As the WBNA gets set to celebrate its 20th season, it’s clear that the 12-team WNBA is well established, states incoming WNBA President Lisa Borders, who starts March 21.
Borders, in a MSR phone interview February 12, expressed her thoughts on what’s needed to move the league forward. She is also featured in this week’s Another View.
Those of us who have been around the league throughout its two-decade existence know that marketing has been the W’s Achilles heel. We asked what she can do that her three predecessors, including Laurel Richie who stepped down last fall, weren’t able to successfully accomplish.
Unlike their NBA brethren whose stars are on recognizable first-name basis with fans and non-fans, only in rare cases can the same be said about WNBA players, star or scrub. “We do a terrific job with our players on the court,” Borders points out. “We know their number, what school they went to and whatever position they play. But we don’t know much about them beyond that.
“Every one of them has a very interesting part of their life that just needs to be brought out, and cultivated a little bit more so that the public could fully appreciate [them],” notes the incoming president. If told right, she said she believes fans and others will enjoy learning more about the W players.
Borders, an Atlanta Dream season ticket holder since the team started in 2008, said a missing ingredient might be “connectedness,” something she saw when Atlanta drafted Shoni Schimmel, a Native American, and now has a connection with Native American fans as a result. “The Native American community came out in droves. You can see that connection with her heritage and her being an athlete was very fruitful for her, for the team, for the Atlanta community and most importantly, the Native American community.”
Such “connections” can be done in any city “with any player that we have,” said Borders. “I think there needs to be a connection, not just intellectual looking at the stats and watching the technical components of the game. I think we’ve got to get inside of our players and have them connect better with our fans.”
By this, “I think we can connect them to our audience even better and our audience to them. And that will drive things like attendance, and interest in games; television ratings and merchandising sales. I think all that is connected,” she notes.
Creating a “real attachment” to the players, such as when a young person sees Larry Bird or LeBron James shooting jumpers, leaves an impression with fans. Then he or she goes out and tries to replicate that because they found “a real attachment” to that player, what would happen if Maya Moore or Elena Della Donne were similarly shown, suggests Borders.
“When people see themselves in a particular environment or in a particular person, there becomes a real attachment. This makes for an affinity for that person, that group or that organization,” she states. “Each one of our players not only has an athletic life, but also a personal and civic life. Just like you and I do, they have multiple dimensions to their personalities. I think there are good things being done all over the league.”
Some love to compare the NBA and WNBA but Borders says, “The NBA is 70 years old, and the WNBA is 20 years old. There is a remarkable difference between a 20-year-old and the experience you could’ve had in life versus if you are 70. It’s a bit inappropriate to compare one to the other, with the exception that we both are in the same professional basketball business.
“We need time to develop our market and our core players, and our game just as the NBA has had seven decades to do so and we’ve only had two. I think from a professional standpoint, we have to be realistic to where we are,” she said.
Borders continues, “That doesn’t mean the WNBA doesn’t aspire to be like its brother league — of course we do, we want to financially viable, sustainable and we want people to know our athletes. We want it to be family friendly and be good, clean entertainment. We want all of those things.”
Borders, a Duke graduate, got hooked on hoops in the pre-Coach K days in the early 1970s — once a Dukie, always a Dukie. “It was a great time at Duke,” she recalls. “We were just planting the seed of the basketball world we are in today,” she says proudly. She later got hooked on the WNBA after a civic luncheon in Atlanta trying to drum up support for an expansion team, which became the Atlanta Dream. “I was a season ticket holder then and I am a season ticket holder now,” she says.
Finally, Borders has a message for fans and non-fans alike. “I am absolutely thrilled and blessed, and privileged to have this opportunity to lead this longest standing, longest successful women’s sport league in America,” says Borders.
“I would invite your readers to join us on this journey. Come into the arena, literally not figuratively and experience a game.” Especially in Minnesota, where the 2015 defending champion Lynx resides. “They are the champions right now so you guys now have an amazing group of young women around whom to rally. I invite your readers to come to the games or watch the games on ESPN, NBA TV or (WNBA) Live Access.”
Read more on new WNBA President Lisa Borders in MSR’s Another View.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.