Athlon Interview with outgoing WNBA president Donna Orender

Unpublished

Athlon Interview with outgoing WNBA president Donna Orender

Donna Orender succeeded Val Ackerman as WNBA president in 2005. Only the second president in the 15-year history of the league, Orender saw increases in attendance and television ratings during her tenure. She guided the WNBA through a number of successful business ventures, including an extension of its television contract with ABC and ESPN and a marketing initiative that introduced company logos on player jerseys. A former collegiate (Queens College in New York City) and professional (WBL) player, Orender spent 17 years with the PGA Tour before joining the WNBA. She resigned from the league on December 31 and will launch Orender Unlimited, an independent marketing, media, and consulting firm. Orender spoke with Jerry Kavanagh just two days before leaving office.

Q. Are congratulations or condolences in order for you this week in your last days on the job?
Orender:
I’m not sure why you would say condolences.

Q. You’re leaving the WNBA after more than five years as its president. There must be some mixed emotions.
Orender:
I’m doing it on my own terms. I think that’s great. I’ll miss it. It’s fantastic.

Q. You had a unique perspective, as a former collegiate and professional player, that the leaders of other pro sports leagues do not share. Did that give you any special insight in dealing with the players and the teams?
Orender:
I do look at the business in its totality. I could very easily put on my competitive hat and see from the basketball side or the athletic side of the business and I could see it from the business side. And I think what it enabled me to do was to have credibility, which enabled me to bring both sides closer together. Which, surprisingly, you will find in sports doesn’t happen as often as it should.

Q. Why is that?
Orender:
I think that if you’re a coach, if you’re in charge of the performance end of the business – that’s what you get paid for, that’s what you get rewarded for – then that’s your 100 percent focus. Ultimately, the quality of the product will drive the business. But in this day and age, the business side and the sports side are much more in lockstep.

Q. Did you share ideas or questions or problems with presidents and commissioners of other sports leagues?
Orender:
Actually, I have. Yes.

Q. Can you give me a recent example of something you discussed?
Orender:
When there were issues of ownership, expansion…things like that, there would be others that I would talk to about it.

Q. President of a pro sports league is a limited membership. There have been just two presidents in the history of the WNBA. What are the immediate and long-term challenges for your successor?
Orender:
I think there’s a good stable base. And I think that much like every other sport, we continue to build on that base. I think exposure to the game is the biggest opportunity. I never worried about the quality of the product. It started early. I could probably say that when it started, it wasn’t the best basketball in the world. But today it is a phenomenal competition played by incredible athletes all put together in a very electric, energetic environment geared toward families. And it’s just a question of getting people in the arenas that really feel and experience the great quality that’s there.

Q. The UConn women’s team has achieved a remarkable measure of success. That’s good for all basketball, not just women’s teams.
Orender:
Of course. Listen, any program that can achieve that level of excellence should be applauded. This is a culture that’s about driving results. This is a program that’s all about results, in the most positive of ways.

Q. Tell me something about the WNBA that would surprise basketball fans.
Orender:
It’s probably the speed of the play. The points per minute are almost on a par with the NBA. The free-throw percentage is higher than the NBA.

Q. In your blog on December 3, you wrote, “In fitting basketball parlance, the game plan calls for a timeout to be followed by a new set of plays that I had drawn up many years ago that are now ready to be put into the rotation.” What did you mean by that?
Orender:
I looked at my career, and there were certain kinds of things that I wanted to do. And there comes a time when you say, “Hey, OK, it’s time to do them.” I happen to really enjoy people. I think the fans of the WNBA really got that. I’ve spoken all over the country, and I would like to continue to develop that aspect of my career, which is speaking to… whether it’s corporate, women, kids, groups all over the country, motivational, inspirational kind of educational talk. So, it’s time to do that. I can only do so much of that with the WNBA. I’d like to write a book, and, so, that takes some time. And I really have an interest in some other areas that I would like to continue to develop. And, so, the timeout is to try to re-engage with my family. I’ve been on the road for a long time now, and so I will try to do that.  

