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The WNBA And Its Isiah Thomas Problem

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com SportsMoney (May 8, 2015)

I grew up as an Isiah Thomas fan. He was the hard-nosed leader of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. Thomas was an example of what it meant to fight as the underdog. His competitiveness brought pride to the City of Detroit, and we collectively cheered “Bad Boys” as they won back-to-back NBA Championships. To this day, I applaud his accomplishments on the basketball court.

But I cannot use his championship banners and basketball legacy as justification for overlooking his participation in gender-based harassment – neither should the WNBA.

In 2007, a federal jury found that Thomas, then the New York Knicks’ coach and president of basketball operations, sexually harassed Anucha Browne Sanders, the Knicks’ former vice president of marketing and business operations.

The jury ruled that Brown Sanders was entitled to $11.6 million in punitive damages from Madison Square Garden and James L. Dolan, chairman of Cablevision, parent company of the Garden and the Knicks. $6 million of the award was for the hostile work environment created by Thomas and $5.6 million for the retaliation. The parties eventually settled for $11.5 million.

Former Detroit Pistons player Isiah Thomas addresses the audience during a half-time celebration of the 1989 NBA championship during an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Friday, March 28, 2014, in Auburn Hills, Mich. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

Former Detroit Pistons player Isiah Thomas addresses the audience during a half-time celebration of the 1989 NBA championship during an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Friday, March 28, 2014, in Auburn Hills, Mich. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

In a surprising and questionable move, Dolan recently appointed Thomas as the president and part-owner (pending approval) of the WNBA’s New York Liberty.

“It is shocking to see an organization put [Thomas] back in such a prominent position,” said Don McPherson, gender equity educator and former NFL player.

“What is even more concerning, in a time when the sports world is coming to terms with the level of misogyny and sexism in our society, you would think there would be a sense understanding of the optics of this.”

Being a leader in the WNBA – a league that worked tirelessly to rebrand its image, while maintaining a foothold as the premier destination for elite women’sbasketball players – is a privilege not a right.

From the 2011 hiring of Laurel J. Richie, former senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Girls Scouts USA, as its president, to the 2014 WNBA Pride initiative, the WNBA’s resounding message is that woman’s voices and gender equality in sports matters.

Without question, the league’s leadership from the top down must inwardly and outwardly reflect these values as well. Therefore, Thomas’ ties to creating a hostile work environment cannot be ignored.

At this stage, whether he will have a role in the New York Liberty’s future – as an owner – is in the hands of the WNBA’s Board of Governors. President Richie released the following statement:

“The Madison Square Garden organization announced that Isiah Thomas has been named president of the New York Liberty and that he will take an ownership interest in the team, pending WNBA approval. New owners are approved by our WNBA Board of Governors, and this process has not yet begun.”

While the voting standards set forth by the Board of Governors are not a matter of public record, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Esq., CEO of Champion Women, notes that sex discrimination must be viewed as seriously as race discrimination, which the NBA Board of Governors recently used as cause for terminating an ownership interest.

“Isiah Thomas’ appointment as president and potential owner of the New York Liberty just shows how differently people perceive race discrimination and sex discrimination,” said Hogshead-Makar in an email to Forbes.com.

“Donald Sterling merely had a recording leaked where he made racist comments, and he was forced to sell the Clippers. Yet a jury found, after an extensive, well-covered trial, that Isiah Thomas sexually harassed Anucha Browne Sanders, and awarded her $11.6 million in damages against the Knicks enterprise. Sterling made racist remarks to his girlfriend, whereas Thomas sexually harassed Browne Sanders repeatedly. Sterling made racist remarks in the privacy of his own home, while Thomas sexually harassed Browne Sanders publicly. If Thomas had made equally as racist remarks, he would never be considered for a position in professional sports, anywhere.”

As Thomas continues to refute any wrongdoing, San Francisco-based civil rights attorney, Deborah England, wonders, “What has he learned?”

She notes that along with awarding damages, courts quite often require additional measures that call for training. But in this instance, England expresses concern for Thomas’ continued denial of what happened. Moreover, she questions Dolan’s decision not to hire a qualified woman to fill the presidency and ownership role, but rather chose Thomas, who professionally has this dark mark in his past.

In the end, sexual harassment is tied to the larger conversation of leadership.

Rha Goddess, founder & CEO of Move The Crowd an entrepreneurial training company dedicated to the next generation of Change Makers, recognizes that too often personal growth and development is a not a perquisite for leadership.

Goddess suggests that if Thomas – or any individual for that matter – wants a role within the WNBA, a question that should be asked is, “Have they done their gender work?”

This includes exploring: How does this executive perceive women? What do they see women being capable of in the context of growth and innovation? How are they speaking and interacting with women in a professional setting? What are their perceptions – unconsciously or consciously – that would cause them to treat women differently than men?

The New York Liberty and its fans deserve a leader who has answers to these questions, and someone who is prepared to champion and advance the needs of women – not belittle them.

In a statement released by MSG, Thomas and the Garden continue to vehemently disagree with the verdict in the sexual harassment case. It appears as though they have not considered what behavior had them embroiled in a sex discrimination lawsuit or acknowledged the fact that harassment can occur whether the harasser intends to harm or not.

