WNBA President Lisa Borders took the job last winter on the cusp of an historic 20th Anniversary season.
Now, looking ahead to 2017, Borders feels there is even more history to be made for the longest running women’s sports league.
What is the priority list of things to accomplish during the offseason?
First of all, we no longer say offseason. We’ve changed the lexicon to call it our “planning season.” The language matters because our athletes play year-round. That’s incredibly unique for any league. And while they are doing that, we are busy preparing for 2017, our 21st season as a league.
We joke that we are becoming legal at 21. But as far as we are concerned, it’s another major milestone.
How early does the focus begin on 2017?
Our players are global citizens. It’s something that distinguishes them as players and as people. Each of them brings cultural gifts and exposure from the world to the court when they return to the WNBA. Our first area of focus is on awareness of our league, our season and our players. We are really focused on early marketing efforts. We have an extraordinary product. If your product is pristine, you work on your package and how you present your product. It’s almost early 2017 and we will market in advance of the 2017 season.
What will be some of the key storylines for 2017?
We are focused on the game above all else. Last year, we changed our playoff format to have the single-elimination games in the early rounds and a longer semifinal series, creating a substantial amount of interest in our playoffs. This new approach to the postseason changed how we played the game, and it was significant. It increased viewership and attendance. We reviewed the format with our competition committee, and having done it once and seeing its success, we are going to replicate that.
We don’t have an Olympics next season, but we will have an All-Star Game in Seattle for the first time. It’s another opportunity to see the best of our best, a showcase of some of the most talented WNBA players.
And there are still social justice issues that need to be addressed in this country. I don’t presume the players will take a step back. I expect them to remain fully and completely engaged.
Are there plans for increased exposure for the league?
Exposure is key to everything we do, but we won’t rely singly on television. We are thrilled to continue to showcase our games on TV, but social media also provides a great opportunity for our league. It is the brightest jewel in our 2016 crown of accomplishments. The number of page views on our website increased last season and we have empirical data confirming that social media improved our exposure as a league. We have an opportunity to use our own voice, our own platforms. Social media democratizes information. Each and every voice in our league can be a digital asset for us. From WNBA.com to Facebook and Twitter as well as Snapchat, we will use each platform we have to tell our own story, proactively and preemptively. We believe social media has almost as much power to give our league exposure as ESPN. We live streamed the Lynx’s ring ceremony on Facebook to start the 2016 season and it pulled in 250,000 viewers. That’s very powerful.
How are you working with your players on these efforts?
We are philosophically aligned with our players. They know their playing position is only as secure as the league is strong. They are very smart young women; they recognize that their social media platforms complement and supplement what the league does and it makes us stronger. Our players realize there is strength in numbers and it has a compounding positive impact on the game and on the league.
As 2016 was a milestone season, do you expect more strong growth for the league in 2017?
We are looking to accelerate our growth. The things that worked for us last year, we are going to do them again. We will reveal a “Watch Me Work, 2.0” campaign. We will get more folks engaged. We will invite even more NBA players to support us. Some were engaged with us last year in a big way and we want more of them.
Our NBA brothers want to participate and to help. They want to use social media to promote the WNBA.
When Kobe Bryant was in Los Angeles for the Finals, he told me, ‘Let me know what I can do to help.’ If Kobe were to say on his Twitter account, ‘Look at these women. They are amazing. Aren’t you inspired?’ wouldn’t that mean a lot to our league? It would.
In what other ways is the league looking to connect with fans in 2017?
Our players are out in the world. Playing basketball is what they do, but it’s not who they are. They have an opportunity to lend some insight and dimension to their personalities. We want to find those connection points. People want to be connected — it’s a natural thing.
Colleges have alumni associations, and the same thing can be said of fans. They want to have a way to hook in. People don’t support leagues, and they don’t always support teams. But they do support individual players. And we are developing ways to authentically share our players’ stories.
We want to invite everyone to come into our world in 2017. Our game is some of the purest basketball and we know if they come, they will come back again.
Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith wrote a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the 2016 season and will continue to contribute throughout the offseason.
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