This Women's History Month, WNBA President Laurel Richie is talking about what the nation's longest-running women's sports league means — not just for basketball fans but for all Americans.
She told The Root that she thinks the league is on track to become as popular as the NBA if we, as a nation, can get comfortable with the idea of female athletes. Richie says that the game is exciting and competitive and different from (but not less than) men's basketball. And she challenges anyone who has a doubt about that to come check out a game.
The Root: You were senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Girl Scouts of the USA before you took on your current role with the WNBA. Did you make a conscious decision to use your career to represent the interests of women?
Laurel Richie: I think I did. Early on, when I was working at an advertising agency, I went to a very senior-level training, and I remember walking into the room, and it was filled with men in leadership positions both at the client and the agency. I just made a mental note at that point in time that boardrooms needed to change and that I was going to do whatever I could to bring about that change.
As my career unfolded, I found that I worked on lots of different businesses and types of businesses, but the ones I found I enjoyed the most were those that were targeted to women and where women were either the primary consumers or beneficiaries of the product. So that really came to the forefront when I made the move from advertising to Girl Scouts of the USA and then, very clearly, in joining the WNBA.
Not only is it a great product in terms of the longest-running professional women's sports league in the country, but it's comprised of 132 players, and many of our owners are often females. So you look at the players, owners, coaches, trainers, massage therapists — it's a wonderful example of what women can do in sports and in business.
TR: Why is the WNBA important, even to people who might not be big sports fans?
LR: All of the studies tell us that those who participate in sports contribute to a healthy society — in terms of physical fitness but also in terms of reducing some other negative aspects, whether that's not staying in school or teen pregnancy. Girls who participate in sports tend to be more successful, not only in sports but in other aspects of their lives.
And women in the WNBA are great [role] models. Of the players from the United States, virtually all have gone to four-year colleges, so they enter the league with a strong educational background as well as being the best of the best in the sport in which they have chosen to compete. It's great for young girls and young boys to see women achieving their best.
TR: The anniversary of Title IX, the law that allowed women's sports to be on equal footing in both the collegiate and professional arenas, is coming soon. How has it made a difference for women?
LR: It's great. I have the opportunity to talk to a lot of our players about the impact of Title IX, and virtually all of our players will credit Title IX with … creating the opportunity for them to really hone their skills and their craft while they were in high school and college, so I think the WNBA for them is just a natural extension of that. Title IX absolutely paved the way for them as individuals and paved the way for the league as well by creating a robust group of women who are able to compete at the level required to be part of a professional sports league.
TR: What do people not know about the WNBA that they should?
LR: I always encourage people to come to a game, because I think most people have heard of the WNBA, but not nearly enough people have experienced the level of play — it's fast, it's competitive, it's aggressive — and the in-arena experience. We hear from our fans all the time that there's nothing quite like the fun, the excitement and, quite frankly, the feeling of community that exists at a WNBA game.
TR: Do you think the WNBA will be as lucrative and popular as the NBA in our lifetimes?
LR: I absolutely hope so. I often describe the game being played in the WNBA as different but not less than the NBA. It is exciting. It is competitive. You get to see the fundamentals of the game and see the teams coming together, but you also see the stars shining though.
I think we have everything going for us, and we're really well poised to achieve the same levels. We're seeing our audience grow. We signed last year our first leaguewide partner in Boost Mobile. Viewership is up. So I'm quite optimistic about our future.
TR: What still needs to change to allow female athletes like those in the WNBA to really be recognized for their talents?
LR: Somehow, we as a society just have to get more comfortable with the notion of a female athlete. I went to a game once in Minneapolis, and there were two young boys sitting behind me — they couldn't have been more than 9 years old — and I listened to them going back and forth commenting on the game.
They knew all the players' stats — who was good at guarding, who wasn't; whose shot was on, whose shot was off — and I remarked that they were not viewing this through a gender lens. They were not saying, "This is terrific women's basketball"; they were saying, "This is terrific basketball." And so, I think the rest of society needs to catch up with those two boys.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is the staff writer for The Root.