“We did not believe the allegations then, and we don’t believe them now. We feel strongly that the jury improperly and unfairly held Isiah Thomas responsible for sordid allegations that were completely unrelated to him, and for which MSG bore responsibility. In fact, when given the opportunity, the jury did not find Isiah liable for punitive damages, confirming he did not act maliciously or in bad faith. We believe Isiah belongs in basketball, and are grateful that he has committed his considerable talent to help the Liberty succeed.”

As the WNBA enters its 19th season, the league must remain true to its core identity. All current and potential leaders should be held accountable for their actions. A generation of young girls and women are closely watching how the WNBA responds to its Isiah Thomas problem.

Diana Taurasi: The Value Of A WNBA Superstar

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com SportsMoney (February 9, 2015)

Last September, I sat courtside at the 2014 WNBA Finals and watched Diana Taurasi lead the Phoenix Mercury to its third WNBA Championship (2007, 2009, and 2014). While Taurasi was named the 2014 Finals MVP, in true leader form, she gave equal credit for the Mercury’s regular season and playoff success to her teammates. At that moment, I was sure Taurasi would be motivated and ready to lead the Mercury to a back-to-back championship in 2015.

However, when you are a seasoned professional athlete, sometimes other factors take priority over winning. For Taurasi, in 2015 her health will take precedence. For this reason, she is choosing to sit out the 19th WNBA season.

There is no question that she made one of the most difficult decisions of her professional career. No one enjoys winning – or hating to lose – more than Taurasi. Do not forget, prior to the WNBA she amassed a 139-8 winning record at UConn and won three NCAA Championships.

Uncasville, CT – July 27, 2013 – Mohegan Sun Arena: Diana Taurasi of the West team during the 2013 WNBA All-Star Game (Photo by Allen Kee / ESPN Images)

Uncasville, CT – July 27, 2013 – Mohegan Sun Arena: Diana Taurasi of the West team during the 2013 WNBA All-Star Game (Photo by Allen Kee / ESPN Images)

Since 2004, the first overall draft pick, seven-time WNBA all-star, and three-time Olympic gold medalist (2004, 2008, and 2012) has been playing basketball year-round.

She deserves a break.

The WNBA and its President, Laurel J. Richie, respect Taurasi’s decision to rest in 2015.

“She has been playing competitively for ten years, year-round, with very little downtime. She is taking this opportunity to rest, and I completely understand that,” said Richie during a phone interview with FORBES.com. “She deserves to rest, and I think she will come back terrific in 2016.”

Resting is not a new phenomenon for the WNBA. In 2012, Taurasi played only eight games. Other current and former players, such as Candace Parker and Lisa Leslie, have also rested for personal reasons, such as maternity leaves.

Although, Taurasi’s decision to rest adds a financial element to the equation, which women’s basketball has not experienced before.

In her letter to the fans, she stated, “The year-round nature of women’s basketball takes its toll and the financial opportunity with my team in Russia would have been irresponsible to turn down.”

She went on to say, “They offered to pay me to rest and I’ve decided to take them up on it. I want to be able to take care of myself and my family when I am done playing.”

Truthfully, Taurasi probably could have kept the fact that she is being paid to rest as a private matter, but leading has and will always be what she does best.

Whether she meant to or not, Taurasi is guiding the league into a new conversation – the value of a WNBA superstar.

There are plenty of unanswered questions and widespread speculation surrounding the impact that Taurasi’s decision will have in the league, as well as future collective bargaining. Is this situation an exception or is it a new norm? Will other overseas teams offer incentives for WNBA players to sit out and rest? How do we continue to increase the value for athletes to play in the WNBA?

Here is what we know so far:

New Territory Equals Progress. Take a depth breath – the conversation that we are having is actually a good thing. ESPN basketball analyst and former WNBA head coach and general manager, Carolyn Peck, spoke with FORBES.com and offered her insight. She shared that prior discussions about the WNBA primarily centered on how to build a professional women’s basketball league. Additionally, during her tenure the association paid the players and controlled free agency – not the franchises. Further, Peck explained that the WNBA is entering a new territory, and the steady debated surrounding Taurasi’s decision means that it is becoming a legitimate professional sports league.

Yes, we spent many years debating and forecasting whether the WNBA would survive or fold. In 2014, viewership and attendance numbers increased – 2% and 1% respectively, plus five franchises posted a profit. During the off season, HARMAN (audio equipment company) and Kaiser Permanente (health care coverage provider) signed on as new partners. It appears that we have finally buried those old headlines, and moved on to a topic that every other major professional sports league tackles.

Everyone Wants Player Salaries Increased. As it stands, women in the United States earn somewhere between $0.77 to $0.80 cents on the dollar in comparison to men. The theme of women being paid less for equal work carries into professional sports. BBC News recently reported that Cristiano Ronaldoearns 83 times more than top U.S. female soccer player Alex Morgan’s salary of $282,000. And take a breeze through FORBES’ 2014 list of the world’s 100 highest-paid athletes where you will find that only three women made the cut.

While change won’t happen overnight, part of the discussion is, “How do we get there?”

