Luncheon in Seattle led Laurel J. Richie to WNBA
Former Girl Scouts executive Laurel J. Richie made an impression in Seattle that led to a job as WNBA president.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Laurel J. RichiePosition: WNBA president.
Predecessors: Val Ackerman (1996-2004), Donna Orender (2005-10).
Hometown: Shaker Heights, Ohio.
Residence: New York.
Rimshots: First black president of any major pro sports league. ... Former high-school cheerleader and recreational synchronized swimmer. ... Recipient of the YMCA's Black Achiever's Award and Ebony magazine's Outstanding Women in Marketing and Communications.
Past position: Senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Girl Scouts of the USA.
Quotable: NBA commissioner David Stern: "Speaking for how we're going to judge Laurel is we want more fans to attend. We want more fans to watch. We want more sponsors to be interested. We want a broader recognition of the independent values of the WNBA. I think that for the early years, the women's game was measured against the men's game. That was something we struggled against. What we have here is the best women's basketball in the world. It's been sort of important for us to make that distinction because we want to really be firing across all the cylinders of attendance, ratings, recognition and sponsorship."
The news dropped like an Acme anvil in a Looney Tunes cartoon.
The new WNBA president has never been to a game or even played organized basketball? Was this some sort of joke?
"I think it was a combination of not necessarily being approached," Laurel J. Richie said when introduced to media via teleconference in April, responding to why she had not attended a WNBA game. "So, what I want to think about is how do we reach out to people and engage them, versus assuming or putting the burden on them to come and grab us."
Richie's path to the WNBA actually began at a February luncheon in Seattle.
In a banquet room adorned with green and gold Storm trinkets, Richie was the keynote speaker for the Girl Scouts of Western Washington Seattle Leadership Luncheon. As she shared her story of being a pioneering black businesswoman and handed Storm brass the Women of Distinction award, something clicked.
Storm president and CEO Karen Bryant said she and the ownership group looked across the table at each other and knew Richie had to be in the pool of candidates for the WNBA job that Donna Orender had resigned in December after six years.
"I loved her story," Bryant said of Richie. "She has a commanding presence, and she has a really unique combination of confidence and humility. ... Afterward she told us, 'I'm definitely going to a game.' She was somebody I was going to stay connected to, there's no question. When I met her and took her card, I took that card with a purpose. I would have gone to a game with her in New York and I still will, but now I'm her guest."
Richie, a native of Shaker Heights, Ohio, who attended Dartmouth, was equally impressed with the Storm, particularly its involvement in the community.
"It was just one of those things; a unique coincidence where my role in this meeting and their role in this meeting really gave us a chance to get to know each other," she said.
Bryant immediately searched the Web for nuggets on Richie, cutting and pasting videos, bios and profiles from sites like LinkedIn into an email for Chris Granger, executive vice president of team marketing and business operations for the NBA.
Kerry Chandler, an NBA executive vice president for human resources and head of the search committee, remembers Bryant's words: "She's a rock star." Two weeks later, Chandler contacted Richie.
"I didn't tell her I was going to send her name," Bryant said. "And neither one of us talked through that whole process. We both acknowledged on the call the day that she was announced that we wanted to, but it was important for it to run its course.
"We're thrilled. We're thrilled she'll be here in June, and we're excited to show off a little bit."
Make no mistake, Bryant and the Force 10 ownership group's intentions are clear. The Storm is one of six independent teams in the WNBA, and the goal is sustainability and profitability. Currently only the Connecticut Sun can claim a profit, benefiting from owning its playing facility.
Bryant said the Storm could be profitable within the upcoming five years, but needs a healthy league to help reach the goal. That's where Richie's background could become valuable.
True, she's never attended a WNBA game. But Richie, 52, who is single and doesn't have any children, was a senior partner at Ogilvy and Mather from 1984-2008 where she headed campaigns to make Huggies a worldwide brand. She was most recently senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Girl Scouts of the USA, doing the same type of work for the cookie-slinging bunch.
"Both of the organizations to me are well-loved, iconic brands in need of a little bit of refreshment," Richie said of the similarities between the WNBA and Girl Scouts. "Their DNA (is) strong and solid, but the challenge is ensuring continued relevance."
Seattle could serve as a model. Bryant is on the verge of launching a multimillion-dollar ad campaign that will encompass the emotion of the team, its fans, and involvement in the community. Headed by Shannon Burley, Storm vice president of marketing, and produced by Wunderman ad agency, the branding is boosted by Seattle winning the 2010 championship but began in 2008 when four businesswomen purchased the team.
Richie, the first black president of any sports league, will be present for the biggest splash, handing championship rings to the team at KeyArena on June 4 in the season opener. If marketing goes according to Bryant and Burley's plans, the facility will be at its 17,072 capacity.
The Storm has nearly sold 9,686 for the game, the team's normal capacity. Bryant said 1,000 new season-ticket holders are in the mix, increasing the number of season-ticket holders to more than 3,400. In 2010, the Storm averaged 8,322 fans, up from 7,874 in 2009 but below the franchise-best 8,912 in its inaugural season in 2000.
The Storm will also unveil new major sponsors in Pemco Insurance, Group Health, PCC Natural Markets and Seattle Children's Hospital. Bing, which purchased marquee space on the team's jersey in 2010, invested more money this season.
The majority of new revenue has gone into spreading the Storm's visibility among its target audience — women and children.
"This campaign is symbolic of a journey," Bryant said. "It is important to go back to '08 because this campaign doesn't see the light of day without all the conversations and all the steps along the way. We're telling our story and we're telling it extremely boldly, proudly and we're telling it really loud. And we're coming from a position of strength."
The Storm works closely with Atlanta, Los Angeles and Tulsa in sharing business ideas. Across the league, however, the focus is a financial breakthrough in its 15th season.
"It's Laurel's job to make all of our teams in the league very profitable," NBA commissioner David Stern said.
The WNBA already has television contracts, with at least 30 games to be aired on the ESPN network. It has recognizable talent in players like Diana Taurasi and Sheryl Swoopes, who returned to play for Tulsa. And there's the goodwill community involvement through WNBA Cares and honors like the Inspirational Woman banquet.
But it needed a leader in the business world.
In one 20-minute meeting, Bryant saw that leadership in Richie.
"But she's drinking from a fire hose and hasn't even officially started, yet," Bryant said of the new president, whose tenure begins Monday.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.