MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the latest installment in our celebration of National Poetry Month that we call Muses and Metaphor. It's our series where we hear your poetic tweets.
But, first, we turn to our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work.
So March may be over, but we still have the madness for basketball. As we mentioned, the women's NCAA finals were yesterday and the women's professional season is about to begin. So that's why we thought it was a good time to speak with a trailblazer in sports, or at least the business of sports.
Laurel Richie is the president of the WNBA, the Women's National Basketball Association. She took the position last year. Before that, she worked for the Girl Scouts of America and in various jobs in corporate America. She's also received a number of honors. She was named to Ebony's Power List 100 and the Network Journey's 25 Influential Black Women in Business.
And Laurel Richie joins us now. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
LAUREL RICHIE: Thank you very much and I'm happy to be here today.
MARTIN: Now, I think some people might be surprised to find that you actually don't have basketball experience, unlike your predecessors, Val Ackerman and Donna Orender, who were both, you know, distinguished college players, in one case, a professional player, as well.
So I was wondering what attracted you to the job and what do you think that the league saw in you?
RICHIE: You know, I have not played the game of basketball, but I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and my dad, for almost 30 years, had season tickets to the Cleveland Cavaliers; so I bring, from a basketball perspective, a fan perspective, to this work. But, primarily, what I'm here to do is really think about marketing the WNBA and the game and the league and increasing our footprint.
MARTIN: Well, your career, though, has been very much about girls and women in the world. And I was wondering, you know, various positions, like the Girl Scouts, for example, where the idea is to kind of establish and launch girls forward into the world - and I just wondered if that was intentional. Did you kind of set out to organize your career around working with women and girls?
RICHIE: I would say that I've always enjoyed that part of my work. I began my career in the advertising industry and most of the businesses and brands that I worked on were targeted toward women, or women were the primary consumers or beneficiaries. And I think I developed a passion and a love for that and, when the Girl Scouts opportunity came along, I felt it was very important to try to give something back to this next generation of girls.
I don't know that it was intentional, but I've sort of stumbled into it and really enjoy marketing products designed around women and girls.
MARTIN: So you don't think it was intentional? It was kind of more like a happy accident, you think, or...
RICHIE: I think it was more of a happy accident. You know, I do remember one of the very first business meetings I was in. I was the only woman in the room and we were talking about a home permanent for women. And I just sort of made a mental note to say, there need to be more women in the room when these discussions are taking place. So, to say it was not at all conscious would probably not be accurate. But I do remember that moment, thinking there was an opportunity for me to change the world a little bit in that respect.
MARTIN: But, speaking of happy accidents, as I understand it - that your coming to the WNBA was kind of a happy accident. Can you just tell a little bit of that story? I read somewhere that it was really, very unexpected.
RICHIE: Very, very unexpected and a great gift. I was chief marketing officer of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. and one of the local councils in Seattle was having their annual fundraising event and asked me to come out and be the key note speaker. And they asked me because Girl Scouts is all about developing the next generation of leaders. They asked me if I would tell my personal leadership journey, which I did.
And, at that same luncheon, they were honoring the owners of the Seattle Storm, two time WNBA championship team that is an ownership group comprised of three women and the president and CEO is also a woman. So they were being recognized that day as inspiring women. And I think we just really hit it off. I remember the president of the Storm said she's in the business of building a dynasty and I just loved her moxie.
And then, you know, we had a great conversation and I went back to New York and, evidently, they went online and pulled my bio from the Girl Scouts website and some YouTube videos of me giving talks and presentations and sent it on to New York and the WNBA. And said, you should talk to her. And, two weeks later, I got a call and I did and, the next thing I knew, you know, it was tip-off.
MARTIN: So what's the moral of that story? Somebody invites you to lunch, go.
RICHIE: Go to lunch and if you like somebody, reach out and say I think you did a nice job.
MARTIN: We're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with Laurel Richie. She is the president of the WNBA, the Women's National Basketball Association. The women's professional league starts its season soon. We think she's the first African-American woman to run a national professional sports league. We're talking about her career, and hopefully whatever wisdom she has to share.
Just wanted to talk a little bit about the WNBA at the moment. I think it's the longest tenured women's professional sports league in this country. Do I have that right?
RICHIE: That's correct. Yes.
MARTIN: OK. But since the beginning and all continuously, there have been all these questions about whether the league can survive financially. Is this a marketing problem? Is this a problem with the game itself – that people just don't find it interesting? Or do you think it's something else?
RICHIE: You know, the first thing I always say to people when they ask that question is, we've been around for 15 years and we're heading into our 16th year. So I think I'm hoping that there's a healthy respect for our tenure and our track record.
That being said, in taking on this position, I am really focused on bringing more people into our arenas so they can experience the game. I believe the game right now is being played at an extremely high level. The women who are playing today, they are – I've heard many of the original WNBA players saying I'm kind of glad I'm out of it now because the women today, they're stronger, they're faster, they have come from powerhouse college teams. So the level of play in the game today and in the league today I think is unparallel and I think we will see when we go into the Olympics this year we will see WNBA players representing not just the United States, where it'll virtually be comprised of WNBA players, but also other WNBA players playing for other national teams. So...
MARTIN: I know what women's tennis, for example, people don't say why aren't those women more like men? You know, they just appreciate the sport for what it is. I mean people don't say OK, Serena, why aren't you Rafael Nadal? You're Serena. You know, Serena's, Serena and Rafael Nadal is Nadal, right? So I guess what I'm asking you is why is it that there are other sports where women are just allowed to be women, but there's constantly this comparison with the men's basketball game? And I just, is there anything you could do about that or do you even bother, or are you just, you think just time takes care of it? What do you think?
