WNBA President Lisa M. Borders Says NBA, WNBA Are Joined At The Hip

As women’s collegiate basketball is on the verge of crowning its 2016 national champion, the NCAA Tournament does not end the basketball conversation; rather it shifts toward the professional level – the WNBA.

The league is entering its 20th season with a brand-new marquee partner, Verizon, and a new president – Lisa M. Borders.

new_wnba_logo_tsBorders joins the WNBA after serving as chair of The Coca-Cola Foundation and vice president of Global Community Affairs. In that position, she articulated the values of the company by virtue of its charitable giving and heightened Coca-Cola’s brand by strengthening communities in 207 countries around the globe. Now, Borders is charged with an almost identical task in elevating the WNBA’s brand in its current 12 markets and future markets.

Handpicked by NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, to lead the league, Borders is certainly no stranger to the WNBA. She was instrumental in its expansion to Atlanta in 2008 and has been on the sidelines as a long-time Dream season ticket holder ever since.

And if anyone doubted whether championing female athletes is her top priority, on Borders’ first day on the job, she released a statement on behalf of the WNBA regarding comments made by former Indian Wells CEO, Raymond Moore, about the women of the WTA.

Borders said: “At a time when the physical and emotional benefits of athletic participation have never been more clear, we need to empower female athletes and promote opportunities for girls and women to play sports, rather than promote outdated, offensive and uninformed opinions.”

I spoke with Borders shortly after the WNBA presidency announcement. We discussed her passion for women’s basketball, what she sees for the future of the league, and how she plans to collaborate with Commissioner Silver. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Glass: You’re adding to a trend that I’ve seen where fans, female fans, have moved from the sidelines and have stepped up and taken leadership positions within the WNBA.  We saw that in Los Angeles with its former ownership group and the current owners in Seattle who were season ticket holders.  Now, you’re moving from the Dream sidelines to the league office. What was it about the WNBA that attracted you to the presidency position?

Borders: I do things that make me happy, that are important to me. And passion is my barometer for that; how excited do I get when I go to a game or talk about it or read about the WNBA.  And I get incredibly excited about it.

That passion was turned up in 2007 when Donna Orender, my predecessor, came to Atlanta to invite us to consider having a team here.  I was a bit by the bug, but it was cemented when I went to a luncheon in New York where she and her team then were launching a program called Inspiring Women. And Madeleine Albright was the keynote speaker. What stood out to me most was she made a statement that, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women.” I picked up my phone and said we’re bringing a team to Atlanta.  We put together a group to do just that.  So my passion was as a season ticket holder yesterday and today as an appointed president of the WNBA.

Glass:  You’re moving from a consumer products company, Coca-Cola, to professional sports. How do you view your background in leading within a global brand?  How will it translate to your new role in leading the WNBA brand?

Borders: There are great skills at the league office, and they are very deep in sports management and organizational management. I view my skills as complimentary to what’s already there.  We’ve got people who are marketing experts.  We’ve got those who are business operations experts. I see myself as the tip of the spear but as a part of a much larger organization, not just the league office, but the 12 teams in the markets that they play in today.  Everybody has a role to play, and mine is to be out front and make sure that we are getting it right. Listening to all the voices, being as inclusive as we can be, being as transparent as we can be, and being as accountable as we can be. I see my skills as completely complimentary to those that are already present to help elevate the WNBA to its next level of maturity.

Glass:  WNBA fans are excited about the 20th season. Fans who have been following the league are asking questions wanting to know about increased attendance, viewership, and marketing. And wanting to know what those strategies look like moving into Season 20. What can you share about the league’s strategies in those areas?

Borders: Certainly, the 20th year is an opportunity for us to reevaluate what’s working, what’s not working, and are there new things that we should be doing. All of our stakeholders have a point of view on what we could be doing to make the experience even better and to make it even more attractive to current fans and fans that we are hopeful will come and join us.

My first thought is fans need an opportunity to experience a game.  If they can come to a game, it’s fantastic. The deal that we’ve struck with ESPN where they are broadcasting live all of the playoff games, that’s a new and improved opportunity for people to get a front-row seat at the WNBA. NBA TV has 40 games going, and we’ve got Live Access. I hear the fans loud and clear, but I don’t want to get out too far in front of my colleagues who have done great work thus far.

Glass: You mentioned earlier about stakeholders and individuals with whom you’ll be working with. The Associated Press reported that Commissioner Adam Silver asked you if you’d be interested in the position. And we all know that no one is more important to the future of the WNBA than Commissioner Silver, who was very instrumental in the league being launched in 1997. How will you and the WNBA collaborate with Commissioner Silver?

