She’s Got Game: How Lisa Borders, Former President of the WNBA, Drives Interest in Women’s Sports

October 05, 2018
In the feature article of this issue of Women & Wealth Magazine, we sit down with Lisa Borders, the former president of the WNBA, to discuss her efforts to raise awareness of the athleticism, action and excitement on display at a WNBA game. Borders also talks about what she learned having worked in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

Which professional basketball player scored a record-breaking 53 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a single game during the 2018 season? Although James Harden or LeBron James may immediately come to mind, it was Liz Cambage of the Dallas Wings. Who has the record for most points scored during a three-point shooting contest? The answer is not Steph Curry or Klay Thompson. The record goes to Allie Quigley of the Chicago Sky.

In her third year as president of the WNBA, Lisa Borders spoke with us about her efforts to raise awareness of the athleticism, action and excitement of a WNBA game. During our conversation, she raved about the ability of sports to create unity, whether in finding support for philanthropic endeavors or fighting gender inequality. At the end of the day, Borders’ front-runners are always the powerful women on the court.

On October 2, 2018, the WNBA announced that Borders is stepping down from her role as president of the WNBA to be the first president and CEO of Time’s Up – “an organization that insists on safe, fair and dignified work for women of all kinds.” The CW&W wishes her the best of luck in her new endeavors and focus on promoting gender equality.

You have an interesting background, having worked in public, private and nonprofit sectors. How did your experience in these three sectors lead you to the WNBA?

You develop skills everywhere you work. In the public sector, building consensus is probably the greatest skill that I learned. People say, “You learned how to balance a budget for the city,” but once you balance the budget, you have to sell it to the different people across the city. In the private sector, it’s about rigor and discipline as well as delivering results, ensuring the business is profitable and sustaining that profitability. In the nonprofit sector, it’s about compassion – understanding who people are, meeting them where they are and helping them reach their full potential.

You were instrumental in bringing the WNBA to Atlanta in 2008. Why was it important to you, and what sort of positive impact did you see it having on the city?

During 2008, I was serving as the vice mayor and president of the Atlanta City Council. Atlanta is my home city. It’s the cradle of the civil rights movement, and I am a product of that era. Bringing the WNBA there was important to me because I’m focused on making sure that everyone has access to the most opportunity that they can. Having women be able to play professional sports and having a franchise in the city was another step in the right direction to ensuring that everyone could reach their full potential.

Women, unfortunately, are still a disenfranchised class. I wish we were not, but we are. So, whenever there is anything that I can do to help ensure that women have the same opportunities as their male counterparts, I’m all in.

What are the biggest challenges facing the WNBA? How can society generate more interest in women’s sports?

The greatest challenges are awareness and intelligence. People say to me, “I didn’t even know the WNBA existed.” If you aren’t aware that something exists, it’s difficult to express a preference for enjoying it or participating or engaging in some way. It’s important that there is broad awareness of the WNBA’s existence and that the players are performing at an elite level. We are the source of talent for the national team – for the Olympics. The women have won six consecutive gold medals, yet most people don’t know that. That goes to the point about intelligence. People are not stupid; they tend to be ignorant. Stupid means you don’t have the capacity to process information; ignorance means you haven’t been exposed. We find that if we expose you to just one WNBA game, you get hooked on how amazing the women are and the action and entertainment on the floor. The pace and flow and the athleticism blows people’s minds. Having a broad awareness is number one, and then being intelligent about who the women are and what they bring to the basketball floor as well as what they do off the court is second.

Tell us more about the players.

You don’t have a league without the players. They are your primary constituency group. You can have owners, a stadium and fans, but if you don’t have players, you don’t have a game. The players, who are all women, are amazing. Seventeen percent come from international markets. All are required to have four years of post-high school education to be eligible for draft. That distinguishes them from any other athlete in any other sport because we are the only league with that requirement.

They are also global citizens. They play six months in the U.S. and six months overseas, which we used to think of as a burden because they weren’t here the entire year. Now we realize the average American never leaves his or her home city, county, country or continent. Eighty percent of our players go to a different country every year. They don’t just know what’s going on in their native hometown, but also in their adopted hometown. As global citizens, they’re educated and compassionate about what’s going on around them.

They are also philanthropic. WNBA Cares is our community platform, and many players have their own foundations. For example, Tina Charles, the center on the New York Liberty, has her own foundation called Hopey’s Heart Foundation, named for one of her relatives who had a heart attack. She has donated her WNBA salary to her foundation, which puts defibrillators in organizations and buildings that don’t have them. We’ve been able to directly correlate the availability of defibrillators with people whose lives have been saved. Last season, we brought one gentleman to Tina’s game so he could meet the woman who was responsible for the AED that saved his life being in the building where he had a heart attack.

