How WNBA president Lisa Borders went from ordinary basketball fan to the woman who has transformed the league

Lisa Borders may not be able to dunk or shoot a three-pointer, but that doesn’t matter one bit: The fierce WNBA president is a triple-threat when it comes the game of women’s basketball.

Borders, who became league president last February, has worked in all three sectors of industry—public, private and nonprofit—giving her the edge up when it comes to helping the WNBA grow. And those sector jobs have been nothing short of impressive: Borders has been vice mayor of one of the most powerful cities in the U.S., she once raised millions of dollars for a non-profit hospital and she has had an executive position at one of the most successful companies in the world.

Now, she’s led the WNBA to reach its highest attendance numbers since 2011. How’s that for impressive on March 1, the first day of Women’s History Month?

“Women are at a very remarkable time in history,” Borders told Excelle Sports. “We have reached so many pinnacles of success, but we still have opportunity to build and to grow in the sports sector. Not every sport has a women’s equivalent. But we do in basketball. [The WNBA is] ahead of the curve, having started the league in 1996. So we are well-positioned to leverage this point in history to move forward.”

Part of Borders’ success so far has been using the league’s “Big Brother,” as she calls the NBA to help grow the WNBA. In January last year before Borders took charge of the WNBA, the league launched its #WatchMeWork campaign, a multimedia ad series that showcased star talent. The campaign made its debut on ABC during an NBA Cleveland Cavalier game in front of millions of basketball fans—instant results. So after taking office, Borders made sure the campaign’s success continued by unifying staff members from both the NBA and WNBA.

“There’s no one silver bullet,” she said. “We had our entire organization engaged [and] we leveraged the expertise of our colleagues in the other leagues.”

Borders’ insistence on partnering more with the NBA has, in turn, helped drive growth in the women’s league. In 2016, the WNBA registered its highest attendance (1,561,530) since 2011. The WNBA’s viewership on ESPN and ESPN2 has also increased by 11 percent while the league’s social media platforms have collectively gained 13 million fans online. Borders intends to meet or exceed those numbers in 2017.

“Whenever you are trying to grow a business, you want to sustain the process,” she said. “That means making sure that we have full arenas consistently for all 12 teams for all of their games. You want to make sure that people are watching the games all of the time on ESPN or on [the WNBA’s streaming platform] League Pass.”

Borders says her life as a basketball fan, in addition to those 25 years’ experience working in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, have helped her understand both the league’s athletes and its employees.

“Working with the players and having strong relationships start with being able to walk in someone else’s moccasins,” said Borders.

#Tbt what a moment!

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Her love of basketball began in the 1970s while she was a student at Duke University, where she studied French. The Blue Devils men’s team was one of the best in the country at the time and Borders started attending games only to discover that she was fan of the sport. She continued to be a basketball fan after she graduated, but Borders didn’t begin her journey with the WNBA until 2008.

That year, Borders was serving as the vice mayor and city council president of Atlanta—one of the biggest cities in America—where she managed the legislative branch of government. One day, Donna Orender the former WNBA President approached Borders about starting a new franchise in the city. Borders said yes and helped the league create the Atlanta Dream.

“It was a good decision for the city,” she said of the Dream. “It was a good sports town. We had other professional teams: The Hawks play [men’s] basketball, the Falcons play football … I was drawn to [the Dream] because not only did I understand basketball, it was about empowering and enabling women to play a professional sport post-college. It was sort of a no-brainer.”

[More from Excelle Sports: How Ann Liguori became one of the most successful female sports broadcasters ever]

Borders then invited a group of women that she called the COF or the “Circle of Friends.” The group comprised of her associates who were passionate about women’s sports and experts in their field—whether that was in marketing, recruiting for coaches and managing team operations. The Atlanta Dream’s successful launch ten years ago suggests that Borders knows how to put together a team to get the job done.

On the Ones-and-Twos! ?#wnbafinals

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Though her tenure with the Dream allowed Borders to learn what it was like to run a WNBA team, she said that her job as a public servant also helped her better navigate franchise operations like negotiating arena leases and selling tickets to fans.

“It’s incredibly helpful to understand how cities work,” said Borders.

Borders also learned exactly what it takes to raise money for large organizations after serving as the president of the Grady Health Foundation, Georgia’s largest public hospital, in 2008. According to Borders, her experience at Grady has paid off, literally, for her in her position as president of the WNBA.

“Working for a nonprofit at the hospital, I was raising money over a five-year period,” she said. “And certainly, we [now] talk  to our sponsors on a regular basis about supporting the league.”

In 2013, Borders began working in the private sector as the vice president of global community affairs at The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, also serving as chair of the corporation’s nonprofit arm, The Coca-Cola Foundation. The position demanded that she understand international operations, which has only helped her assist WNBA athletes who now play overseas.

“Recognizing the challenges that [players] face across the globe with language, money logistics and just being sensitive to the lives they are living—here and abroad—was enhanced by my work at The Coca-Cola Company because I had exposure to travel and communities across the globe,” she said.

[More from Excelle Sports: South Carolina’s Dawn Staley reveals the secret sauce behind Gamecocks’ newfound success]

As she heads into her second year as president, Borders has already made many proud memories that will help propel her into the WNBA’s 21st season.

Last April, Borders got to witness UConn stars Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck sweep the top three picks in the WNBA draft.

“I don’t know if [the UConn] women are eating their Wheaties or what they are doing,” said Borders. “They had won four NCAA championships. No one has ever done that before.”

She also remembers the day she attended her first tip-off game as president at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn. During the opening ceremony in May last year, Borders stood on court, handing the Minnesota Lynx their 2015 championship rings in front of a stadium packed with over 9,000 fans.

And finally, Borders will never forget watching players like Sue Bird (Seattle Storm), Diana Taurasi (Phoenix Mercury) and Maya Moore (Minnesota Lynx) win the U.S. sixth consecutive gold medal in women’s basketball at the Olympic Games in Rio last August.

“All of the talent for the USA team was derived from the WNBA,” said Borders. “So that was a huge deal, not just for the league, but for our country because it says, ‘We are the best of the best.’ No one can take that success away from you.”

It’s moments like these that make Borders excited for 2017. As president, she gets to continue to support these athletes who want to play at the highest levels of sport, she said.

“Getting to watch young women grow and develop their passions and live their dreams,” said Borders. “That’s the best part of the job.”

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