Borders: Adam and I are joined at the hip on this one. I asked him initially when we had a conversation about the WNBA and this role if he was committed. I didn’t ask him if he wrote the business plan. I didn’t ask him how he did it. I asked him if he believed in this league.  And he assured me unequivocally that he was 1,000 percent committed. Because in the absence of commitment, it doesn’t matter who wrote the business plan. If you don’t have belief at the very top of the organization, it’s not going to work. And so I agree with you 100 percent that without Adam’s full stamp of approval or his fingerprints on this, it doesn’t work.

We are joined at the hip, and I recognize that the NBA and the WNBA are joined at the hip.  There are things that we do; we leverage inside the business because there are economies of scale that can be garnered by the two leagues working together. So at a minimum, we are operating as efficiently as we can by leveraging resources.  If we are not philosophically aligned, it doesn’t matter how many resources are leveraged.

Glass:  As you move into the start of the season, tell me, what are you most excited about? What successes from the previous 19 seasons are you hoping to build on?

Borders: I want to celebrate where we’ve come from. We tend, I think, as human beings, not to celebrate the successes.  We tend to look at what there is yet to be done. I think there’s an opportunity to build on the folks that have come before us. We’ve got an extraordinary group of women, past, present and, ultimately, those that we will have in the future who will have the opportunity to live out their dreams and the full potential of their lives.

Lesa France Kennedy, International Speedway Corporation Debut $400 Million DAYTONA Rising

Lesa France Kennedy, who topped Forbes’ list of the Most Powerful Women in Sports and serves as the Chief Executive Officer of the International Speedway Corporation (ISC), has added another accomplishment to her impressive credentials – constructing the world’s first motorsports stadium.

Led by Kennedy and ISC, which in 2015 accumulated $645.4 million in total revenue, DAYTONA Rising is the $400 million redevelopment project that is reimagining the American Icon – Daytona International Speedway (DIS).

After 31 months of construction, DAYTONA Rising features 101,500 permanent and wider seating and 60 luxury suites with a revamped hospitality area.

The massive redesign includes 11 football –field sized social areas (called “neighborhoods”) featuring dining and retail amenities. Four of those neighborhoods are sponsored by founding corporate partners – Toyota, Florida Hospital, Chevrolet and SunocLFK1-5502-1940x1385o – that each hold the naming rights to one of five injectors. The redesigned entrances include over 20,000 square feet of fan engagement and vertically span four concourse levels.

“Daytona Rising is going to help us launch new events,” said Kennedy while noting the expanding business opportunities for DIS, such as hosting the Country 500 during Memorial Day weekend and the Ferrari World Finals in December 2016 – the first time this event will be held in North America. “I think it is going to propel us to a whole new level when it comes to reaching fans and providing entertainment and content.”

Beyond racing, ISC and Kennedy are constructing ONE DAYTONA – an $120-150 million 181-acre retail, entertainment and dining complex located directly across from DIS. Anchored by Bass Pro Shops, Cobb Theaters and Marriott Autograph Collection, the phased development project is set to open in 2017.

Leading up to the 58th Daytona 500, I caught with Kennedy to discuss DAYTONA Rising, the growth of ISC, and what she sees for the future of motorsports. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Glass: The Daytona 500 is an iconic Great American Race and you have been connected to it for so many years. What are your thoughts about this year’s Daytona 500?

Kennedy: All of us are very excited about it because the speedway itself has been totally transformed into a modern day sports stadium. It is one of the most unique properties that I have ever seen. You have to see it to believe it and to appreciate and understand it. The magnitude of it is just amazing.

Glass: As you mentioned, Daytona Rising is the world’s first motorsports stadium. It took over 31 months of construction, and I am sure it was a labor of love. Looking back from when you started the project to where you are now, what were some of the highlights and points of interest?

Kennedy: One thing that stands out for me is the involvement of our founding partners.  They signed on early, and they were part of the design process, which has contributed to the uniqueness of this stadium. They each have a 20,000 square foot footprint if you will, and it is very interactive. It is a different way to display their products and to get in front of the race fans, and it is also very entertaining. I think the fans are going to love it.

Glass: Speaking of the fans, how have they reacted now that construction is complete?

Kennedy: We opened for the Rolex 24 event, and they were just overwhelmed. It was fun for me because we had a chance to see fans experience it for the first time. They would walk through the stadium with a whole new look about them. It was real exciting to see their first reactions.

