“We’ve been saying it for years now that, maybe in a lot of ways, we were ahead of our time,” said Keia Clarke, CEO of the New York Liberty WNBA team, on how the women’s basketball league led the way in being socially progressive, more so than the other leagues in professional sports. “I stand proud in the fact the we ourselves are embracing it, but for the first time, there’s some media attention.”
Clarke spoke at the From Day One virtual conference last week on building the workforce of the future in a conversation with Daniel Roberts, editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance. Clarke and Roberts talked about the benefits of a diverse workforce, the challenges and opportunities of coordinating the recent WNBA season during a pandemic, the evolution of the league’s approach to social justice, and how women’s basketball can serve as a model for other business leaders.
This year, the Liberty were set to play their first season at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, moving from a previous home base in the suburbs, but Clarke and her team were forced to make other plans because of the pandemic. This year’s WNBA season commenced at a single site in Bradenton, Fla., known as the ‘”wubble,” a reference to the NBA Bubble in Orlando.
“Everyone’s job was flipped on its head. So at that point, my role really became focused on making sure the team stayed on task, that the team stayed together, that the team stayed healthy. It’s really hard to control people’s mental capacity, mental space at a time like that,” said Clarke, who became CEO in June after rising for a decade through the team’s ranks.
Clarke and her team used this unique year as a reminder that leadership is centered around people–and people give their best when they are cared for. “It was that constant reminder to myself, most importantly, as a leader of people, that they were people first, before they were employees of the New York Liberty. And I needed to treat them as such in this time that the whole world was going through.”
This is the same approach the league took when tackling racism. From prominently displaying Black Lives Matter on their game-day courts to partnering with the African American Policy Forum and the #SayHerName campaign, WNBA players forged a new path for athletes and companies taking on anti-racism work.
“I think we’ve all seen–as a country, as a society, even globally–the racial tension, as of late. Especially with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor … this goes back to having diverse voices is important always, but especially in a crisis situation,” Clarke said.
About 80% of active WNBA players are Black women, as is Clarke. The WNBA front office and league staff overwhelmingly reflect the players on the court. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) gave the WNBA high marks in its 2019 annual report card. The women’s pro league received an A grade for gender hiring and an A+ for racial hiring. While Clarke admits that gives her a level of authenticity when championing the league and social justice, the Liberty are still focused on having a diverse staff.
“We were at a point where we have majority women, our staff is pretty small. But we were almost all women and we were almost all minority or biracial,” said Clarke, who told her team, “We actually need a white male on our staff, or we need a couple more white males on our staff. Because, we don’t want to look at this thing, you know, with blinders on, when we’re trying to really sell sponsorships, sell tickets, market community social responsibility. There are so many things in this business that you need all of the voices.”
When building a work team, Clarke said, it’s important for companies to promote growth at all levels in the hierarchy. Clarke encourages all staff to bring their education, experience, and expertise to the table regardless of their current position. In that way, she’s broadening the reach of the Liberty while also creating a culture in which staff is learning and progressing.
At the league level, there remain improvements to make in terms of diversity. While the league boasts high marks in the latest TIDES report, the scoring rubric indicated that percentages are trending down. One example is among bench bosses. Of the 12 WNBA teams, only three women served as head coach in the 2020 season. Only two WNBA head coaches were Black and none were Black women. These statistics have caught the attention of the Women's National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA). “The consistent lack of diversity is unacceptable,” the union tweeted. “After nearly 25 years, the pool of retired players with interest and experience in coaching and front office positions is clear and extensive.”
Clarke praised the WNBA for being ahead of most leagues when it came to embracing LGBTQ+ communities, but said that longtime fans didn’t always feel that was the case. “What I’m told is they were completely holding down the fort in terms of support of these women [players] and for many, many years, they were almost ignored,” Clarke said, while giving credit to fans for the celebratory culture that exists now.
Clarke eagerly awaits the day she and her staff can welcome those same loyal fans to Liberty games at Barclays Center. When fans do return, Clarke is confident the team will succeed across all metrics. She credits owners Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai, who also own the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, for a commitment to putting the women’s team on the same footing as the men’s team. “Leadership has been so assuring and so trusting in really spending a ton of their mindshare on making sure that we have the resources that we need to be successful,” Clarke said. “It’s changed everything, and everyone’s outlook.”
Erica L. Ayala is a New York-based multimedia journalist who specializes in women's basketball, women’s hockey, and social justice in sports. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and The Athletic.