The WNBA draft is headed to New York City. Seattle will host the All-Star game for the first time. The league is branding August as WNBA Fit Month, which will focus on everything from breast health awareness to physical wellness and mental health.
The leader behind the league's initiatives is Chief Operating Officer Jay Parry.
Parry has been the league's COO since last spring, and she is no stranger to the basketball court. She spent seven seasons as Phoenix Mercury president, won titles in 2007 and 2009, then joined the Phoenix Suns as a senior vice president for two years before working as CEO of the Arizona Super Bowl XLIX host committee.
Although Parry spent the bulk of her past trying to grow women's basketball at the local level with the Mercury, her mission is to expand the sport's national profile from league headquarters in New York City. She works with all 12 team presidents and her staff to create strategies to further develop and better the WNBA as it heads into its 21st season.
"Working together, we could achieve more than being competitive with one another," Parry said. "That was something that was different with the WNBA. ... It's just this feeling of camaraderie, and how can we help one another get better?"
It starts with the draft, which will be held at Samsung 837 on Thursday (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET) after being in Connecticut the past six years. The new location, Parry said, gives players a chance to visit the league office and allows both players and fans a new, unique draft experience.
Of course, this won't be Parry's first draft. Her first one in 2004 was her easiest, when the Mercury drafted Diana Taurasi first overall. Last year, she spent most of draft night at Mohegan Sun Arena observing, listening and taking notes on what went right and what can be improved. This year, she will be making sure the event runs smoothly and welcoming the players to New York and to the league. After all, she was the one who called players to officially invite them to the next level.
Here is Parry's story, in her words:
Giving the call
They all had different reactions. It was funny because I was speaking with one of them, and she goes, "That's so great. Thank you." I said, "Are you excited?" And she said, "Yes. This is me excited." And so she was kind of making fun of herself because I think she was trying to be cool, trying to stay collected, and she didn't want to just start screaming. And others said, "Just tell me what to do, I want to be super involved, my fans are gonna be so excited about this, I want to make sure they hear the whole story from me." ... It doesn't get any cooler than that.
Can fans graduate to the pros?
The fan base is quite broad and diverse. Where we'd like to spend a little more dedicated time is that 18-35-year-old, so really the fan base that matches our players' demographic. We want to connect more with the college community, where the players are being drafted from.
We want to strengthen that connection and those ties. When Breanna [Stewart] goes from UConn across the country to Seattle, we create a new fan base within Seattle, and she's been a phenomenal addition to that team. She's the No. 1 jersey seller in our merchandise, so Breanna's been a huge addition since last year. We want to strengthen those ties, and that means working with the players and also working with the college media and athletic departments.
Drafting a legend
As we sat in the draft room and had the No. 1 pick the year that I got to Phoenix in 2004, it was kind of obvious we were going to choose Diana Taurasi, so I would say that was one of our easier drafts in terms of strategy. It's really fun. You get to roll up your sleeves, look at the college ranks and work with your coaches and your basketball staff and talk about what your team needs are. You get input from your current players, what they think of the draft class coming up. So it's a very collaborative effort at the team level. I think at this point in my career, that's one of the things that I value -- the collaboration with smart people, fun people and people that are really committed to growing the game of basketball.
The sounds of a championship
I think one of my fondest memories in the WNBA was the final series between Phoenix and Detroit in 2007. I, frankly, had never been to Detroit, so that was a new experience for me. And the Mercury were able to be the first team to win a championship on an away game, so just that feeling of being in Detroit, being surrounded by Detroit fans but walking away with the trophy was something that I will never forget. It was exciting to be in Detroit, and it was exciting to get off the plane and be greeted by Phoenix Mercury fans that were so thrilled for the team and had been fans for a long time. Being with the team and part of the whole championship experience was something really special.
A winning mentality
Annie Meyers Drysdale was our general manager. As we would talk before games, and she has been in basketball a long time and is a basketball icon, she said to me, "You gotta believe when you step on the court, Jay, that you can win the game, no matter what." That is something that was fantastic in the 2007 season and something that I've kept with me.
Inspired by progressiveness
I got hooked on what the WNBA stands for and the strong asset it is for our community -- and, frankly, for our country right now -- because it is a product and a platform that stands for equality, and it stands for valuing diversity and being inclusive. What I love about the WNBA is when it started 20 years ago, we were ahead of the curve, if you will, because that's a very current set of values now, but the WNBA, I think, was a leader in that space 20 years ago.
I am inspired by our players. Our players are so dedicated to the game of basketball, and they're so dedicated to trying to make a difference in their communities, whether that's standing for social justice or equal opportunity, being a diverse group of people. I'm impressed by them every day, and I want as many people to be exposed to the WNBA and women's basketball as possible. I can remember sitting with a fan in Phoenix, and they said, "I had a really hard day at the office, Jay, but I just know when I step into U.S. Airways Center and I'm gonna watch a Phoenix Mercury game, all my cares just go away, and I get to have fun with it, I get to be inspired by the athletes, and it's really a special experience." That's what I think we're trying to replicate around our 12 markets.