President Orender to remain with WNBA
Considered a candidate as the LPGA commissioner, Orender won't return to golf roots
INDIANAPOLIS -- Donna Orender spent 17 years working for the PGA Tour and now nearly five years with the WNBA. As one of the candidates to become commissioner of the LPGA Tour, she has had to face a potential return to golf or sticking with basketball.
She decided to stay with hoops and has notified the LPGA of that.
"I believe in the promise of what everyone thought this league could be when it started 13 seasons ago, and it's going to continue to grow," Orender said Sunday. "The impact basketball has on young girls and the society at large is incredible. I've invested a lot of time in this, and have worked with really great people. I want to keep being part of that growth."
Orender loves the sport of golf, too, but as a former college and pro basketball player, she has had great personal investment in the progression of women's hoops. In town for Game 3 of the WNBA Finals with sons Zachary and Jacob on Sunday, she was very upbeat in discussing the league's future and goals.
"We've been talking about the quality of basketball for the last few years," she said. "The question is, 'When does it get to the tipping point?'"
Orender believes that it's close, as evidenced by the Indiana Fever's sellout crowd for Sunday's game, even though the NFL's Colts were playing at home earlier in the afternoon.
"We're not there," she said, "but it's only going to get better."
Yes, there is still plenty of work left to do to keep selling the product, as evidenced by Larry Bird's buying 9,000 tickets for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals and donating them to fans.
But Orender sees the bright side of that, too: that both NBA legends like Bird and Charles Barkley and modern-day standouts such as Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade have been public in their support for the WNBA. So have members of the Colts, some of whom reportedly are expected to attend Wednesday's Game 4 (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET).
The NBA's Pacers are heading to Taiwan and China for two exhibition games, but plan to watch Game 4 live on Thursday, at 7:30 a.m. local time.
"The new generation of NBA players are bringing a lot of validation and support to the women," Orender said, "which is the next stage of growth for the WNBA. And as Larry Bird said, 'Hey, I love basketball.' His support is about the quality of basketball he's seen."
The Fever franchise started this season with questions swirling about its future. But recently in the Indianapolis Star, owner Herb Simon said he would do everything he could to keep the Fever in place.
The city's recent surge of interest in the Fever has shown that even during football season in a place with an extremely popular NFL team, people can still care about a winning women's basketball franchise.
"I think that's all that Herb Simon wanted to see," Orender said. "Like, 'If I'm bringing this to you, show love back.' And they're showing it back.
"You want to be part of the fabric. Some people say if you're on in the fall, you're obscured by football. But the sports fans are ready to consume sports. All we've ever wanted to do was be part of that overall picture. We'll get our fans, and I think people will find us. We just want to be on the plate of consideration."
Orender thinks that WNBA fans have shown loyalty to their specific teams but also to the league as a whole. She understands, then, that fans want to see even more games televised on networks such as ESPN and ESPN2. But she reminds them those are business decisions by the networks based on ratings. Plus, she anticipates better distribution of NBA TV, which also carries WNBA games.
"I would say in the offseason, we're going to put a lot more effort into trying to develop our local television packages in a cost-effective way," Orender said, "and continue to talk to ESPN about more that we can do. We have a total package of about 35 games with ESPN, which is an excellent national broadcast package. It's more than most leagues we would be at the same level as.
"During the season, people [sometimes] felt we were absent. So we have to figure out -- if we can -- a strategy to fill those holes. It's an economics issue -- there are only so many games ESPN is going to put on. That said, I think you'll see a change in the distribution of NBA TV in the not-so-distant future that will really positively impact things."
Orender said that likely at a league meeting in November, various issues will be discussed. The 11-player roster is likely to stay the same, but Orender said there is "high consideration" for going to a 1-1-1 playoff format for the first two rounds of the postseason next year.
Currently, those best-of-three series start on the worse seeds' home court, then have the second and third (if necessary) games on the better seeds' court. That creates less travel, but the problem is that it forces the team with a better record to start off on the road.
There is no long-range thought for now of going to best-of-five and best-of-seven series for the postseason in large part because it's hard enough to fit the WNBA schedule into the global basketball calendar. Orender likes this year's schedule of starting the first week of June and finishing the first week of October. But next year, with the World Championship taking place Sept. 23-Oct. 3 in the Czech Republic, the WNBA will have to start and end earlier.
As for what else 2010 might bring for the WNBA, there is the possibility of a team in Tulsa, Okla. Bill Cameron, an Oklahoma businessman who leads a group of investors interested in owning a WNBA team there, attended Sunday's game at Conseco Fieldhouse.
"We're very close," Cameron said. "We want to make sure we get our base-level financial support before we launch the shot, as the saying goes, but I'd say we're a week or two away. We've got some people who are pretty close to making a decision, and if that'll happen, that will be the difference and put us over the top."
And even if it doesn't happen, it will not be a situation that Orender doesn't have experience dealing with. There have been unavoidable ups and downs in the business of nurturing a still-developing sports league, but Orender is as optimistic about riding out the storms as she is about enjoying it when the sailing is smooth.
"There are longer-term plans about how we continue to grow and keep moving in a positive direction," Orender said. "I anticipate next year we'll be focusing more on that."
Orender is enjoying these Finals but already looking ahead.
"Basketball," she said, "is what's in my future."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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