Commentary

Richie brings fresh look to grow WNBA

League looks to appeal to people who aren't already women's basketball fans

Originally Published: April 26, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

What does newly named president Laurel J. Richie have to learn about the WNBA? Pretty much everything. Which she was quick to acknowledge in a media conference call Tuesday, along with NBA commissioner David Stern.

[+] EnlargeLaurel J. Richie
AP Photo/NBA"Sometimes in marketing, you have a great product. And sometimes you have a not so great product," Laurel J. Richie said. "In this case, I feel like there's a terrific product to work with."

Richie has spent her professional life specializing in marketing, strengthening brand names and public relations. Before taking this job, she did not attend WNBA games. So in this role, one of the types of people she'll be looking to attract to the league is … someone a great deal like herself.

In contemplating why she previously wasn't a ticket-buying WNBA fan, Richie pinpoints the fact that she was "not necessarily being approached." Meaning she felt like the league hadn't made an effective concerted effort to reach people who weren't already largely predisposed to being women's basketball fans.

"So what I want to think about is, how do we reach out to people and engage them?" Richie said. "Versus assuming or putting the burden on them to come and grab us."

The thing is, if she spends time talking to people who already are fans, they might actually say a similar thing. I've heard in the past week from some longtime fans of the New York Liberty, for instance, who are not re-upping season tickets this year even though they've had them since the team's inception.

It isn't because the Liberty are relocating for an estimated three years to the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., while renovations are being made to Madison Square Garden during the WNBA's season. These fans would have been willing to endure that adjustment -- if the team had made them feel appreciated and respected. Instead, they feel the Liberty management had taken them for granted, was providing poor customer service, and acted as though the organization didn't really care if they continued buying their tickets.

Thus, the methods that Richie might implement to better reach potential fans are likely similar to things that need to be done for current fans, too. Those who buy or have bought WNBA tickets don't need to be sold on the product, but do need to be cared for as consumers.

Stern said that Richie's lack of background in sports marketing or management was not a concern, adding that Richie is "culturally adept at understanding what impact the game and the players could have on the community, the global community."

Stern then added, "My own basketball background was ripping up my ACL in a lawyer's league. So I don't think it's essential to have played the game at a high level at all."

Val Ackerman, the founding WNBA president and really the most important driving force behind the league other than Stern, played basketball collegiately, as did her successor, Donna Orender. Ackerman, an attorney, worked from the inside as an employee of the NBA, which gave her knowledge that was essential in her helping get the WNBA off the ground in 1997.

[+] EnlargeRenee Brown
Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty ImagesLaurel J. Richie lacks a basketball background, but WNBA chief of operations and player relations Renee Brown, above, has career-long experience in the sport.

Orender spent 17 years with the PGA Tour before becoming WNBA president. In both cases, women's basketball was very much a part of who both women were long before the WNBA existed. There was a large amount of shorthand, if you will, that both Ackerman and Orender could readily decipher about the women's basketball world simply because of their own personal experience.

The fact that Richie doesn't have that is not necessarily bad. For one thing, Richie has WNBA vice president and chief of basketball operations Renee Brown as someone who does have that career-long experience in the sport.

"Renee and I have spent a ton of time together through the interviewing process, not necessarily on the specifics of policy, but really making sure that we both believe that we can be a great partnership," Richie said. "I have great respect for her work and her history and her expertise. I think if you were to call her and ask her, she would say the same thing about me."

And for another thing, Richie will come into the marketing of the WNBA with a fresh eye. During her career, she has worked on the sales campaigns of a number of products that are of universal use for families. Depending on the product, it was either about reassuring parents about what was best for a child, or appealing to a child directly, who then "sold" it to the parent.

The WNBA is a product that could benefit from both approaches. In fact, I think it might entail a three-pronged strategy.

For most moms I know, the most precious commodity is time: They never have enough of it. Selling them on attending a sports event in which their own child isn't participating can be very hard. The WNBA has to make that outing truly worth moms' time, perhaps with initiatives such as a link into a fitness program or a "moms' night out" where maybe the kids go to a pre-game hoops clinic while the moms relax and socialize.

[+] EnlargeDavid Stern
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesNBA commissioner David Stern isn't concerned about Laurel J. Richie's lack of background in sports marketing or management, adding, "I don't think it's essential to have played the game at a high level at all."

Meanwhile, a lot of dads look for ways to really connect with their children, especially daughters. It's critical to expand efforts -- teams around the league already hold an annual "Dads and Daughters Day" -- by the individual franchises and the league as a whole to sell the sport to dads not just for that purpose but also their own enjoyment.

And then there's the kids themselves, whom the league must continue to cultivate at a young age -- both boy and girls. This is where their players are so important: The time they spend doing work in the community and interacting with children is of almost as much value as when they're practicing and playing games. The approachability of players should, indeed, be part of the WNBA's brand-name identification.

It's not as any of these things are new ideas for the WNBA. It's just that each franchise needs to be more successful at implementing them. Richie said she wants to visit the 12 franchises and talk to everyone involved in making the league run.

"I really think it's important for me to really feel in my own experience what is happening because that is where the league is delivered: on the ground," Richie said. "That's my first task.

"I've already begun that process [of] reaching out to players. I'm very, very encouraged by the speed of their response, their passion for the game, their willingness for partnership.

"One of the things I really love about this organization is I have yet to meet anyone in any capacity who is shy about offering an opinion. So I think for me that just helps my learning curve."

Richie will have a lot thrown at her this summer/fall. She can't be expected to know everything after one season, of course. It would appear, based on her comments and those of Stern's, that her highest priority is helping the bottom line of the league and every franchise by increasing sponsorships and ticket sales. It seems unlikely that Richie, at least this year, will have a great deal to do with the overall administration of the league from a strictly basketball perspective, leaving most of that to Brown.

Instead, Richie will try to apply to the WNBA what she already knows and has had success with in other business ventures.

"Sometimes in marketing, you have a great product. And sometimes you have a not so great product," Richie said. "In this case, I feel like there's a terrific product to work with, and that makes the job so much easier. It's not without its challenges, but a lot easier than a tough sale."

That's the right thing to say publicly. But I think this is more accurate in regard to the WNBA: Sometimes you have a great product that is still a tough sale because it's a non-essential item. People can live without sports entertainment.

The key for the WNBA is to make it appealing, affordable and accessible enough that they don't want to live without it.

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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