By Darlene Donloe
Laurel J. Richie made history recently when she became the first African American female president of a national sports league.
Richie took the helm of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) this year on May 16, a mere three days before the Connecticut Sun played the China National Team in a preseason game.
As the leader of the WNBA, Richie oversees all of the league’s day-to-day business and league operations.
Before taking the reigns, Richie, who has a track record of developing award-winning campaigns, spent more than three decades in consumer marketing, corporate branding, public relations, and corporate management.
During her career, Richie, a graduate of Dartmouth College, was senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Girl Scouts of the USA.
She also worked at the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, where she worked on a series of campaigns for clients that included American Express, Pepperidge Farm, Pond’s, Huggies, and Kotex.
Richie sat on Ogilvy New York's Operating Board and was a founding member of the agency's Employee Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion.
During a recent interview, Richie, who lives in New York City, talked about her plans for the WNBA.
DD: What does it mean to you to be the first African American female president of a national sports league?
LR: I still have to pinch myself when I hear people say that. I admit when I was interviewing and ultimately accepted, I didn’t know that. I’m very, very excited about it. My whole career has been pointing me to this opportunity.
DD: In what way has your career done that?
LR: I spent a fair amount of time working on and marketing products and services to women.
DD: Why did you want to be the president of the WNBA?
LR: For a couple of reasons. One, I think it’s important for our society, for both young girls and young boys to see that women have the same opportunity as men. It’s important. We right now are the longest running professional women sports league in the country. I’m intrigued to do my part to insure we are here for another 15 or 30 years. I also really enjoy the game. I want to make sure I can do my part in bringing the fun experience of going to a game to more people.
DD: Do you have a favorite WNBA team?
LR: As president and leader of 12 teams in our league I don’t have a favorite. It’s like having children, you love them all equally.
DD: When you became the president, if nothing else, what is it you wanted to accomplish?
LR: I think knowing I joined the league on its 15th anniversary, my goal is to make sure when we look back over the next 15 years we see the league has only grown stronger. Right now the level of play in the game is unparalleled. We are the gold standard. How can we increase attendance and viewership when our games are broadcast? How to reach out to more sponsors who share our passion for the game? I hope people look back and say during my tenure, this is a time when the league began to thrive.
DD: Since you’ve been in the office, what has been your biggest challenge?
LR: I don’t think I’ve had real challenges yet. The challenge has been packing and unpacking my suitcase. My focus has been to hit the road and meet and visit every team and every market. So far, I’ve done eight teams. I want to meet with the team and team staff and wrap my arms around the opportunities.
DD: What changes have you seen in women’s basketball over the last decade, if any?
LR: All credit to my predecessors. What’s most impressive is the change in the level of the game. Women and young girls knowing there is a professional women’s league for them to join has improved the play.
DD: What would you like to see happen with women’s basketball.
LR: I would like more people to come to a game. I think the experience of being in the arena during a game is magical. The pace of the game - you feel it differently when it’s live. All of our teams pay attention to the fan experience. It’s a fun experience.
DD: What is the biggest issue surrounding the game?
LR: Lack of awareness. Everyone is busy these days. I think people have a good impression of WNBA. I want to see what I can do to increase top of mind awareness and convert that to engagement.
DD: Why do you think there is a stigma with women’s athletics?
LR: The stigma surrounding women’s athletics, I think its lack of awareness. I think people often time form opinions about things they don’t know. That’s why I’m interested in getting more people to attend the games. As we as a society have been paying more attention to leading healthy lifestyle, I think women pursuing physical activity, competitive activity, more people are becoming receptive to that.