It was a look. A glance, really. A twinkle in one young basketball fan’s eye, to be precise. The expectant young girl had just gotten an autograph from one of her favorite WNBA players and the look of excitement written on her face said it all.
That’s all Laurel Richie needed. Though the 52-year-old former brand marketing executive was pretty certain before, any shred of doubt that may have lingered about her decision to leave her role as senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Girl Scouts of the USA to take over as the third president of the 15-year-old Women’s National Basketball Association earlier this year instantly evaporated.
The transition to a new leadership role after close to 30 years spent in a professional arena that saw her achieve award-winning success. The long hours spent in countless airports, aboard airplanes and on the road visiting the 12 teams in 12 cities in her first two months. The task of introducing herself to team owners, coaches and the more than 130 athletes that currently comprise the league—essentially rallying the troops.
It was all worth it.
And Richie, who says she’s “developed an even deeper appreciation for just how competitive the game is in the WNBA” since assuming the reigns back in May, has wasted little time in moving the league towards its undoubtable bottom line: increased attendance and sponsorships.
“At the end of the day, it boils down to expanding our fan base and continuing to build strategic alliances,” she says. “The good news is all our key metrics are heading in the right direction.”
According to the WNBA, attendance at games is up 2% from 2010 estimates, marking the league’s fifth consecutive year of growth. ESPN2 also reports that average viewership for WNBA games was up 5% from last year to 270,000. It’s the highest level of viewership since the 2005 season.
But the Shaker Heights, Ohio native and Dartmouth College alumnus is most excited about the league’s ability to successfully follow through on an effort initiated by Donna Orender—Richie’s predecessor as WNBA president—to identify a league-wide sponsor. Last month, Richie and the WNBA announced a landmark multi-year marketing partnership that will make Boost Mobile the first-ever league-wide partner.
“An award-winning and dynamic brand such as Boost Mobile is a great fit as the WNBA’s marquee partner,” Richie said in her announcement, calling the pairing a “groundbreaking relationship” and saying she believed it “will provide both our fans and Boost Mobile’s customers a great platform from which to be heard.”
And Irvine, California based Boost Mobile, a wireless prepay service owned by parent company Sprint Nextel, was also enthused about the potential synergies of the union.
“The assets this partnership provides are unprecedented,” said Steve Gaffney, vice president of corporate marketing for Boost Mobile, adding that he thought the WNBA was “an ideal match for the Boost Mobile brand.”
As the Official Wireless Services Provider of the WNBA, Boost Mobile will be featured on game jerseys, in arenas and during national game broadcasts.
“That’s huge,” says Hiroto Takagi, a sports marketing consultant at Bryton Harry Inc., comparing the league-wide endorsement to the NBA’s successfully partnership agreement with Kia Motors. “It’s a great deal for the WNBA.”
Takagi says that the deal also sends a message to other companies that the WNBA, which has had more than a handful of naysayers predicting its demise over the years, is now a healthier, more stable investment. “Because this has the potential to attract other big name companies who can feel comfortable joining Boost Mobile in partnering with the WNBA,” he says.
While no official figures on the deal have been released, it’s been reported that the endorsement could be worth as much as eight figures, easily making it the most lucrative sponsorship deal in league history.
“It underscores the tremendous growth of our league and women’s basketball over the past 15 years,” says Richie.
Still, while she celebrates the positive steps the league has taken, both prior to and under her stewardship, she stresses that the work has only really begun. And it won’t be the easiest of climbs, admittedly. Since the league’s establishment in 1997, it’s well-documented that many teams have struggled with profitability. Also, some speculate as to whether the WNBA will experience any adverse spillover from the increasingly heated labor negotiations currently embroiling the NBA.
“We in this country have a ways to go for women’s athletics and women’s sports to receive the same level of passion, engagement and appreciation that the general public has for men’s sports,” Richie says. “I see the WNBA playing a role in helping to shift the cultural perception.”
Indeed, Richie, who helped to develop award-winning campaigns for companies like Procter & Gamble and others while working for major brand management firms such as Ogilvy & Mather, says she draws inspiration from marketing that goes against the cultural grain.
She points to Dove’s 2004 “Campaign for Real Beauty,” in which the personal care brand maker of soaps, shampoos and other products depicted women of different races, shapes and sizes in print, online and on television, as an ad campaign she greatly admires. Dove, she says, “looked out and said there’s a level of frustration building as the beauty industry stepped up what it meant to be beautiful. So by understanding culture, they chose to go counter to culture.”
Richie, whose father Winston is a career Cleveland Cavaliers fan that introduced his daughter to the love of basketball at a young age, is not unaware of the fact that she’s a woman playing in a traditionally male-dominated game. While she admits there weren’t as many women working in business when she first started in advertising in 1981, she says she’s happy to see so many women achieving success today. “As more and more women enter the workforce and progress through all levels of the workforce, it gets easier in a sense because there are more [of us] and it’s less of an oddity.”
In the end, she says, the opportunity to promote positive images and opportunities for women, work with premier brands like Boost Mobile and others, and give back to the communities in which WNBA community members work, live and play, leaves her almost pinching herself.
“I wouldn’t want any other career,” she says.