At a WNBA luncheon before the league's All-Star game a decade ago, Lisa Borders heard something that helped contribute to her having a greater interest in the league. She then was instrumental in helping her hometown of Atlanta get a WNBA franchise in 2008. Now, she's the head of the league: Borders was announced as the WNBA's new president on Wednesday.
Here's a bit of irony, though. What motivated Borders that day in 2006 -- the same aphorism delivered by the same person -- recently infuriated a lot of people, some millennial-generation women among them.
It was former secretary of state Madeleine Albright's remark about a "special place in hell reserved for women who don't help other women." Albright delivered a version of that a few days ago in support of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and it angered those who saw it as "shaming" women into thinking they had to support Clinton out of a sense of gender allegiance.
It's a line Albright has been using for many years in regard to multiple issues. Like Borders, I was at that luncheon in 2006, and I don't think anyone took the comment in a bad way in that venue. Borders said she heard it and thought, "She's right. I need to do what I can to help the WNBA come to my city." That's just what Borders did.
Now, whether Albright should save that line for when she's sure it won't be counterproductive is matter for another debate. I mention all this as a way to address some of the issues Borders will be facing in her new job. She's 58 and a part of the Baby Boomer generation that lived its entire young adulthood before social media. The players in her league are late Generation Xers and Millennials. The oldest of the active WNBA players have no memory of a world before Title IX; the youngest have no recollection of a world without the WNBA.
Even so, the main question WNBA players, coaches and fans of all generations ask is the same: How can the league be better marketed? No one is looking for NBA-type exposure, of course. But can the WNBA, or at the very least a few of its more prominent players, break through to the mainstream?
Mixed martial arts fighter Ronda Rousey recently hosted "Saturday Night Live" and has appeared in films. Serena Williams can do whatever she wants; she's a first-name-only celebrity. Admittedly, those two are stars in individual sports, and you could detail any number of reasons they have attained their status while no WNBA player has.
The fact that such pop culture recognition can happen for female athletes both encourages and frustrates those who are involved in or follow the WNBA. It's a matter Borders will be asked about again and again as she becomes the league's ambassador: marketing, marketing, marketing. How does the league do it better and get more out of it? Is there truly a breakthrough -- or a series of them -- to be had?
Borders believes there is. She said Wednesday that she wanted to travel, listen to ideas and take stock of what people from all different levels of involvement in the WNBA have to say.
That sounds a lot like what her predecessor, Laurel Richie, said when she was named WNBA president in 2011. A big difference is Richie had never been to a WNBA game when she took the job, and she essentially had to learn everything about the league -- including who the players were -- when she started.
Borders is already a fan, and she has been since she was part of the group that helped bring the Dream to Atlanta. Borders was president of the city council and had an extensive background in the business and nonprofit sectors in Atlanta. She has been going to Dream games for the eight years they've been in town. She already knows how good the players are, that most need to go overseas to supplement their incomes, that the league is going into its 20th anniversary season both in a mood to celebrate and with concerns about securing a brighter future.
I asked Borders the main thing she gleaned from the efforts to establish the Dream back in 2008.
"What I mostly learned is how little information people had and how much misinformation they had," she said. "Now, this is eight years ago. Folks really didn't understand the quality of the product. And I know it improves with every season.
"But people would say, 'Really, you want me to go see women playing basketball?' And I would say, 'Well, have you ever done it? How do you know that you wouldn't enjoy it?'"
Borders believes awareness is better today than it was in 2008. However ...
"We are not close to our best," she said. "Women are half of the population in this country. We're not half of Congress or half of the governors. We've never had a female president. So sports is not the only area where we're looking to make up ground or try to break down misconceptions or poor perception."
Which brings us back to where we started. How do you reach different constituencies but not alienate others? You can't scold people into liking the WNBA. You have to make them want to go to games and watch on TV and online.
But you also have to be cognizant that there are die-hards out there who have been buying tickets for 20 seasons and aren't necessarily being appreciated or marketed to in ways to make them better ambassadors. They want more and diverse WNBA merchandise to buy, a reliable and responsive league website (more on that in just a bit) and to feel like their voices are heard. They care so much and are really invested.
The players are very aware of these things. They talk about this stuff all the time. On Tuesday, I sent a message to Phoenix's Monique Currie, who just happened to be awake at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday in Korea. Currie is a Duke grad, so I knew she'd be proud to have two Dukies -- Adam Silver and Borders are both Blue Devils -- running the NBA and WNBA. She has met Borders on occasion and is eager to chat with her again now that she's WNBA president.
But I also wanted to know what Currie and other players hope Borders will work on right away.
"I think a lot of the players want the focus to be on more exposure for our league," Currie wrote in an email. "This being our 20th season, we are hoping the president will use the excitement around that to find ways to bring in new viewers, fans and sponsors. We are confident in our product and know that once you check us out, you will definitely come back for more.
"And eventually, expansion. I think we are all ready for a new team(s) to join the league. So I'm hoping that this will be something high on her list."
Currie has started her own website -- womensbasketball247.com -- to try to keep fans more informed about basketball overseas, where so many players live and work in the winter and spring.
One thing Borders will soon find out, if she doesn't know it already, is the league's fans are hungry for more information. As such, the glitches and mistakes that plagued the redesigned WNBA.com last year were a real problem in regard to the aforementioned poor perception.
Borders will have to prioritize what she can take on right away, especially with so much going on this season: the 20th anniversary celebration, the Rio Olympics, the new playoff format. There will be queries about expansion and about why players such as Currie have to be far from the United States for months at a time. But both those issues lead back to the main one: marketing and exposure. There must be a leap there before other improvements come.
Right now, I think expansion -- perhaps to 14 teams -- is likely to happen long before the league pays its players enough that they don't need to spend much time overseas.
Ultimately, it's all about taking steps forward and avoiding too much slippage -- striking the right tone but making actions equal to words. Borders takes over at a time that is both exciting and challenging, and she's going to need Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millenials to bring their particular points of view and favorite means of communication together to promote the same message.
Not to the people who will never hear it -- let's not even bother with them -- but to those who either haven't heard or haven't been spurred, as Borders was in 2006, to get more involved. The message doesn't really need to have any hell or damnation in it -- it's probably best if it doesn't -- but it does need to be sincere and heartfelt.
It sounds like Borders can be counted on to provide that.