According to Peck, now that the WNBA has its footing with talented players who are sought after all over the world, the league can longer remain focused on paying them enough to live. Now, it must identify their actual value, which she recognizes is a business decision that the owners need to take a hard look at.

Seattle Storm owner, Ginny Gilder, discussed her point-of-view regarding WNBA salaries during a 2011 interview with FORBES.com

Gilder said, “I’d love us to have to get to the point where we have to be on that slippery slope of determining what the right salary is for our top players, and really confront and have a healthy dialogue so we don’t go the route of men’s professional sports.”

“I want our players to stay connected to their community and that means making good money, so they don’t have to play abroad maybe, but not money that ends up disconnecting them from their fans. I don’t necessarily know where that is, but I want us to have the financial stability as a league to be in that conversation.”

Under the current six-year WNBA Collective Bargaining Agreement (ratified in 2014), in 2015 the minimum player salary for 0-2 years of service is $38,913 and $55,275 for 3+ years of service; the maximum player salary is anywhere between $107,000 – $109,500. Outside of the base salaries, the players also receive year-end bonuses for awards or reaching the post-season, year-round health/dental benefits, tuition reimbursements, and an in-season housing allowance.

Some commentators suggest that one way to increase player salaries is to decrease what the coaches are earning. While the assertion is correct that athletes, such as Taurasi, often contribute more value to an organization than the coaches, Richie notes that the current compensation structure should be viewed in context. Specifically, the coaches, more often than not, are year-round employees who assume additional roles including scouting or being the general manager. Therefore, decreasing front-office wages is not necessarily the answer.

The WNBA Has Legitimate Superstars. The WNBA’s talent pool is heads and shoulders above where it once was when the league was founded in 1997. The quality of the competition has grown exponentially, and the WNBA now has legitimate superstars. This shift is evidenced by Taurasi’s contract with the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg, which is reportedly valued at $1.5 million. Parker, who plays for the LA Sparks, is her current teammate, and Sue Bird, who plays for the Seattle Storm, was her teammate.

Peck notes, “There are only a few [players] making that kind of money.” She went on to say, “What the league has to look at is there are players that are not Diana Taurasi caliber making Diana Taurasi money in the WNBA…There are players who are making about as much money as the can make in the WNBA and then their supplemental income is of a smaller amount as opposed to the way Diana’s situation is.”

Peck and other analysts recommend that the league consider establishing a system where core players would be paid substantially more than similarly situated veterans; so that making it more valuable for the superstars to play in the league. In return, these players would agree not to sit out WNBA seasons.

Another approach is for the WNBA to adopt a Designated Player Rule, which is a model currently used by Major League Soccer. This exception allows a team to “acquire up to three players whose salaries exceed their budget charges, with the club bearing financial responsibility for the amount of compensation above each player’s budget charge.”

When FORBES.com asked Richie about the WNBA incorporating a similar structure, she explained that the league in partnership with the player’s union recently negotiated a new agreement that goes for the next 6 to 8 years, and not long ago had robust discussions on the topic. The WNBAPA could not be reached for comment.

WNBA Offers Exposure. While women’s professional basketball continues to grow globally, playing in the U.S. and the WNBA is the gold standard. Even though the WNBA is a young league, the caliber of players produced in the U.S. is sought-after overseas.

“I hear all the time from our players the advantages they see in playing in the WNBA. First and foremost as athletes and competitors, it is the notion of playing with and against that very best in the WNBA,” said Richie when discussing the benefits of playing in the league.

“As professional athletes who are interested in reaching the highest level of their game, the competition of the WNBA is critical to their development as an athlete. The second piece I hear very often is the visibility of the WNBA. It is recognized worldwide as attracting the best women’s basketball players in the world.”

Essentially, if the WNBA was not viable option for women’s basketball players, the valuable contracts doled out overseas would not exist. Therefore, the next phase in the league’s evolution is to ensure that its superstars, such as Taurasi, continue to have an incentive to play in the WNBA and it is increasingly valuable for them to do so.

WNBA Captures Fans, Ends Regular Season With Record Growth

logoWinning in the world of sports boils down to execution. Make plays. Score points. Win games. Become a champion.

The same can be said for the business of sports. Create a plan. Market the product. Identify sponsors. Sell tickets. Capture fans.

Historically, professional sports franchises and leagues that thrive season after season, on and off the playing field have mastered the art of execution. In the case of the WNBA, the last several seasons under the direction of President Laurel J. Richie, the league refocused its business strategy while placing an emphasis on execution, and it shows.

Richie, who is a seasoned corporate marketer and brand strategist, worked with her team to create a new identity for the WNBA that is more aligned with where the league is today. Gone is the original and outdated red, white, and blue logo, and it is replaced with a modern orange and oatmeal logo featuring an athletic silhouette. The league also extended its television agreement with ESPN an additional six years, taking its partnership through 2022.

On the marketing front, the WNBA highlighted its much anticipated rookie class, including Brittney Griner (Phoenix Mercury), Elena Delle Donne(Chicago Sky), and Skylar Diggins (Tulsa Shock), as the “3 to See”; and the rookies lived up to everyone’s expectations. Delle Donne was the first rookie to lead All-Star voting, and she finished the season with Rookie of the Year honors. Diggins and the Shock did not experience success on the court this season, but the team was one of the most popular teams in terms of merchandise and jersey sales. Griner played above the rim, dunking twice in her WNBA debut and setting the record for most dunks in a single game.

