Forever Duke Q&A: Lisa Borders '79

Sterly Wilder '83, associate vice president for alumni affairs, talks with Borders, the president of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA). In her role with the WNBA, Borders leads strategy and operations for the league. She formerly was the vice president of community affairs at Coca-Cola in Atlanta, president of the Atlanta City Council, and vice mayor of the city. Borders has volunteered for Duke for decades. Her contributions include serving as an AAAC interviewer, as a member of the Duke Black Alumni board, and most recently, as a Duke trustee.
December 16, 2016

We hear that another Blue Devil—NBA Commissioner Adam Silver ’84—had something to do with recruiting you to lead the WNBA. Is that true?

Yes, over a dinner last year at President Brodhead’s home, we happened to be sitting next to one another. I still tell President Brodhead: “Mr. President, this is your fault! You kept getting up and guiding the dinner, and so Adam and I were left to our own devices.” And of course, both of us love the game, so we began to talk about it. Now, here I am months later with the privilege of leading the women’s league. Adam believes in the “W” and growing the game of basketball. Had he not been so committed, I would not have taken this role. I could have stayed at Coca-Cola and had the rest of my career in Atlanta. I came here to lead a group of women, so it doesn’t get any better than that.

You’ve had some time to settle into your role as the president of the WNBA. What have you been up to?

I visited all of our teams—there are twelve of them, call it a “listening tour”—to really understand the dynamics of each individual market. I was taught as a little girl that you have two ears and one mouth for a reason, that you should listen twice as much as you talk. Talking to the teams in their home market is the closest thing to getting organic information about the business. You really want to understand it from the ground up. So going to their house and listening to them in their most comfortable and intimate environment was very helpful to me, and it gives them a sense of empowerment. How do we increase attendance? How do we get our sponsors happy? This year has been extraordinary. It’s the twentieth season. Attendance is up 4.6 percent. Viewership is up 11 percent. Merchandise sales are up 30 percent. To turn a business around in such a short period of time is nothing short of amazing, and I didn’t do that by myself. There are a ton of fingerprints on the success. We are making the league more successful. To the extent we can get people inside the arena and they have an opportunity to actually experience a game— that’s when they are hooked.

You’ve been an involved alumna, serving as an AAAC interviewer, as a member of the Duke Black Alumni board, and as a Duke trustee. Why do you give back to Duke and stay engaged with the Duke family?

The university has given so much to me. It’s an opportunity for us to make sure that Duke continues to educate the best and brightest minds and expose them to what can be and what their potential can be. To the extent I can elevate the university, I’m happy to do it—whether it’s with fellow alums or with potential students. There are high-school students who still reach out to me for a letter of recommendation for Duke, and I am happy to do it. It’s incumbent upon us to reach out to the community and to share that knowledge of Duke.