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Meet the Former Coca-Cola Exec Now Leading the WNBA

April 14, 2016, 5:13 PM UTC

On Thursday evening, the 12 U.S. women’s basketball teams will make their draft picks for the upcoming season, which begins a month from now. A crucial moment in any season, this year’s draft is particularly significant as the Women’s National Basketball Association heads into its 20th season, a major milestone in its short history.

Leading the WNBA into this season is Lisa Borders, formerly the chairwoman of Coca-Cola (KO) Foundation and president of the Atlanta City Council. Borders, who began her job in late March, will be the WNBA’s fourth president, taking on the role three months after former president Laurel J. Richie stepped down.

Fortune sat down with Borders to discuss her vision for the league, her plans to drum up excitement for its 20th season, and her views on the pay gap between male and female athletes.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: At the time of the WNBA’s founding, many didn’t think the league would last 20 years. Now, looking forward to the next 20 years, what are your biggest priorities?

Lisa Borders: This is the longest-running and most successful professional women’s sports league in the world, but it is still young, despite this remarkable milestone of 20 years. We know there’s still some growing to do, just as if you look at a person, at 20 years old, they are at the beginning of their life.

I want this league to grow incrementally and be sustainable for generations to come. Like any business, you want sound financial footing, you want a pipeline of players, you want terrific sponsors. So the commitment that we have seen from [sponsors such as] Verizon (VZ) and ESPN, who are putting us on Sports Center [and have committed to] a multi-year deal—that’s never happened before. We’re going to broadcast all the playoffs and finals games on ESPN—that’s never happened before.

How is the league celebrating its 20th anniversary?

We started with something called “Watch Me Work,” which was unveiled in January. This is a video that highlights and celebrates some of our top stars. We’re going to roll it out everywhere—it will run the entire season. Second, we unveiled a marquee partner in Verizon, and we’re going to have them on the jersey. We rolled out new commemorative colors for the jerseys. You will no longer see a white home uniform on any of our teams.


What is your relationship like with the NBA? Do the two leagues work closely together?

The NBA, all of our properties, are solidly behind the WNBA. From the top to the bottom, from the left to the right, 1000% committed to the WNBA. Where there are opportunities to cross-promote and cross-market, that’s what we do. For example, we ran the “Watch Me Work” video during the [NBA] All-Star game. That’s one of our highest-rated events for the NBA. Full-stop.

Back in September, NBA commissioner Adam Silver made a comment that he thought the WNBA “would have broken through” by now. What is your response to that?

His comments were well-taken. What we all have to understand is that we are in growth mode and like any business it takes time to grow. Incrementally is helpful because if you have a big spike and you can’t sustain it, that’s wasteful. What Adam is looking for and what we’re all looking for is top-line growth for the league, things like viewership, sponsorship, and ratings.

The gender pay gap in sports has been on everyone’s minds recently, and basketball is no different. What are the WNBA’s plans to address that?

Everybody wants our players to make more. I want them to make more, they want to make more. That’s why we’re focused on top-line growth and top-line revenue. It’s a business. At the end of the day the business must be able to support all its expenses, so to the extent that we have more sponsors, that we have more viewers, that we have greater attendance, that will fix itself. So am I for it? Absolutely. Do we get questions? All the time. This is why we invite people to come out. Our fans are the answer at the end of the day.

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So, what are your plans to attract more fans?

We’re also going to start marketing individuals, on and off the court. When you think about athletes in general, we marvel at how fast they can run, how high they can jump, and we tend to forget that they are people too and they have real lives. They have children, they have dogs, they have interests beyond the court. It might be fashion, hair, makeup, or whatever it is. There is something there for everyone—we have 144 of the best athletes in the world, surely you can find something that is relevant to you. The stories are incredible. You have [players like] Tamika [Catchings, who is] overcoming disability, and Elena Delle Donne, who is a fierce competitor on and off the court, but she’s playing with Lyme disease. Or you might see Skylar Diggins in some beautiful clothes.

What about attendance? How do you get people to physically come to games?

Sports and music are the two international languages. And basketball is one of the easiest sports to understand. So what I tell people is come and sample the product if you will. If you were talking about a food or drink, you would taste it and decide if you like it. We invite folks to do exactly that. Come a game, watch some of the broadcasts on ESPN.

What most people say is they had no idea about the quality of the game and the athleticism, and that the game is so pure. Most people are stunned at the athleticism and just how much fun it is to watch the game. That’s why we tell people they have to watch the game. Once you see one, you’re hooked.