Commentary

Business background key in candidates

Officials hope new president is in place around season tipoff in early June

Originally Published: March 8, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

When Donna Orender stepped away from her job as WNBA president in December, NBA commissioner David Stern didn't put any timetable on when that role might be filled.

It still hasn't been, but league executives say that doesn't mean that work hasn't continued as it typically does during the offseason.

Donna Orender
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesDonna Orender spent five years at the helm of the WNBA before resigning late last year.

Several decisions have been made. Such as that the league's draft will be held at ESPN studios on April 11, the Atlanta Dream will play a preseason game in Manchester, England, on May 29, and San Antonio will host the All-Star Game on July 23.

The WNBA begins its 2011 slate -- the league's 15th season -- on June 3, and the NBA's goal is to have the new head of the women's league in place by then.

"We're still deep into the process," said Adam Silver, who as deputy commissioner and chief operating officer is No. 2 in command in the NBA behind Stern. "We've talked to several candidates. I'd say we're not close to making an announcement, but we're going to get it done by early June."

Silver said the integrated structure of the WNBA with the NBA has helped the transition period, even with issues about which the NBA hasn't publicly made much comment. Such as when Phoenix's Diana Taurasi was facing what turned out to be an unfounded allegation that she had used a banned stimulant in a league in Turkey. Silver was in contact with Taurasi and her attorney as she went through the process of her defense.

NBA executive vice president Chris Granger, in charge of team marketing and business operations, has been the main overseer of the WNBA since Orender's departure.

Both he and Silver have been in regular contact with the WNBA owners as they navigate the offseason without a president.

"We've been updating them on the status of the search," said Silver, who did not confirm the identity of any candidates. "From the teams' standpoint, it's most important that we get it right.

"It's probably a little different circumstance than a typical organization that would be going through a period without its president. In this case, while the position is critically important, I think everyone else is able to step up to a certain extent. They can't do it long-term. But it is, in essence, business as usual."

And business -- as in the bottom line -- is going to be the key focus of the new WNBA president. Silver is a graduate of Duke and the University of Chicago Law School, and has been with the NBA since 1992. Granger, a graduate of Cornell who got his MBA from Yale, joined the NBA in 1999.

At this stage in the league, we need [a president] to lead us to a place where teams on a stand-alone basis can be profitable. It's a retail business, and success comes incrementally. … It's a function of selling more tickets, sponsorships, merchandise and increasing television ratings.

-- Adam Silver, NBA's deputy commissioner and chief operating officer

So it's a near certainty that someone with a proven business background will be the next WNBA president. That person could, in fact, come from the management staff of an NBA team. But don't look for anyone who is more goodwill ambassador than serious deal negotiator.

"At this stage in the league, we need someone to lead us to a place where teams on a stand-alone basis can be profitable," Silver said. "It's a retail business, and success comes incrementally. That's something we've accepted all along. It's a function of selling more tickets, sponsorships, merchandise and increasing television ratings.

"But we're not looking for a silver bullet here. We recognize the growth comes slowly. We just have to make sure the arrows continue to point in the right direction."

The WNBA's first president, Val Ackerman, has a law degree, and she worked from inside the NBA for many years to bring the WNBA to life in 1997. Orender took over in February 2005 after spending nearly two decades with the PGA Tour, where her primary fields of expertise were television and other media initiatives. Both Ackerman and Orender played collegiate basketball and each was seen as the primary face of the WNBA during her time running the league.

Silver said of the public-relations part of the WNBA president's job: "It remains important, but it's not as strong an emphasis in this search -- in part because we're at a different stage in the league.

"We have so many prominent former players at this point. We have team executives and owners who've been at it for a long time. There are more public faces associated with the league than in the earlier years. If I had to prioritize the qualities we are looking for, business skills would be above public-relations experience on that list."

Silver reiterated some of the purposefully vague terms that Orender often used in speaking about WNBA expansion possibilities, calling that "realistic" in the next several years.

"But not before we ensure the existing franchises are in a position where they are financially strong," he said.

To that end, the new president might work even more at trying to help owners of less successful franchises implement strategies that have panned out elsewhere. Like most professional leagues, the WNBA has had some franchises that consistently seem to connect well with their fans and community, while others don't.

"We've created a much more robust internal consulting department for all of our properties," Silver said. "That is the job of that department, working hand in hand with the future president of the WNBA. We recognize different franchises are going to have their strengths and weaknesses. We've learned there are things we can do based on the resources that the league has available at its central office to help teams grow in all the critical areas."

The women's league has both independent owners and teams that are owned by an NBA franchise. The NBA ultimately will select the new WNBA president, but not without a lot of consultation with all the WNBA owners.

"It's not as if the NBA makes the decision, and then we present it to them," Silver said. "We all work on this, and we've gotten suggestions from many of the teams for candidates that we should interview. The process continues. We will find someone together."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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