From the WNBA:
LAUREL J. RICHIE
MODERATOR: Welcome everyone to the WNBA Finals 2014 presented by Boost Mobile. We’ll begin with WNBA President Laurel J. Richie, who will make opening remarks and we’ll proceed to questions.
Laurel J. RICHIE: Good afternoon, everyone. It’s kind of exciting, the moment we have all been waiting for is finally here, the tip-off of the 2014 WNBA Finals presented by Boost Mobile. I would like to begin by congratulating the two teams who are here with us today, Michael Alter, Pokey Chatman of the Chicago Sky, making their very first appearance in the WNBA Finals, and then Jason Rowley, Jim Pitman, and Sandy Brondello of the Phoenix Mercury who are here for the fourth time in the history of that franchise.
This has been, I think, an incredible postseason leading up to today. Both of the conference finals went three games, and that is the first time that’s happened since 2009. The Sky have arrived here, I think, as the comeback team of the postseason. Their regular season was plagued by injuries, and they still made it to the Finals coming back from the largest fourth‑quarter deficit in WNBA playoff history, going into double overtime to push the series with Indiana to a third game and then winning that third game.
Phoenix has arrived here with just a spectacular performance in 2014. The best record in the regular season of 29‑5, setting the record for the single most wins in a WNBA season, and then just a spectacular showing versus the 2013 WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx.
Our fans have responded to the level of competition showing up in record numbers. Attendance is up 2%. This series is the most viewed, highest rated in NBA TV history for the WNBA. On ESPN, our viewership and ratings are both up in double digits and the game here a few days back between the Minnesota Lynx and the Phoenix Mercury Game 2 was the highest rated, most viewed in postseason history in the WNBA since 2007, the last time we had a postseason game on ABC was the last game was in 2012 and our numbers are up 61% versus that game. I think this is really our fans responding to the state of the game and the WNBA today.
We have seen the stats just head completely in the right direction. Average points per game versus last year have increased from 71.5 to 80.2, shooting percentages from the three‑point line are up from 24.4% to 32.1%. We’ve seen veterans like Diana Taurasi and Sylvia Fowles with 27 points per game, 17 points per game. Two of the “3 to See” are here, and they are having spectacular sophomore seasons. Brittney [Griner] had 23 points and 11 rebounds a game in a Western Conference Finals, and Elena [Delle Donne], who can forget the 17 points in the fourth quarter? Seventeen out of 34 in that incredible game versus Atlanta.
Allie Quigley, our Sixth Woman of the Year, scored 24 points, and I think she has proven in the postseason why she was voted and given the honor of Sixth Woman of the Year. So I couldn’t be more excited. I think we’ve got our veterans showing up. We have fresh, young talent coming in. Two coaches who are making their first appearance in the WNBA Finals, so we’re very excited. I think this is going to be a game where the starters and the bench are going to be important. I think it’s going to be fast-paced and high scoring, and we’re ready to go.
Q: You mentioned the numbers and the increases. But speak a little more in depth about what Elena [Delle Donne] and Brittney [Griner] have brought into this league? They were expected to be major stars, but paying dividends already in year two with the WNBA Finals?
RICHIE: While Skylar [Diggins] is not here, I would include the “3 to See.” She had a spectacular season as well. Skylar had a great comment earlier this season when she said she realized after year one that she was a girl playing a woman’s game in her first year in the WNBA. I’m paraphrasing there, but that was the sentiment of it. So she spent her offseason raising her game, working on her performance, her body, her nutrition to compete in the big leagues. And I think we have seen the same attention from Brittney and from Elena to not only arrive as perhaps the most heralded rookie class in WNBA history, but with one season under their belt, each one of them did incredible work in the offseason to take them up to the level necessary to be competitive in the WNBA. And I think we as fans have benefited from their offseason work.
Q: Also going beyond the numbers, certainly some great numbers this year. Is there some sort of general ideas that you can pull from this season? Is there a milestone year here? Another turn for the league at least in your mind?