Glass: Going back to your founding corporate partners – Florida Hospital, Sunoco, Toyota and Chevrolet. What does it mean to have these valuable brands on board, not only in terms of the Daytona Rising but to motorsports in general?

Kennedy: Our fans are the most loyal in all of sports, and they are very loyal to the brands that participate in NASCAR. We are very proud of the way they designed and displayed their products. It goes back to the close nature the fans have with the products and also with the brands. The way they have displayed it is in an interactive fashion, so it is not just passive. It is an entertaining experience between the fans and the brands.

Glass: Looking back at 2015, ISC had a banner year by exceeding financial expectations. What attributed to the growth and what are you anticipating for 2016, especially in light of the new Daytona Rising project?

Kennedy: You saw a lot of excitement and enthusiasm that was building throughout last year. And a lot of that was the momentum of the new Chase format. We saw that anticipation building all the way through that event. There were four events that were sold out last year; Watkins Glen International, Phoenix International Raceway, Auto Club Speedway and Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Leading up that all really elevated and launched us into the start of this season. So the Chase format in combination with the Daytona 500 and the new Daytona Rising I think elevates it to a whole new level.

Glass:  I understand that there is a new NASCAR charter system that was recently announced. There is anticipation that it will help with growth initiatives, track partners, as well as manufacturers and sponsors. I know it is very early in the announcement, but do you anticipate that this new system will flow into the business side – not only at DIS but as well as your other tracks?

Kennedy: I can speak about it from the track standpoint. The certainty provided to all the stakeholders will be very beneficial to the business, to the sport, and long term – the fans. I want to give you an example of the five-year sanction agreement. It is going to give the tracks the ability to see their schedules in the future and to have the certainty that they want to be able to invest in these facilities. It will give sponsors long-term visibility and overall it is going to be good for the sport. Talking about the five-year sanction agreements, often times our fans will plan way in advance their vacations surrounding our events. This is going to give them a chance to plan further ahead and to anticipate the events.

NFL Women’s Summit: Condoleezza Rice Talks Diversity And Inclusion In Sports

Dr. Condoleezza Rice did not set out be the first and only female member of the CollegeFootball Playoff Selection Committee. And she did not set out to break the long-standing male-only membership tradition at Augusta National Golf Club.

Her goal has always been to follow what she loves.

NFLWMA-P20107_IN_v3.indd“I think the truth of the matter is, people who end up as ‘first’ don’t actually set out to be first. They set out to do something they love and it just so happens that they are the first to do it,” said Rice, who discussed her historic achievements in sports during her remarks at the NFL’s Women’s Summit.

“I don’t tend to think about I am the first this, or I am breaking that ceiling. What you want to do, you want simply to seek to do things you enjoy – that you think you might be good at. Then once you are there, make sure you are not the last.”

While addressing an audience of 250 influencers in sports including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and tennis legend Billie Jean King, Rice noted that once someone has been the first, they have an obligation to make it possible for others to do what they have done.

When asked to speak about hurdles that still exist today for minorities and women in the sports industry, Rice used the example of faculty hiring at universities and filling corporate board vacancies.

She explained that there is a tendency in these sectors to look in the same places year after year for experienced candidates. Thus, employers repeatedly hire identical applicants.

“Part of the challenge of breaking through is to change traditional patterns of hiring and advancement. It is not a question of people don’t have merit or they aren’t as good, or they have to make a compromise,” said Rice.

Therefore, Rice recommends looking outside of normal channels for qualified women and minority candidates. This is why she believes the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operations vacancies and now mandates that league-wide women must be interviewed for executive openings, is so important.

“When you are told that you have to diversify your pool, you will get remarkable candidates within that pool. Sometimes hurdles are not conscious hurdles, ” Rice said.

“People are not trying to discount or keep women or minorities out. But they keep looking in the same channels; they keep finding the same people who are overwhelmingly white and male. So, it is a reason to be creative in your hiring.”

On the other side, Rice thinks that women and minorities also need to say, “I don’t see barriers.”

She said: “There is a kind of toughness that has to come with being different and that is not going to change. It goes both ways; the opportunities have to be opened up because people have to be looking. And those of us who are minority and female have to say, ‘I am going to breakthrough. I don’t care what the numbers look like .’”

For more about the NFL Women’s Summit click here #InTheHuddle. Have something to say about this story? Comment below or share it here.

