In April, as Elena Delle Donne was soaking up the final days of her offseason the way she likes — in Delaware, with her family, her dogs and sunny afternoons on the golf course — something came across her path that no amount of bliss could make her ignore.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had appeared on ESPN’s morning show “Get Up!” and spoken about what he sees as the WNBA’s deficiencies from a business standpoint. What nettled Delle Donne the most were Silver’s comments about low fan turnout at games and the league’s struggle to attract young, female fans.
In years past, Delle Donne might have responded to such comments with a sarcastic, one-off tweet or ignored them altogether.
This time, she issued a three-paragraph statement on Twitter arguing that WNBA players and teams can’t connect with fans without properly funded marketing. She followed her statement with an appearance on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” and spoke about it again at the Washington Mystics’ preseason media day in May.
“It’s hard to fall in love with a sport or a team or a player if you’ve never seen them and don’t know much about them. So we’re working on it,” Delle Donne said at media day. “I wish I could just play basketball and have that be my thing. But if I have to give some media knowledge or PR ideas, then fine.”
Playing basketball has been Delle Donne’s thing — her only thing — for years. “Oh God, no,” she said when asked whether she would have considered putting out a statement in the past. Delle Donne was laser-focused on her game, and because of what she could do on the court she became one of the biggest names in the WNBA. In her sixth season, she led the Mystics (7-5) with averages of 17.8 points and 6.4 rebounds entering Friday’s 93-77 victory over the Chicago Sky despite missing four games with an illness.
But this offseason, the 2015 league MVP realized she had evolved. Part of that was a natural maturation that comes along with experience in the pros. But Delle Donne, 28, is also settled. She’s married, happy to be with a talented team close to her family in Delaware and ready to embrace the power she once preferred to ignore.
“I’ve gotten to a place where, it’s year six now. I’m married. I’m very comfortable in my own skin, and when I see something that’s wrong, I feel like I need to speak out about it,” Delle Donne said recently. “It’s so much more than the game of basketball. I want to be a feminist and be out there. Speak. Use my voice.”
Delle Donne credits her new level of comfort in large part to the peace she has found in her personal life. She married her girlfriend of four years, Amanda Clifton, in November, a milestone that made her feel more self-assured and adult. She used her voice in other ways, publishing two books in the past year, a memoir and a work of fiction aimed at younger readers.
When she was ready to start speaking out more on behalf of the WNBA, Delle Donne made sure she had statistics to back her words.
She had her agent, Erin Kane, run analytics on her Instagram account to determine the demographics of her followers the day she heard Silver’s comments. About 50 percent of them were women in the age range Silver said doesn’t pay attention to the WNBA, a number she cites whenever the issue comes up. She also talks to Kane about ways she can maximize the league’s visibility.
Delle Donne recently served as a judge at Washington’s Capital Pride Parade. It was a way to stay involved with a cause she cares about deeply and get the Mystics in front of the community at the same time.
“Things like that, just getting out into the community. Hopefully they see our faces and they’re like, ‘Hey, maybe I’ll come to a game!’ ” she said.
Support from the league made embracing her leadership position much easier. WNBA President Lisa Borders gives Delle Donne frequent feedback. The two text.
“She’ll see something that I said and be like, ‘Love it. Keep using your voice.’ Just encouragement, so I know our commissioner is behind us, whatever we do. She’s all about it. She’s pushing, too,” Delle Donne said. “It’s great that our league is so supportive. When we say something, they’re generally backing us. They want to help us be able to speak our minds and be free about it. Luckily, we don’t have a league that tells us we can’t, you know, kneel.”
Around the WNBA, Delle Donne’s embrace of her leadership role is viewed as evidence of a generational shift as much as her personal development.
As veterans such as Diana Taurasi and Lindsay Whalen start to relinquish their positions as the primary voices of the league (despite their continued dominance on the court), Delle Donne and 27-year-old Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks are among those often mentioned as the next group of WNBA leaders. Ogwumike is the president of the players’ union’s executive committee.
Tamika Catchings, the legendary Indiana Fever forward who retired in 2016 as the WNBA’s all-time rebounding leader and served as the union’s executive committee president for more than a decade, thought of that shift when she first saw Delle Donne’s statement.
“It’s something that had to happen,” said Catchings, who now works in the front office with Pacers Sports & Entertainment. “Eventually, our youth were going to grow up, and there’s going to be more youth that come in after. For now, the cast of leaders has shifted generations.”
“We see that the older ones did it,” Delle Donne said, “and how important it was to growing the game. Now we have to take over.”
Catchings, Delle Donne and Ogwumike acknowledge that the league has become more outspoken as younger players have taken leadership roles. Part of that is thanks to social media. But part of that is a younger, savvier generation coming of age.
Delle Donne can attest to that. It took her years to become comfortable enough to speak out. Now she can’t imagine any other way.
“I’m not a young college kid coming out like a deer in the headlights into the league,” Delle Donne said. “It’s been nice, just being able to be me and speak my mind.”