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TRANSCRIPT FROM WNBA PRESIDENT LAUREL J. RICHIE
WNBA PRESIDENT LAUREL J. RICHIE: Good afternoon everyone from what is turning out to be a very, very warm Phoenix day, and that’s somehow fitting for the 2014 Boost Mobile WNBA All?Star Game.
I would like to begin by thanking the Phoenix Mercury for doing a terrific job with this year’s All-Star. A special thank you to Jason Rowley, president. I’d also like to thank Greg Stanton, the mayor of Phoenix who has been very involved in our festivities. He’s also the one who I believe had his nose broken when he participated in a practice with the Phoenix Mercury. So in addition to being a season ticket holder, he’s very well informed and a very passionate supporter of the team here and the WNBA in general.
Our festivities began yesterday as we always do with the WNBA FIT Clinic. It was terrific to have our All?Stars take the court. My personal favorite moment of the morning was when I asked some of the young kids from the Boys & Girls Club if they would like to one day become a WNBA player, and much to my delight, both the young boys and the young girls raised their hands. So I may have some thinking to do about the configuration of the league in the years to come but I’ll worry about that a little bit further down the road.
From there, we continued on with the Fan Fest and open practices. We had a great turnout for those practices and a ton of fun. There are so many exciting things this year with this All?Star. You know, we are thrilled that Diana Taurasi is back. She has been an All?Star every season she has been with the league.
This year, Tamika Catchings ties the great Tina Thompson as the player to make the most appearances in our All?Star Game. We’ve got a very, I think, fascinating story in Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike who are the first sisters to play in the same All?Star in the WNBA.
Shoni Schimmel is with us. For those of you who haven’t heard already, she was No. 3 in votes and she’s also the proud recipient, I guess would be the word, of the most jersey sales of any WNBA player. So we are thrilled to have her with us today and with us in the league.
I think perhaps the most heartwarming story is Jessica Breland, a young woman who is a cancer survivor. I think it is her tenacity and her drive; she has been in and out of the league, and this year to be on the All?Star team, I think is a great story of drive and resilience. And I think she embodies so many things that we, the WNBA, are very, very proud of.
We are excited. In some ways this All?Star reflects what I think has been a terrific season. Our viewership on ESPN2 is pacing ahead of year?end last year by about 16 percent. Fans have been signing up in record numbers for Live Access – bringing in both more subscribers and more revenue for the league, so that is terrific, particularly as we look to bring the game to those who don’t live in WNBA cities. The New York Liberty made its return to Madison Square Garden this year and they are having an incredible season. Their revenue is up 26 percent and they just had a game day that had 17,000 future WNBA players, now that I know we’re open to both boys and girls, in attendance.
In Minnesota, their camp day earlier this week, they also set a new record in attendance for that franchise of over 16,000. The Atlanta Dream, with the return of Michael Cooper to the league and on the business side, Angela Taylor, they are having a terrific season, so very exciting. At this point I’m particularly excited to see that we have both this combination of our veterans, having terrific seasons. Diana, for those of you here in Phoenix, is just having a great season and in partnership with Penny Taylor being back and healthy, and Candice Dupree and the addition of Erin Phillips to that roster.
Our rookies, we had 28 rookies make a WNBA team and seven rookies start in at least one game. So I think that really speaks well and bodes well for the future of the league. We have four rookies who are averaging ten points per game; that’s Odyssey(Sims), Bria (Hartley), Kayla (McBride), and Chiney (Ogwumike). So I’m very, very excited about where we are today. I think we are going to have a great game. I did attend the practices yesterday and in keeping with All-Star, the players are in rare form. I think we are going to have a little fun. I think Brittney (Griner) has started a little mess this morning online, so we’ll see how that pans out.
But I’m very excited. And I think what’s going to be great after today, you look at both conferences and the top position in both conferences looks pretty solid at this point, but the remaining three playoff berths, I think it’s going to be really fun to watch how the season unfolds and to see where those four spots actually go.
But I think we’ve got some fierce competition and some players who are currently injured who hopefully will be returning to their rosters to have us finish with a very competitive and strong 2014 season.
Q: Can you talk about the timing of the All?Star being here in Phoenix right now, both with the season that the Mercury are putting together and with the Mercury representing a lot of different stories running through the league, with Taurasi as the veteran, Griner as the rookie, and Penny Taylor as the resurgent older play I guess?
RICHIE: I wish I could tell you I had that incredible foresight. We follow the process that we always follow which is sending out a request for interest. We decided, I think it was the end of last year or very beginning of 2014, to have All?Star here in Phoenix, and then the season started and unfolded the way it did. I think all of us are excited to be on the West Coast for a change, but there was no magic or foresight in ending up in Phoenix with the season that they are having.
Q: I have to ask you the somewhat obligatory question, but we saw some interest obviously from Golden State when the situation with L.A. wasn’t resolved. Is there anything concrete or tangible about potential expansion, if not this year, maybe in the next few years that you might be able to address?
RICHIE: Yeah, I love that question. The best way for me to answer that is we are closer than we were last year and not as close as we will be next year. I don’t have a specific time frame in mind.
But what I will say is through the process of having very, very detailed discussions with the team in Golden State, they have been very vocal about their interest in having a team. I was incredibly impressed with their passion for and knowledge of the women’s game. They have done a great job with both their NBA team and their D?League team. Rick Welts, who is the chief marketing officer of the WNBA at inception, is there. The Lacobs have a long history with women’s basketball.