Watch Me Work, A Campaign To Salute The WNBA’s 20th Season

 

On June 21, 1997, the WNBA started its inaugural season by declaring “We Got Next.” The slogan – an ode to playground basketball – symbolically announced that the fledgling league was taking the court. It featured Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo and Sheryl Swoopes who were one-year removed from capturing Olympic gold and turning our attention to the future of women’s professional basketball.

Speaking of the future, season-after-season we knew that the next generation was watching the WNBA on television, cheering in the stands, and practicing in their driveways. We knew that more players would eventually play above the rim, the competition would get tougher, and countless girls would dream of winning a WNBA championship.

As the WNBA entenew_wnba_logo_tsrs its 20th season, those once nameless girls are now professional basketball players with the likes of Sue Bird, Skylar Diggins and Candace Parker.

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In the league’s newest marketing campaign – Watch Me Work – it highlights the legacy of its past while reminding fans just how far the W has come.

“20 years ago, players like Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper and Rebecca Lobo broke barriers with the founding of this league,” said Pam EL, Executive Vice President, Chief Marketing Officer for the WNBA, NBA and NBDL.

“And 20 years later we have these amazing players, like Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Brittney Griner, who are doing what they do on the court because of the inspiration that they found in those players 20 years ago.”

As El directs the WNBA’s brand development, overall marketing and advertising, she notes that it was during her time while serving as a marketing VP at State Farm Insurance – a WNBA sponsor – when she developed her appreciation for the players and fans of the league.

“When you think about our amazing athletes, their skill and the intensity and passion that they have for the game – we are simply trying to showcase that. They are very talented and dynamic athletes. This idea of ‘Watch Me Work’ is to celebrate that skill and intensity and passion that we all see in the game.”

WNBA veteran, Tamika Catchings, who is retiring at the end of this upcoming  season and known throughout the league for her passionate play, applauds the Watch Me Work campaign for focusing squarely on what it takes to become an accomplished professional basketball player.

“For so long when you look at women’s professional sports, we’ve been tagged that everything needs to have a sex appeal to it and be sexy,” said the 2011 league MVP and 2012 WNBA Champion. “The Watch Me Work campaign shows what we do behind-the-scenes to get to where we are on the court. It shows what we do to become complete basketball players.”

Along with launching its 20th season campaign, the league is championing the 30th annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day. On February 3, Catchings and players throughout the WNBA will promote opportunities for girls and women to play sports.

“Watch Me Work” will premiere on January 30 during NBA Saturday Primetime game between the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC. Additional spots will roll out at start of season, and air on TV and digital platforms.

Soccer Legend Abby Wambach Says ‘Investing In Women’ Is In Her Future – Here’s What’s Next

USA v Japan: Final - FIFA Women's World Cup 2015

Abby Wambach, the all-time leading scorer in international soccer, is hanging up her cleats.

In a retirement speech that could have been filled with tearful goodbyes and stories about the good old days, Wambach used her platform to send a powerful message about investing in women’s sports.

“I want to talk about where we can go and where we are headed. I want to talk about moving the ball forward,” said Wambach during her remarks at the National Press Club.

“I know that we’ve made huge strides. I know that we’ve made serious change happen. But I also know that there is so much more we can do. It is going to take a lot of effort. It is going to take people reaching into their pockets and investing in women. And it is not investing in me, it is about investing in the next generation of studs.”

For Wambach, investing in women’s sports is no longer the “feel good” thing to do, but rather a “smart business decision.”
Pointing to Fox Sports’ World Cup coverage, Wambach said they “killed it” last summer by believing in the women’s game and the growth potential that women could have.

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Fox Sports reported the 2015 World Cup as the “highest metered market rating ever for a soccer game in the U.S. on a single network, surpassing the previous mark set for the Women’s World Cup final between the USA and China in 1999 on ABC.”

Wambach also thanked her long-time sponsors – Gatorade and Nike – for believing in her over the last ten years.

“I have been so lucky to have the opportunity to call some of the greatest brands on the planet – my family,” Wambach said.

“You will never know how valuable you’ve been to me. And all I ask is that you keep investing women. Continue that fight, it will pay off. I promise.”

While the 2015 FIFA World Cup champion and 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year did not reveal her exact next steps beyond completing the USWNT Victory Tour and spending time with her family – she did state that she does not see a coaching in her future.

Rather, Wambach has her sights set on an even bigger goal – changing the world.

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“I want to be a part of changing the world. The first part of my career I have been able to do that. I have been able to change the landscape of women’s soccer as we know it,” said Wambach.

