the Olympic Games, and here we come full circle with an enormously successful launch for a new franchise.
Dreams do not stop on the court for the WNBA as you know, the WNBA Cares, it's who we are and what we do and it's the talent on the court and the talent off the court. It's the authentic caring that comes with the women that play in the WNBA. They absolutely care about the communities that they live and play in.
We have raised over $2 million to benefit various causes in our local communities and around the world, and this year we focused on breast health awareness, focusing many of our contributions to Kay Yow Fund, a partner of the V Foundation. It's dedicated to finding the cause for breast cancer. It's in honor, and certainly with the inspiration of Coach Yow, who is one of the greatest, greatest figures in it women's basketball. We saw unbelievable match-ups this year. I will tell you that I do not have any predictions, maybe all of you do here, I should ask you who you are predicting to win in The Finals. The one thing that we can predict is a continuation of a terrific competitive year throughout the conclusion of these championships and I think a growing commitment to making this league successful in the years to come.
I'm available for any questions should you have any at this time.
Q: I wonder if you could expand on two things. One, just how well play the game is post-Olympic, maybe there was some worry with that break that there would be a little bit of lag, but also, if you could talk about the impact of the rookies, how much that's it elevated some of the exposure in the league.
DO: You know, it's really interesting - Renee Brown, who heads up our player relations and competition, is in the room - when we came back from the Olympics, we thought some of the players might come back a little weary after the intensity of the Olympics. When you look at the play of Sue Bird, I tell you no matter what network or what town Seattle is in, I wanted to see them play. The level of her game grows. Sylvia Fowles, the level of her game just rose. I think there's something about competing on the world stage that gives players a level of confidence, and then fuels that confidence to play in even higher levels, and I think we saw that consistently after the Olympic break. And I think we'll see the benefits of that, next year, as well.
When it comes to the rookies, obviously Candace Parker has set a very high bar, but right there with her is Sylvia Fowles, who I think we saw being crowned, if not giving the baton, to giving the next great center in the world. Lisa continues to perform high. And, obviously, she was our Defensive Player of the Year. That said, there are players coming up with her and behind her that are going to continue to take the great level of play that she set, but I think going to even raise the bar higher.
Q: At the beginning of the interview, you mentioned that Detroit is now officially a dynasty. What kind of long-term impact on the league do you think that might have?
DO: I think it's great. I think that what Bill Laimbeer brings is a commitment to excellence. And I'm not saying that every other coach doesn't do that, but I think that he does. I think that when you set a level of that expectation, they are a team that people love to love or love to hate, and you have that kind of emotion attached to a franchise that that's successful; that's the way you build fans.
Q: I guess just looking at the league across the board, it seems like different areas, you're having an all-time success rate, and is there an area you're concerned about on or off the court?
DO: You know, when you're in business, especially in these days, you're always concerned. If you're not diligent about our business, then you're not a good businessperson. So I think looking forward, we want to continue to keep our eye on growing our base, tending to what our fans are interested in, growing the quality of the game.
I think we have a lot of help. I think we have help in our great partnership with ESPN and ABC. I think we have help in the unbelievable growth in the collegiate game, as well. I think the NCAA has done a tremendous job in really providing the kind of tools and resources at the collegiate level that's encouraging the most number of young girls in any sport to pursue basketball. And so I think that when you grow your base, as large as ours is continuing to grow, I think it gives us a sense of promise that we as business people then have to be astute enough to capitalize on.
Q: I was just curious, obviously Coach Laimbeer at times in the postseason had some pretty critical, critical comments of the league office. Just curious what you have learned this year, and referring to the Sparks/Shock incident and the play with Plenette in the Indiana series, what you have learned about plays and dealing with disciplinary action and that sort of thing from this year as a whole?
DO: Let's put it this way; it's experience that we certainly have gained. What we have learned is that the WNBA consists of players who have a very, very high sense of ethics and standards, and that the way they are perceived and the way they conduct themselves is incredibly important.
Our job is to continue to help them be able to stand up to the standards that they feel are that important. I mean, I think that's what I take away from that the most. They don't take pride in altercations or incidents, that's not what they are about, but they do take a tremendous amount of pride in playing the game with passion and at the highest level.
Q: I guess maybe following up on that a little bit, is it as much as you didn't like to see what happened in July, has it been instructive in terms of both discussions with officials, and also maybe discussions with coaches, maybe not necessarily the things you guys would say publically, but just behind the scenes discussions.
DO: You know, I would like to think that we have the kind of league where we have a tremendous amount of open dialogue, and as things go, these kind of incidents actually encourage people to speak with each other perhaps about things that did not come to the fore before.
So I think our discussions among the players, coaches and officials, if there's one thing that really truly unites anybody that has anything to do with the WNBA is a true desire for success, and I think people really rallied and said, hey, if we are going to grow the way we would like to grow, here is the vision that we would like to all collectively join hands together and execute upon.