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.
Borders 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we need to empower female athletes and promote opportunities for girls and women to play sports, rather than promote outdated, offensive and uninformed opinions.”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.