At the end of the day, I do this for the players. This league is for this generation of women and those that come after. There were those who came before us who laid the groundwork. Now we hold the baton, and we are here to run the race for this generation. The women playing on the court are incredible role models, and they are distinguished by those attributes.

Is there another sport whose model you are looking at and drawing on where they are pushing the needle forward?

Yes, you always want to learn, whether it’s from another sport or a different industry. Even at 22 years old, we’re the longest-running women’s professional league – we are leading the pack in that regard. It doesn’t mean that a good idea can’t come from another league. We are working right now with an organization called She Is, an initiative that has brought together all of the women’s professional leagues to support one another – hockey, tennis, lacrosse, fast pitch and WWE. That’s a forum where we can share ideas, and we certainly want to learn from all of those organizations.

The WNBA is a majority black league. As a black woman, do you feel like you have an easier time as the league when speaking on social issues?

Not necessarily an easier time. This is about all women. It’s about all people, but women have historically not been sitting alongside their male peers in anything, not just sports – look at public service and corporate environments, for example. Does it make it easier because our leadership and league are 100% women? Yes. The philosophical alignment is much easier, but that doesn’t mean we can’t translate that to folks who don’t look, walk or talk like us. We can’t run the league by ourselves; we need our male counterparts, whether it’s in the NBA or our male fans. We are here to entertain folks from the high chair to the rocking chair. We are not going to discriminate based on someone’s gender.

The pace and flow and the athleticism [of the game] blows people's minds.  

You’re one of the co-founders of No Labels, a bipartisan political organization whose mission is to combat political dysfunction. How are you able to stay active in politics and still run a professional sports league?

There are multiple dimensions to our lives. I am deeply interested in public policy, as are our athletes. No Labels, which I co-founded in 2008, allows me to pursue that interest as an active board member, as opposed to being a candidate or a full-time elected official or public servant. No Labels is focused on public policy and what’s going on not just for women, but for communities. Understanding what’s happening in cities is important because we play in cities across the country. We want to understand what the demographics and psychographics look like. People are affected by whether they have a good job, whether their kids have great schools and whether there are arenas to play in.

Politics is in everything we do. No Labels allows me to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s happening. We have full-time employees, and they create white papers that I can read and understand what’s happening quickly.

We raise money for great candidates who we think are going to be running for office, regardless of political party. It’s similar to how we look at our fans from the high chair to the rocking chair. We don’t discriminate because you’re Republican, Democrat or independent. We look at you as an American, and we ask, “Are you interested in having your city or country run well?” If you are, we want to work with you. A good idea can come from anywhere.

What does a typical day look like in-season vs. out-of-season?

We call in-season the playing season. When we’re not playing, we call it the planning season. They are similar in that you’re working 18 to 20 hours a day, but the individual activities might be different. During the playing season, I’m focused primarily on the hardwood. I am watching the players play. I’m planning or attending the All-Star Game. I’m going to the draft, and I’m reading out the names of the rookies. During the planning season, I’m focused primarily on the business. I’m focused on raising capital to support the league. I’m always talking with sponsors, but particularly during the planning season as I’m trying to get ready for the next big push. Who’s going to be on each team’s jersey? Who’s going to have the patch and the naming rights? What are you going to do to support your individual teams? It’s a business first and foremost.

There are two international languages: music and sports. Both unite people.  

What do you do for downtime?

For downtime, I want to be quiet and be a little more introspective as opposed to prospective, looking outward and trying to make sure that the business is running. The bulk of my life is spent on phones, doing interviews, giving presentations, meeting with the players, negotiating a deal with a partner and so forth, so when I have some me time, I like to read or spend time with my mother. She is 85 years old and unfortunately suffers with dementia, but you only get one mother, so whether she is having a good day or a bad day, I like to spend time with her.

Tell us about your view of the power of sports.

There are two international languages: music and sports. Both unite people. You don’t have to speak the language to appreciate a beautiful piece of music or enjoy a sporting event. You can go to a sporting event, and there are people on your left and your right, and you have no idea what their names are. You end up cheering either for the same team or against one another, but you’re high-fiving throughout the whole game. It’s a unifying force. People often think of sports as being something that’s just fun, but there’s so much more to them than that.

At the end of the day, it’s a collaborative endeavor, particularly a competitive team sport like basketball. It’s a global sport. You can play it indoors or outdoors, men or women, boys or girls – there’s no limit. We think about sports as a metaphor for life. It’s not just the game of basketball. Everyone has a role to play and contributes in some valuable way. The women’s game, in particular, is really collaborative. Everybody shares the rock, and whoever is closest to the basket or has the best sight line on the basket shoots the ball. It’s not the same person all the time. It is a metaphor for life. The things you learn are incredible.

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