RICHIE: Yeah, I think I can’t say we’ll look back and identify 2014 as the year of X. But I’ve been on the road a lot and I’ve seen a lot of games this season, and I am truly amazed at the depth of talent. We are still seeing our veterans bring it, Taurasi, Griner, Catchings are bringing it every single game, and then there is sort of this mid‑generation of players like Maya Moore having a spectacular season, and then our rookies are just showing up.
So I feel this may be the year that we look back and say regardless of tenure in the league, the level of competition, the level of skill across the board, this may be the year that we sort of see that in its full glory.
Q: When we were back in the same place, I believe for the All‑Star Game, you gave us some figures on the number of teams at that point that were on course to turn a profit or at least break even for the season. Now that the regular season is over, can you sort of flush that out as to which teams those were and how many go into that category?
RICHIE: Yes, I thought you might come back with that. So let me give you the six teams last year that were profitable, San Antonio, Minnesota, Connecticut, Indiana, Phoenix, and Seattle for 2013. It’s too early, even though our regular season is over, we still are in the middle of the playoffs and final numbers are coming in. I believe that we will have six teams profitable again this year, but I’ll refrain from commenting and naming those teams until we have all the final numbers in.
Q: Will you announce it at a later date?
RICHIE: Happy to share that information when we get it.
Q: The postseason has been so competitive. The regular season though ended with a lot of teams that were below .500. Were you concerned that there were so many teams that weren’t able to get to a winning record before they went into the postseason?
RICHIE: We’ve had lots of discussion about that, and the thing that I am most excited about right now is just the level of competition. I think we had some teams with some injuries this year that required our coaching and general managers to really rethink and reconfigure to give some young players a chance to step up. So, no, I’m not worried about that.
I think look at Chicago being in the Finals, and I think their postseason performance to date has been incredible, and I suspect that it will be over the course of the Finals.
Q: Are you disappointed that the Sky have to move out to another arena for the Finals? Their fanbase which was getting accustomed to Rosemont is now back downtown. Just to follow that, I have long believed that downtown is where they belong. Is this kind of a litmus test to see if that might be a better decision in the future?
RICHIE: The changing of venue is sort of one of the realities of our business. These arenas host many events. Some events are booked well in advance of our even knowing our schedule, so it is a fact that they are going to be going back to the UIC Pavilion where they were from 2006 to 2010. I think the fans in Chicago are going to find the Sky. I think their first trip to the Finals, I think we’re going to have ‑‑ we are on track to have a record crowd in Chicago.
So to me the most important thing, I think for fans is for their team to have a great season. They’ve had a great season. The good news is here when they’re moving to an alternate venue, it’s a familiar venue.
Q: Rivalries create excitement, attendance, more profitability. Talk about the Lynx‑Mercury rivalry that’s going to be budding, and probably go on for some amount of years to come. Talk about how that will impact the WNBA?
RICHIE: Well, you said it well. I think rivalries are part of what we all love about sports. I have had the pleasure of being in quite a few in person during many of the games between the Mercury and the Lynx, and absolutely that is a rivalry. You can feel it from the minute you walk into the arena. I think that’s great for the sport. I think it raises the level of competition. I think the players and coaches come in with a little bit of something, something, a little bit of extra sauce for those games. So I’m very pleased with that.
Q: With the news that Becky Hammon was going to go coach for the Spurs, I’m just wondering what you think the long‑term impact of that is for the WNBA and do you see that as something that’s going to be a legitimate sharing of talent between maybe WNBA players having that opportunity to go coach in the NBA?
RICHIE: Yeah, Becky has been so eloquent about this milestone for her and its significance for women in sports and quite frankly beyond sports. I know it has made me very proud that in almost every conversation she’s had, she has acknowledged that she honed her basketball IQ in the WNBA. Were it not for the WNBA and the opportunity of the WNBA, she would not have had the experience and the preparation to take on this groundbreaking and trailblazing opportunity.
So I hope that more and more women will play, coach, train, become general managers in this league and that that will create opportunities for them within our league and beyond.
Q: It was just a couple months after the end of last year’s WNBA season when the Los Angeles situation cropped up. I know we talked about profitability. But can you talk about health? Do you feel confident your franchises are healthy and you will not have any surprises this fall or winter in terms of the status of your franchises?
