- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 29, 2011

New WNBA president Laurel Richie was afraid she might not get the job when she interviewed with NBA Commissioner David Stern and admitted her sports background was limited to synchronized swimming and cheerleading.

“He just sort of looked at me and said ‘All right, those are sports. I hear those women can be fierce underwater.’ As I watched him take my synchronized swimming and cheerleading and turn it into an advantage, I thought, ‘OK, I think I’m going to enjoy working with this guy,’ ” Ritchie said.

On the eighth stop of what she calls her WNBA “listening tour,” Richie was the keynote speaker at the third annual Mystics partners luncheon this week at Verizon Center. Unlike the league’s two previous presidents, Richie has no background in basketball, and made it her first order of business to visit every team after taking over the job.

“I am in my dream job. I feel so lucky to have this opportunity,” Richie said. “I’ve spent a lot of time in marketing, and I’ve spent a lot of time convincing people to buy products that weren’t quite up to snuff. But I am loving that fact that I have a great product to sell this time around. It is fabulous and beyond my wild expectations.”

Richie’s experience was with the Girl Scouts of America, where she served as the senior vice president of marketing. Before that, Richie was with the international advertising and marketing firm Ogilvy and Mather.

“This tour around the country gives me the opportunity to meet with people say ‘Thank you for supporting us and understanding what we do and for loving the women of this league,’” she said. “I feel very proud and humbled to be the leader of this team.”

Now in its 15th season, the WNBA has seen upheaval. Since the league’s inception in 1996, six teams have folded - the Charlotte Sting, Cleveland Rockers, Houston Comets, Miami Sol, Portland Fire, and Sacramento Monarchs. Beyond those six, three relocated - the Detroit Shock became the Tulsa Shock, the Orlando Miracle became the Connecticut Sun and the Utah Starzz became the San Antonio Silver Stars.

But on the positive side, the WNBA signed an eight-year, multimillion-dollar television deal with ESPN in 2007 that pays TV rights fees to the 12 WNBA teams. Five of the league’s teams also have successfully secured corporate sponsors, including the Mystics, who became partners with Inova Health Systems this past offseason.

The league also has reported a 1 percent increase in attendance between 2007 and 2009, the last season complete attendance figures were made available. The Mystics, along with four other teams, had a reported attendance increase of 8 percent during that time.

As her listening tour progresses, Richie said she likes what’s she’s hearing.

“The first thing I’m hearing from our fans is that they love the WNBA. I have never seen a more loyal group of fans,” Richie said. “There is great support for the league. If we can get people to a game, we know that they will be impressed with the level of play, and they will have a great, fun experience.”

Her marketing plan still is a work in progress, which Richie plans to start refining after she’s visited all 12 teams.

“The opportunity is taking shape of creating programs and initiatives that get people to a game because we know once we get them to a game, there’s a good likelihood of a repeat visit,” Richie said.

Mystics coach Trudi Lacey believes Richie’s vision is what the WNBA needs.

“She has a corporate background and a marketing background, and she’s very committed to getting our players that we need to increase our fan base as well as our corporate sponsorships,” Lacey said. “The main thing about her is how much she cares. She’s going to be a super ambassador for our league, and I really think she’ll do great things.”

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