“I was put on the planet to play sport and be involved in sport. I believe that sport can transcend and give people confidence. It can change the world and actually make it a better place.”

Moving forward, her life’s mission is to make sure that – all women – are given the opportunities they deserve. This undertaking includes her NWSL teammates that she’s leaving behind and professional women soccer players to come.

“I want it to be a feeder system into a national team. Of course, I do want to stay involved – in some way, somehow,” said Wambach during a conference call shortly after her retirement address.

“I want to do whatever I can to help grow this league, and make the league here in the United States the very best league in the world. If we have the best league in the world, then the international players will come. And if the international players come we can find enough corporate sponsors to make this league not only viable but actually thrive.”

Wambach inherited the beautiful game from Mia Hamm and the ‘99ers – whom she says taught her that character is tested when things do not go your way.

Admittedly, before announcing her retirement she was worried that women’s soccer would not be better off than how she found. Now, Wambach can safely say that deep down in her heart that the sport has grown and will continue to grow.

“I know that the next generation of players will grow the game in different ways. My role will be different now, but I am still committed to continuing the growth of women’s sport and beyond.”

Billie Jean King Tells Female Athletes To Negotiate, Stop Settling For Crumbs

 

In a New York City conference room packed with amateur and professional athletes, tennis legend, Billie Jean King, described her nearly five decade journey of championing for equal rights in sports.

Her remarks were a far cry from a “when I was your age” speech to the attendees of the Women’s Sports Foundation’s first-ever Athlete Leadership Connection – a program designed to help athletes become stronger leaders in their sport and transition into successful post-competition careers.Billie_Jean_King_Thumbnail_RightSize

Rather, King’s fiery energy mirrored a union town hall meeting.

She recounted the pivotal moment of the birth of women’s professional tennis in 1970 – describing it as nine women who were willing to cross the line in the sand and try to do something different. Facing suspensions from major tournaments including the US Open and Wimbledon, King recalled how pushing for change was their “moment of truth.” Together they were either going to fall flat on their faces or make something happen.

A few years later, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) was founded. Fast-forward to 2015, it is a thriving professional tennis tour. Last year, the WTA signed a 10-year $525 million media agreement with PERFORM, and today players compete annually for $130 million in prize money.

Indeed, the pioneers made something happen.

King’s legacy not only lives on through the WTA but also the Women’s Sports Foundation, which she founded in 1974.

“It is the job of the Women’s Sports Foundation – why Billie [Jean King] founded us 41 years ago – to be the voice of women and women in sports,” said Deborah Slaner Larkin, Women’s Sports Foundation CEO.

“To say ‘no’ we should not have to decide who to treat better – our sons or our daughters – we should treat them the same. They should have the same equal opportunity. Our job is to speak out…to be the conscience of the whole sports industry.”

As the foundation’s honorary chair, King continues to advocate for athletes, while counseling them to speak up and be leaders.

During the Athlete Leadership Connection – she challenged the participants to organize, promote their sports and decide how they can make them better.

For instance, when King asked an athlete what she wanted for her sport – whether she wanted to push it in a new direction or if she’s happy with where it is going.

The athlete responded that she felt “lucky” to be in her position.

“Oh, that is what they want,” King asserted. “You are supposed to be so lucky that you are getting these crumbs.”

She explained that when it comes to employment and money, women rarely negotiate. As a result, they lose out on more than $500,000 by the end of their lifespan compared to men.

“Women are also hired on performance, men are hired on potential,” said King while referencing a recent Wall Street Journal report on gender bias and women in the workplace.

King emphasized to the athletes that her crusade for equality was never just about making money. Instead, her goals centered on improving tennis and gaining exposure for the sport.

“The reason I wanted a lot of money in our sport is because I knew people would pay attention,” said King.

“It is the one thing everybody understands. Whether they work in a factory or whether they are a CEO – everyone understands money. That is the reason I felt it was so important to have money in the game. We got a lot of attention because we started making money.”

For King, attention directed toward women in sports should be an everyday matter. As an example, she is frustrated by the focus placed on the US national soccer team and not the professional women’s soccer league.

“Everybody talks about the women’s soccer winning and the ticker tape. But that is not what is important – the league is important,” King said. “The every day – not every four years. All of the emphasis is put on the every four years. You’ve got to make a living every day.”

Yes, every day!

Negotiating is every day. Facing your fears is every day. Not settling for less pay is every day.

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.

