One of the most excited people over the WNBA’s celebrated draft class anchored by Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner is league president Laurel Richie.
It’s with good reason as ratings and attendance are expected to rise througout the league, as Griner, along with Chicago’s Elena Delle Donne and Tulsa’s Skylar Diggins, are garnering attention from all angles, not just the women’s basketball circles. The general public which may have never seen a game before is tuning in to see the 6-foot-8 talent from Baylor who dunked twice in her debut performance.
President Richie was in Phoenix earlier this week for the matchup between Griner and Delle Donne, which resulted in a victory for the Sky, and expressed her feelings about the rookies and league, which is entering its 17th season and third with her overseeing it.
“I think she’s ready for it,” Richie said of Griner. “Before the draft, we get together a group of women who are going to be in the league and we spend time with them, for the rookie orientation before the actual draft, so we get to know them a little bit, and that was my first time meeting Brittney, and there is just a ball of energy there. Every time I turn around, she’s got another hobby or another animal, and she’s a lot of fun. I feel like she’s ready for the game and what it means to be a professional athlete, as far as the public platform when that happens.”
The league is coming off a successful 2012 season that saw the Americans win the gold medal in the London Olympics and one of its most beloved stars, Tamika Catchings, follow that up with her Indiana Fever dethroning the Minnesota Lynx in the Finals.
“There are 132 players, and I always say I don’t have a favorite, and one of the things I love most is they are all so different,” Richie said. “Elena is very, very clear what is important to her. In my opinion, she is somewhat underspoken. She says less and demonstrates more.”
Earlier this year, ESPN extended its contract six years through 2022, planning to air 30 games per season and giving each franchise $1 million in revenue per year.
“I think this is a year, where we’re going to look back and remember,” Richie said. “For me personally, ESPN stepping up. To have them recognize and their willingness to promote women’s sports, and the WNBA being the longest-running women’s sports league, that coming together was really important.
“We’re seeing incredible interest in just seeing what it’s all about. People are excited about seeing Candace Parker going up against Brittney or Brittney going up against Liz Cambage.”
President Richie mentioned two goals she would like to accomplish my the season’s end in October.
“I would hope that attendance is up, and I hope we had more people following the season. That doesn’t mean they come to every game or watch every game, but the WNBA is finding its way into popular conversation.”
About 7,500 people attended WNBA games on average in 2012, the lowest ever and down about 500 per game from 2011. However, President Richie mentioned that in the past, interns requested 25 tickets and this year they requested 75.
This will be the fourth year in which the WNBA operates with 12 teams. It had a high of 16 at the turn of the century before losing markets such as Houston, Detroit and Sacramento. There are still plenty of cities that remain to be unexplored as potential expansion candidates, including Boston, Philadelphia and Denver.
“The great thing about expansion is there are owners who I think have the means to own a team who are genuinley interested who I have in the ‘bun warmer’ as I call it,” she said. “I can say the with depth of players coming in, you can imagine (there is the likelihood), but it’s not like I have a date.”
The Mercury is at Seattle Sunday and returns home June 14 to face the Los Angeles Sparks.