The league also introduced a new partnership with State Farm Insurance, where it served as the presenting partner of the 2013 WNBA Draft and WNBA Community Assist Award, as well as the half-time sponsor of nationally televised games on ABC and ESPN2.

In the end, the WNBA accomplished exactly what it set out to do: capture fans.

The league experienced an increase in television viewership. ESPN2 averaged 231,000 viewers, which is a 28% increase over last season. The opening day telecast featuring Delle Donne and the Chicago Sky versus Griner and the Phoenix Mercury delivered the 455,000 viewers, which was the most-watch game WNBA game on ESPN2 since 2004. Fan attendance jumped in Chicago(+17%), Phoenix(+9%), and Indiana (+8%), and the league as a whole saw a 1% increase.

And those fans who were not utilizing traditional forms of media, they followed the WNBA via digital formats, including WNBA.com and LiveAccess which both experienced double digit growth.

As the WNBA continues to execute its plan for growing women’s professional basketball, the league should continue to see its business metrics elevate season-after-season.

In Its 17th Season, The WNBA Continues To Defy Odds

logoThe WNBA is well-managed but is fighting for its life,” said a world-renowned sports journalist.

My jaw dropped when I read that statement earlier this year. Since 1997, the WNBA’s inaugural season, the same recycled storyline has been printed year after year.

Despite continued criticism and predictions of failure, the longest-running women’s professional basketball league in the U.S. is holding its own and not folding anytime soon.

It’s the WNBA’s 17th season, viewership is up +86% on NBA TV and up +41% on ESPN2Attendance is up .3% but more importantly gate receipts are up +18%.Merchandise sales are up +36% with the “3 to See” rookies claiming the top three spots on the league’s top-selling jersey list. Additionally, national brands are on board as key sponsors, including State Farm Insurance, Jamba Juice, Boost Mobile, and most recently, Procter & Gamble (P&G).

Announced this week, the new partnership with P&G blends, the world’s largest and most profitable consumer packaged goods company, with the WNBA’s key-markets and its commitment to empowering women and girls. In 2012, P&G amassed $83.6 billion in sales and more than $10 billion in net earnings. Its beauty, grooming, and healthcare household names, such as Secret, Tampax, Cover Girl, and My Black is Beautiful, are focal points of the multi-brand partnership.

It’s the WNBA’s 17th season, and it is time to retire the outdated rhetoric.

“I believe we are going to look back at the 17thseason and say it was a significant summer in the history and development of the WNBA,” said WNBA President Laurel J. Richie.

Forbes.com caught up with President Richie to discuss the league’s business partnerships, the rebranding initiative, and the 2013 All-Star Game; here are highlights from her remarks.

On the Partnership with Procter & Gamble

Richie: I had the opportunity to connect with P&G at an ESPNW summit and we had a great conversation. We spent a couple of days with a larger group talking about women’s sports and the WNBA in particular. I knew that they were a partner of ours, so I wanted to reengage in discussions with them. As they understood more about what we are trying to do and where the WNBA is today, and in thinking of some of the terrific programming that they have with My Black is Beautiful and Imagine the Future, it made sense for us to come together.

On the Marquee Partnership with Boost Mobile

Richie: We continue to be excited about being in partnership with Boost Mobile. It’s All About The Wwas a creative concept that they came up with, and we were thrilled with. My team teases me, in that meeting, they had not even finished presenting, and I said yes. I knew it was such a big and powerful idea. When brands are aligned, it creates a real opportunity for a terrific creative expression.

On the WNBA’s “3 to See” Rookies

Richie: We’re seeing this wonderful combination of great energy and excitement around our rookies, but also I would say significant breakout performances from our veterans. The combination has taken the level of competition to new heights. They’ve garnered a lot of attention, and they have brought additional viewers and fans.  Not only did we have high expectations for these rookies, but the broader sports community, as well.  I was amazed at the level of discussion taking place between the end of the college season, our draft, which was in primetime for the first time, and then their first games.

On Attendance Figures

Richie: I literally watch the attendance numbers every morning, and there’s some up and down. I think a lot of that has to do with what the schedule looks like. For many teams camp days and school days are big attendance drivers. My guess is our attendance will be solid this year. We’ll have to wait until we get a little bit further and get some of the signature game day events under our belt. But I am encouraged by the renewal rates of our season ticket holders and what we’re seeing as an uptick in individual sales and game day sales.

On Rebranding the WNBA

Richie: The rebranding is both visual and how we talk about the league. It is the total package that has been very well received by fans, players, and our partners. One, they appreciated that the catalyst for the rebranding was to make sure that our visual identity was a true reflection of the athleticism and diversity of today’s players. The second piece was making sure that it felt fresh and contemporary. People have said it is part of the many reasons why fans are feeling a renewed sense of energy and excitement about the WNBA.

On the 2013 All-Star Game

Richie: I think fans are going to see great basketball this weekend. It’s always interesting to see the fan choices for the starting lineup, and I think they did a good job. There’s no one on the list that you’re not excited to see both as an individual player and playing together.

