At the end of October, the WNBA finished its 16th season when the Indiana Fever, a team in existence since 2000, won their first championship by defeating the Minnesota Lynx in the WNBA Finals. The 2012 season was an interesting one for the league, which saw overall attendance dip slightly, but also successfully completed its first full season with league-wide marquee partner Boost Mobile. As the final installment of espnW's three-part series (Part 1 and Part 2), we chatted with WNBA president Laurel Richie to get her answers on what is working for the league and what needs improving.
Q: Can you assess where the league is after this season, the good and the bad?
A: I'm really pleased with, if you view the playoffs as a culmination, I think we had just a terrific ending to what was a really strong season. And if you take a step back, there were also some interesting stories emerging. Someone like [Los Angeles Sparks guard] Kristi Tolliver, who was on fire this season and came out of nowhere -- this year was just her time. And then Chicago getting closer than they ever have, and Tulsa making great strides this year and their improvement versus last year is almost underrated when you look at their record. There were lots of really good things happening across the league in terms of teams and players.
From a business standpoint, we were up across the league in terms of sponsorship, which is terrific. This year was the first full year of activation with our partnership with Boost Mobile. And when we look across all of our TV -- across ABC, ESPN, ESPN 2 and NBA TV -- we were holding strong in terms of viewership. In attendance, we saw group sales up and renewals up, which I think are indicators of building a strong and sustainable fan base.
Q: So was there any bad?
A: Our opportunities remain the same. We want to continue the momentum in building our fan base and building a strong and sustainable fan base for each team. We've seen some strength in the depth and breadth of our partnerships, so we want to continue with that. We're very much looking forward to 2013, and the potential group of rookies who may choose to come into the league is a very exciting thing for us.
Q: OK, so what about the fact that actual game attendance numbers were down? Is that worrisome for you?
A: This year was a very unique year in that we had the Olympics, and we're thrilled to have the opportunity to showcase the game on an international stage. That's the upside of an Olympics year. The downside is that the season starts earlier and ends later. And so a lot of our fan base includes young kids, and when our season tips at the end of the school year and overlaps with the beginning of the new school year, we saw a dip in attendance that is directly attributed to the fact that we were in an Olympic year, pushing our season on the front and back ends. And next year isn't an Olympic year, which means we will be better able to maximize the youth portion of our fan base.
Q: Is the 11-man roster solely a financial issue, and are there any plans to reconsider it?
A: I do get that question all of the time. That is something we are very mindful of and each year in our offseason our competition committee comes together and, in my two years, that has always been an item on the agenda that we always talk through. We evaluate and re-evaluate the pros and cons of it. And I'm sure it will be on our agenda again.
Q: Can you take a deeper dive into explaining what you are doing to strengthen the relationship with the NCAA?
A: At this point, it's not like I have a master plan to unveil to you, but we have had some very good and promising conversations with the NCAA, and I really welcome that dialogue and we know it's good for us and good for them the closer we are in partnership. Because at the end of the day, it's all about elevating and shining a light on the women's game. Like I said, I don't have a concrete plan or a single new initiative to share, but I'm very heartened by the openness on both sides to explore opportunities.
Q: How do you feel about Geno Auriemma's proposal that the rims should be lowered?
A: [Long silence] How do I feel about that? I'm trying to think of the best way to phrase that
I understand that that is a topic that has been discussed a lot and it's an idea that comes back every couple of years, and I'm sure it is one that we will continue to talk about. That's the kind of issue we take to our competition committee, along with a host of other initiatives we consider. And as a team, we work through that and come out the other side with a recommendation.
Q: Do you see any changes to game on the horizon?
A: I would say, without listing all of the things we talk about and consider, one of the things I really like about the group we pull together and the discussion we have is that there are two things this group is mindful of. One is maintaining the integrity of the game and the quality of play. The other is making sure we are offering the best possible, most high-quality exciting game to our fans. So we will review a whole host of recommendations from the expected to the totally unexpected -- all with a goal of continuing to refine the product we put on the floor and to look for a way to engage our fans.
Q: What can you do to keep the WNBA more top of mind during the winter months?
A: I think that absolutely we want to stay connected with our fans when we're in the offseason, so I think there are a couple of things that happen. The beauty of social media and technology is that even if our players are overseas, they are still tweeting and available for interviews. They're still willing and comfortable to share their stories. So I think our teams have gotten better and better at staying in touch and telling the stories of what's happening with our players when they're overseas. We're also seeing that some of our players are choosing to stay in the states, like Swin Cash and Kara Lawson. When they are here, there are great opportunities for them to interact with fans and the media and our current and potential partners. I think that has become a bit more fluid than it used to be. And we're always looking for ways to have our players stay engaged.
Q: Do you find comparisons between men's and women's basketball as problematic for the WNBA? And if so, how do you go about ensuring those comparisons are as minimal as possible?
A: We are really comfortable with the fact that the WNBA is different, but not less than. With that said, we welcome some comparisons. I know there are times that "SportsCenter" will be covering one of our players and will say "Seimone Augustus is the LeBron James of the WNBA." I think that's absolutely fine. I don't think there is this rigid, "We should never compare the two." I think there is a frame of reference that is part of the sports landscape and sports language that almost becomes a bit of shorthand.