RICHIE: Well, I think you're correct. In the world of tennis, I do believe - people may not use these words but it is when they look at the men's game and the women's game they would say different but not less than, and they follow women's tennis in many cases to the same degree or even a greater degree than they do men's tennis. And I think a lot of that has to do with fans really getting to know the players. They know Serena. They know Venus. They know Maria. So one of the things that I'm very focused on is having more and more sports fans get to know the women of the WNBA, their style of play, their strengths, their weaknesses, because I think you follow leagues and you follow teams but at the end of the day you're really following your favorite player because you like the way she plays or you aspire to have a game like her game, or she's got some swagger that you like or you like the way she plays defense. So expanding the exposure of our players and the way in which they play I think is an important thing for us on the go forward.
MARTIN: We recently had a conversation with George Dohrmann. I don't know if you're familiar with his work. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He is author of the book "Play Their Hearts Out." It just came out in paperback edition. He investigated AAU ball among boys, Amateur Athletic Union. We've been calling it grass-roots basketball, and that's where people can just kind of create a team because they want to do a team, kids as young as eight or nine, and his work has been about exposing what he calls kind of the abuses of this system, which really isn't a system. And when I asked him, you know, why we should care about that this is what he said.
GEORGE DOHRMANN: The game of basketball is deteriorating. The players that are coming out of this grass roots system are so lacking in fundamentals, so lacking in morals, so lacking in the lessons that we think of that sports teaches, that they fail.
MARTIN: Now he focused his attention on boy's basketball. Do you have a similar worry about girl's basketball?
RICHIE: I'm 10 months into my tenure here at the WNBA and one of the things that I have been - or two of the things, actually - that I have been really impressed with is when you look at the game that is being played in the WNBA, I experience and observe and hear very often from others one of the things that people really enjoy is the way in which you can see the fundamentals of the game on the court, so people really enjoy watching it for that reason. And I often hear from coaches of young girls and young boys teams that they like to bring them to WNBA games because they can actually see the fundamentals at play.
And my experience on the moral side of this is the women of the WNBA, I have been very, very impressed not only with them on the court but off the court. Most of them have gone on to higher education, so they come into the league with a little bit more experience under their belt. We as a league are very committed to our WNBA Cares program and our players very willingly engage in going into communities and doing fit clinics and helping young kids lead healthier lives and exposing them to sort of the fun side of sports. So I actually think the notion of the fundamentals and sort of the character of the players I find in the WNBA that's actually a hallmark of our league and our players.
MARTIN: And also it has to be said, the graduation rates for women's basketball players tends to be higher than for the young men. In part, some people say it's because the money isn't there and these girls know that they have to have a career outside of basketball.
I don't know if this is something, an area where - is there anything about the women's game that they could stand to teach the young men?
RICHIE: I will leave that for the young men to decide.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RICHIE: What I will say though is, you know, I remember I went to my first game in Minneapolis and I sat in front of two young men - couldn't have been more than nine years old - and I listened to them as they watched the game and they - it was clear they weren't sitting near their parents so they were, you know, very excited about the fact that they had a boy's night out and they were discussing the players and the stats and the, you know, the level of play and the choices the players were making. And I remember thinking how interesting to me it was that they were viewing the game as a professional basketball game. They were not viewing it through the lens of gender. And I think, you know, in terms of the women of the WNBA being role models, I think they are role models for boys and girls.
MARTIN: So, so are you. So let's hear some wisdom from you, if we can. First I wanted to ask, you know, you spent - I'm not trying to age you - but you spent decades in corporate America now in some really high-level positions, what do you think has been the most significant factor in your success?
RICHIE: I think there are three things. Number one, I've been very lucky that I've really enjoyed my work. And that doesn't mean it was easy every single day, but I've just enjoy the opportunities that have come my way. So I think doing what you love - I know it's a bit cliche - but I think that's really important. I've been very lucky to have some great mentors along the way who took an interest in me and helped me and guided me and offered very sage advice. And the third thing is I work very hard to ask for help when I need help and to ask for information and knowledge when I'm faced with a new situation or something that I haven't experienced before or I don't know or I don't understand. And I think oftentimes we get in trouble when we don't have the courage to say I'm sorry, I don't understand that, or could you please help me with that? I, you know, this is new to me.
MARTIN: How will you know if you have succeeded or when you have succeeded in this job?
RICHIE: You know, it's interesting. I have a niece who is six years old and she came with me to a - the Chicago Sky game and loved it. And a couple of months later she went to a Bulls game and she looked at her mother and said wow, I didn't know the men played basketball. And I just love that. So I know that we'll be successful when the conversations that we have are just really all about the game, all about the basketball, all about the players. So and when, you know, I can look back and say we're heading into our 25th year moving on from our 15th.
MARTIN: Maybe special uniforms for year 25.
MARTIN: What you think?
MARTIN: I'm just giving you that idea because I know you're into marketing.
MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.
RICHIE: Hey, we'll take it. We'll take it
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Before I we you go, we mentioned that this is a Wisdom Watch conversation. Do you have any wisdom to share?
RICHIE: Be true to yourself. Be authentic. And be honest. And have fun.
MARTIN: So Laurel Richie, do you have game? Do you have any game?
RICHIE: I think I got a little bit of game. I think I got a little bit of game.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Laurel Richie is the president of the WNBA, and she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.
Thanks so much.
RICHIE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.