Leading the League: A profile of new WNBA president Donna Orender

Speaking with Donna Orender, new president of the Women’s National Basketball Association, you sense she’s in a hurry. And it’s no wonder. Mid-February she was named the successor to eight-year president Val Ackerman, and Orender now presides over a league whose short season demands a fast pace and a quick learning curve.As someone who preaches the best way to grow business is to learn a business, Orender has committed herself to doing just that. Her first duty, upon assuming the position in April, was to preside over the WNBA draft. Since the opening of the WNBA season is May, she has managed to visit every arena, hosting meet and greets with fans, staff and players. “What I’m learning,” said Orender of her travels, “is [the WNBA] has a great, passionate fan base. It’s a business that’s loaded with great value for the people who invest in it, and,” she added,” it has great values in terms of the way it conducts itself.” 

In choosing Orender, David Stern, commissioner of the National Basketball Association, said she would be “the ideal executive to lead it through growth, expansion, and profitability while maintaining its iconic status in redefining what is possible for young women who wish to pursue careers in professional team sports.” Stern, a stalwart supporter of women’s basketball in general and the WNBA in particular, has reason to believe in Orender’s business acumen. After 17 years with the Professional Golf Association, Orender had risen to the position of Senior Vice- President of Strategic Development in the Office of PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem. Involved in all of the businesses across the tour, including the management of PGA TOUR television and production, advertising, brand management and integration, she was also responsible for the PGA TOUR new media and Internet business, skills that will be essential in the cyber-friendly world of the WNBA fan.

While some may say the WNBA is too young to have traditions, it’s intriguing to note that it remains the only professional league whose leader actually played the game they’re overseeing. Ackerman, who was proud to point out she “split” the first basketball scholarship offered by the University of Virginia in 1978, was a four-year starter for the women’s basketball team and a two-time Academic All-American. Long Island native Orender played at New York’s Queens College, a powerhouse in women’s basketball in the early ‘70’s. Queens College has some classic battles against the legendary Mighty Macs of Immaculatta College, memories of which Orender was able to share during the reunion of the 1975 Mighty Mac team at this year’s Women’s Basketball Coaches convention.

Orender went on to star in the U.S. .-based Women’s Basketball League (1978-81) with the New Jersey Gems and Chicago Hustle. She played along side teammate, and women’s basketball icon, Annie Meyers and, intriguingly enough, against Carol Blazejowski, current vice president and general manager of the WNBA’s New York Liberty. Though the WBL, like so many of its predecessors, folded, Orender is a walking endorsement of the impact playing organized sports can have on women. “Competing at the highest level in sports taught me the fundamentals of how to succeed in business,” explained Oreneder in an interview.

“No. 1 was about absolute commitment — if you want to be the best, you’ve got to focus on being the best and put in the time to be the best. No 2. taught me about determination — that clearly the easiest path between you and the basket was not easy at all, and if I was going to get there, I was going to be more determined than anyone else was to stop me. And lastly, it taught me about passion and joy, that when you really love what you’re doing, you ability to succeed grows exponentially, ” she explained.

While many had picked Orender to become the first woman head of the LPGA, her decision to accept a position with the WNBA mixes a bit of professional challenge and personal mission. “It didn’t take too long to grasp what a great opportunity to work for this league would be,” said Orender to fans during an online chat. “Truthfully, it provides me the chance to give back to the sport that I love so much.”

The greatest challenge facing Orender and the WNBA will be to increase attendance and become self-sufficient (the NBA offers significant fiscal support to the league). From an average of 10,800 fans per game in 1998, the WNBA fell to less than 9,000 last season. The good news is that the attendance seems to have stabilized, and there’s a new, young crop of marketable and talented young stars, including Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, Lauren Jackson, and Diana Taurasi (who’s drawing power Orender has compared to Tiger Woods). For Orender, the fans are an essential to create that positive synergy. “ You give them a way – and an incentive – to spread the word and engage people to join them in their passion. I think it’s all about making the game fun to play and fun to watch.”

Acknowledging there are disparities in coverage and attention given male athletes versus female athletes, Orender is clearly not interested in bemoaning the fact or using it as an excuse, but with a mixture of impatience and practicality, she recognizes it as a reality to be overcome by hard work and creativity. “Sure we have to do that. We absolutely have to do that. But you know, you have to do that in every sport. Look what happened with Danica, [the female race car driver who drove in the Indy 500 this year]. An overnight sensation.”

For Orender, there are no “silver bullets” to the challenges she faces, but she sees parallels between the WNBA and the PGA of 17 years ago. “I remember times I would sit in my office when the PGA was kind of off the radar screen in general. It was a successful business, but it was, like I said, off the radar screen. It was comfortable. But then, we worked hard at trying to grow it and, ultimately, through a variety of opportunities and fortunate incidences, it exploded. Do I think that’s possible for the WNBA? Absolutely.”

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