Women’s professional basketball in Indianapolis began its 15th year by way of the Indiana Fever’s season-opening game at Chicago on Friday.
The franchise’s history is undeniably rich — an overall win percentage of .528, nine consecutive postseason appearances and two Eastern Conference titles capped off with a 2012 WNBA championship.
However, as with any business, winds of change must be closely monitored.
In the past two months alone, Fever guard Erin Phillips was traded to Phoenix, Indianapolis native Katie Douglas signed a free agent contract to play for the Connecticut Sun, reserve center Jessica Davenport retired, sharpshooting wing player Jeanette Pohlen sustained a season-ending Achilles injury, and charismatic head coach Lin Dunn announced the 2014 season would be her last.
Moreover, contrary to popular belief, franchise cornerstone Tamika Catchings, who turns 35 on July 21, will not be wearing a No. 24 jersey into her 40s and beyond.
That’s a lot on the plate of Kelly Krauskopf, the Fever president, whose job it is to keep the product both fresh and successful through draft choices, trades and marketing.
The Fever brand has come a long way since the inaugural 2000 season when Indiana sputtered to a 9-23 record under coach Anne Donovan. But it must continue to evolve or it runs the risk of fading and eventually disappearing altogether.
Consider that of the 14 different opponents Indiana played in 2000, only five remain (New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Washington and Seattle). Six others folded; and three moved to other, more potentially profitable cities.
Earlier this week, Daily Journal sportswriter Mike Beas sat down with Krauskopf for a quick Q&A:
MB: What are the major challenges you face this many years into the WNBA’s existence when it comes to marketing the Fever as a product?
KK: I think it’s like any sports league. You’re just trying to remain relevant to the fans. I think the nature of our season is that we’re opposite of the NBA, so when you play in the summer you sort of have to continue to remind fans, “We’re back again, and this is our schedule.” I do think there’s so much clutter out there with social media and everything that we have, and I think just finding ways to stay relevant. One of the things that we know that is unique about our product and our team is that connection point with the players. It continues to be the one-on-one relationships our players have with fans and children in the community. That means you’re relevant in their lives and they’re looking for you.
MB: Does a successful season by the Pacers help or hinder fan interest when it comes to the Fever?
KK: It’s always good. Always a positive for both organizations and both basketball teams to be at the top of their game and be a top franchise. There’s no question when we’re both successful it just breeds success for our company and for the community and city.
MB: When a homegrown player as popular as Katie Douglas goes elsewhere, are there concerns it could adversely impact home attendance?
KK: Not really. I think that our fans are such that they have become fans of other players. Obviously, it was a bonus having (Douglas) back here the years I had her here. Being from here just like (Pacers guard) George Hill, growing up in Indianapolis, is good, but I think you have a pretty sophisticated fan base. They see the big picture. It’s always fun to root for a hometown player, but I don’t see it affecting us. I think Peyton Manning became that, as well, and he didn’t grow up in Indiana. I think everyone adopted him that way.
MB: I know no one in the organization likes to talk about Tamika eventually retiring. Given her popularity, could there be a plan in place for her to work for the Fever in an administrative capacity?
KK: I think Tamika’s got a great future ahead of her regardless of what she decides to do. When that time comes I’m going to want to talk to her about staying affiliated with our organization in some capacity. She’s done so much for us as a player and for the franchise. I think she’s extremely bright and would be an asset for any WNBA franchise. I would hope we would have the opportunity to talk to her about it someday.
MB: Are any special events planned to commemorate this being Lin’s final season as coach?
KK: She said to me, “Now I don’t want this to be one of those farewell tours.” I said, “Well, you’re going to get it whether you like it or not.” We’re planning on June 11, which is the game before the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame induction weekend, to sort of dedicating that game to her. Look, Lin’s one of the best coaches we’ve ever had in this franchise. Certainly the winningest coach. She wants to go out with another chance to try to be in the playoffs. She wants to go out on a strong note; and we would like for that to happen, as well.
MB: How important was it to name associate head coach Stephanie White as Lin’s successor before this season started?
KK: It was real important because I think you want to be transparent with your players and with the community. Last year when I was able to extend Stephanie’s contract and put her in that role as associate head coach this season, the transition had begun. It’s really important for our players to understand where we’re headed and certainly for the coaching staff and the community.
MB: Is it vital to always try to have an Indiana element to this team be it Katie, Stephanie or whoever? Or are we far enough along that it no longer matters?
KK: I’ll be honest, it hasn’t been a concerted effort. First of all, Indiana has great female basketball players, but ... I just think we’re too far along as a league and as a franchise. I want the best players possible, and I want the best coaching staff possible. Fortunately, we’ve had some homegrown talent here as coaches and as players. When you’re starting your product it always helps. We’re 15 years in now and 18 years as a league, and I’ve looked around the league where there have been homegrown players in those markets, and you haven’t seen an explosion in attendance. It’s nice to have that familiarity, but it’s not necessarily a strategy to the point where I would pass up somebody else just because they’re not from here.
MB: Do you see the WNBA continuing to exist five, 10, even 15 years from now?
KK: Absolutely. I think we’re beyond that, as well. We’ve got another six years on our (ESPN) contract, so the investment our television partners are making says a lot about the longevity. The league is in as good of shape as it’s been since I’ve been involved in it.