RICHIE: Yeah, if there’s one thing I learned from last year is surprises can come in many shapes and many forms and at any point in time. But I think our ownership group has seen the numbers. They’ve been in arenas. They’ve been to games. They know that our fanbase is growing, that the level of talent is increasing.
Do I expect any surprises of that nature this year? No, I don’t. I think we had some good conversations both with the league office staff and with our ownership group, and we are all sort of linking our arms and marching forward coming off of this spectacular season.
Q: I want to come back to the issue of the sub‑.500 teams and so forth. One way of looking at that data would be to say that there were two, if you don’t count the end of the season, three teams that were quite dominant, but there was pretty much parity throughout the rest of the league. If that’s the case you’re going to have between six and nine teams in a season with .500 or sub‑.500 results. My question to you is how do you manage that from a marketing standpoint? Because if you look at the attendance data, fans tend to support teams that are on a roll. So if you get to a point where there is equality throughout the league and everybody’s just 50‑50, how do you keep that momentum there?
RICHIE: I think at the end of the day what fans want is to come into an arena or turn on the television and see a great matchup. Obviously, you always want your home team to win and you want the victory at the end of the four quarters, but I believe that the most important thing we can do from a league level and our teams can do is put on great competitions. Fans have shown us through the years that they support their teams during their brightest shining moments, and they often, the core of our fanbase hangs in there in the inevitable downturns.
So for me, it is focusing on making sure that it’s a great fan experience at every matchup that they come to.
Q: We talked a little bit about Becky Hammon and the possible exchange of basketball IQ translating from WNBA to NBA. Can we talk a little bit about some of the influence of the NBA within the WNBA? There are a lot of former players that are now coaches, Michael Cooper, Bill Laimbeer. How important is this exchange between the leagues and the presence of that NBA experience in the WNBA?
RICHIE: I love that we are a destination for those who love the game of basketball, and that we bring in the very best of female players as athletes and as coaches and as general managers. When those with NBA experience cross over to our side, I love that as well. I think, obviously, Michael Cooper and Bill Laimbeer have a wealth of experience, and for them to choose to bring that to bear on our league, I think it is terrific. I think the more we see this intermingling and intermixing, the more everyone sort of can celebrate the game of basketball and all of its various forms. So we welcome them with open arms.
Q: With the changing of the guard with the NBA and the commissioner, what is the relationship with the WNBA and NBA right now from a business office standpoint as well as with the ownerships of NBA teams that are also working with WNBA?
RICHIE: NBA commissioner Adam [Silver] has been, I think, very, very clear that he worked alongside David Stern for 20‑plus years, and in my four years at the WNBA, I experienced that firsthand. So we experience the same level of support and challenge, quite frankly, from Adam that we did from David. One thing I did learn throughout the transition was that Adam was one of the authors of the original business plan for the WNBA, so I didn’t know that before, but it does explain his knowledge, understanding and passion for our league.
So I think our transition or our experience of the transition from David to Adam has been identical to that on the NBA side which is seamless.
Q: Back to the numbers. Part of the reason I think the numbers rose so high was one of the games was on ABC, and people don’t need cable to watch ABC. Thinking of your ideas of expanding the reach of the league in the future and future seasons, like earlier when the league first started, there were more games on ABC, and Oxygen and Lifetime. What are your thoughts on expanding?
RICHIE: I will always welcome our partners airing more games. So let me say that very publicly. If they choose to do that, we’d be thrilled. One of the things that’s different between the inception in 1997 when we were on a host of television networks is now the digital platform has grown. So every fan has the ability to see every game via our LiveAccess. So we are bringing the game and making the game accessible to a broad swath of the population. As we increase in popularity and reach, we look to take the great news of this season and leverage it in future seasons.
Q: What about for fans who aren’t tech saavy?
RICHIE: Yeah, they might not know about it, but perhaps I believe that the presence of LiveAccess we are working very hard to promote that and we’ve seen incredible increases in subscriptions and time spent watching games. So, again, that is just another one of many metrics that is heading in the right direction, and I believe our really loyal fans will find us. It may be a reason for them to actually join the digital generation. Thank you all very much.