For more about the WNBA, tune into the Boost Mobile 2013 WNBA All-Star Game, hosted by the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, airing on ABC Saturday, July 27, at 3:30 p.m.

What To Watch: WNBA’s ‘3 To See’ Pushes Mainstream Interest To Its Tipping Point

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This story originally appeared on Forbes.com (5/27/2013)

By now (unless you’ve momentarily stepped away from the sports landscape) you’ve been introduced to the WNBA’s 3 To See rookies.

But just in case you’re in the (very small) minority, here’s a quick guide to the top three rookies:

Brittney Griner – Center – Phoenix Mercury. Griner stands 6’8” with a 7’4” wingspan. She can dunk a basketball like it’s nobody’s business (her 18 collegiate dunks account for 54.5% of the 33 by college women), and she is expected to dominate the paint just like she did in college (she’s the all-time NCAA blocks leader for women and men).

Elena Delle Donne – Guard/Forward – Chicago Sky. Delle Donne’s game is part power and finesse. When she walked away from UConn and a guaranteed national championship(s), many didn’t think her talent would ever be seen in women’s college basketball again, let alone the WNBA. But after finding her voice, Delle Donne eventually found her way back to basketball. She led the nation in scoring as a junior and finished 5th in NCAA history in career scoring.

Skylar Diggins – Guard – Tulsa Shock.Diggins was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana, so it’s safe to say she’s been a Fighting Irish her entire life. As a standout at Notre Dame, she was a four-time All-American and led her team to three straight Final Four appearances. Off the court, Diggins’ popularity has taken social media by storm; she is among the top athletes followed on Twitter (390K+).

Ok, now that you’re up to speed. Here’s something else that you might have overlooked. These world-class rookies have caught the attention of the biggest names in sports and entertainment.

Shortly before the WNBA draft, NBA MVP and All-Star, LeBron James, commented on Griner’s game. He said, “There really isn’t anyone who can match her right now. She’s too big, she’s too strong. It’s not like she’s just catching it and laying it or dunking it every time. She’s shooting turnaround jumpers. She’s drop stepping over her left shoulder, right shoulder. She’s shooting fadeaway jumpers, and she’s dunking the ball too. She’s real.”

And in the last month, Griner was spotted perfecting her skyhook with NBA legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; and Delle Donne was interviewed in prime time during the Chicago Bulls’ NBA Playoff series.

These rookies have ignited interest in the WNBA that hasn’t been seen since the leagues’s inception, and the momentum and exposure should pay off in terms of viewership and attendance.

Today the rookies are going head-to-head on ESPN2 during the league’s2013 Tip-off Week (Washington @ Tulsa – 3:00 pm EST; Chicago @ Phoenix – 5:00 pm EST).

UPDATE: After this story originally posted, the WNBA released its 2013 Tip-Off statistics. The league saw its year-to-year attendance jump by 2.7 percent and arenas filled to 85 percent capacity. The second game of the Memorial Day doubleheader featuring the Chicago Sky and Phoenix Mercury was the most-viewed WNBA game on ESPN2 in nine years, delivering 455,000 viewers. The first game of the day – the Washington Mystics vs. Tulsa Shock – attracted 314,000 viewers. Overall, the WNBA experienced a 60 percent increase over last year’s opening telecast. Also, the league saw increased traffic to WNBA.com with more than 2.2 million page views, which is an increase of over 35 percent.

Good Night Sports Fans,

Alana

It’s Official, Brittney Griner Will Be Dunking In The WNBA

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This story originally appeared on Forbes.com (4/16/2013)

Brittney Griner, the 6’8” center from Baylor University who is a four-time All-American and repeat National Player of the Year, is taking her talents to the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.

Griner, the number one pick in the2013 WNBA Draft presented by State Farm, which aired in primetime on ESPN2, has been one of the most talked about women’s basketball players since videos of herdunking in high school turned Griner into a YouTube sensation. Joining Griner in the WNBA are the other two members of the “three to see” – Elena Delle Donne (#2 pick, Chicago Sky) who is 5th in NCAA history in career scoring and Skylar Diggins (#3 pick, Tulsa Shock) a four-time All-American and two-time Big East Player of the Year.

Not since 1997 and the era of Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo, and Lisa Leslie has there been this much buzz surrounding a draft class, and much has changed in the last 16 seasons. Other than the iconic orange and oatmeal game ball, which is now the focal point of the WNBA’s new brand identity, the league is hardly recognizable. The players are faster, bigger, and stronger, and in Griner the WNBA now has one of the most dominate players that women’s basketball has ever seen.

In the weeks leading up to the draft, there was speculation that Griner would accept an offer from NBA owner, Mark Cuban, and tryout for the Dallas Mavericks. To date, Ann Meyers Drysdale is the only woman to tryout for and sign a contract with an NBA franchise. Coincidentally, Meyers Drysdale is the Mercury’s current vice president and former president and general manager.

Nonetheless, Griner took the heightened attention in stride and reiterated via social media that the WNBA has and will always be her number one priority. The WNBA also kept its focus on Griner entering the league, and WNBA President, Laurel J. Richie, is now excitedly waiting to see the impact that the NCAA’s all-time blocks leader (for women and men) will have on the game.

