The decision by Laurel J. Richie to leave her post as president of the WNBA came as a shock within the league itself and to those who observe it. It is a huge loss for the WNBA. Richie was adept at communicating what the WNBA is about in a way that's essential for a young league that's still defining itself, and her marketing chops—she increased the number of the league's marquee sponsors from four teams to ten—helped the WNBA grow in exactly the ways it needed to grow. Her handling of both the Isiah Thomas fiasco and the Brittney Griner-Glory Johnson domestic contretemps drew favorable response from both stakeholders and the media. In short, she was good at her job.
"You know, it just felt like it was time," Richie told VICE Sports on Wednesday night. "I'm very proud of the work we accomplished in the last five seasons. I think we really solidified the business. It feels like a sound foundation from which future growth can happen."
The search for a new president will begin soon; NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum will hold the job on an interim basis while the league engages a national search firm to fill the position. But the extent to which NBA commissioner Adam Silver is prepared to promote the WNBA, weeks after expressing disappointment about the league's progress as a business to date, holds promise for whoever ultimately takes over Richie's job. The WNBA and the NBA are symbiotic, but the former needs the latter if it's going to survive, let alone flourish. No one is more important to the future of the WNBA than Silver.
Silver isn't just paying lip service to the WNBA as an idea—he created the business plan, along with two other NBA executives, 20 years ago. It's clear the league matters to him, and his criticisms come from a personal stake in the league's success.
"I had a long talk with John Skipper at ESPN," Silver told VICE Sports in a phone interview Wednesday night. "And we both agreed, having been the two prime negotiators in the last ESPN/WNBA extension that was done in conjunction with our NBA deal, that we both need to redouble our efforts going into the twentieth season. And I pledged to John, and he pledged back to me, that we would think creatively about what additional things the WNBA/NBA could do to promote women's basketball, and what additional things ESPN could do to promote women's basketball. And that includes everything from potentially putting more games on the air, for ESPN, to producing more features, more highlights—he has an excellent group of people dedicated to women's basketball. John is the leader of his organization, he said I know we can do this, and that is step one."
Silver's NBA is a behemoth slot machine endlessly ringing jackpot; the WNBA, with significantly lower ratings and attendance, is a different story. So it matters that the league negotiated the WNBA television rights with ESPN as a component of its NBA rights, and that the league included the WNBA in a new marketing and content deal with Verizon. Throw-ins to NBA deals are the lifeblood, financially, of the WNBA.
"That is something I can directly affect, by insuring that the WNBA has a seat at the table in all negotiations," Silver said. "I believe that I personally can do more to grow the WNBA. I believe it is necessary, at least in the short-term, that I commit more of my time to the success of the league."
Any number of things on the NBA end could help the WNBA reach and retain a greater audience: access to league games not only on the league's app, but across platforms from DirecTV—where out-of-market games are blacked out without the ability to subscribe to a WNBA League Pass equivalent on television—to Apple TV and Roku. A league website with new, better, searchable stats would allow the new generation of basketball writers and fans the chance to break down the league the way they do with the NBA. A larger marketing budget of its own would help, too, if only to let people know beyond the already-loyal audience that the WNBA exists.
"Anytime you're growing a business, there's a process," Richie said. "There's a launch phase, there's a phase where you establish a degree of stability—marquee partners at the league level, a television deal with ESPN, the longest collective bargaining agreement in the history of the league. We've had the same 12 teams for the past five years across the league. From that point, and strong foundation, there is an opportunity for growth. And if Adam is saying that he's looking to step up his engagement and visibility, that will obviously be a good thing and a great thing."
The extent to which that conversation between Silver and Skipper can lead to a greater buy-in at ESPN will go a long way toward establishing the baseline of coverage required to grow the audience. As Silver pointed out, "As a marketing proposition, number one... it's basketball first. But once we've established that premise, it's critically important that we tell stories, that people see these are multi-dimensional women."
This is a reasonable goal, but it isn't possible if the rightsholder, ESPN, continues to pay so little attention to its own product. During the WNBA playoffs, for example, the league's transcendent MVP, Elena Delle Donne and the Chicago Sky faced WNBA legend Tamika Catchings and the Indiana Fever in a deciding Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Delle Donne scored 40 points. Catchings had 27. Both produced a half-dozen highlight-reel shots and steals. Not one ended up on the SportsCenter Top 10, on a night when three preseason NHL highlights did.
Even the league's biggest moment, an epic five-game series between Catchings' Fever and Maya Moore's Minnesota Lynx, was bizarrely counter-programmed by ESPNW, which held its annual summit the week of the finals. ESPNW aggressively promoted their conference and not a deciding Game 5 of the WNBA Finals on its social media channels. If the part of the ESPN machine specifically dedicated to women's sports is ignoring the biggest thing going on in women's sports, it's safe to say the rest of the media world will follow.
"The WNBA stands for something much greater than a women's basketball league," Silver said. "It's the only women's league of it's kind in the world, that I'm aware of, that's a stand-alone business women's league operating in first-class arenas with major league status. We all realize in this business that we would be letting down countless people, and especially young girls, if this league were not to be successful. So we are not going to allow it not to be successful. And I'm absolutely committed to it."
Not all of the WNBA's struggles are on the WNBA. If media outlets and television rights-holders wanted to build an audience for women's basketball on its own, it would have happened by now. There's no ad buy that leads directly to newspapers, radio stations, and TV sports departments around the country dedicating beat coverage to WNBA teams. The quality of the game is beyond reproach and improving each year, with the University of Connecticut senior Breanna Stewart set to enter the league next season. But while the WNBA is better—more competitive and more fun to watch and more stacked with talent—than ever, most sports fans still don't know much about it.
"If we can get fans of the game of basketball to sample this product, they will come back," Silver said. "This is great basketball. There is no dispute." This echoes what both Richie and the league's own research shows: all the WNBA needs to do is get people in the door. This, more than anything else, will be the primary task for Richie's successor.
ESPN and the WNBA have a template in the way Fox Sports covered and promoted the women's World Cup this summer, with every game televised, many on Fox's broadcast channel itself, and with the athletes and their stories promoted in every conceivable corner of the network's holdings, from U.S. National team members appearing on American Idol to animated versions of them popping up on "The Simpsons." Ratings, unsurprisingly, skyrocketed, and not just for the final—many weekday non-U.S. games were drawing audiences of a million or more.
Silver isn't looking for that kind of moment—not that he'd mind, of course, but the breakthrough he said hadn't happened yet doesn't need to be 26.7 million viewers, as was the case with the World Cup final this summer. But Silver said the league has only begun to calculate the benchmarks that would constitute success in the realms of attendance, ratings, or profitability. It is easy, and maybe too easy, to forget just how young and unfinished the WNBA still is. For whoever winds up running the WNBA after Richie, that next step will be the most important. Adam Silver, among others, will be watching.
"I will say: I think we'll know it when we see it," Silver said. "And we're not there yet."