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WNBA boss is on the ball

NEW YORK -- An 8-year-old boy recently traded a WNBA basketball for a Diana Taurasi poster and Lisa Leslie card.

Jacob Orender is not just any boy -- he's the son of the new league president -- but he represents just one of the niche markets Donna Orender has focused on in her first three months on the job.

Orender played in the fledgling women's pro league of the late 1970s, then had the good fortune to market Tiger Woods during her 17-year rise to senior vice president of the PGA Tour. Now she returns to her roots in the WNBA, aiming to boost exposure and attendance while adding more teams.

Since she replaced Val Ackerman at the New York office April 1, twins Jacob and Zachary have been working less on chip shots and more on jump shots in their backyard in Jacksonville Beach, Fla.

''I didn't recruit them. You know, it's so funny -- is it not generational?" asked Orender, a New Yorker who read the sports pages as a kid to talk sports with her dad. ''Much like I wanted to please my dad, my boys are very in tune to what I'm doing."

That means keeping up by cellphone while Mom barnstorms the country, much like she did as an All-Star when she played for the New York Stars, New Jersey Gems, and Chicago Hustle in the Women's Basketball League (1978-81).

Orender recently finished her listening tour in 13 WNBA cities, meeting with management, players, sponsors, and the media.

The common theme? The WNBA, in its ninth season, needs more exposure on TV, in newspapers, magazines, and online. The stars need to shine year-round, not just during the four months of the WNBA summer season.

''There's an excitement league-wide to make it bigger and more successful," Orender said. ''The fact that we have such great players, they'd like to see them in more places. They'd like to see the WNBA represented more broadly across all the media entities."

Some changes since Orender's arrival include America Online and WNBA.com sharing Web casting of all the remaining games this season and the MSG Network adding 12 more New York Liberty telecasts after the All-Star break.

Orender, who is just getting around to hiring a secretary, seems as comfortable in her lavender suit and heels as she is posting up against the guys or teeing off with them.

A five-sport athlete in high school, Orender became a star guard at Queens College and graduated with a degree in psychology. She had a local radio and cable show while playing in Chicago to supplement her $5,500 salary. When the WBL folded, she landed a production assistant job at ABC Sports in New York, moved to SportsChannel, and formed her own production company, called Primo Donna.

An original producer of ''Inside the PGA Tour," she became vice president for strategic development in 2001 after overseeing television production, advertising, and new media.

''She's very focused on big ideas and driving what's next," said John Podany, the PGA Tour's senior vice president of business development. ''She's aggressive, there's no question about that. She pushed to develop a relationship with William Morris, she felt we needed a stronger presence in the entertainment world . . . to expose players beyond just regular golf outlets. She's not satisfied with the status quo."

Orender helped negotiate television contracts that quadrupled to more than $800 million with the Woods phenomenon. Now her challenge is to capitalize on the Taurasi, Sue Bird, and Leslie factor in the WNBA.

''One thing I really, really love about the WNBA is we have genuine, charismatic athletes," Orender said. ''Our greatest upside is to be able to reach more people and get them into the arena. Once they do, it doesn't matter who they are, there's a connection."

Taurasi got her first impression of Orender at the NBA All-Star Game.

''The energy, the view she has for the league is wonderful," Taurasi said. ''She brings a different angle, more experience in marketing and media. She knows how to put the product out there."

What suggestion did Taurasi have for Orender? ''Put us on TV."

Only 35 of 221 games -- 16 percent -- are televised on ESPN, ESPN2, or ABC in the third year of a six-year contract that includes no rights fees. Viewership has been thin.

A recent nationally televised game featuring Taurasi's Mercury against the New York Liberty at Madison Square Garden drew a 0.5 rating and 1.0 share on ABC. Before the game, the affiliate in New York showed a boxing movie. ''We had no lead-in on ABC," Orender said. ''That's not a perfect situation."

She's looking for ''wiggle room" to get more games televised in the next three years. The expectation is more eyeballs will translate into more fans in the stands, where attendance has dipped slightly. After projections of an average of 4,000 fans for the inaugural season in 1997, the WNBA averaged a surprising 10,869 in its second season. Last year, the regular-season average was just under 8,600. It took the NBA nearly three decades to average 10,000 fans.

An independently owned team in Chicago will be added in 2006, the first in four years. The league plans to add franchises in 2007 and 2008, with talk of teams in San Francisco and Kansas City.

Married to M.G. Orender, the former president of the PGA of America, Orender seemed a natural for the LPGA commissioner job that opened in January.

''I was interested," she said. ''I love the game of golf, I spent a lot of years in that world, I'm very comfortable with the people. But this was a calling that really harkened me back."

She played in the WBL with 40-something peers Carol Blazejowski, now the Liberty general manager, and TV analysts Nancy Lieberman and Ann Meyers-Drysdale.

In college she faced Blazejowski of Montclair State, who lit up Madison Square Garden in 1977 for a college-record 52 points that still stands. Orender guarded her for the first half, giving up 18 points, a lot fewer than her second-half replacement.

''She was guarding me?" Blazejowski said, joking. ''She was an energetic player, relentless. It brings back a lot of warm memories. It was essentially a time when women didn't have anything. We did it for the love of the game."

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