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Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Laurel Richie embraces WNBA challenge

By Michelle Smith

Laurel Richie has watched the WNBA on television as a casual fan. But, she admits, she has never bought a ticket to a WNBA game. Now she is the league's new president, and one of her tallest tasks, she said, will be to make fans out of the people who were like her.

Richie called it "converting the interested into the actively engaged." She would have to consider herself first on that list. Richie not only has never seen a WNBA game in person, she has no basketball in her background -- NBA commissioner David Stern outed her Tuesday as a former synchronized swimmer and cheerleader. But Richie clearly knows business. And that counts for a lot with Stern as the WNBA enters a new phase.

Entering its 15th season, the WNBA doesn't have to do much to establish its credentials as the best women's basketball league in the world. The top stars in the world play there. The competition for roster spots is heated -- perhaps even a little overheated with just 11 spots on each team. Competitively, the WNBA is well-established.

Now, it's all about business. It's about forging more sponsorship agreements, building a brand with more muscle, selling the game to new people, both fans in the stands and corporations in their boardrooms.

"My eyes are truly open to the challenge, but I don't feel daunted by that," Richie said. "This is a tremendous opportunity to build the game ... I can't believe there's anybody on the planet who is more excited about or committed to helping the league, helping the teams and the players achieve their fullest potential. I'm just ready to get started and roll up my sleeves."

Richie has spent much of her career as a marketing executive, most recently as chief marketing officer for Girl Scouts of the USA. She spent 20 years at Ogilvy & Mather, building successful branding campaigns for such companies as American Express (a WNBA partner) and Pepperidge Farms.

Richie, a Dartmouth graduate, fell into the loop for the WNBA job after giving a keynote address in Seattle to local businesswomen and striking up a conversation with Seattle Storm owners and team CEO Karen Bryant. The league reached out to her following that meeting. She called it a "dream job."

Richie, the first African-American woman to lead a major sports league, said she sees many similarities between the WNBA and the Girl Scouts.

"Both organizations are full of role models for young women and young girls; both are well-loved icons in need of a little refreshment," she said. "The DNA for both is strong and solid."

Richie said she is excited to wrap her head around the WNBA's "complex business." Stern is not mincing words when it comes to his expectations about improving the financial health of the league. He said the WNBA is "doing OK, making a living." He said he is hopeful this will be the season that all teams break even or better.

Stern also said he had no trepidation about bringing in someone without a basketball background. "My own basketball experience is ripping up an ACL in a lawyers' league," he said. "I don't think it's essential."

When she starts her job May 16, Richie is going to spend some time finding out what she doesn't know about professional women's basketball.

"One of the things I have found here, that I really love," she said, "is that everybody has an opinion here."