“I definitely want to bring it every time I step on the court,” Griner said to Forbes.com. “Anything and everything I can do to help the league and bring more excitement and followers to the game, I will go out there and do it.”

Whether you agree or disagree with Cuban’s comments, 18 career dunks, which accounts for 54.5% of the 33 by collegiate women and 3,283 career points speaks for itself. Through Griner’s talent and athleticism she transformed collegiate basketball, and in the seasons to come she is destined to do the same in the WNBA.

The 2013 WNBA season tips off on May 27 on ESPN2 with a double header featuring Washington vs. Tulsa and Chicago vs. Phoenix. For more 2013 WNBA Draft coverage click here.

Good Night Sports Fans,

Alana

WNBA, ESPN Extend Television Agreement, Announce Rebranding Initiative

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This story originally appeared on Forbes.com on 3/29/13.

On the heels of the 40th Anniversary of Title IX and USA Basketball’s London Olympics  gold medal performance, WNBA President, Laurel J. Richie, is capitalizing on women’s sports’ momentum by writing the WNBA’s next chapter.

Yesterday, Richie and John Skipper, President of ESPN, Inc. and Co-Chairman of the Disney Media Networks, announced that the WNBA and ESPN have extended their television agreement through 2022.

The new agreement expands the WNBA’spartnership with ESPN to 26 years, which dates back to the inaugural season in 1997. The network also announced up to 30 games will air yearly on ESPN Networks, including ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, and WatchESPN.

“We think this is a propitious time to do this deal, and we are pleased with where the league is after 16 years,” said Skipper. “We think there is going to be continued development, and we want to be active participants in that development.”

While the financial terms of the deal were not revealed, the WNBA and ESPN agree that the partnership is a seminal business moment for women’s sports.

“We are putting a financial commitment of our time, commitment of our executives, and commitment of our company to continue to help grow women’s sports,” Skipper said. “We are thrilled with where the league is right now and how it is doing. I see appropriate ratings, and I see growth.”

During the conversation moderated by ESPN Anchor, Hannah Storm, the WNBA and ESPN revealed that the historic announcement emanated from discussions during ESPNW’s annual summit where both partners examined what they could do to push the league forward from a practical business standpoint.

“The ESPNW Summit was a groundbreaking day for us,” said Richie. “From the WNBA perspective, we left the summit and set on a course of reimaging the WNBA.”

Here are highlights of the rebranded WNBA:

The WNBA unveiled a new brand identity, which includes a new logo that capitalizes on the signature orange-and-oatmeal color scheme of the game ball. The league recognized that the original logo and did not reflect the diversity, athleticism, and the competitive nature of the current game. The cornerstone of the new WNBA visual identity is a more modern “Logowoman” – the silhouette within the logo.

The WNBA and adidas will introduce new uniforms for the 2014 season. Currently in development, the uniforms will reflect the diversity and athleticism of today’s high performing women’s basketball players.

Under the expanded agreement, ESPN and the WNBA are exploring a host of enhancements, all designed to give fans greater access and new perspectives on the game. The enhancements include special mini-cameras worn by referees during select games giving fans an officials’ take on the action; behind-the-scenes coverage of practices, shoot arounds, and locker rooms; and current and former NBA players serving as commentators and offering a player’s perspective of the women’s game.

Needless to say, it has been a busy and productive offseason for ESPN and the WNBA. Heading towards 2022, the partners visualize the league’s continued growth and success in the areas of attendance, television ratings, and commitment of sponsors. Together, they foresee an environment where women’s sports are dramatically more important in the sports landscape than they are today.

Click here for more information about the WNBA and ESPN partnership.

WNBA: Basketball Courts Full Of Women

Binders full of women.

Whether you agree or disagree with this remark made during the second presidential debate, there is no denying that gender disparities and issues impacting women are real.

In 2012, it is tough for me to believe that we are still talking about equal pay, and trying to figure out how men and women can have it all.

Yes, I think it is possible for women to have it all; and the organization that comes to mind that is striving to make this notion a reality is the WNBA.

The women of the WNBA are businesswomen, professional athletes, partners, mothers, and role models who for 16 seasons have been championing for gender equality.

Never mind binders full of women, the WNBA has something even better – basketball courts full of women.

Last night, the league concluded its 16th season and crowned the Indiana Fever the 2012 WNBA Champions.

Earlier this year, I wrote that the Fever are writing women’s basketball’s next chapter. At the time I had no idea they would win it all. In fact, no one did. On second thought, maybe the Fever’s star forward and 12-year veteran, Tamika Catchings, knew that they would.

On the court Catchings’ resume includes an NCAA Championship at the University of Tennessee, three gold medals, five Defensive Player of the Year awards (2005, 2006, 2009, 2010, and 2012), and the 2011 MVP of the WNBA. Off the court, she is the Founder and President of the Catch the Stars Foundation, and her aspirations after basketball include becoming a general manager.

If you ask Catchings if she has it at all, my guess is that she would yes; and not because she finally won a WNBA Championship and was named the MVP of the 2012 WNBA Finals. It is because she is humble and grateful for everything single gift and opportunity that comes her way. Not to mention, she loves her job and describes it as going to gym class for a living.

