WNBA President Eyes Ratings, Attendance Goals

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For Lisa Borders, as she heads into the 21st WNBA season and her second as league president, there's one way to measure success.

With the changing way fans consume sports content, it depends a bit on the website numbers (which were up last season) and TV ratings (also up).

But more important than that?

"Full arenas is when we've made it," she said. "You want to see in any business some continuity. We have 12 teams in 12 different markets. So you would like to see a full arena for every game. That's what success looks like."

According to the WNBA's attendance numbers, the league has a long way to go when it comes to that. Attendance in 2016 hit its highest numbers since 2011, averaging 7,655.

There were other successes, too, in Borders' first year: Viewership was up on ESPN and ESPN2, and the league, she said, parlayed what was an excellent Finals series into better TV coverage. The Los Angeles Sparks defeated the Minnesota Lynx in five games. It was the first title for Candace Parker, one of the league's biggest stars.

"What they have offered to do and we have invited them to do is put on more games and try to give us a destination date and time. So they will do that to the best of their ability," she said. "Obviously, there's other sports going on ESPN, but we will work with them closely -- we would have done that anyways -- but the Finals will put a fine point on that this is some really exciting sports content that they will want to have on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC."

Borders was hired in February 2016 after a chance meeting with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver at a Duke alumni event. A longtime fan and an engineer behind bringing a franchise to Atlanta, she cornered him and demanded a progress report for the league. It was a question that came six months after Silver said he thought the league should have been more popular than it was at that point.

"His question was, 'If you think you're so smart, why don't you come help?'" she said. "And I thought, surely, he's joking. He said to me, 'Call me on Monday.' It was a Friday. I said, 'OK.'

"So I took the card, put it in my purse. Monday morning I came to work, I put the card on my desk. I forgot to call him. He didn't forget to call me. He started calling and texting, and he did that every day until I said yes."

It's possible to forget to call Adam Silver back? Or was she wary of the job?

"I really forgot to call him," she said.

Beyond the challenges of making a basketball league succeed in a crowded market, Borders faces a unique challenge as the head of a women's league: stereotypes and Internet trolls determined to make it fail.

Instead of trying to change their minds, she uses something she learned when she integrated her junior high school and was called racial slurs from the seventh grade until she graduated: filtering out the noise to focus on what matters.

"There's always five or 10% of people, they happen to be using this little tool called the Internet, but they're no louder than the 90% of the people that want us to succeed.

"So I'd rather listen to the people that want us to succeed and completely tune out the 10% who are the laggards who just don't get us. I don't need 100% of the people; if I can get a sustainable majority, I'm good.

"We're all good."

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March 30, 2017


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