WNBA president and Duke graduate discusses bright future of league

WNBA president Lisa Borders applauds at a Seattle Storm news conference on April 21, 2016, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
WNBA president Lisa Borders applauds at a Seattle Storm news conference on April 21, 2016, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) AP

Lisa Borders expected to encounter people who didn’t know about the WNBA.

The number she met, however, was something she had not anticipated when she became the league’s fourth president last year.

“It was a little bit deeper and a little bit broader than I expected, but therein lies a terrific opportunity,” Borders, 59, told The News & Observer over the phone Wednesday, the eve of the 2017 WNBA Draft.

Borders, a Duke alumna, has 25 years of experience in corporate, public and nonprofit sectors. She has tapped into marketing strategies to help drive the social and digital efforts of the longest-standing women’s professional league.

During her tenure as vice mayor of Atlanta and president of the City Council there, Borders was instrumental in bringing the Atlanta Dream to the city. She’s a fan of the game, a consumer perspective that helps, along with introducing new social-engagement tools, a record-breaking attendance season last year and even the NCAA women’s national championship.

“As a fan, I think I have a greater sensitivity to the notion that our fans get to weigh in,” said Borders, who inherited a pair of new rules in her first year.

The WNBA now resets the 24-second shot clock to 14 seconds after offensive rebounds, and it also rolled out a new playoff format to accept the top eight teams regardless of geographical location.

A possible result: “It was one of our most exciting Finals in the history of the league,” Borders said.

She was referring to the Los Angeles Sparks, which featured two Duke womens’ basketball alumni Alana Beard and Chelsea Gray, beating the Minnesota Lynx in a winner-take-all Game 5 in October.

“As a fan, I recognize that we constantly have to innovate, we constantly have to be mindful that our fans are the ones that we need to please from an entertainment perspective,” Borders said. “I’m a fan of the game and have been a fan of the WNBA for a minimum of 10 years. When I look at the league as the president, I see the same extraordinary game on the floor that I saw when I was in Atlanta, but I see it across all 12 markets.”

Last year, the WNBA’s attendance was the highest it had been in five years, with 1,561,530.

Viewership was up 11 percent (202,000 to 224,000).

The WNBA also saw substantial growth in its League Pass, social media and merchandise sales on WNBA.com.

Borders praised the ratings from the NCAA women’s Final Four earlier this month, when women’s hoops titan Connecticut was upset for a trip the national title game by Mississippi State. South Carolina, coached by 10-year WNBA veteran Dawn Staley, won it all. Gamecocks forward Alaina Coates was already headed to the WNBA Draft, but after the historic victory, two more South Carolina players – Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis – declared. All three are projected to go in the first round Thursday.

“I can tell you that if you were ESPN or you were anybody in our industry, watching those numbers says that there is an untapped appetite for women’s basketball,” Borders said.

“I think there are multiple things that that win did for the WNBA,” she said. “Frankly, the unpredictability of UConn winning was also very helpful to our game. As much as we all love every team, there’s something about the underdog – or the perceived underdog – winning that really gets people going.”

From the Draft room Thursday, the league will incorporate a three-level social listening board that includes traditional draft information and real-time social media discussion and interactions.

“Whether you are in Athens, Georgia, or Athens, Greece, you will be able to participate,” Borders said with excitement buzzing in her voice. “This notion of virtual attendance is a real tip of the hat to how we keep our entertainment … efforts fresh and energized.

“Coming in at the 20th year says a lot has been done, but there’s still more to do. I’m standing at an intersection of what has been and what will be.”

Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan

WNBA Draft

When: Thursday at 7 p.m.

Watch: ESPN 2