“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,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement.
Borders oversaw attendance growth at WNBA games, increased distribution of games and a push among men’s professional players to promote the league.
The WNBA saw consecutive years of attendance growth in 2016 and 2017, before a 13 percent drop in 2018. But viewership increased for game broadcasts on ESPN networks and NBA TV, according to the league, and it began live-streaming games on Twitter. WNBA teams and players also appeared on a video game for the first time with the release of NBA Live 18.
“You can see the maturation of the game and the expertise of the players,” Borders said in a November interview. “The core product has dramatically improved over the course of two decades. And that has happened in a relatively short period of time when you look at our league in comparison to other leagues.”
But the women’s league continues to struggle with stability — Madison Square Garden Company has been searching for a buyer for the New York Liberty for 11 months; two teams relocated during Borders' tenure — and profitability.
The league pays players roughly 20 percent of total revenue, according to studies conducted by David Berri, a Southern Utah University professor who studies gender and sports economics and who analyzes the WNBA. The league rarely shares concrete financial information.
The NBA pays players about half of league revenue, or about $3 billion.
That has led some of the WNBA’s top players, including the Washington Mystics' Elena Delle Donne, to publicly advocate for better pay. Players make between $39,000 and $115,000 per season.
“We need numbers so we know what we’re dealing with and what we can actually ask for and attain,” Delle Donne told ESPN over the summer. “Nobody wants this league to go under. We just want it to be better and people to get what they deserve. I think it’s going to be a long process, and it’s going to take a lot of work.
“It’s great that people are speaking out and saying what they feel. It’s time we speak. We want answers, and we want to continue to grow.”
Given the league’s history, though, experts say it is continuing on a plodding-but-successful track. The NBA at 21 years of age in 1966 averaged 6,631 fans per game. Players were not paid anywhere close to the exorbitant salaries they now command. The league had 10 teams. The WNBA in 2018 averaged 6,721 fans per game. The league has 12 teams.
Still, that pace has frustrated franchise owners and befuddled NBA higher-ups, who expected the WNBA to be a revenue engine at this point, not a still-developing side project.
“As much as we’ve done in lending the league our name,” Silver said to the New York Times in 2015, “the people who have been in the sports business for a long time, and I’m one of them, historically underestimated the marketing it takes to launch a new property.”
Borders urged patience and fought for more resources for the WNBA, both from the NBA and franchise owners. She told The Post that prospective owners needed “the capacity to invest in the team” and that the league’s partners made a long-term investment beyond 21 or 22 years.
“Everyone would like this to go faster, I think, but it’s only been 21 years,” she said in November. “That’s not a long time. I’m not asking them to wait 50 years.”
Her vision in five years, she said, was that of a league on more even footing.
“This league will be even more stable than it is today,” she said. “The game will continue to improve. We’ll need more sponsors. We’ll need more players.”
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