Adam Silver Q&A on the challenges and future of the WNBA

Adam Silver says one area the WNBA needs improvement is presenting its players in a more authentic manner. Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Laurel Richie, the third president of the WNBA following Val Ackerman and Donna Orender, stepped down Wednesday. NBA commissioner Adam Silver spoke at length with espnW's Mechelle Voepel about what he's looking for in the next WNBA president, what the challenges are, and his hopes and goals moving forward.

Q&A with Silver

Q: What are the primary things you'll be looking for in the next WNBA president?

A: I think that the job has become even more attractive, in large part due to the successes Laurel did have over the last five years. At the time we were doing the last search [in 2011], my recollection is that I said we were looking for a marketer. And I think that's been reinforced by what we've seen in the marketplace.

There has been an acknowledgement that the product on the floor, the basketball, is first-rate. And that from a competitive standpoint, the league has made tremendous strides over the 19 years we've been in business.

It's always helpful having a basketball person running a basketball league, and to the extent that there are candidates that also have direct experience in sports and specifically basketball, there's no doubt that's an advantage. But first and foremost, we need someone to lead the business who can articulate the vision of the league and sell it to many different constituents -- some are fans, some are potential fans, some are business partners.

Q: Is the next WNBA president ideally a kind of hybrid of the best qualities of the previous three?

A: Ideally, yes, because they all had terrific skills. But I know when we did the search five years ago, Laurel was the best candidate, taking into account all the factors. I think Laurel would acknowledge, having done the job for five years, that had she been a former player, that would have given her some additional credibility. But looking back on her tenure, I don't think it was a liability.

But if I'm writing the job description now -- and I haven't done this yet -- under the 'attributes' category, it's 'basketball experience preferred,' we would say. But you take into account the whole pool of candidates.

In retrospect, we have no regrets in hiring Laurel. I think she more than compensated for that lack of experience in basketball with her marketing experience. And I've dealt with the same issue on the NBA side -- the fact that someone has excelled at marketing almost by definition means they were spending all their time on that pursuit, rather than on playing basketball. I credit Laurel because I think in addition to the fantastic level of play now, candidates will see the platform that the WNBA represents and the opportunity for this person to be a leading voice in women's sports.

Q: I think the person who gets this job doesn't necessarily need to be a woman. That doesn't have to be a qualification, does it?

A: No, we will look at the broadest pool of candidates. Of course, there are a lot of men who have a great deal of experience in women's basketball. But [gender] has never been a qualification; it so happened that we've had three women as the president.

Q: I know the WNBA has spent years trying to figure out the 'formula' to better sell the league. The NBA has become a cultural phenomenon -- it's part of things like fashion and music, and it's global. Can the WNBA tap more into that?

A: I think it can. The prototype athlete on the women's side is Serena Williams. In addition to being maybe the best female tennis player ever, she's a cultural icon. I look at the way she's used in endorsement deals. She stands for something much grander than tennis.

One of the questions you posed to me in the open letter was, 'If you're saying we've made missteps, what are they?' And I think to the extent we have, it's that we haven't been authentic enough in how we've presented [our players].

And I realize it's a two-sided coin, because when Serena presents her real self, there are some people who don't like it. But she accepts that, she acknowledges, 'I'm not presenting myself in a way designed for everyone to like me; this is who I am.'

I think sometimes with the WNBA, we've tried to force it a little bit. React to consumer research and say, 'This is what women's basketball fans want; let's present that.' And I find that fans and consumers are generally much more sophisticated than we give them credit for; people see through it if they don't think it's authentic.

"I think the way we're going to hook fans is that this does stand for something bigger than basketball. These women are multi-dimensional." NBA commissioner Adam Silver

I've never wanted to buy into that dispute about, 'Is it basketball? Or a political movement? Or a cultural movement?' To me, it's all of the above. We've established these are the best women's basketball players in the world. I think the way we're going to hook fans is that this does stand for something bigger than basketball. These women are multi-dimensional.

And if you think about the NBA, a large part of their appeal is -- yes, they're incredible players -- but they are multi-dimensional. They care about music, fashion, they have a political point of view. They speak out on issues that they care about and feel affects them.

WNBA players have said this to me directly; I had this conversation with several of them at the WNBA All-Star Game this year. The players realize it's challenging, too, and sometimes they're scratching heads on why there are not more fans. But the comment I got from the players a lot was maybe marketing is targeted a little too young. Like, 'We are sophisticated people, and the marketing should represent us more holistically in terms of who we are.'

As we continue to grow this league, I think it's important we work directly with the players. I've often said to them, 'You are our target audience.'

Q: What exactly do you mean?

A: Probably the critical audience to our success is young adult women. In the NBA, we punch far above our weight in terms of marketing success, because we have such a desirable demographic. It's largely 18- to 34-year-old men. We have increasingly large numbers of young women watching, too. But when advertisers want to find young men, they first and foremost look at sports. And specifically, the NBA.

