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Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Karen Bryant ready for new challenge

By Mechelle Voepel
espnW.com

Karen Bryant
Karen Bryant has been with the Storm since helping bring a WNBA expansion team to Seattle in 1999.

Sometimes knowing exactly where you're going isn't as important as knowing that you are going somewhere.

In the case of Karen Bryant, the Seattle Storm's president and CEO, the part she's sure of is that she is ready for another job venture. What it will be is wide open at this point.

But when the Storm finish the 2014 season, Bryant will say goodbye to what has been a longtime labor of love. She announced earlier this month that she is going to step down. This news -- coming in the midst the Los Angeles Sparks' ownership uncertainty -- no doubt bummed out a lot of WNBA fans, especially those in Seattle.

One thing that is comforting in the WNBA is consistency, and through Bryant, Seattle has had that. Even when ownership, coaches, other team officials and players changed for the Storm, Bryant was always there.

"I love what the WNBA stands for," Bryant said.

So why will she be leaving when this coming season is over? Because it's the right time. Her daughter will be 6 years old in April, and Bryant anticipates summers will become busier with all kinds of kid activities and family vacation time. Which is not as compatible with the WNBA's summer schedule.

Also, if you're in your mid-to-late 40s, you might have the same kind of thoughts Bryant has had. You might want to take a little time out and evaluate your life, try to determine if there's something else you want to do, occupation-wise, and if there are other things away from work you want to spend time on.

Seattle Storm
Karen Bryant, far left, helped bring stars like Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird -- and a pair of WNBA titles -- to Seattle.

Is there still something you really want to learn? A challenge you want to tackle? Maybe you just want to see if there's something you've missed.

"I have as much energy as I've always had," Bryant said. "I'm ready to test my skills and experience in new arenas. I want to play to my strengths, but a big motivation is to challenge myself in new ways.

"I really want to enhance my technology IQ. I want to take cooking classes. I'd like to coach my daughter's basketball team. But I'm going to be fully engaged with the Storm until my final day here."

Over the years, the WNBA has benefited from the things the Storm have learned as a franchise and shared with other teams. Bryant said that happens all the time in the league; franchises communicate frequently and try to help each other.

"We talk a lot and share the best practices that have worked for us," Bryant said. "But, at the end of the day, I can give you our plan, but the difference between success and lack of success is the implementation."

This is a particularly important point to be made in regard to why some WNBA franchises have done much better than others.

Sure, there are a variety of factors, some of them harder to control. And it's not as if Seattle has never gone through its rough waters; every WNBA franchise, to varying degrees, has. But what has worked for Seattle is a mindset that Bryant has never wavered from: to work for the Storm should mean to be truly passionate about women's basketball.

If that sounds like a no-brainer, it is not. In the history of the league, there are just too many examples to count of people who got involved with the WNBA or got jobs with the league or individual teams and never had or never developed a real passion for the specific product the league sells.

It isn't enough to just "like sports" or "like basketball" to be an effective participant in selling the WNBA as a viable entertainment option. You need to appreciate and enjoy women's professional basketball. It's a different product than the NBA, or the college men's game, or the college women's game.

That doesn't mean that you can't take knowledge and appreciation of basketball at all levels and apply it to the WNBA. Or, for that matter, come into the league with a background of sales/marketing/business and learn (quickly) to appreciate the WNBA. The latter is the case, in fact, for league president Laurel Richie.

"You can come at this passion for the league from different avenues," Bryant said, "but I've found that the employees who are the most satisfied, do the greatest work and make the most contributions are the ones who really love what we stand for and our mission. If I didn't have that, there's no doubt I wouldn't be as good at my job."

I feel very confident in saying that we've moved forward. … I know that in my 15 years [in Seattle], the brand awareness, who the top players are, when we play, all that is much more known by the public, whether they attend a game or not.

-- Karen Bryant

The WNBA has challenges that are specific. It's a summertime league for a sport more associated with winter. There are just 12 teams -- counting the in-limbo Sparks -- meaning there are areas of the country that just aren't geographically near a WNBA franchise and thus have little, if any, attachment to the league. The players typically are not employed by just the WNBA; they also play overseas and make more money there.

Plus, there are obstacles in the media, let's just be frank about that. Certain realms of the media, in particular. Such as talk radio, which is often belligerently resistant to even the briefest discussions of the WNBA as a legitimate sports subject.

And there are those in the media who parachute in occasionally -- not to actually cover the sport but to weigh in on what they think the WNBA needs to do to "fix" its issues.

Bryant has witnessed all of this, both on the microlevel of her Storm franchise and the macro of the WNBA as a whole.

"I feel very confident in saying that we've moved forward," she said. "I don't know if the tipping point is a moving bar, though. It feels like we move closer to it, but then it gets higher.

"Speaking of my experience in Seattle, I know that in my 15 years, the brand awareness, who the top players are, when we play, all that is much more known by the public, whether they attend a game or not. As it relates to mainstream media here, I think they've talked about us when the team performs well. We're not yet at a place where they'll talk about us if the team's not performing. But when our team has played well, we are in the mix. I feel like we've made significant progress."

To young people who might want to follow in Bryant's footsteps in management with a pro sports franchise, she has this advice: Get a business degree. Learn about the unique aspects of sports entertainment, including the risks in that industry. Get an internship if you can.

"I think a general business background is important," she said. "Getting your foot in the door is both one of the hardest steps to take but also what starts it all. There is no replacement for being on the ground, working in the industry and learning from real-life experiences."

Bryant has many years of those, but she knows it's almost time for a change. She'll go through this season trying to help the Storm win another title. She'll continue to connect with and listen to the fans, something that she stresses is so crucial to the WNBA's success. She'll aid the franchise in the transition from her leadership.

And whatever her next path is, the WNBA will have helped her get there. It's been a mutually beneficial relationship.