NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the departure of WNBA president Laurel Richie offers the league an opportunity to "reset" heading into its landmark 20th season.
Richie announced Wednesday that after five years she is stepping down, moving on to pursue other interests. NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum will run the league on an interim basis.
Silver, in a phone interview with espnW, emphasized that the change was Richie's decision.
"Laurel initiated this," Silver said. "When you hit a milestone like 20 years, whether it was Laurel leading the league or somebody else, it's natural to take a step back and ask, 'Where is it that we want to be?'"
"The overall quality of play [in the WNBA] has never been better. In a way, that only makes it more disappointing that we haven't been able to do more." NBA commissioner Adam Silver
It was Silver himself who started that discussion in late September during the WNBA playoffs when he said, during a conference on women in sports, that the league wasn't "where we hoped it would be."
Silver said those comments were not connected to Richie's departure.
"I knew those questions would come," Silver said. "And I knew people would ask about the permanence of the league. I want to be clear. We are 100 percent committed to the league."
Silver said he has talked to all of the WNBA owners over the past few days since Richie informed him of her intentions to leave the league. And he talked to NBA owners as well.
Silver said his September comments were both what he meant to say and misinterpreted.
"I don't regret what I said or the words that I used," said Silver, who was part of the team that drew up the WNBA's original business plan back in 1996. "It was a conference about women's sports. Collectively, we need to do more to promote women's sports. Honestly, I was surprised at the response."
Silver said he believes he owes it to the league's owners and players, fans and sponsors to be transparent and objective about the league's progress.
While ratings were strong for the WNBA Finals series between Minnesota and Indiana, and many of the league's teams have secured marquee marketing partnerships, attendance fell to its lowest average in league history this season at 7,318 per game. Approximately half of the league's 12 teams turned a profit this past season.
"I thought I was stating the obvious," Silver said. "I firmly believe that in order to move forward, you need to acknowledge where you are."
Silver said that his comments were directed at the business side, and that he is "incredibly proud" of the product on the floor.
"The basketball has exceeded my expectations," Silver said. "We have the very best players in the world, playing at the highest level of competition with passion. The overall quality of play has never been better. In a way, that only makes it more disappointing that we haven't been able to do more."
Silver said the response to his September comments, which ranged from anger to agreement, and to the assumption by naysayers that the NBA no longer supports the WNBA, can be taken as a positive sign that people are paying attention.
"I did not think I was doing the league a disservice to be talking about these things," he said, "because I talk about them all the time with the team owners and people in the league office."
"This league should be successful and stand-alone profitable." Adam Silver on the WNBA
Silver said he has no profile in mind for a new league president beyond finding "the best candidate."
"I don't have a list of candidates somewhere," Silver said. "But we will do a very thorough national search. In the meantime, [NBA deputy commissioner] Mark Tatum will be very involved. These next several months are important for the WNBA."
Silver says his three biggest priorities for the league heading into season No. 20 are attendance, viewership and marketing partnerships -- in that order. Silver said he believes games on television are more compelling if the stands are full. And marketing partners are attracted to that as well.
"At the end of the day, this is a fairly straightforward business," Silver said. "But it's hard to do.
"I would argue that Laurel's job these past five years has been harder than mine. I took over a league with a 65-year-plus history. She took over after 15 years. You are out there every day fighting for customers and fans and it's very retail, very hand-to-hand. Our teams will tell you that. It's a very difficult business."
That being said, Silver said there's more that can be done to help the league become more successful.
"Twenty years is a landmark for women's sports. As far as all the naysayers are concerned, we've far exceeded what they thought we would do," Silver said. "But that doesn't mean I'm not personally disappointed that we haven't done more. This league should be successful and stand-alone profitable.
"Sports leagues can't defy economics. They need to generate more than they spend. I believe the WNBA is on a path to being successful. And that in the long term, it's healthy to talk about it and deal with it directly."