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Q&A With WNBA President Laurel Richie

ll season long, is doing a series of articles analyzing the effects of Title IX, 40 years after the legislation was first passed. sat down with WNBA President Laurel Richie for an exclusive interview to talk about Title IX, her life and the state of the WNBA and female athletics.

Q: When you look at Title IX, on we have been talking a lot about athletics, but its not just athletics. Can you just talk about what that legislation did for women in the business world and if it helped changed the perception at all?
A: I think of Title IX as really legislation that is about opportunity and making sure that women have access to the same opportunities. Now, what we do with those opportunities once we get them is up to our interests, passions, skill, perseverance. But, thats how I view and really think about Title IX. And its been interesting as weve been celebrating the 40th anniversary, I think I came of age at a time where I wasnt right at the solid line -- pre-Title IX and post-Title IX. It was post-Title IX but early enough on, so that its not so much that I remember the world in the absence of it, I just remember being grateful for the presence of it.

Q: Was your life and your college experience affected by Title IX at all? Did you feel that effect or did you just see it in years to come after?

You know, Ive been listening to some of the greats in the sports industry talk about having teams where the volleyball team, the basketball team and the soccer team had one uniform
A: I think for me its a little bit more in hindsight. I think I was very fortunate to have lots of opportunities and as I look back on my elementary and middle and high school and college years, the disparity -- particularly as I went further and further along in my education -- the disparity was narrowing almost on a year-by-year basis. You know, Ive been listening to some of the greats in the sports industry talk about having teams where the volleyball team, the basketball team and the soccer team had one uniform that they all shared or, you know, driving women to the games and coming home and doing the laundry and taping the numbers onto the shirts. And you just hear these stories, so my personal experience was not quite that at the early stages of it, but I think as I hear those stories its really important I think for young girls that are benefiting from Title IX and who feel that the opportunities are very wide open for them, its really important to hear those stories so that you never take those opportunities for granted.

Q: What was your experience in athletics growing up? Did you play at all? Were you just a fan?
A: Growing up I was a cheerleader and I was a synchronized swimmer. I wasnt at a highly competitive level, but I look back on both of those experiences and learned a lot from them. I think everyone speaks to it, but the importance of working on a team and bringing your own personal best to the team but also figuring out how that meshes in with everyone else and coming together, experiencing victory, experiencing defeat, perseverance of continuing on when your legs are just telling you I cannot do this or those points in times after practice where its like should I put ice on this, should I put heat on it or should I just go to bed and pray.

Q: Talk a little bit about how Title IX really furthered female athletics and helped create some big time college programs. And do you view the WNBA as one of the biggest success stories coming out of that legislation?
A: I think of the WNBA as a beneficiary of Title IX. That as women have these opportunities in their elementary, middle school, high school and college, they are getting the training, they are getting the experience that I think we see a steady improvement in the quality of play in our game. I think that is a direct result of more and more women going through athletic programs and those programs becoming more and more sophisticated so that the product of those teams is just fueling our pipeline and sort of helping us continuously raise the bar within the WNBA.

Laurel Richie with 2012 No. 1 overall pick Nneka Ogwumike
Q: How good does it make you feel when you see so many WNBA players, coaches, women on the staff that are fulfilling their dreams by being affiliated with the WNBA?
A: Its great. I think to a player they will talk about how lucky and blessed they are to be absolutely making a living out of their passion. You know, theyd be playing basketball anyway, but the fact that they are not just able to make a living doing it, but to share the game of basketball with young women and young men quite frankly. I think it is as important for young boys to see women playing as it for young girls. And youre right, I talk often to our owners, again both the male and female owners, who are just really proud to be furthering the game of basketball and womens basketball.

Q: For you, coming to the WNBA from the Girls Scouts of America, Im sure there were a lot of opportunities out there for you, so how important is it for you to spend your time working on something that empowers women?
A: Its very important to me. I remember when I was making the decision to leave the Girl Scouts and come to the WNBA -- which by the way was a very easy decision -- but my niece said to me, Auntie Laurel, go for it, you like that girl stuff, and you know I never really thought of building a career on liking that girl stuff, but I think its really true. In my time in Girl Scouts, we always were in search of role models for young girls and now that Im on this side and with the WNBA, I just look at what the women of this league do. They are such terrific athletes performing at the highest level, they really understand their role in society and dont take the fact that theres a professional league for granted. They give back to the communities in which they serve, they embrace this notion of being a role model and they seem to manage to do it all effortlessly. Im sure to them it doesnt feel effortlessly, but from my stand point and my vantage point they make it look pretty effortless.