Q. Are you still going to be affiliated in some way with the WNBA?
Orender:
No, but I’ve always had this philosophy that you can leave physically a place, but the parts will always stay with you and, so, I think I take a large part of the WNBA with me. And judging by the amount of outreach I’ve had – and I haven’t even gone yet – I can fairly expect that I will continue to have some interaction.

Q. What would a highlight reel of your presidency include?
Orender:
Probably sitting in the stands with a big smile on my face, surrounded by wonderful fans also just beaming with joy at being able to be connected and participate in such a wonderful experience.

Q. Anything else?
Orender:
I can rattle off a lot of the business metrics that our team has achieved over the last six years, and I remain incredibly proud of being able to, you know, push the ball down the court for this league.

Q. What are some of those business metrics?
Orender:
Four years of attendance growth, incredible ratings growth and development on ESPN television, the development of a broadband product that I think is truly having a revolutionary impact on televised sports in general. I’m very proud of that. I’m very proud of our CBA and the way that we negotiated our labor agreement that resulted in six years of prosperity, you know, certainty as it relates to our players.

Q. Any regrets?
Orender:
You know, just that I wish I could have gotten done more, as any Type-A driven personality would say. I wish I could put 30 hours into my 24-hour days as opposed to 27 or something crazy like that. But no. No regrets.

Q. What more needs to be done?
Orender:
Just as I said, you know what I mean? It’s like, every touch, every meeting, every sales opportunity… you know, if I had 10 of those, I wish I could have made 15, you know what I mean? I always feel — no matter what I’m involved in — I always feel an urgency to move forward, drive the bar higher, touch people in a way that’s meaningful, and create something that, you know, is difference-making.

Q. Is there an athlete that you most enjoy watching?
Orender:
You know, listen, I am a sports lover. I always have been. I have a great appreciation for talent. You know, watching talent. And, so, I wouldn’t limit myself to one or two. I would tell you that there are many, many athletes that I enjoy watching.

Q. No one player above another that you single out? Or make it a point to watch this game or this player?
Orender:
What game is that?

Q. There’s no one who is in town or on [TV] that you think, “I’ve got to go see that player or that game?
Orender:
I wouldn’t single anybody out at this point in time. I have a great appreciation for a wide variety of sports. I do have to say this, though, coming from Jacksonville at this point in time, I’m very intrigued to watch the success of Tim Tebow (laughing).

Q. You were a player yourself at Queens College in the 1970s. A lot of changes in the game since then.
Orender:
The athletes are bigger, they’re stronger, they’re faster on a more pervasive basis. I would match Annie Meyers Drysdale up to any athlete today in terms of her quickness and speed. And they’re playing the game starting at a much younger age and their skill development is more advanced. So, I would tell you, like in any other sport, the greats of any era probably can compete with the greats of any other era. Because when you’re an exceptional athlete, you’re an exceptional athlete. That said, I just think that the athletes today, and the game today, are a lot quicker and a lot more physical.

Q. Orender Unlimited, your new company: What’s the plan for that?
Orender:
My view of the world is that there are endless possibilities, and I’ve been fortunate in my career to have many, many, many experiences. And, so, therefore, if you provide value to companies, within companies, projects can help elevate and help them reach their objective. And Unlimited is such that, you know, it could be. Having had the good fortune to have experience in film media, having launched and created the entire digital business for the PGA Tour, whether it’s in the sponsorship area, strategy…whatever, I also have a big interest in golf and women, creating inspirational, educational programming, and I’ll be working on developing that as well. And I hope to be able to sit on a couple of corporate boards and bring my expertise and experience to that endeavor as well. So, it’s an evolving kind of plan at this point in time, incorporating kind of the things where I think I can bring the most value and, truthfully, the things that I like to do the best.
 

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Donna Orender succeeded Val Ackerman as WNBA president in 2005. Only the second president in the 15-year history of the league, Orender saw increases in attendance and television ratings during her tenure. She guided the WNBA through a number of successful business ventures, including an extension of its television contract with ABC and ESPN and a marketing initiative that introduced company logos on player jerseys.
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