Catchings’ point of view in large part represents her colleagues, but if the women of the WNBA had a wish list it would probably include increased revenue and fan attendance.  In the world of professional sports having it all not only means loving what you do, it also calls for making money and gaining fan support while doing it.

These are areas where the league is gradually gaining traction. In 2011, three of the 12 franchises (Minnesota, San Antonio, and Connecticut) posted a profit, and the league signed its first marquee partner in Boost Mobile.

While the league was not pleased with its overall 2012 attendance numbers, it experienced sell-out crowds (18,000+) in Game 3 and Game 4 of the WNBA Finals. During the WNBA Finals press conference, President Laurel Richie commented that the league intends to form strategic alliances with organizations that share their values, fan base, or potential fan base with the goal of building strong and sustainable attendance.

To gain a fan’s perspective on this topic, I spoke to a Fever faithful, Thomas Armstrong, from Indianapolis who told me that he has been supporting the team since their inception.

He remembers the days when roughly 5000 people came to Bankers Life Fieldhouse to watch the Fever play. “Everyone knew everybody. Now I’ve noticed that the crowd is larger. More guys and young fellas are coming to the games,” said Armstrong.

When I asked him what it would take for more sports fans to support the WNBA, he looked dead in my eyes and said, “More people like you reporting and talking about it.”

Thomas Armstrong from Indianapolis, Indiana, I heard your loud and clear. Here are highlights from the 2012 WNBA Season, basketball courts full of women…

Television Ratings:

  • Game 2 of the WNBA Finals between the Indiana Fever and Minnesota Lynx on October 17 was the most viewed and highest rated WNBA Playoff game on ESPN since 1999. The previous record is the 1999 WNBA Western Conference Finals (Houston Comets vs. Los Angeles Sparks) that had 1,052,000 viewers and 1.1 household rating. Overall, the game generated 778,000 viewers and .6 household rating, according to Nielsen. Game 2 peaked with 1,011,000 viewers (9:15 – 9:30 pm ET) and .8 rating (9:30 – 9:45 pm ET).
  • The WNBA Draft Lottery drew 700,000 viewers, appearing for the first time on ESPN’s signature show SportsCenter.

Ticket Sales:

 

  • Within 48 hours of the WNBA Draft Lottery, the Phoenix Mercury has sold over 150 season tickets.
  • Season Ticket Renewals (across the league) for 2013 are already up 10% versus this time last year.
  • In 2012, partial plan ticket sales increased by 6% and group ticket sales increased by 7%.

Sponsorships:

  • During the 2012 season, team sponsorships increased by 10%.
  • Boost Mobile completed its first full season as the WNBA’s league-wide partner. The wireless providerpresented the 2012 Draft, Performance Awards, Playoffs, and the Championship.
  • Anheuser‑Busch and SAP joined the WNBA as two new sponsors.
  • Finish Line, Inc., a national retailer of athletic shoes, apparel and accessories, will be the Indiana Fever’s marquee sponsor beginning in 2013. This jersey sponsorship will be the sixth of its kind in the WNBA, joining the Phoenix Mercury (LifeLock, Inc.), New York Liberty (Foxwoods Resort Casino), Seattle Storm (Bing), Los Angeles Sparks (Farmers Insurance Group), and Washington Mystics (Inova Health System).

Good Night Sports Fans,

Alana

Jamba Juice And The WNBA: The Anatomy Of A Healthy Living Partnership

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com (October 11, 2012)

America is a sport obsessed nation.

In 2011, Americans watched 42,500 hours of live sporting events on national broadcast and cable television, a 5% increase from 2010. This time last year, 463,664,000

video streams took place on sports websites by 35 million consumers (Source: Nielsen’s State of the Media: 2011 Year in Sports).

Considering so many people are watching sports, it seems hardly plausible that more than one-third (35.7%) of adults in the United States are obese, and approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents are obese (Source: Centers for Disease Control).

It wasn’t that long ago when we all wanted to “Be Like Mike.” Somewhere, somehow, we lost our way.

Who is to blame?

At this stage, we are well beyond the blame game. It is predicted that if Americans continue down the current unhealthy path more than half of the country could be obese by 2030 (Source: The Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation).

Now the conversation must shift toward solutions.

The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), in its 16th season is the longest running women’s professional basketball league in the United States, and the Jamba Juice Company (NASDAQ: JMBA), a leading healthy, active lifestyle company headquartered in Emeryville California, have pledged to become part of the solution.

For 20 plus years, Jamba Juice has been on a mission to simplify and improve healthy living. The company struggled during the early part of the recession with declining stock prices and profitability. However, after repositioning the brand, appointing new leadership, and implementing its Blend Plan 2.0, Jamba Juice has since experienced accelerated growth.

Last year, the company posted $226.4 million in revenue, and in August 2012 it reported a seventh consecutive quarter of system-wide store sales growth. Today, Jamba Juice operates 783 locations globally (305 company-owned/operated and 478 franchises); and over the course of the last 18 months, it has opened 30 stores in three international markets (South Korea, Canada, and the Philippines).