Q: As with anything that grows over time, there are pioneers. And for you being the first African-American woman to head up a professional sports league, I think you are one of those pioneers. How does that feel?
A: You know, I often look back and I think Im glad I didnt know that when I was going through the interviewing process because that mightve added a whole other level, you know, a whole new dimension to it. But Im honored, Im humbled, Im flattered and I feel a great sense of responsibility, which I always feel in my work, but theres something different here that I want. I realize that there is perhaps an extra bit of attention on my work and my contributions and so I always take it seriously, but theres just another dimension this time around.

Tina Charles works with kids during a WNBA Fit program.
Q: Maybe its a specific moment, or maybe its just in general, but what has made this job most rewarding for you?
A: I really love everything about it. For me it is the smaller moments. You expect the big moments to be pretty impactful, but, you know, it is a fan coming up -- I was in Atlanta last week -- and a fan came up and had tears in her eyes and she said, Ive been with the WNBA from the beginning. I cant remember where she started, but she followed teams in Houston, Sacramento and now in Atlanta. And she had great history, she was very proud to have been with us on the whole journey so its the smaller moments, I think, that stand out. I also was with a gentleman who had taken his two daughters to their first WNBA game and he said, Ive been trying to get my daughters in sports for years and you know, theyre six and eight, so years is relatively few. And they went to the game and after the game there was an event where girls got to go on the court and he said in the car ride on the way home his younger daughters said to him, Daddy can we get a basketball hoop in the backyard? And he thought, this is exactly what I want for them and it came about because his two young daughters were at a WNBA game, spent some time on the court with Tina Charles after the game, and after years as a parent of saying, lets do this, you know, thirty minutes with Tina Charles and they want to be WNBA players.

Q: Title IX did so much for female athletics and is still being felt today, but whats the next step? Whats the next thing that is going to get womens athletics over the hurdle?
A: Thats a great question. I look to the media to help us. Theres that chicken and the egg between do you get the coverage first and the attendance and viewership grows or is it attendance and viewership and then the coverage comes, but I believe that the media can play a big role and Id love to see them playing an even bigger role, and I think the other place is really looking at youth, particularly for the WNBA since we are so accessible from a price point. We compete in the summer which is an opportunity when kids are out of school. I just think when you bring a family thats a larger grouping and a larger outing, so I look at that audience a lot and thinks theres a lot of potential. And we know from all the research done both on the WNBA and on the NBA side that when you get someone early on, thats the greatest predictor of them being a fan later in life.

Q: Yes, I think thats important. A lot of young girls now, and I think this can be attributed to Title IX, they can see and have the belief that they can make it in the WNBA just by watching, where even some players that are fifteen years in the league, they didnt have that role model when they were kids. I think that is something that can help in the future. Would you agree?
A: Absolutely. The notion of you can hear about something, but if you can see it, its easier to believe it and think that its possible.

Q: Ive read that you think WNBA popularity can approach NBA popularity, its just a matter of people really digesting the idea of the female athlete even more. Where do you think we are in that, and how do you think that could come about?

One of the things that is so exciting to me is that with this 40th anniversary of Title IX, the sports industry and community and beyond is focusing in on and has a heightened interest in women in sports this summer which I think is great.
A: One of the things that is so exciting to me is that with this 40th anniversary of Title IX, the sports industry and community and beyond is focusing in on and has a heightened interest in women in sports this summer which I think is great. So I think the more we can expand our awareness and outreach the greater it will be. Its interesting, I was listening to Billie Jean King tell her story the other day and watching that very famous Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tournament and some of it is a natural progression and then some of it is these things that you dont expect to have such a big impact. She says she knew that by playing against Bobby Riggs it was going to have a significant impact, Im not sure the rest of us knew that quite as much, so I want to focus on the game, but I do think there is a little bit of marketing and serendipity that help goose that a little bit.

Q: Lastly, we have the anniversary coming up on Saturday, we have the special Title IX jerseys, two games on ESPN. Just talk about how great it is to take center stage during a big event like that?
A: We are so glad to be part of sort of the marathon that ESPN is doing and as our broadcast partner to have those two games. I think putting the IX is just so closely identified with Title IX, so that was an idea, I cant remember where it came from whether it was our PR folks or our licensing team, but I think its a great idea, and just really telling so many stories of the women all over the WNBA. You know, Anne Meyers Dreysdale, being the first woman to join an NBA team, to Ginny Gilder, whos an owner of the Seattle Storm who was part of the crew team at Yale, so theres all of these -- even within our own league -- theres all of these really rich stories. So I look forward to how were celebrating the day, but I am also really glad that weve been able to take advantage of social media to capture and then to tell all of these stories.