Condoleezza Rice: A Journey From Coach’s Daughter To The College Football Playoff Selection Committee

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com SportsMoney (December 8, 2014)

Dr. John Wesley Rice Jr.’s first born was supposed to be a boy. His son would carry on the family name, values, traditions, and most importantly – love football. Instead, he and his wife, Angelena Ray Rice, brought a girl, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, into the world.

In 1954, it wasn’t just any world; Birmingham, AL was a racially charged community where equal opportunities for African Americans did not exist. The sports landscape for women was also far from equal, as it was decades before female athletes would experience the benefits of Title IX. However, those circumstances did not matter; Rice Jr. consciously raised his daughter no differently than he would raise a son.

In Rice’s memoir, Extraordinary Ordinary People, she describes her father as a “feminist” from day one – there wasn’t anything his little girl could not do.

Stanford, CA – June 2014. Dr. Condoleezza Rice (l) and Donna de Varona (r) discuss how a connection to sport helps women get ahead (Photo By: Rob Thomas/EY Images)
Stanford, CA – June 2014. Dr. Condoleezza Rice (l) and Donna de Varona (r) discuss how a connection to sport helps women get ahead (Photo By: Rob Thomas/EY Images)

As a child, she was molded into a classical pianist, as well as a competitive figure skater. Professionally, she was taught to be a fearless leader and pursue her goals with limitless horizons. Following in her father’s footsteps, a career in academia came calling. In 1993, Stanford University appointed her as its provost; making Rice the youngest person ever and first African American to hold that prestigious position. By 2001, her highly-regarded foreign policy expertise propelled her into the White House, where she served as the first female National Security Advisor and subsequently the 66th U.S. Secretary of State.

Although, it was Rice’s deep passion for her father’s favorite pastime that ultimately created their strong bond and set the stage for her barrier-breaking roles in sports.

As the daughter of a football coach, she naturally developed into a student of the game. Together, they analyzed offenses and defenses, and each NFL season began by studying Street & Smith’s pro football report. The Cleveland Browns was their chosen team, which they faithfully followed after he ministered on Sundays. Meanwhile, an eventual move to Tuscaloosa resulted in a fond family affinity for the Crimson Tide. While she would never become John the all-American linebacker, her taste of the gridiron came by way of the “Rice Bowl” – the annual family touch football game played the day after Thanksgiving at “Rice Stadium” (also known as their front yard).

Football has and will always be in her blood.

It is a fact not known to many, save for Pac-12 Commissioner, Larry Scott, who in 2013 invited Rice to join the inaugural College Football Playoff Selection Committee. In an interview with ESPN, Rice explained that her selection derived from having diverse perspectives and an ability to make decisions under pressure; plus, her vast knowledge of the college football system, which stems from Stanford Athletics reporting to Rice during her Provost tenure.

No stranger to controversy, her addition to the who’s who group of college football experts reignited the long-standing debate of women’s roles sports. A handful of football fans and analysts publicly questioned whether it is possible for a woman to be an expert in America’s male dominated past-time without having played on the field; while others noted her inclusion as an opportunity to advance the conversation of gender equality.

Publicly, Rice took the criticism in stride, noting that it is possible to know something from following it and studying it. Moreover, she respectfully pointed out that the former and perhaps most influential NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle, did not play football; including, other members of the playoff selection committee – namely former Big East commissioner, Mike Tranghese, and former college football writer, Steve Wieberg.

Ironically, what critics believe Rice doesn’t know about football are in fact the very same lessons she learned from her father while growing up in the segregated South – how to spot when your talent is being underestimated, what it means work twice as hard and do everything better, and prove every naysayer in your path wrong. Rice didn’t become one of the world’s most influential leaders without tenacity. Additionally, she has the added skill of being able to identify grit on the football field.

She never set out to make history; adding the title “first female” to her long list of credentials was never a goal. But in a strange twist of fate that has been her calling.

In recognition of her historic contribution to sports, EY’s Women Athletes Business Network – an organization committed to building a better working world where more women leaders with talent such as Rice’s emerge – sat down with Rice to learn more about her unimaginable journey, how she defied insurmountable odds, and what it takes to continually challenge society to think differently about race and gender.

Forbes.com was given exclusive access to the interviewconducted by Olympic gold medalist and EY Women Athlete Business Network advisor, Donna de Varona. Here are selected highlights from their conversation.

