By Charles Hallman
Laurel J. Richie on May 16 becomes the first Black woman to head a professional sports league as she assumes her new duties as WNBA president. She formerly was senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Girl Scouts of the USA.
When asked about her historic new role during an April 26 national teleconference with the MSR and other reporters, Richie said, “I do take the notion of being a role model very seriously, a role model for women [and] for African Americans. That is, in fact, a big reason why this opportunity is so interesting and important to me.”
“We think Laurel is going to be a person who will not only bring marketing skills but bring team-building skills, and be able to bring people together to move the ‘W’ on to bigger heights,” notes NBA Commissioner David Stern of Richie, who was named in April as one of the 25 Influential Black Women in Business by The Network Journal.
Along with Director of Basketball Operations and Player Relations Renee Brown, who has been with the league since its inception, Richie’s position is doubly unique, as no other pro league has Blacks in its two top positions. “Renee and I have spent a ton of time together through the interviewing process,” says Richie. “I feel like the partnership has already begun.”
It was a speech that Richie gave in Seattle in February that brought her to the attention of the league folk, the new league president disclosed. “The talk was really about both the challenges that I had faced as a woman in business, as an African American navigating my way, talking about my lessons learned along the way,” she recalled.
Richie said she spent time after that speech with Ginny Gilder and Karen Bryant, Seattle Storm owner and CEO respectively. “I think it probably gave [them] an opportunity to know me on a much more personal level than one would think when you hear someone giving a keynote address. It was just one of those things, a very unique coincidence where my role in this meeting and their role in this meeting really gave us a chance to get to know each other.”
Soon after, the league search committee contacted her, and Richie was hired last month as the WNBA’s third president.
The WNBA begins its 15th season next month. Although it is America’s longest running women’s pro league, it still operates far below the radar of many on the mainstream sports horizon, whether or not they are hoops fans, as well as the media. For example, Richie’s hiring barely got mentioned in the local newspapers, and the MSR was the only local media outlet that participated in the teleconference with her and Stern.
Nonetheless, according to Stern, the WNBA is now poised to make a quantum leap, and Richie is the right person to lead the transition. He proclaimed matter-of-factly that Richie’s job is “to make all of our teams in the league very profitable.”
“This is a premiere brand. The WNBA is the longest-running women’s professional sports league in the world. There is a passionate fan base. I can’t believe there’s anybody on the planet who is more excited about or committed to helping the league, helping the teams and the players achieve their fullest potential,” pledged Richie.
Despite her three decades-plus experience in marketing, public relations and corporate management, a reporter still questioned whether Richie’s limited basketball background is right for the job considering that founding president Val Ackerman and Donna Orender both were former players, albeit before the WNBA existed.
Stern quickly dismissed this notion. With 69 percent of league players Black and 14 percent foreign-born, “We found somebody…culturally adept at understanding what impact the game and the players could have on the community, the global community,” stated Stern, who has headed the NBA for over two decades. “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.
“I think the most important issue for me is about how we interest potential fans and families to sample us, because anyone that samples us wants to come back,” he continued. “How do we influence major corporations to recognize that investing with the WNBA is a good thing? How do we continue to get broadcast networks to say, ‘Yes, this is a good sport that we believe in, that has arrived, and that we will continue to help grow’?”
“I think another piece for great exploration is getting to know these players,” said Richie. “I think people follow leagues and they follow games, and they’re fans of basketball. Those are the places where I’m looking to create opportunity and create traction. I’m just ready to get started and roll up my sleeves.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]