I very much look forward to the day that we do expand, and based on what I have seen from those conversations, they would be very much in the top rung on the list. And the nice thing was during that process, there were others who expressed interest as well. So again, I don’t have a time frame for it, but very excited about that as a possibility.
Q: Here you are back in Phoenix, and what does that say about the viability of the league, being here for a second time, and my second question; similar to the question you just got about expanding, but this is about going back maybe to Cleveland where you had a great franchise and actually it’s kind of weird that you left when LeBron (James) went there and now LeBron’s back and it will be selling out and pouring in a lot of money so maybe that can be a place that we can go back?
RICHIE: You know, I love suggestions of cities that we could expand into and cities we could return to. I am a native of Cleveland. So at this point in time, I have not ruled out any location, and I am always happy to have conversations with folks about expansion.
And for me, the question of being back in Phoenix, this team did a terrific job first time around with the All?Star, and based on Fan Fest and open practice and a reception that we had last night and the FIT Clinic, they have done just a terrific, terrific job, and I’ve been thrilled with it.
Our players have been really excited. The fans, as always in Phoenix, the X?Factor here is wildly supportive. We have had fans come in from other cities. So that’s what success looks like for the All?Star, so I’m very excited to be here and happy with what I’ve seen so far.
Q: Last year you told us there were four franchises operating in the black. How many are operating in the black this year, which ones are they, and have you done any analysis on the teams that are having success compared to those that aren’t?
RICHIE: Last year we had six teams that were operating in the black, and one of the things ?? you know, in some ways, the model for the WNBA and our success is very similar to almost any other sports franchise. It’s about having a really solid fanbase. It’s having partners, corporate partners and other partners in the community that are supportive. We are very, very proud to be in partnership at a league level with ESPN and Boost Mobile, and a host of others.
So we pay attention to the revenue side, and we pay very close attention to the expense side and we look to make investments that are prudent and test our way to finding ways that we find the right and correct return on investment.
So I don’t know that there’s anything magical about it. One thing I have learned is every team is different. We have affiliated teams that are profitable. We have independent teams that are profitable. And each situation is different. So Connecticut happens to be attached to an arena and in a market with a very, very successful women’s college basketball franchise.
So each market is different, but the sort of business fundamentals are consistent across all of them.
Q: Can you speak a little bit as to the sense of community and most importantly the sense of fun surrounding this whole weekend?
RICHIE: Oh, it’s been great. I had breakfast this morning with the players, which is part of our tradition, and you know, it’s just so wonderful to see the veterans like Sue Bird, and sitting next to Diana Taurasi kind of yucking it up over breakfast. To see Chiney and Nneka; I’m just in awe of them as sisters sort of sitting next to them at breakfast and sharing that experience together.
Many of these players play with each other overseas. They play with each other when they represent our country on an international stage. I think it is a bit of a break in their season, so they are relaxed. I don’t know if any of you were at the practices yesterday, but I think Coach (Cheryl) Reeve, it was very clear to me that she was having a great time on the court.
So I think this is a moment where we sort of pause, enjoy each other’s company, enjoy being with our fans, and enjoy being with kids. You know, I think I am always amazed that the response ?? I expect the response from the kids because they are meeting the best women’s basketball players in the world. What always sort of melts my heart is the reaction of the players to the kids because when they are in their presence and doing the drills on passing and shooting and defense, I think you can literally see in their eyes, remembering their dreams as young kids and young girls wanting to play this beautiful game, and I think it reminds them where they have come from, how far they have come and their desire to be a source of inspiration.
So you know, for me, that’s always one of the most special moments in our All?Star weekend.
Q: Can you speak on some initiatives off the court, especially My Black is Beautiful and other initiatives that are helping the work with young black youth?
RICHIE: Yeah, so this year in our offseason, we spent some time really on the marketing side, taking initiatives that existed but really working to strengthen them and unify activities across all of our franchises.
So we launched Summer Hoops, which is a platform to really link the joy of summer to the joy of our game and own the fact that we play in summer. So that was one of our initiatives.
Procter & Gamble came on and partnered with us on two initiatives. One was Dads and Daughters with the My Black is Beautiful brand, and that’s one that I think is so well suited to our Inspiring Women platform. We also had Cover Girl as our presenting partner for WNBA Pride. We launched Hoops for Troops this year.
So steadily, we have been working to take our initiatives, unify them, strengthen them, make them bigger and have them sort of span all of our teams. I’ve been very, very proud of the way in which both our partners and our teams have come together on those platforms that really recognize, celebrate and help us grow our fanbase.
Q: In light of the energy shown in the preseason games in New York and Washington, is it likely to happen again?
RICHIE: Yes, so the Chicago Sky and Washington Mystics held a preseason game in Delaware that was sold out. Our preseason tournament in Orlando at Wide World of Sports was also sold out.
So I think preseason games are a great way to test the water, if you will, in terms of interest. And I also love going to new areas because it allows us to give fans who don’t yet have a WNBA team in their city, firsthand up close experience both with the game and with the players.
So I’m glad that we did that. I’m glad that it was successful, and I hope that we’ll do more of that.
Q: You said there were six teams in the black last year; are there six this year again and which teams are those?
RICHIE: At this point in time, I think we are tracking ?? I can’t say exactly that there will be six. Some of them are right on the bubble, and I’m going to try to commit this to memory so I won’t get you six in real time but I will get them for you: Connecticut, Minnesota, Indiana ?? I’ll get you the other two.