The WNBA announced its fourth president Wednesday: former Atlanta city council president and current Coca-Cola executive Lisa Borders.
Borders, 58, replaces Laurel Richie, who left the league last November after serving as WNBA president for five seasons. Richie was preceded by Val Ackerman (1996-2005) and Donna Orender (2005-2010).
Borders is very familiar with the WNBA, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary season this year. She was instrumental in getting the Atlanta Dream expansion franchise to the city for the 2008 season and then helping it secure new ownership the following year. At Coca-Cola, Borders was vice president, global community affairs.
In that job, she was very used to traveling, and she plans to be doing a lot of that for the WNBA as she gets to know players, fans, and sponsors better. Unlike Richie, who was brought in for her marketing expertise but had never followed the league to that point, Borders has been courtside at Dream games since the franchise launched eight years ago.
"I'm a raving fan of the Dream," she said, laughing, though now she'll be in the neutral corner as league president. "I have spent the lion's share of my career carrying the torch for women, because I think it's the right thing to do.
"The WNBA is a business. And in any business I have run -- and I've worked in all three sectors, public, private, and non-profit -- every resource is deployed to be successful."
Borders said she considers the league's fans, both current and potential, to be resources, along with the players and coaches.
"I've been a public servant, and that means you have to listen to your constituents," Borders said. "The same thing would be true being president of the WNBA. No one of us has all the answers, so it's important to be willing to be a good listener. My job is to serve the players, owners, and fans and be able to coalesce all that energy to amplify the league."
Like Richie, Borders comes to the WNBA without previous experience in running a sports-related business. Their predecessors, Ackerman and Orender, were collegiate basketball players who then worked extensively as executives in professional sports, Ackerman with the NBA and Orender with the PGA Tour.
Borders served with the Atlanta city council from 2004-2010 and was previously president of the Grady Health Foundation, the fundraising arm to Grady Health System, in Atlanta. Her family's roots in the city go way back; her grandfather, William Holmes Borders, was pastor at the Wheat Street Baptist Church in Atlanta for nearly 60 years and was a leader in the Civil Rights movement.
Borders did not play sports in high school in the 1970s; she was a cheerleader. But she became a diehard basketball fan while earning her undergraduate degree from Duke. She then received her master's from Colorado.
Last summer, Borders was one of eight new members joining Duke's Board of Trustees, along with NBA commissioner Adam Silver. When Richie stepped down in November, Borders said she was in the midst of a very busy time at Coca-Cola and really didn't give much thought to the idea of becoming the next WNBA president. But when she talked with Silver at a Duke board meeting in December, both started to recognize the possibility.
"As a proven executive with a passion for the WNBA and the game of basketball, Lisa is the right leader at a pivotal time in the league's history," Silver said in a statement. "She will be responsible for spearheading our efforts to strengthen the WNBA and accelerate its growth."
Silver made some waves last September when, while speaking at a conference mostly of female business leaders, he said the WNBA wasn't as far along as he hoped it would be. The league launched in 1997, and Silver worked on the WNBA's original business plan.
Borders said one of the key questions she had for Silver while considering the WNBA president's job was how dedicated he still was to the league.
"He said, 'I am 1,000 percent committed to this league and making it the best it possibly can be,'" Borders said. "And with that commitment, we continued the conversation, and it became very interesting to me."
The WNBA will begin its 20th season on May 14 and recently announced changes to its playoff format. The top eight teams will be seeded by record regardless of conference. In addition, the league's two early playoff rounds will be single-elimination, with a best-of-five format for the semifinals and finals.
Borders officially starts her job in March but said she'll be going to the NBA All-Star Game this weekend in Toronto and already will be engaging with people about their thoughts and hopes for the WNBA.
"This position gives me the opportunity to turn up my passion high and work on behalf of others who are trying to live out their dreams," Borders said. "The players are trying to perform at the highest level of their profession. So this is really in the sweet spot for me, and makes perfect sense as a place where I can keep developing myself and hopefully provide value for the league."