The WNBA is faced with hiring a new president, but it's worth asking: Is that what the league needs? Or does it need a WNBA commissioner?
Whether the NBA would consider a change in the name of the position, the next person hired to be the head of the league should be someone who has as much actual power in the WNBA as commissioner Adam Silver has in the NBA.
The WNBA's product has never been better. But its business plan, marketing, strategy and communication all have to rise to that level. There might be alarm that president Lisa Borders, chief operating officer Jay Parry and senior vice president of league operations Ann Rodriguez all have left the WNBA this year.
But this is an opportunity to solidify WNBA leadership by hiring people who are given enough authority, responsibility and resources to make these "destination" jobs that people want to have for a long time -- not where they get frustrated or undermined or disillusioned or easily tempted by other offers.
And while having a woman as the lead executive in a women's professional sports league is preferable, it shouldn't be mandatory. Four women have been the WNBA's president; there has been no lack of opportunity for women in leadership in the league.
The bottom line is that it's imperative to empower whoever is leading the WNBA. That hasn't seemed to be a goal of the NBA, let alone a priority. The NBA and WNBA are different businesses at very different stages of growth. Too often, when important issues in the WNBA are run up the "chain of command" through the NBA, there is not the same sense of urgency nor a comprehensive understanding of the specific ways the leagues, their players, their media coverage and their fan bases are different.
"Whoever gets the WNBA job has got to have the full support of Adam Silver to do what he or she sees as best for that league. ... The WNBA needs somebody whose sole and exclusive duty is the prosperity of that league." ESPN NBA analyst Doris Burke
Broadcaster Doris Burke, who has covered both men's and women's basketball, points to that.
"The leadership of the NBA, as supportive as they've been of the WNBA, knows the NBA is a global sport," Burke said. "And that's requiring the attention of every single person there, from Adam Silver on down their leadership structure.
"Whoever gets the WNBA job has got to have the full support of Adam Silver to do what he or she sees as best for that league. The NBA people are engaged in a business that is booming, because it's never been more popular. So the WNBA needs somebody whose sole and exclusive duty is the prosperity of that league. And because they're not just losing one person, this isn't just about the president, but the support structure, too."
Borders, who was president for three seasons, is leaving to be president and CEO of Time's Up, an organization advocating for women in the workplace. With Borders' background in the business and political worlds, that seems a good fit. During her time in the WNBA, Borders was effective in supporting players as they became more publicly engaged in advocating about social issues.
Borders' relationship with the players helped her have productive dialogue with them on difficult topics they felt passionately about -- with the exception of their own working conditions. That seemed to be an area where Borders' connection with players wasn't as strong. And while to a degree that's an expected dynamic of management vs. labor, it's also one of the major issues that the next head of the WNBA must deal with.
This season, players spoke out a lot on what troubled them about their jobs. That included the condensed season (because of the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup) and how that and the longtime travel issues affected them. They addressed their pay, the league's salary structure and revenue sharing. These things will be at the forefront of the next collective bargaining agreement negotiations, and the players won't take as passive a seat at the table in those as they did last time.
The current collective bargaining agreement went into effect in March 2014 and runs through October 2021. However, both the league and the union have the right to opt out and terminate the agreement after the 2019 season. Either side has until Oct. 31 of this year to exercise that opt-out provision.
The players aren't inclined to be unreasonable, but they're also serious about seeing changes. A president/commissioner who can successfully help negotiate among the NBA, the WNBA owners, the WNBA players and their union would be extremely valuable.
Of the four WNBA presidents, Val Ackerman was the only one who had a full understanding of the NBA as a business. An attorney who worked several years in the NBA and was a key part of the brain trust that launched the WNBA in 1997, Ackerman had working relationships already in place that helped the WNBA more successfully lean on the NBA resources.
Admittedly, the business model also was different then, as all the WNBA teams were owned by NBA teams. That changed starting in 2003 with independent ownership. But that made the need for a powerful WNBA president even greater.
Ackerman stepped away from the WNBA after the 2004 season, needing to spend more time with her children and feeling she was handing off the league in good shape. Donna Orender replaced Ackerman; she had made her mark on the PGA Tour, particularly in regard to television exposure. But Orender didn't have the same connections inside the NBA, and didn't appear to develop them.
Some of the difficult things that happened in the WNBA during Orender's six seasons as president weren't her fault. The economic crisis that began in earnest around 2007 contributed to the loss of WNBA franchises in Houston and Sacramento, which both had won championships and had strong fan bases.
When Orender left after the 2010 season, the next choice seemed curious: Laurel J. Richie, who had a background in marketing and acknowledged she had never attended a WNBA game. But Richie worked hard to learn about the basketball aspect of the business, and she was well liked by players. She also openly embraced the LGBTQ fan base, which was an important move forward by the league.
By 2015, Richie seemed to lack support from the NBA and Silver. When she left after that season, Silver could have decided it was time to really empower the leader of the WNBA while still providing the support of the NBA's infrastructure. But that still hasn't happened. Not the way it needs to.
Will Silver and the NBA now see the necessity of approaching this hiring this way? If there is truly a commitment to the WNBA moving forward, they must.