WNBA President Donna Orender on her sport's crossover appeal

WNBA President Donna Orender addresses the crowd before the Phoenix Mercury vs Washington Mystics game in Phoenix, AZ on August 21, 2009. Photo by Max Simbron

The President of the WNBA, Donna Orender was in Phoenix Friday night to attend the Mercury vs. Mystics game. She's traveling around the country visiting all thirteen franchises to spend time talking to fans and team personnel about the league. She was gracious enough to sit down with me for a few minutes before the game to answer my questions about the WNBA and where it's going.

This summer there has been a running conversation among some of us who are unlike the normal long-time WNBA fan. We come to the women's game more recently having grown up on the NBA. Many of us heard that the WNBA was boring and unwatchable and perhaps we even formed those opinions in the early years of the league.

I've yet to meet one person however, from this crossover target audience (male NBA fans) who has given the current version of the game a fair chance and not walked away either impressed with the quality of play or simply entertained by the experience. Often both.

Naturally then, I was curious to see how the chief executive viewed my demographic as part of the league's growth plans. I asked her about where she sees the league growing and what she felt the fan base would look like in 5 or 10 years.

"I've been to every single arena now and what I'm seeing are families. I'm seeing a lot of young girls but I'm also seeing a lot of young boys and I see a lot more men," explained Orender who continued, 

"I think that the quality of the game has grown exponentially and I think that's being recognized and that's bringing a lot more of the traditional basketball fan."

To reach these fans, I do feel strongly that the next big step for the WNBA is increased television coverage which would allow people to follow their team more closely both at home and on the road. It is hard to connect with a team that you can only see play a couple of times and the pool of potential season ticket holders is much smaller than the overall potential fan base.

President Orender responded to my suggestion that the coverage needed to increase before the fan base could grow, "We have a television deal that's better than MLS, that's better than the NHL. We have terrific television coverage. We have over 100 games on cable television and we have over 200 games on the web. We do have pretty expansive coverage."

This is the first season that the WNBA has made its games available online. While there have been occasional technical glitches with the live streaming, most WNBA fans I've talked to appreciate the new access as well as the ability to watch archived games online.

Orender went on to make an interesting point about the future of sports online, "Wait till you see what happens in the media industry. I think we are the next step. I don't think it goes that way. I think it comes the other way. I think it comes to where we are."

She's speaking about media convergence where the lines between television, internet and even mobile communications disappear. A few years ago this would have seemed as possible as flying cars but when I look around at my various devices it is not hard to imagine that in five years we will all be watching the internet on our big screen TV's. I can already watch You Tube via Tivo and if I wanted to I could plug my computer into my TV via an HDMI cable. I guess we really aren't that far away from the convergence that Orender envisions. This can only bode well for the league as long as broadcast right fees and other costs don't get in the way.

In the meantime, the league according to Orender is strong right now as it completes its third straight year of attendance growth. The reduction in roster size from 13 to 11 has been consistent with other steps to keep costs inline and "execute a strong, solid business plan."

President Orender feels the reduction in roster size has contributed to making the league more competitive, "I think the fact that teams are eleven deep, players know that jobs are at a premium and it has heightened everyone's expectations as well the level of performance."

The reduction in roster sizes is likely a contributing factor in a very competitive season. Last year's champion, the Detroit Shock, and this year's consensus pick, the LA Sparks, have struggled while teams like Atlanta and Washington who only won 14 games combined last season are competing for playoff spots.

Orender credits the competitive balance to GMs who are able to establish a vision for how they want to play and are able to reach into a deep talent pool to assemble their rosters.

The consolidation of talent seen this year as 39 roster spots were eliminated with the the loss of the Houston franchise and the reduction in roster spots might be reversed next season. A group of investors in Tulsa, Oklahoma is trying to put together a team in time for the 2010 season. Orender will be in Tulsa next week but still calls it an open question if there will be a team there next season.

From what I've seen, the long term prospects of the league are solid. The quality of play is growing and new technology is expanding the reach and relationship with fans.

It is also important to remember that league is only in its 13th season. I was 11 years old when the Suns were in their 13th season (1981) and despite being the only professional sports team in town, they were by no means as fully ingrained in the community as they are now.

The Mercury and the WNBA in general face a much higher bar being compared to the global success of the NBA along with the expansion of other sports. In twenty years when my kids are taking their kids to a Mercury game then we can make a fair assessment of where this league should be in relation to where it is. In the meantime I've found a new way to spend my summers.

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