In 2010, the retailer expanded its reach into professional sports with a multi-year sponsorship deal with the WNBA. Recently, I spoke withJames D. White, Chairman, President, and CEO, and Julie S. Washington, Senior Vice President and Chief Brand Officer, who discussed Jamba Juice’s mission-driven brand, its vision to simplify healthy living, and its commitment to the WNBA.

Here are highlights from our conversation…

On Jamba Juice’s partnership with the WNBA…

White: I have been a passionate advocate for women across my career. For me, it is about leveling the playing field for women and making sure they get real opportunities. We are huge fans of the WNBA, one for the incredible family friendly entertainment, but more importantly the example it sets for young girls and young women. This is the one league where there is a significant number of women ownership, which we think is a big deal. I’d love to see many more people be exposed to the WNBA, its players, and the brand. We have had nothing short of exceptional experience with the teams, the league, and the leadership of the WNBA.

Washington: As you look at the WNBA, the entity, the respective teams and players, they are very community connected. Jamba is very much about a store in your community that then moves it from just being a retailer to being part of your life. When you look at the WNBA, their players are not just celebrities on the court. They are a part of the fan-base and the community in which they live. Here, we have players who are genuinely willing to be a part of the different opportunities, and they are great role models.

 

On Team Up for a Healthy America and the fight against childhood obesity…

Washington:Team Up is a grassroots social media campaign. When we talk about healthy living we wanted to make sure that we had a holistic approach to it. Team Up allows us to provide simple and fun solutions for kids in addition for adults. When you come to the website and pledge weekly in the program, we give fun but easy activities that allow people to form healthy habits. When you pledge, Jamba gives monetary donations, and in turn we have been able to buy equipment and items for schools. At the end of the day, what is our role and how can we have an impact on childhood obesity? We know that nutrition is important, which is a core part of Jamba.

On the relationship between corporate responsibility and healthy living….

White: We have been on a very clear path to inspire and simplify healthy living. As a corporation versus this being a campaign, it is who are. At the DNA level of our corporation, we have always been actively invested in our local communities. The investment has always been around youth sports, physical activity, and getting people engaged in creating a healthier lifestyle. It is very much part and parcel to who we are as a company.

 

On accomplishing goals and objectives with the WNBA Partnership…

White: We have and we wanted to accomplish three or four primary objectives. We wanted to expose the great fan base of the WNBA to the Jamba brand in as many ways as we could. That has been a great success so far in the partnership. We also wanted to capitalize on our common interest in kids and local communities.  We’ve found many ways to partner and impact the local communities that we do business in. Importantly, we had an objective to get to know some of the players and engage the women of the WNBA.

At the intersection of professional sports, business, and nutrition, you will find Jamba Juice and the WNBA promoting healthy living and “teaming up” to combat obesity. For more information about the fight against childhood obesity visit www.JambaJuice.com and www.WNBA.com.

How The WNBA Inspires A Generation Of Athletes

(Originally posted on Forbes.com on 9/18/2012)

The motto from the 2012 Olympic Games was Inspire a Generation. Last week, the WNBA carried that motto into its 2012 Inspiring Women Luncheon where the league honored Team USA’s female medalists with its WNBA Inspiration Award. 

The select group of athletes who represented Team USA included: Betsey Armstrong (Gold Medal, Water Polo),Tamika Catchings (Gold Medal, Basketball), Kayla Harrison (Gold Medal, Judo), Paige McPherson (Gold Medal, Taekwondo), Taylor Ritzel (Gold Medal, Rowing), Danielle Scott-Arruda(Silver Medal, Volleyball), Claressa Shields (Gold Medal, Boxing), Lauren Tamayo (Silver Medal, Cycling), Logan Maile Lei Tom (Silver Medal, Volleyball), and Venus Williams (Gold Medal, Tennis).

These distinguished women were honored, not just because of their athletic accomplishments, winning 58 of the 104 medals and 29 of the 46 gold medals, but for their determination, courage, and strength. They inspire us to reach higher and dream bigger, which unquestionably embodies the mission of the WNBA, showing the world what is possible.

“This team is a persuasive and powerful proof point of the impact of Title IX,” said WNBA President Laurel J. Richie. “The breadth and depth of the events in which these women competed, and the compelling story of their journey to the Olympic stage is nothing short of inspiring. The women of Team USA are in my mind truly and unequivocally champions of achievement.”

Four-time Olympic gold medalist, Venus Williams, spoke on behalf of Team USA and graciously thanked the WNBA for the honor.

“Sports makes life better. It helps women become more successful and feel more confident. It is wonderful because young women do need role models, and young women need to know that they can achieve,” said Williams. “We are all here because we believe in women’s sports, we believe in women’s basketball, and we believe in women athletes.”

Yes, believing in women’s sports is what elevated women’s participation in Olympics events from 13% in 1964 to 44% in 2012.

Believing in women’s basketball is why the U.S. National Team has won five consecutive gold medals and 100 million girls and women worldwide play basketball.

Believing in women athletes is how two teenagers from Compton California began playing tennis simply because it was their dream, and now their careers are bigger than they ever imagined.

Nothing short of inspiring. 

Good Night Sports Fans,

Alana 

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