Laurel Richie leaving post as WNBA's president

Laurel Richie is stepping down after five seasons as the WNBA's president, and the search for her successor will begin immediately.

The league made the announcement Wednesday, saying in a news release that Richie is departing to "pursue her other interests serving as a board member for several for-profit and not-for-profit institutions," and that Richie will "continue to be an advocate for girls and young women."

Richie became the first African-American to lead a major sports league when she came to the WNBA in 2011.

NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum will oversee the league on an interim basis.

"We thank Laurel for her five seasons of service and commitment to the WNBA and wish her success in her future endeavors," Tatum said. "The league's quality of play and depth have never been better. We remain steadfast in our commitment to achieving growth in fan interest and future business performance reflective of the extraordinary state of the on-court product."

Richie's departure comes weeks after NBA commissioner Adam Silver made public comments about the state of the league, indicating he thought it "would have broken through by now" and that it is "not where we hoped it would be."

"I'm sorry she's leaving," Silver said Wednesday. "She did an excellent job over the last five years, but there remains a lot of work to do. Obviously, I made comments not so long ago about my disappointment. It was not about Laurel in anyway, but where the WNBA stands in its 19th year as we go into its 20th year.

"My comments were directed at my disappointment having been someone with Val Ackerman and Gary Stevenson who wrote the original business plan for the WNBA. I thought we'd be further along, predicted we'd be further along. Sold to owners in the WNBA and NBA on premise that we'd be further along by now."

Silver said it was Richie's choice to leave.

"Being a commissioner myself, especially in a league where you're battling every minute of every day for an audience for market share, it can wear you down," he said.

The league just closed out a tumultuous season that included star Diana Taurasi sitting out after being paid by her Russian team to skip the WNBA schedule; Brittney Griner being arrested for domestic violence, and then her well-publicized marriage to and divorce from fellow WNBA player Glory Johnson; and the Tulsa Shock franchise moving to Dallas.

Ratings for the WNBA Finals series between Minnesota, which won its third title, and Indiana were strong, but the league experienced its lowest average attendance in its 19-year history, averaging 7,318 fans per game.

The WNBA's 2016 season is expected to be pivotal, as the longest-running women's professional sports league celebrates its 20th anniversary, the return of Taurasi and the presumed entrance of UConn star Breanna Stewart, who probably will be the No. 1 pick in the draft next April.

"While I'm still in shock, I am thankful for what Laurel has done in her time with the WNBA," Fever star Tamika Catchings said. "Wish her nothing but luck in her future endeavors."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.