As a student at Duke University, Lisa Borders couldn’t help but become a basketball fan. Though she went on to a career in business and government, the opportunity to get involved with the game came in 2007, when she led a group that helped bring a WNBA franchise to Atlanta.
“I have been completely mesmerized by the women’s game ever since,” Borders says.
WNBA players who have played road games against the Atlanta Dream may recognize her as the avid fan cheering from the front row of Philips Arena. Nine years after her first brush with the business of basketball, Borders has been tabbed to preside over the league as it enters its banner 20th season.
WNBA.com talked to the new president on Wednesday about her latest opportunity, the state of the league and her basketball fandom.
You are taking the helm of the WNBA during its milestone 20th season. What does this opportunity mean to you and your career?
This particular opportunity is at the sweet spot of three things that are very important to me: the things that I feel passionate about, the things that help drive my own performance and the performance of others, and then my purpose in life.
I’ve been blessed with a family that has been incredible supporting and a network of friends and colleagues who’ve been very helpful and encouraging in whatever I do. And my personal mantra is: To whom much is given, much is required. I find myself lifting the torch and carrying the banner for women and any other group who have traditionally been marginalized, or whose voices have not been fully valued.
This role as the president of the WNBA allows me to bring my passion, my performance, and my purpose all together and serve them up in one opportunity. They manifest themselves in one role.
How have you followed the WNBA from afar over the last 20 years and how did you become interested in the league?
I cut my teeth on basketball at Duke University watching the men’s game. That was right before Coach K, so the dynasty was just beginning, and we know how that’s working out for the last 30 years…
I really enjoyed that, but the opportunity to watch women play was seeded when one of my predecessors, Donna Orender, came to Atlanta to invite us to consider having a team here. That was really interesting to me, because I remembered how much fun it was to watch the men play. I thought, “Well, why shouldn’t women have that same opportunity to live out their dream playing professional sports?”
It was further cemented when I came to New York for a luncheon that Donna had when she was launching the Inspiring Women program. Madeleine Albright was the keynote speaker and her speech was excellent. One of the statements that she made really stood out to me. She said, “There’s special place in hell for women who don’t support other women.” That really stuck with me. I picked up the phone and called some very close friends in Atlanta and said, “We’re getting a WNBA team. Meet me at my house on Saturday; we’re going to talk about how were going to do this.” I have been completely mesmerized by the women’s game ever since.
And since then, I hear you’ve been one of the Dream’s biggest fans.
I’ve been a season ticket-holder from the very beginning, and I’m a season ticket-holder today. I sit in the Hollywood seats — right in the front row. I’m there yelling my head off, telling players what to do. I’m on the opposite side of the bench, but you wouldn’t know that. As I said in the ESPN interview, I rival coach [Michael] Cooper in telling the players what to do when they’re on my end of the floor. So I’m not just a fan; I am a raving fan.
Where do you see the state of the league, and what are your big-ticket items stepping in as president?
We have to be honest with ourselves and celebrate the fact that the league has endured for 20 years — two decades. It’s the longest-running and most successful women’s sports league in America. That is a key milestone. The endurance of that is absolutely to be celebrated. Having said that, we can look at our brother league, the NBA, and see that we’re 20, and the NBA is 70. We can understand based on their history how many other opportunities and how many other milestones there are to go.
This is also a business — that is not all it is, but it is a business at its very core. And if you step back and look at the business strategically, we have opportunities to grow the business, the top-line revenue, which comes from television ratings, attendance, sponsorships, merchandise sales. We need to drive the top line. That would be true for any business, not just the WNBA.
I want to spend the initial part of my term listening to everyone from the league staff to the owners to the chief operating officers to the players and the fans and all of our stakeholders to understand what we’ve done in the past, what we’re doing today, and then chart the future together. I’m not one that slashes and burns. I’m also not one that dictates. I don’t believe in that. My years in public service have taught me to build a consensus, but to listen first in order to build a consensus and make sure that you’re really inclusive and really transparent when you make changes.
What do you feel the WNBA’s 20th season represents, and what does it mean to you to arrive at this particular time?
It’s humbling to me, it’s inspiring to me, to have the opportunity to take the baton at this particular juncture. The women who came before us who took the time, the energy, the emotional toll on their lives to fight for a seat at the table, it reminds me that if they can do it, we can do it. They had far fewer resources. The norms and the conventions and the perceptions about women were far more narrow. Things have improved, albeit incrementally.
But I think the lesson for us is: If they did it, so can we. Our challenge as present-day women and present-day participants in this league is to take the torch and turn toward the future and help design the future for how women are received or how women are perceived. We make the WNBA a transformative platform not just for basketball, but for women in general and by extension for the world at large.