With the W.N.B.A. on the cusp of union negotiations that could radically reshape its finances for years to come, the league’s president, Lisa Borders, is stepping down after three seasons to become the first chief executive and president of Time’s Up, an advocacy group for women in the workplace.
“We are extremely grateful for Lisa’s leadership and tireless commitment to the W.N.B.A.,” N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver said Tuesday in a statement. “This is a natural transition for Lisa knowing what a champion she is for issues involving women’s empowerment and social justice and fortunately for us, she leaves the league with strong tail winds propelling it forward.”
The 22-year-old league is coming off a season that lured new fans to arenas, lifted television ratings and ignited social media like never before. The Western Conference finals, with best friends Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi on opposing sides of a fierce on-court battle, energized the fan base, while the playoffs culminated with Breanna Stewart’s rise to most valuable player of the league and W.N.B.A. champion with the Seattle Storm. It was a thrilling capstone for Borders’ brief tenure, which did not begin on such a high note.
In the 2016 season, the league came under fire for fining several players for wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts during warm-ups, which violated the dress code. This manner of protest had not yet swept the N.B.A., and the terrain for either league’s stars being so out front about social justice issues was relatively uncharted. The W.N.B.A. quickly backed down, and Borders apologized.
At the 2017 All-Star game in Seattle, Borders spoke about the league having “found our voice” and said this of her decision to fine players the season before: “What do I always learn when I have a course correction? I have to stop and think, did I learn something specific for this situation? Probably yes. The bigger question is is there something that I can learn that’s fungible, that I might apply to future situations, and the answer is yes.”
Since then, the league has actively embraced social activism and progressive causes, at a player, team and even league level. This has been part of the league’s business strategy, most notably in its “Take a seat, Take a stand” initiative, in which a portion of select W.N.B.A. ticket purchases went to groups such as Planned Parenthood.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Borders said she believes the coupling of progressive politics with the league’s business plan has been a success. “I absolutely believe it is working, and it’s not just in my opinion,” she said, citing the league’s increased television ratings and merchandise sales.
However, she could not say whether the W.N.B.A. would continue on this path without her.
“What I don’t ever want to do is meddle,” Borders said. “I want to give the next leader the latitude to lead the organization. So I didn’t mean to imply that what’s working now will be discontinued in any way. But I don’t want to put my thought process or ideas onto someone else’s deck. If it’s working, I expect they will continue it.”
Under Borders, the league has struck partnerships with companies like FanDuel and Twitter, as another way for fans to watch W.N.B.A. games. But Borders sees her most transferable success as facilitating the move of a franchise from San Antonio to Las Vegas, where the Aces just completed their inaugural season.
“I see a real growth opportunity there — not just for Las Vegas but for the league in general,” Borders said. “A public company owning a team and operating a team in such a destination-bound city is incredibly helpful, and I think there’s a lot of learning there that can be replicated.”
Borders believes the W.N.B.A. franchise of the future belongs in a “mid-sized arena,” 8,000 to 10,000 seats, and is, ideally, independently owned.
“The W.N.B.A. is beginning to take progressive steps forward to be self-sustaining,” Borders said. “We want to be a business that is profitable. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about, that the economics of the business are strong.”
The league had just two presidents in the first 15 years of its existence — Val Ackerman, then Donna Orender — but is onto its third president this decade. Precisely how to define success for the W.N.B.A. remains unclear, and that makes defining the president’s role difficult.
“I thought Lisa was a terrific president,” Rebecca Lobo, a former W.N.B.A. great and current ESPN analyst, said. “She was smart, liked by the players, had good business acumen and was media savvy. The next president will need to have similar attributes. This is going to be an important hire.”
The W.N.B.A. could tap into a generation of its best corporate leaders, taking those who have succeeded at the team level and promoting them — Carley Knox, Lynx vice president of business operations; Kristin Bernert, former W.N.B.A. team and current Knicks executive; and team presidents Kelly Krauskopf (Indiana) and Alisha Valavanis (Seattle) would all fit the bill.
The W.N.B.A. also has a generation of players who could serve as a well-known, public-facing leader of the league. Tamika Catchings, currently working in the Fever front office, would be a popular candidate in this vein, as would Lobo.
A president with playing experience could be particularly helpful at this moment in league history, with the players’ union facing an Oct. 31 deadline to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement. It is widely believed that the union will do so, setting off a new negotiation while the C.B.A. remains in effect until the conclusion of next season.
To Borders, the most vital trait of whomever the league chooses to replace her is love over knowledge.
“Experience is always helpful, but the number one attribute that any leader needs to have, and this one in particular, is passion, for the game, and for the women who play the game,” Borders said. “You may be the best with a spreadsheet or have the greatest analytical mind, but if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you will not be successful. And that will certainly be true with the W.N.B.A.”
And Borders, who will be based out of New York with frequent trips to Los Angeles in her new job, said she isn’t going to let go of her passion anytime soon, whether for the Liberty, the Sparks, or even the Atlanta Dream, where she once had season tickets before taking the reins of the entire league.
“Somebody asked me whether I’ll be getting season tickets for both,” Borders said of the Liberty and Sparks. “You will see me, courtside, at W.N.B.A. games all over the country.”