Parting thoughts on Laurel Richie’s departure

The WNBA’s top leadership over the course of its nearly 20-year history has exhibited qualities both worth noting and sometimes forgetting.

Founding President Val Ackerman (1996-2005) got the league up and running, but marketing missteps and folding franchises occurred on her watch. Donna Orender (2005-11) was too often aloof, especially in dealing with the media that regularly covered the W —  two original teams, and both former championship clubs suddenly ceased operations in consecutive seasons during her stint. Laurel Richie, hired in 2011, forged a league-longest Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the players, an ESPN contract extension to 2025, and a stabilized 12-team league and reportedly, half of them were profitable.

Now the W looks for president number four since Richie stepped down November 9 after five seasons.

Laurel Richie (l) and Renee Brown
Laurel Richie (l) and Renee Brown

The Twittersphere has been abuzz ever since her announcement November 4, especially around the faithful few of us that cover the league regularly. This reporter and’s Cheryl Coward had a dialogue on Richie, the W and its future shortly afterward the announcement. Both of us speculated that a prime reason why she stepped down was due to Adam Silver’s “It’s not where we hoped it would be” comment made at a sports conference in New York in late September.

The MSR talked to Richie last week — our interview can be found here.

“Adam has spoken out since I have made this announcement and he have been very forthright and direct in his comments at the SPJ (Sports Business Journal conference) of his view of where the league is and [how] he hoped it would be further along. That was not a statement directed at me,” explained the former Richie. “I think it was a statement directed at the collective.  He wrote the original business plan, and his plan was much more ambitious than where the league is today.”

She said she never lost Silver’s confidence in her leadership.

We beg to differ.

VICE Sports suggested that it became a headlong crash of “Richie’s optimism versus Silver’s disappointment” that ultimately spilled out in his remarks two months ago on the day of this year’s playoffs.

Since the WNBA is not a stand-alone league but operates under the NBA’s auspices, if not its full blessing, any hint of dissatisfaction on how Richie is running things would come under scrutiny.

“No one is more important to the future of the WNBA than Silver,” added VICE Sports.

“I don’t regret saying what I did,” said Silver in an espnW Q&A with Mechelle Voepel.

But the reality is that on the cusp of its 20th year, the WNBA still hasn’t been received into full membership among the nation’s major leagues. Save for the “3 to See” campaign a couple of years ago, the league’s marketing efforts has been ineffective and inconsistent.  The ballyhooed ESPN contract still treats the league worse than stepsisters.

Although Richie drew high praise for her swift handling of a messy domestic violence episode involving two WNBA players earlier this year, the unfortunate matter cast a bad shadow at the start of the 2015 season.

Unfortunately Silver’s comments in September that reverberated around the women’s sports world, came off as a no-confidence vote on Richie, who two months later is gone.

“Right now I feel proud of the work with the WNBA and grateful to the people who I worked with. I am so proud and in awe of the players.  I am enjoying the work that’s ahead,” said Richie.

Now it’s up to Silver, who will hire the next WNBA president, apparently without any input from the last one. “I have not been asked to be involved in the search,” says Richie. “He has been with the league since its inception and he has watched Val, Donna and me as president, and I am sure he has thoughts on what he would like to see in the next president.

“I think any role or advice he would ask of me, I would be more than happy to provide that. I will offer to help them in any way he sees fit.  I’m sure they will do a great job of finding the next president,” she said.

Whoever is hired, they immediately must do a couple of things: 1) restore confidence that the WNBA can indeed move forward; 2) convince, or even demand a better broadcasting arrangement with ESPN, including more games on television and more attention given to the W rather than its current soft-soap approach; and 3) a year-round marketing approach similar to their NBA counterparts — if the NBA can be promoted during WNBA games, then the WNBA should be promoted during NBA games.

If Silver is hell-bent on someone with basketball experience running a basketball league — the knock against Richie was that she didn’t have a sports background  — we have three candidates in mind:

Renee Brown. Pluses: She has been with the WNBA from Day One. A former player.  A former coach.  Has been second-in-command as basketball operations and player relations under three presidents.  Minus: Is Brown willing to move from behind the scenes to the league’s public face?

Sheryl Swoopes.  Pluses: One of the W’s three original players.  A former player.  Now college head coach.  Minus: Does she have the business acumen Silver is seeking in the next league president?

Magic Johnson:  Pluses:  Worldwide known.  A former player.  Successful businessman.  L.A. Sparks part-owner.  Minus: Does he have the time to run a league?

“I have become a huge fan of the WNBA in my five years,” said Richie in her closing remarks to the MSR.  “My message to all of the media — those who cover us like you have done extremely well, and those I would wish do even more for us, to really help us tell the story of the amazing 144 elite athletes who compete; to tell the story of how competitive the league is.”

She hoped more mainstream media types “really understand and celebrate the role that we play in society,” she continued.  “Our mission of showing the world what’s possible, what women can be as athletes and how athletes can be as citizens — to help us tell that story and get the word out and really celebrate all that we have accomplished and all that we dream yet of doing.”

Finally, “Thank you to those who come to our games and watch us on TV.  For those who happen to come to a game or watch a game, the invitation always is there and we welcome everybody to the WNBA,” concluded former president Richie.


Information from espnW and VICE Sports was used in this report. 

More on our interview with Laurel Richie in MSR’s Another View.


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to