The WNBA will celebrate its 20th season in 2016 with a new president. Now, there will be a lot of speculation about what qualities that person most needs to have, and what he or she should prioritize in that job.
I say "he or she" because I don't think the next WNBA president has to be female. That's been the case throughout the league's history, with Val Ackerman followed by Donna Orender, followed by Laurel Richie, who announced Wednesday she was stepping down to pursue other interests.
No one will dispute that having women in sports leadership positions, both at the pro and college levels, is vitally important and needs continual advocacy because of how far we lag behind. But I don't think gender is a prerequisite for leading the WNBA.
The league must look for someone who can build on what's been accomplished, and remedy (or at least start to) some of the things that haven't. I believe someone with both strong basketball and business backgrounds is the best target.
Wednesday night, I spoke at length with NBA commissioner Adam Silver about where the WNBA goes from here. And although you don't typically see the word "passionate" used in regard to Silver, he genuinely sounded that way about his commitment to the WNBA. And frankly, that was very good to hear.
I was critical of the tone and timing of Silver's remarks in September saying the WNBA wasn't where he hoped it would be in 2015 in terms of attendance, revenue and relevance. His disappointment about those things became the headline on the day the WNBA playoffs started, which seemed an unnecessary buzzkill for a league that struggles to get buzz.
Silver made those comments at the Sports Business Journal's "Game Changers" conference that is focused on women as participants in the business of sports. The New York-based event was on Silver's schedule months in advance, yet the fact that it coincided with the first day of the playoffs didn't really resonate with him the way it did with a lot of us who follow the WNBA.
Silver said his remarks were not meant as an indictment of Richie, and were not related to her leaving. But I sensed in talking with Richie during the WNBA playoffs that his comments had stung her, and left her questioning her future with the league. Let's put it this way: If I'd been in her shoes, I would have been thinking about my next job.
"The league must look for someone who can build on what's been accomplished, and remedy (or at least start to) some of the things that haven't. I believe someone with both strong basketball and business backgrounds is the best target." espnW columnist Mechelle Voepel
But my point here is really not to rehash what happened in September or to criticize Silver again. He said he did not have any ill will about what I wrote, and enthusiastically explained his thoughts and ideas then and now. The confirmation he provided that he does view the WNBA's success as imperative, and part of his job as NBA commissioner is the best endorsement he could give.
Silver is a different personality than David Stern, certainly, but that's not a bad thing for the WNBA. The league absolutely had to have Stern in order to be launched, and he deserves tremendous credit for that. But I always thought there was an air of paternalism from Stern about the WNBA (more even than about other things). Pragmatically, that mindset might have been required in the early days of mowing down WNBA critics and skeptics, but that wasn't going to be what moved the league forward in the long run.
Silver seems to want to be more directly involved in real, in-depth problem-solving and brainstorming about the WNBA. He's got a much, much bigger and more lucrative business to run with the NBA, and I don't want to be naïve or unrealistic about how much time he can spend on the WNBA.
But this should be part of the qualifications needed for the next WNBA president: someone who will maximize Silver's contributions and involvement, but also be a very dynamic and robust presence as the WNBA's leader.
It's easy to make a wish list of the wide-ranging qualities desired in the next WNBA president, but not so easy to find a person who has all of them. The three former presidents had different strengths and weaknesses.
Ackerman was an attorney who'd worked many years in the NBA and had a comprehensive insider's knowledge of that organization. Orender's specialty when she came to the WNBA was on the television side, having spent 17 years with the PGA Tour. Both were former basketball players.
Richie had no sports background before becoming WNBA president. Her strength was in marketing. She got on-the-job training about the players, the teams and the storylines of the league.
Richie was always calm, gracious and present when speaking to media and fans, although it could be frustrating when she would answer questions without really answering them.
I don't think Richie was necessarily trying to bamboozle anyone. She was just rigidly committed to never going off message: Talk about the positives, talk around the negatives. (Orender, actually, was the same way.)
The players seemed to regard Richie as a benign and nurturing presence for the most part, but not necessarily as a powerful vocal leader. The successes in her presidency included the new ownership group for the Los Angeles Sparks. The WNBA's Pride initiative also began under her watch. And while that's still a work in progress to be sure, I credit her for openly talking about LGBT issues in regard to players and the fan base. In that regard, she set the bar where the next president has to start, at minimum.
Is the WNBA more visible now than when Richie took over in 2011? Can that be gauged accurately? Despite the attendance drop-off this season in particular, the league doesn't appear to be in overall worse shape than when she came in. But Silver, understandably, is looking for more than treading water.
Silver said that he didn't think Richie's lack of basketball acumen ended up being a hindrance to her doing the job, and he still believes she was the best candidate in 2011.
His wish list for the next president would include a basketball (or at least sports) background, but he won't go so far as to make that an absolute. He thinks the job is more attractive now than it was when Richie took it, and I agree -- although the challenges are still essentially the same.
The next president will take over a league that some said wouldn't last five years, and will help it commemorate its 20th season. The new president also will preside over an Olympic year and the logistical challenges that always presents to the WNBA season.
There will be a lot of ideas -- some conflicting -- from players, coaches, fans and media on what the WNBA's biggest issues are now and going forward.
It's demanding work, and like any kind of advocacy and brand-building, it will expose lapses in effort, judgment or resolve. But it's also the kind of job that can allow you to leave a signature on something culturally significant. In their own ways, Ackerman, Orender and Richie all did that, whether you agreed with everything they did or evaluated it highly.
The next person in that role has big hurdles, but also a two-decade history to expand upon. That, and the support of Silver, can help the next president advance the WNBA -- if the right person is hired. And that's the league's most pressing matter right now.