On the role of sport and transitioning from big dreams…

Rice: I really did believe with all my heart that I could make it as a musician, but at some point you have to face a certain reality that there are people who are twelve years old who can play from sight, and maybe you should just find another course. Skating was somewhat easier to leave behind because I loved skating but I always knew that my options were limited there. I loved the training and to this day I think I probably learned more from the discipline of working hard to be a skater than I did from anything else in my life.

On discipline and performing at high level…

Rice: From the physical side of it, I have remained committed to being fit my entire life. When I was Secretary of State and had to be at my desk at 6:30 am, I got up at 4:30 am in the morning to exercise and I would remind myself “you used to do this as a kid.” I also think it gave me a sense, and all athletes have this, there are days when you perform gloriously and there are days when you just don’t have it. You learn how to deal with both, you learn how to deal with the highs of doing really, really well and you learn how to deal with the lows of being terribly disappointed in a performance after having worked really, really hard. Life is like that; you have to get accustomed to highs and lows.

On Title IX…

Rice: I know what it was like before Title IX. I went to college in 1971 and I started very young, but I graduated in 1974, so I was just at the edge of the beginning of Title IX. Being very active with intercollegiate athletics and with women’s athletics in particular, here at Stanford I now see the confidence of these young women. They’ve come up through elementary school, high school, and now into college expecting to play at a high level, competing at a high level, and having the benefits of excellent coaching and excellent training. Title IX has made a huge difference and it’s made a difference in the way that people view women.

On affirmative action and opportunities on the basis of gender…

Rice: I’ve been a proponent of what I call “soft affirmative action.” I don’t believe in quotas. I came to Stanford from the University of Denver. Stanford didn’t normally get its faculty from the University of Denver, but I was here on a one-year fellowship. They thought I was smart, they liked what I did and they found a way to hire me because they wanted to diversify the faculty, so in that sense it was affirmative action. I think it has worked well for Stanford, certainly worked well for me, and so I think if we just say, “instead of affirmative action we’re going to make efforts, affirmative efforts to diversify” and that might mean taking some unusual steps, most people would agree that that’s important.

On the value of mentors…

Rice: I really do think it’s wonderful if you can find a role model who looks like you, but you know if I’d been waiting for a black female Soviet specialist for a role model, I’d still be waiting.  I think you find your role models and mentors with people who advocate for you and are willing to help you.

On the importance of networks…

Rice: A network is really important. We have this conceit that, “I want do it on my own.” Nobody does it on their own.  For all of us there’s somebody that says “you know there’s a good opportunity there you ought to pursue it” or somebody says to someone, “I know just the right person for the fellowship you’re looking for or the job that you’re trying to fill” and so those networks are absolutely critical.

On football and the benefits of understanding sport…

Rice: I’ll tell you a funny little story. I worked for a year for the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a fellow. I was female, I was black, I was a civilian, three strikes; and so I show up at the Joint Chiefs of Staff that deals with strategic nuclear policy.  They did the deployment of nuclear weapons, a very male environment. So I arrive and they say, “The rookie makes the coffee” and I said, “fine, I’ll make the coffee!”  I’m not going to get on my high horse about that. But that week I won the football pool and from there on out, I was in. It is a language that transcends gender, and by the way, I have an awful lot of women friends who are football fanatics. So it’s not just something that helps you bridge the gap with men, sometimes you find that there are these women who have the same passion that you do for football and for all sports.

On a future away from politics…

Rice: I never much cared for politics. I got to be Secretary of State; it really doesn’t get much better than that. I love what I do, I love being a professor, I love working with all of my students, athletes and non-athletes.  I tell them all the time and I would say this to the young women who will eventually make the transition that you’re talking about “don’t ever think of yourself as a ‘former.’ Move on to the next chapter. Be glad and delighted and grateful and thankful that you were blessed to have that moment when you were at the height of your athletic prowess or the chance to be a high ranking government official, but don’t spend the rest of your life relating only to that. You take what that taught you, your ability to perform under pressure, your ability to focus, your ability to work hard, to take your weaknesses and turn them into strengths.

Untapped Resource: The Power Of Women In The Sports Marketplace

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com SportsMoney (October 20, 2014)

“Sports in all its forms and definitions have never been more impactful on the lives of girls and women,” said Christine Driessen, ESPN CFO, to an audience of top female athletes and women in sports influencers at the5th Annual espnW Women + Sports Summit.

“The marketplace is exploding with untapped and expanding opportunities to serve women of all ages…there is money to be invested and money waiting to be earned.”

While the female consumer purchasing power has been widely reported at 85%, it seems that only recently thebusiness sector has replaced the shrink it and pink it mentality with authentically listening to the needs of women.

