Richie: Sports will always be unpredictable

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Thursday, April 16, 2015

WNBA president Laurel Richie sat down with espnW on Thursday before the WNBA draft to tackle 10 questions.

Q&A with Richie

Q: Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd and Minnesota's Amanda Zahui B. are leaving school early to enter the WNBA draft; they fit the eligibility requirements because they both turn 22 this calendar year. What are your thoughts on early entry into the WNBA draft, and will we see this a lot more in the future?

A: I don't know if we'll see a lot more ... the decision of when to enter is clearly one that young women make with consultation with their families and advisers. I respect their ability and their right to make the decisions that are best for them. Given my background and upbringing, I also think education is very, very important, and I'm a big believer in that.

Q: How exciting is the draft this year with these new entries?

A: That's the beauty of sports. No matter how much we look at analytics and think we can predict things, there's an element to sports that always has been and always will be unpredictable. It has brought some great interest and energy around the draft, and that's a good thing.

Q: Is part of leaving early just a chance to better control your own destiny?

A: I haven't spoken at length to [Loyd and Zahui B.], but my guess is it's a very multifaceted decision. There are many factors that go into players making very personal decisions about their own careers.

Q: What will this incoming draft class bring to the WNBA?

A: It feels less about a marquee player and more about a group of strong contributors. When you play 34 games and then move into the postseason, we've seen it many times that teams win when they have both. I think with this class, five years from now when we look back, I think we'll be looking at a lot of these women as difference-makers on their teams in crucial moments.

Q: Many fans thought that there was a tanking issue in the league in 2012, the season before Brittney Griner was available in the draft. Are you concerned about that issue for the 2015 season, considering UConn's Breanna Stewart is expected to be the 2016 draft's top pick?

A: People enter the sports industry because they're competitors and they like to win. Sometimes from the outside looking in, people may take a view of the situation differently. As I look at this from the inside-out -- having conversations with players, coaches, owners -- I know that they're in it to win it. There is no doubt in my mind that the collective always wants to win.

Q: Phoenix star Diana Taurasi is being paid by her Russian club to sit out this WNBA season to rest. Are you concerned we'll see situations like this more in the next few years?

A: I have great respect for Diana and her very personal decision to rest. I have not played basketball year-round for 10 years straight, but I can imagine it's very difficult, and I respect her choice. What I am focused on is the depth of talent in the league right now; that's still incredible. I just feel like the level of talent has never been higher, and as each class enters the league, it improves. There are many reasons in the league's history that have led players to not play. This is a case where someone is resting, and we're still heading into our 19th season very excited about the competition.

Q: When Evie Goldstein was hired as new director of operations for the WNBA players' union in February, you said you wanted to have a long "get-to-know-you" conversation with her. Has that happened?

A: Yes, we had lunch and closed down the restaurant. We were so busy talking, then we looked up and every person other than the restaurant employees was gone. That speaks to our shared desire to understand all aspects of the business. One of the things I've loved about my time at the WNBA is that, while there are many people who are involved with the league in different roles, everyone is in this together to grow the league. We may do that in different ways and have different opinions about it. But I never doubt that all of our stakeholders are looking forward to year 25, year 30, year 35. Now that I've had a chance to spend some time with Evie, I would absolutely include her in that mix.

Q: Is there any one thing from that conversation you can share that you had strong agreement about?

A: We did spend a lot of time talking about the fundamental business model. As we continue to grow attendance, good things happen. It's good for our fans, broadcast partners, and marketing partners. One of my takeaways was a shared recognition of the central role that our fans play in the business.

Q: The expansion question comes up every year. Is there any progress in regard to that?

A: It is a steady drumbeat forward. I know it sounds clich, but every year we are closer to it than the previous year. What I find encouraging is that there are multiple parties who have reached out who I believe have both the passion and the resources to be owners of a team. There are cities that have expressed interest. At NBA All-Star [Weekend] I talked with [Sacramento Mayor] Kevin Johnson, who heads up a group of U.S. mayors, and I was very encouraged by their understanding of the role that sports can play in communities, women's sports in particular, in helping promote healthy lifestyles, well-being and gender parity. So I'm very encouraged by the expression of interest, and by the continuing richness of talent entering into the league.

Q: Could you envision the WNBA ever returning to cities such as Sacramento and Houston where it had success earlier, but then teams didn't stay in business?

A: I would always entertain the possibility of returning to a market where the WNBA had a significant impact in terms of building a fan base and offering something to the community that was valued and appreciated. Knowing how central a knowledgeable fan base is to the success of a team, I would very much be open to the possibility. I think the league is in a very different place entering our 19th season, and I believe that collectively we have learned a lot about what it takes to successfully operate WNBA teams, and to engage the fans and the community.