WNBA president Borders leads with a vision and a plan

UConn's Moriah Jefferson fist-bumps with WNBA president Lisa Borders after being selected second overall by the San Antonio Stars in the WNBA Draft. Photo by Sean D. Elliot/The Day.
UConn’s Moriah Jefferson fist-bumps with WNBA president Lisa Borders after being selected second overall by the San Antonio Stars in the WNBA Draft. Photo by Sean D. Elliot/The Day.

Lisa Borders had been WNBA president for all of 24 days when it was time for her to perform arguably the most fun duty of the job in hosting the Draft. And as she had since day one, Borders put her unique stamp on the event.

As each draft pick came to the stage to claim their ceremonial jersey from her, the two fist bumped and then flashed three fingers up for a “W.” Borders greeted each young woman warmly, and lit up cameras with her megawatt smile. She explained later that the W symbolized both women and the WNBA, which is especially significant this year, the 20th for the league.

It also seems significant that the former Atlanta city council president has come aboard in time for the league’s anniversary, as the WNBA is looking to grow after years of flat-lined attendance numbers following a strong start. Borders makes no bones about her business-minded approach in taking the helm.

“I’m the number one sales person for the WNBA,” she said. “My job is to make sure teams run well and we’re operationally sound and financially strong. When you’re running a business you have to make sure you’re doing things right, and that means experiencing that in an incremental way.”

Borders came to the league with energy, a business plan, a vision, and an eye on bringing it all together. She says her first priority is to grow “top-line revenue” and go after sponsor deals similar to the partnership with Verizon that was unveiled in March. She is also mindful of team stability, and plans to keep an eye in particular on the Dallas Wings, which just relocated from Tulsa.

“It’s a matter of going and finding similar (sponsors) to grow our brand,” she said.

The WNBA’s lack of marketing has been questioned in recent years. Borders said she plans to build on previous efforts.

“We have had good marketing up to this point, and we will have even more going forth,” she said. “The ‘Watch Me Work’ campaign in January, which was revealed at an NBA game……illustrated the priority that our entire basketball family is putting on the WNBA.”

The WNBA and NBA work “hand in glove,” Borders said.

“The NBA is our big brother league, and there is no separation between us at all in the basketball business,” she said. “That’s part of the reason we do what we do effectively is that we work together and share marketing and communication resources. Fundamentally this is a business, and we need to maximize revenues and minimize expenses, keeping operations cost-effective and efficient.”

The quality of the WNBA is not in question, according to Borders; it is a matter of taking the right approach for publicity.

“We have the best basketball, bar none, of any women’s professional league, so it’s clear the products we’re putting on the floor are of substantial quality and are entertaining to our fans,” Borders said. “The WNBA should be marketed as an entertaining sports event.”

The league as entertainment is something Borders knows a lot about. She was instrumental in helping bring the Atlanta Dream to the city in 2007, and has been a courtside season ticket holder ever since. Her ascent to the league presidency is unique because until now she has been a vocal, out-of-her-seat fan who usually has words for both players and officials at every game.

“I’m a raving fan, and I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t believe in this league,” Borders said. “I know the ref’s names, and they know mine.”

Traditional views separate female from male fans. Borders sees much different delineations in the WNBA fan base.

“I would tell you that there are buckets we put people into, and I talk about the committed, casual and curious fans,” she said. “Committed fans are those like myself who love the game, have known it for a long time and have gone to a bunch of games. I know the game inside and out, and I love it.”

“Then you have the casual fan, who will come to a game occasionally because someone invited them or gave them a ticket. Finally, you have the curious fan, who is operating from a blank slate. We do not exclude any demographic; we recognize that people are on different levels, and we will approach each in a different way.”

How does she respond to the accusation that the WNBA is “boring”?

“The first thing I would ask in that argument is whether or not they’ve been to a game,” Borders said. “Often, when someone is saying that, they have never seen the game. They don’t know anything about our players or our history, and it is fascinating to me that they’re that irrational.”

“Would you say you disliked a red velvet cupcake without tasting it? Why would they say they didn’t like it if they had no perspective and no exposure?”

WNBA president Lisa Borders. Photo courtesy of WNBA.
WNBA president Lisa Borders. Photo courtesy of WNBA.

Borders never played basketball herself, but became a fan of the men’s game while studying at Duke. She began watching the WNBA a few years after its inception. Though her passion is evident in everything she does in her new job, this is Borders’ first foray into sports management. She said it is not much different from her previous positions, which include a time as vice president of global community affairs at the Coca Cola Company.

“Sports is in a narrow lane, and I would submit that sports is a business like anything else,” Borders said. “The principals of sports management are like any other business management. All of them have in common the fundamentals of running a great organization, where you have to have growth in your top line.”

Borders was hired rather quickly after speaking with NBA commissioner Adam Silver at a Duke University board of trustees meeting in December. She had already purchased her 2016 Dream season tickets before having to move to New York.

“My family is fighting over the tickets in Atlanta,” Borders said with a laugh. “My brothers all want them.”