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Dana Point, CA – October 10, 2014 – St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort: The Power of the Women’s Marketplace panelists (l to r) Donna Orender, Heidi Sandreuter, Paul Altman with Darren Rovell during the 2014 ESPNW Summit (Photo by Kohjiro Kinno / ESPN Images)

What has changed? 

“The conversation and noise level around this issue has gone up,” said brand/business strategist and founder of Generation W, Donna Orender.  “The more we raise our hands and exercise our market power, which is what we are starting to do – then the market is reacting.”

Earlier this month, we saw an example of this when a 12-year-old girl raised her hand and exercised the power of the female market in the form of a letter to Dick’s Sporting Goods. She questioned their failure to represent women athletes in its basketball catalog, and pointed out that the only female included in the advertisement was sitting in the stands. Days later, the attention surrounding Dick’s Sporting Goods DKS -0.89%’ short-sided actions resulted in its Chairman and CEO, Edward Stack, apologizing for the “obvious mistake” and guaranteeing that next year’s catalog would prominently feature female athletes.
Across the board, female consumer voices are powerful; the game-changers are speaking up at earlier stages in their lives, and businesses marketing to women are now left with only one option, which is to listen.

During the espnW Women + Sports Summit, women’s professional sports brands and business leaders gathered together to discuss their strategies for serving women in the marketplace. Here is how the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), Under Armour UA +1.8%, EY, and Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) are driving market trends and growth.

Disruption is the new norm. Change is the catalyst for growth.

In 2013, the WTA celebrated its 40th anniversary by reaching 33 countries across 54 events. By 2023, its CEO and Chair, Stacey Allaster, envisions the tennis association as “the most inspirational and exciting sport entertainment experience on earth,” with its athletes competing for $200 million in prize money. How will the WTA accomplish that? By disrupting everything that you think you know about tennis. From the smallest detail of allowing fans to keep stray tennis balls, to bigger feats of live streaming all tournaments and incorporating mobile technology data – expect the WTA to become even more fan friendly by progressively pushing boundaries.

Identify a Human Story.

The women’s athletic apparel market in North America is estimated at $14 billion. But focusing on the “traditional” definition of a female athlete and her spending habits left companies like Under Armour capturing only 1/5 of the market. How do you connect with to the remaining 4/5?

For Heidi Sandreuter, Under Armour’s Vice President of Women’s Marketing, the answer includes touching a cultural nerve, creating a human story that consumers can connect with, and designing products worthy of a woman’s “will.” Launching the I Will What I Want campaign allowed Under Armour to reach consumers who identify with being told that cannot do something and then rising above adversity. The ad featuring American Ballet Theater soloist, Misty Copeland, which shatters body image, age and race stereotypes associated with being a ballerina, has compiled over 6 million views on YouTube.

Sandreuter notes that in the last year Under Armour’s brand preference increased from 9% to 19% among their target consumers. And since launching the campaign, the company experienced a rise in brand awareness and relevance, as well as purchase intent.

Create Networks.

How do you reach women in the marketplace? How do you help female athletes of today become the business leaders of tomorrow? For Beth Brooke-Marciniak, Global Vice Chair of Public Policy for EY, the solution includes creating networks for women because there is an unconscious bias to pay attention to men first.

Based on a global online survey of women executives, Brooke-Marciniak and EY uncovered data that shows there is a direct correlation between career advancement and participating in sports. As a result, the  EY Women Athletes Business Network was launched to assist elite female athletes cross from sports to a career in business. Creating a network of women athletes and connecting them with women business leaders allows them to think bigger, be bigger, and alter the alter the landscape of the corporate world. Further, a more recent study in partnership with EY and espnW shows that women in the C-suite want to hire other women with an athletic background because of their ability to see projects through conclusion, perform at a high level, and ultimately compete to win.

Reverse Roles.

What is the key to gaining new business partners and keeping them? For LPGA Commissioner, Michael Whan, the answer is simple – ask what keepsthem awake at night. At the LPGA, every business relationship begins by understanding the world of their partners better than their own. The LPGA wants to know what their partners are talking about and how sponsoring a golf tournament can benefit their businesses. This role reversal strategy puts the focus on the person who is writing the check, which Whan encourages every LPGA golfer to thank personally. By making professional golf a client-driven customer-centric sport, the LPGA is experiencing double-digit television growth (up 75% from 2010), which has led to 11 additional marketing sponsors plus 12 new events in the last three years.