NEW YORK — Adam Silver has been heavily involved with the WNBA since the start.
Now the NBA Commissioner plans to “redouble his efforts” after WNBA President Laurel J. Richie announced on Wednesday she was stepping down.
“I’m a true believer in this league,” Silver said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “I’ve been at it for 20 years, spent a lot of my time over the last 20 years largely behind the scenes, working on television deals, selling sponsorships, working on marketing. We can do more. It isn’t just management of the WNBA and NBA, we need the larger sports community to do more.”
Next season will mark the league’s 20th anniversary and Silver was there at the beginning, working with Val Ackerman and Gary Stevenson to help draft the business plan in 1996.
Silver said about six weeks ago he thought the WNBA “would have broken through by now,” which he said wasn’t meant to be a criticism of Richie.
“I’m sorry she’s leaving. She did an excellent job over the last five years, but there remains a lot of work to do,” he said. “Obviously, I made comments not so long ago about my disappointment. It was not about Laurel in any way, but where the WNBA stands in its 19th year as we go into its 20th year.”
Silver said he has talked to all of the league’s owners over the past few days since Richie informed him of her decision to leave.
“They are also 100 percent committed to continue to grow the league,” he said.
Connecticut Sun President and CEO Mitchell Etess echoed Silver’s thoughts.
“I’m not concerned at all about the timing of this,” he said. “The league’s in a great place. The ESPN contract, the quality of play is really good. With college basketball, more people follow the league. The folks at the home office are confident they will find someone who will continue this upward trend to get us to the next level.”
NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum will oversee the WNBA until a new president is hired. A search for the new league president will begin immediately.
“We will take however long it’s necessary to do a thorough process,” Silver said. “The discussions with Laurel happened over a very quick period. It was unexpected. We don’t have a secret list in the drawer.”
Richie took on her role as president in May 2011, becoming the first African-American to lead a major sports league.
“I will let others speak to the legacy. That’s a pretty big word,” said Richie, who made it clear the decision to leave was her own.
“I would say it was an amazing ride. … It’s been a pretty rich experience. I tend to put my heart and soul into it. That means when you choose to step down you do so without regret.”
In her five seasons at the helm, Richie led initiatives to improve the visibility of the league’s players.
She helped ensure a measure of financial stability for teams by completing an eight-year collective bargaining agreement with the players and extending a contract with ESPN through 2025.
The league closed out its 19th season with a stellar, five-game WNBA Finals in which Minnesota beat Indiana in a series that drew strong ratings.
“While I’m still in shock, I am thankful for what Laurel has done in her time with the WNBA,” said Fever star Tamika Catchings. “Wish her nothing but luck in her future endeavors.”
Despite its entertaining playoffs, the WNBA had its lowest average attendance in league history during the regular season. Some of that was due to San Antonio moving arenas while its normal home court was being renovated, and Tulsa announcing it was moving to Dallas in 2016.
Silver said the league’s attendance was his top priority going forward.
Richie had to deal with a lot this past year, including star Brittney Griner being arrested for domestic violence and her brief marriage and divorce from All-Star Glory Johnson.
Diana Taurasi sat out after being paid by her Russian team to skip the WNBA season. Candace Parker missed the first half to rest.
Richie also oversaw the purchase of the Los Angeles Sparks by Guggenheim Partners and Magic Johnson Enterprises in 2014.
“There have been a lot of things that happened on her watch and she did a great job guiding the league through them,” Etess said. “Based on the position of the league now, it’s a much more desirable job than it has been previously. The league’s in a great place, better off than it was five years ago.”
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