"If you really care about the WNBA's success, I hope you actually support it by going to games and watching them on television." NBA commissioner Adam Silver

I've had this conversation with marketers, who tell me that if the WNBA could do a better job replicating the in-arena audience with television, you would be more desirable to us. Because our in-arena audience heavily skews female, but our television audience skews heavily older male. We love the fact that those men are watching -- they appreciate fundamental basketball, the playing and the coaching. It's just not as powerful an audience for advertisers.

And often, we're selling the NBA together with the WNBA. To the extent that we could deliver an audience of young women viewers to our marketing partners during the summers, that would help our success. My question to our players is, 'Do you watch other women's sports when you're not playing? What causes you to watch?'

Q: How do they respond?

A: The answer often has to do with when they know a player and it means something to them. It's not easy or formulaic, by any means. Laurel was very good at it, and that's why we hired her. But society has changed a tremendous amount in the short 20 years the WNBA has been in business. I think that the WNBA always seemed to be ahead of its time in certain ways, and Val Ackerman knew that when we were launching it.

"I think you have to put it all out there in this day and age. One of the great things about sports is that unlike so-called 'reality shows,' sports is real." NBA commissioner Adam Silver

There had been other women's sports leagues that had tried and failed, but we felt it was the right time to make an investment, and we also had the NBA to help drive its success. We sold it on the belief that we'd be further along now, and when I say that I only mean in terms of various business measurements: revenue, attendance, ratings, etc. But we're incredibly proud of where we are, and 100 percent committed to staying with it until its success.

I know the owners in the NBA, and WNBA, feel the same way. But a shorthand way of saying this is 'authenticity.' And it's not unique to women's basketball. Part of that is admitting when you've made a misstep, and things aren't going as well as you hoped they would be. And social media can be fantastic. We get a lot of suggestions directly from our fans.

Q: You talked about trying to grow the WNBA television audience among females, but isn't it the case that men just watch all sports more?

A: That is true, but my challenge at the Sports Business Journal conference (in September) is, 'Help us reach more young women.'

Part of the attraction for ESPN in having the WNBA is to attract more women viewers as well. They want to do a better job of bringing women into sports; I assume that's part of the initiative of espnW.

Getting an audience to watch your product on television isn't all of it; a rating is determined both by an average number of viewers and how long they watch. And part of that is telling stories about your players, and not being afraid of representing them as whole people. I think you have to put it all out there in this day and age. One of the great things about sports is that unlike so-called 'reality shows,' sports is real.

Q: These are things you addressed in September.

A: Yes, and I wasn't trying to make waves. I was trying to say, 'Let's ground ourselves in the reality of where this business is right now.' And also looking at the sports community gathered there -- this was a women's sports-focused conference -- I was asking, 'Why aren't you supporting us? Tell me. Are there things you think we should be doing that we're not doing?' And I didn't mind your coverage. Let's talk about it. If people say I shouldn't have said those things, OK. I'd rather have people talking about us.

I'll never forget when the WUSA folded, all kinds of people came out of the woodwork and said, 'Had I known the league was struggling, we would have invested in it, I would have gone to more matches.'

Who knows if that is true, but I was sort of calling people out. If you really care about the WNBA's success, I hope you actually support it by going to games and watching them on television. We'd like to hear from you; tell us what you'd like to see us do differently.

Q: I understand all that. I think what bothered me most is that those remarks came on the opening day of the playoffs, and that seemed to me like the worst day for that.

A: I can't disagree with that. But I had been asked several months earlier to do this by the Sports Business Journal. I don't regret saying what I did; I can't say I made the connection that, 'This is how it's going to be received.' I've said a lot of things about the WNBA over the years, and nobody has generally seemed to care. Maybe it's because I wasn't commissioner of the NBA. But I've been very involved with the WNBA since Day 1, and a true advocate. Most of my work has been behind the scenes.

"The most frustrating thing about all of this, is when you believe in the product -- and the product is great -- it really is a business and marketing issue." NBA commissioner Adam Silver

The most frustrating thing about all of this, is when you believe in the product -- and the product is great -- it really is a business and marketing issue.

The women are getting a level of respect now -- thanks in large part to Val, Donna, and Laurel -- that they historically didn't get. From that standpoint, we've made tremendous progress. Now, we've got to demonstrate that the underlying business is up to the same level as the competition on the floor.

And I know we can do it. I am absolutely committed to it. It's me, the WNBA league office, the NBA league office, and our owners -- they are behind us. [Timberwolves and Lynx owner] Glen Taylor, who just won another WNBA championship, also happens to be the chairman of the board of the NBA. So it's not for lack of support, but I will say, it's really hard work.