I wish Laurel Richie luck. Lots of luck. The new president of the WNBA, six weeks into her new gig, has what could be the worst, most thankless job in America.
When the subject of "worst job you ever had?" would come up over a beer with friends, I'd wait for a few of them to truck out stuff like "telemarketer" or "pizza delivery guy," and then I'd say, deadpan, "tagging body parts in the morgue." This came up more times than you'd imagine. We'd all had some pretty lousy jobs.
But now, if it came up again, I'd say, "I succeeded Donna Orender as president of the WNBA," and they'd recoil in horror. Think about it. You'd be taking over the sports world's most moribund brand, and David Stern would be your boss. Should we shoot you now?
Laurel Richie addresses WNBA fans in Los Angeles, as mascot dog stands guard. Photo by Donald Barnat/SportspageMagazine.com
The WNBA has its fans; I'm not one of them. Neither, apparently, is Laurel Richie. The former chief marketing officer for Girl Scouts of the USA - perfect! - and advertising exec admitted that prior to her hiring, she'd never been to see a WNBA game. Unlike Ackerman (a member of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Hall of Fame, and a three-time captain and two-time Academic All-American for the University of Virginia women's basketball team) and Orender (a five-sport athlete in high school and an All-American basketball player at Queens College), Richie does not appear to have worn a uniform. She's a suit. Like Stern. But Stern is the commissioner of an internationally successful brand. Richie's got...a 12-team league of which five are bankrolled by NBA teams and a sixth by the Mohegan Indian tribe (it plays next door to the casino, like Bobby Vinton). The season's played during a time of year when nobody wants to be indoors - or, anyway, practically nobody. League attendance has drifted down to 7,800 a game since it started play with eight teams in 1997, and a fair number of them are NBA fans who are required to buy tickets as part of their NBA package but fail to show up.
Richie's been making the rounds of WNBA teams; this week she was at the Mohegan Sun Arena (no word on whether she caught Bobby Vinton), and she said everything you'd expect her to say. "My focus is going to be on trying to increase attendance, in addition to [building] sponsorships and having our key metrics heading in the right direction," she told the Hartford Courant. Wow! Donna Orender never thought of that!
"What differentiates this league," she went on, "is the accessibility our fans will have to our game, the court and our players. The more people that get to know our amazing athletes off the court, as individuals, will make the league even more appealing." Did it ever occur to Val Ackerman to market players like Rebecca Lobo, Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes? Did the fact that I just named these stars from 1997 from memory suggest that, in fact, we've been down this road?
When Richie starts talking about the league's upside potential, shoot me. Seriously.