WNBA | JWS
Seattle Storm & Alisha Valavanis/ JWS

Alisha Valavanis is the CEO and General Manager of the Seattle Storm of the WNBA. She spoke with Just Women’s Sports about a historic 2020 season, what it meant to win the title, and how she’s preparing for 2021. 

If you could sum up the 2020 season in a sentence, what would it be?

It’s been a really challenging 2020, so great to have something to celebrate.

How was life in the bubble as a GM? Were you living with the team? 

I was just there for a couple of weeks. I was in a separate tier from the players, but I went in for the playoffs. The players were there, as you know, for three months. So a lot of respect for the WNBA and the way they put this together. It was unbelievable. Obviously, the health and safety of the players was the top priority, as well as all those that were going to work inside the bubble and, I mean, what an accomplishment.

Heading into the off season, where some players may go overseas to play abroad, what are you seeing in terms of the new CBA and also COVID impacting decisions to play overseas?

You know, I think the players are really going to take a second here and kind of decide what makes the most sense. They have options, of course. Some overseas seasons are starting soon, and there’s also a number of players that will consider starting after the New Year. All of it is based on COVID and based on which country they are going to. For the Storm, we’re pivoting quickly to 2021. I’m already having conversations with our staff on what 2021 can look like, evaluating our path and the players and what we can get done here.

We’re one year in now with the new CBA and it’s been a real positive. These first couple of years are a little different, but over the next three years will start to see its impact on players’ decisions as they weigh out their opportunities to go overseas versus staying at home to rest. Increasing the cap certainly helped, and it will impact players’ thinking about what they want to do depending on where they are at in their career.

Are you seeing any exciting things happening in free agency? You have several unrestricted free agents this season.

Now is when we, as an organization, really start to have the conversations around both free agency and the draft, which are two critical pieces. We always look at those as we think about our plan for the upcoming season, and we’re in those conversations now. That’s really what the focus will be as our players enter free agency in the coming weeks. There’s a lot to look forward to. It’s never a dull moment. No vacation after the celebration. We did a virtual rally on Friday after the championship. Then a little bit of work on Saturday, Sunday off, and back at it Monday. Now we’re talking 2021.

Speaking of 2021, Commissioner Engelbert has said you may have to do another bubble. What are your thoughts on that?

You know, I think we’re all doing kind of a recap right now. By every measure, it was certainly a successful 2020 campaign inside the bubble, but in terms of what’s next, so much is based on where we are as a country and what continues to play out in terms of the COVID-19 crisis. We’re all certainly looking ahead and modeling a number of different scenarios until we have a little bit more clarity on what’s possible. I think we’ll continue to learn a lot from the NBA and how that plays out, but again, there’s just a ton of question marks, as I know there is across every industry and country.

Sue Bird has said she’s leaning toward coming back. What have you heard? 

We’re going to talk with Sue on her plans right now. She’s a legend and we’ll talk very soon about 2021. But right now I think she’s celebrating championship number four. Obviously, she leads this group and was just playing exceptional basketball this year.

The league came together this season and presented a united voice on very emotional, complicated issues of social justice. How do you think they were able to come together on such difficult topics?  

I think one thing that’s been really inspiring to watch is the players union and the players come together on their positioning around fighting for racial justice in this country. There was no question before the season started that there would a commitment from players and teams on and off the court to fight for racial justice in this country. It was inspiring to watch the players work towards that. I really can’t say enough about their unity and their commitment, and this is one example where you see the power behind the professional sports platform to really drive positive social change. I think our players are an inspiration, and it didn’t just start in 2020. I think they’re incredible role models to our youth, to little girls and little boys, and I think their fight and the collective WNBA’s fight for a more equitable world is really at the center of this entire push.

Moving forward, I’m sure there’s talks about keeping those messages front and center, is that happening already for the 2021 season?

Absolutely. I think as we went into the 2020 season, there was recognition that this was not a short game. This was a long game, and there was work to be done, and it wasn’t going to be just one campaign and one season. I think those conversations are absolutely underway at the league level with the players union. I know across the many franchises, we’re all looking at how do we build on what was started in the 2020 season, and then more broadly, some of the other things that have been front and center for this league in terms of gender equality as well — how do we continue to build towards both those goals?

The league’s television ratings this year were incredible. 68% improvement from the year before. What accounts for that in your eyes? 

I mean, we love to see it, and I think it was really great to have more visibility and more exposure on ESPN for fans across this country. We have 12 teams, and 12 unique markets, but we have WNBA fans all over this country and all over the globe, and I think access to those games is critical and really paramount in terms of continued engagement and interest and visibility for this league. So we were thrilled to see the number, and we hope to continue to build from there.

What needs to happen to keep that momentum?

We need to have continued exposure and visibility of these games and these incredible athletes and their stories. I think a major part of this is the media and getting continued investment from our critical partners, ESPN, ABC. And at local level, there are different local deals that are important to make as think about the long term and how we can continue to grow. Media exposure is a huge part of that. Additionally, corporate partnerships are at the center of the franchise model for the NBA, and so I think these two things in concert, the growth of corporate partnerships and media exposure, will lead to growth for the league.

How would you describe the current moment we’re in with women’s pro sports? What’s happening right now and what does the future look like?

I do think we are at a moment now where women’s sports really is taking off in this country and it’s exciting. It’s exciting to be a part of it. I think so much of this is about visibility and access to watching these sports, and also the opportunity to play, which has been a focus of so many professional women’s leagues in this country. They’re producing sports at the highest level while also creating opportunities for the next generation of girls. I do think there is a paradigm shift, and I think we’re going to watch women’s sports continue to grow in this country and hopefully be a critical part of the fabric of society.

I think that’s where we’re going. It’s one of the positives of 2020. It has been an unbelievably challenging year for so many. Sports brings us together. It gives us something to cheer for. It gives us a team to be a part of. And for us to win the championship, it was a really special disruption to what has been a very difficult 2020.