The WNBA at 25—W’s first Black president reflects on her legacy

Photo by Onika Craven Laural J. Richie

Our ambitious 25-part series of articles reflects on the WNBA’s 25 years through the eyes of those who played a part, large or small, in its beginning and sustained growth throughout its quarter-century existence as a major league. This week: the league’s first Black president.

Laural J. Richie fully secured her place in WNBA history the minute she was named the league’s first Black president in April 2011, as well as the first Black to ever lead a U.S. major pro sports league. The league’s third president also reminded me during our phone interview earlier this year that I had also left an endearing mark in her book during her introductory phone conference in 2011.

“I still vividly remember during the press conference, I’m sitting in a conference room with [the late NBA commissioner] David Stern and [current commissioner] Adam Silver and a whole bunch of other people,” said Richie. “I hadn’t even officially started, and when we got to the Q&A, you said, ‘Madam President.’ I will never forget the look on David’s face and everybody else around the table.

“I have always appreciated that sign of respect. It as much [as meant] the world to me,” she said.

This sign of respect would serve me well during Richie’s five-year tenure (2011-2015) as I was afforded several one-on-one interviews with her, often under jealous glares from other local and national media folk. “I think we were quite a team from day one,” she told me.

Madam President during her term helped avoid the first players’ strike and negotiated a new broadcast deal. She also spearheaded several new initiatives solely designed for young Black females, which set a standard for those to follow after she left her presidency in November 2015.

The WNBA players can be both athletes and citizens, something that Richie consistently promoted rather than the “false dichotomy that it wasn’t,” she recalled. “So, the way of thinking about it, showing the world that’s possible, what women can be as athletes and what athletes can be as citizens. That shaped the work.”

In her post-presidency life, Richie returned to her marketing roots and have been a consultant with Fortune 100 companies’ leaders, and serves on several boards, including chair of trustees at Dartmouth College.

“I couldn’t be prouder both as a former president and as an avid fan of the W,” Richie said. “We chose the logo…and established the WNBA as different [but] not less than the NBA.” She also smiled on the players’ last season-long emphasis on racial and social justice issues, which set the league apart from other pro leagues.

Her legacy: “Elevating the players and making strides on the marketing front,” Richie pointed out. “The partnership extension with ESPN that led to prime-time coverage of the draft, and more features on SportsCenter and other ESPN channels. So that’s what I would hope to be known for.

“Again, that comes from the identity work. It was really important to me to celebrate the athleticism and diversity of the players, and then the marketing to complement that,” she said.

Yet, the importance of being the first Black league president—and the first to be called Madam President—Richie said can’t be understated. “It’s not something that I pursued, but it’s also not something I shy away from. I was honored and grateful for the opportunity to lead the way. I don’t think those of us who sort of brazed these trails or take on these roles for the first time set out to say, ‘I want to be the first.’ I didn’t.

“I was really about wanting to do my part for what I perceived to just this incredible opportunity for young women and young girls, and advance the whole sports industry.”