Commentary

New president will have to play catch-up

WNBA should have made hire before draft, women's Final Four

Originally Published: April 21, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

The WNBA announced its new president Thursday: Laurel J. Richie, who is a longtime marketing executive, most recently for Girl Scouts of the USA.

In a splendid bit of missed opportunity, the league made this announcement two weeks AFTER the women's Final Four (held at a WNBA arena) and a week AFTER the WNBA draft (held at ESPN headquarters).

[+] EnlargeLaurel Richie
Courtesy of WNBA.comDavid Stern said Laurel J. Richie "combines extraordinary marketing and brand management skills with a tremendous enthusiasm to help evolve young women into leaders."

Donna Orender announced she was leaving as WNBA president Dec. 3. The league said a search for her replacement would begin immediately. In early March, with still no word on the new president, NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver told me the person needed to be someone with a strong background in marketing and business.

At that point, it had been three months since the search ostensibly began. So it was pretty clear then that the idea of maximizing the exposure of the new WNBA president was not a consideration for the NBA, let alone a priority.

If the league wanted to help its new president meet, all in the same place, a lot of people who cover and follow women's basketball, it would have had a timeline that put a president in place before the women's Final Four and the WNBA draft.

Three months should be enough time to interview and vet candidates, make a decision, give the final selection time to decide, and then announce it. It was about 3½ months between founding president Val Ackerman's decision to step down in late October 2004 and the announcement of her successor, Orender, in February 2005.

But for Richie, the league waited until a week after its draft -- missing television time for the new president to both announce picks (at least the first round, as is customary) and be interviewed about her job/philosophy in front of the very audience that is most interested in her product -- to make the announcement.

But guess what? The waiting is not over. Media still won't have the chance to talk with Richie until next week, when there will be a teleconference. Hey, they've taken this long to give her a voice; why not drag it out a little longer?

(When Orender was named president on Feb. 15, 2005, she had a media teleconference that day to coincide with the announcement. She took over her duties officially in April before the 2005 draft.)

The WNBA's official release on Richie, sent out Thursday morning, did not say where she is from originally, how old she is or whether she ever played organized sports -- let alone get into her reasons for being interested in this job. There are two news-release-speak quotes, one from NBA commissioner David Stern and one from Richie, that don't really tell us anything about her.

Whether Richie played sports isn't any kind of referendum on whether she can do the job well. It's just good to know more background of any person taking on the role as the voice of an organization, especially one that doesn't get a lot of airtime. Something to tell us more about who she is as a person.

Instead, it's as if the league basically is saying: Tune in next week, if you're still interested, for more on the new president. Hmm, maybe the WNBA should have made this last even longer. Once the league knew it was hiring her, it could have released just one piece of information -- like, say, the first three letters of her first name, etc. -- each week until the season started. And see who could guess it first. Maybe it could have been a fan contest.

Yes, I'm being sarcastic. But it leads me to this: What about the fans who really do care about the league? You know, the ones who've been asking for four months who the president will be. The ones whom Ritchie perhaps could have had a meet-and-greet with at the women's Final Four in Indianapolis … if she'd been announced as president by then.

Passion for the job has to be a must for the WNBA president, because what you sell isn't something that tons of people are going to buy. You must continue to cultivate your grassroots base. That includes your WNBA season-ticket holders -- you can't take them for granted -- and the women's college basketball fans who have yet to form a strong bond with the WNBA.

Good marketing is absolutely essential for the league, but you have to know what and to whom you are selling. In my view, being a very successful WNBA president requires quite a lot of a person -- to be at ease in boardrooms of major corporations (which Richie apparently is) and to be able to shake hands and talk with the T-shirt-wearing fan who might approach you in Tulsa or Minneapolis or Uncasville or Los Angeles.

This isn't the NBA. Or the NFL. Or Major League Baseball. This is the WNBA, a niche sports-entertainment league that, like the LPGA, must prioritize making and maintaining those grassroots connections to people who care about your product.

Richie has spent most of her career marketing products and helping strengthen brand names through various initiatives. The WNBA's news release mentioned Richie is a Dartmouth grad … it appears, looking in other places, that was in 1981. So during her time in this profession, she has seen the vast changes in media and technology that have affected the whole world.

There are more ways than ever to reach out to people and hopefully communicate with them … but also more things/people/ideas vying for everyone's attention. There has to be substance behind the sales pitch to grab the consumer.

One of the early complaints from women's basketball fans about the WNBA when it launched in 1997 was that there was too much emphasis on style rather than substance. In the past 14 years, the league has improved its quality of play significantly. And ultimately, that is what is being sold.

The WNBA president needs to work with the players and coaches to continue to improve the product. And with the fans and management of individual teams to make sure the needs of the former are being met by the latter.

That means seeing all 12 teams in person and observing how things are handled by each franchise. Richie has marketed a lot of different products and ideas in her career. But she also needs to try to forge real connection to the consumer and develop an understanding of the media/websites that actually cover this sport on a regular basis.

The NBA/WNBA missed the chance to have a president in place in time to publicly connect with people at the women's Final Four and the WNBA draft. Hopefully, Richie will spend this summer really forming those connections across the country.

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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