David Stern in no rush to make hire
NBA commissioner says WNBA already has exceeded his early expectations of league
When you ask NBA commissioner David Stern what he expected of the WNBA when the league began in 1997, his answer goes a ways toward your judgment of departing WNBA president Donna Orender's six-year tenure.
"We had no projections other than to survive," Stern said Friday, after the announcement that Orender was stepping down and going to start her own business. "We wanted to be that island in a sea of sports-league failures.
"We didn't have an endgame in mind -- but whatever I might have had in mind, the WNBA, as it goes into its 15th season, has exceeded it."
Set in those parameters, Orender's time running the WNBA seems at least more favorable than not. It's probably fair to say, though, that a portion of the league's fans have been lukewarm about her reign. They considered her relentlessly upbeat characterization of the league at times grating in the face of setbacks. Others, though, felt it was the right path to take.
Some of the obstacles Orender dealt with, no doubt, were far out of her control. She took over for the 2005 season, before the first of several dominoes of a collapsing national economy truly had begun to fall.
That year, Sacramento won the league title, and would have been considered one of the league's healthier franchises. But in the five years since, the landscape has changed with most businesses, the WNBA among them.
When the Monarchs folded after the 2009 season, it wasn't because the franchise had any significant drop in popularity or importance in its market. Rather, it was because of overall business concerns of the Maloof family, which owned the Monarchs and still owns the NBA's Sacramento Kings.
When funds got tight -- or tight in the definition of multimillionaires -- the Monarchs were considered not quite valuable enough to the family empire to resist what seemed a bit of a panicked decision to jettison them.
Such is the environment that has existed for the last three years of Orender's run as head of the WNBA, and will continue into the tenure of the new president. The level of commitment by all owners and sponsors has been tested. The test isn't over. How willing are they to ride out tough times?
The biggest disappointments during Orender's presidency were the loss of three franchises, including two that had won the league title. Charlotte's demise after the 2006 season was disappointing, but not nearly so much as that of four-time champion Houston after the 2008 season and Sacramento after 2009.
I would like to continue the growth that we've seen in Donna [Orender]'s watch, particularly in the fact that there is a lot to be said about having great role models for young women who want to compete in sports, business and life. We have a successful collective bargaining agreement. There's been a very great mood set here. We just have to make it all continue to work and grow the revenue of the league.” -- NBA commissioner David Stern on the future of the WNBA
Plus, the move of three-time champion Detroit to Tulsa after the 2009 season was difficult, too. Because that franchise relocated rather than folded, it certainly wasn't a complete "loss." But it was a blow to the league considering the on-court success the Shock had in Detroit.
It was an example that winning isn't all that has been needed for WNBA franchises to survive. They've needed owners who've stayed steadfast with an eye on long-term goals that encompass more than just sheer profitability.
Orender acknowledged that the thing that was probably her most taxing challenge as league president was also her most rewarding accomplishment.
"Really creating a network of believers around the league," Orender said, "that believe this is a very viable business that can stand on its own. And while it's not quite there yet, it's getting ever closer."
With all that in mind, what criteria are most important to Stern in regard to picking Orender's successor?
"Any head of a league has his or her own personality that impacts the league," Stern said. "I would like to continue the growth that we've seen in Donna's watch, particularly in the fact that there is a lot to be said about having great role models for young women who want to compete in sports, business and life.
"We have a successful collective bargaining agreement. There's been a very great mood set here. We just have to make it all continue to work and grow the revenue of the league."
Chris Granger, an NBA senior vice president, will oversee league operations on an interim basis. Stern said he has no specific timetable for naming a new president and that the job does not have to be filled by a woman. Although he acknowledged that having a background in women's basketball was preferred.
"So that trims the playing field a bit," Stern said. "In the meantime, we're very well covered as far as operating issues. There's an owners meeting next week, and I'll be there, too."
All things considered with the global scale of the NBA's business, how much time does Stern really have to pay attention to the WNBA?
"I always find time," he said. "I'm always selling the league. I don't have to worry about the running of the league or day-to-day operations, that's handled. But when I meet with major sponsors, I'm always a spokesperson for the WNBA and its importance."
Stern acknowledged the "voices of doom" seem to pounce on any news out of the WNBA and automatically put it in a worst-case-scenario frame. But he said the NBA historically went through its periods of being doubted by critics as well.
Stern also said the anticipated labor woes of the NBA really should not have an impact on the WNBA. As for what he anticipates in terms of addition or subtraction for the next few years of the now-12-team WNBA, Stern spoke in positive terms, if not specifics.
"The door is always open for expansion, but we've seen the reality of leagues that aren't the 'big four,'" Stern said. "We started at eight teams, eventually went to 16, and now are at 12. So it's a continual issue of where you are best located, and then maintaining that.
"But I can see a couple of markets that I think are good potential WNBA markets, depending on facilities and ownership. Whether they are additional teams or moves by current franchises, we'll see."
In 2009, Orender was considered one of the candidates to become LPGA commissioner, but said she preferred to stay in the WNBA. She now will continue to serve as a consultant to the league, but said it was the right time for her to start a marketing, media and strategy company.
Splitting time between the WNBA's New York office and her family's home base in Florida has been somewhat draining for her, especially with raising twin sons.
"This gives me a chance to spend more time at home," Orender said. "In this business, an airplane seat is where you spend a lot of time. I look forward to knowing my boys' heads are on their pillows in the room next door much more often than they are right now."
After 17 years with the PGA, Orender came to the WNBA to succeed founding league president Val Ackerman. Now Orender departs as president saying she thinks the WNBA is in good hands in the interim and will pass successfully to someone else as caretaker.
"I leave feeling great and knowing that the people who are there who are passionate and working on it will continue to do that," she said. "New leadership will move it forward. It's just time for me to go on and do other things."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.
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