In April, Elena Delle Donne was enjoying the final days of her offseason when something came across her path that she couldn’t ignore.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver appeared on ESPN’s morning show “Get Up!” and spoke about what he sees as the WNBA’s deficiencies from a business standpoint. Silver’s comments about low fan turnout at games and the league’s struggle to attract young, female fans bothered Delle Donne the most.
In response, she issued a three-paragraph statement on Twitter arguing that WNBA players and teams can’t connect with fans without properly funded marketing. She then appeared on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” and spoke about it again at the Washington Mystics’ preseason media day in May.
“It’s hard to fall in love with a sport or a team or a player if you’ve never seen them and don’t know much about them. So we’re working on it,” Delle Donne said. “I wish I could just play basketball and have that be my thing. But if I have to give some media knowledge or PR ideas, then fine.”
When asked whether she would have considered putting out a statement in the past, Delle Donne responded, “Oh God, no.” She was laser-focused on her game, and because of what she could do on the court she became one of the biggest names in the WNBA. In her sixth season, she leads the Mystics (7-5) with 17.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game despite missing four games due to an illness.
During the offseason, the 2015 league MVP realized she had evolved. Part of that was a natural maturation that comes along with experience in the pros. But Delle Donne, 28, is also settled. She credits her new level of comfort in large part to the peace she has found in her personal life.
“I’ve gotten to a place where, it’s year six now. I’m married. I’m very comfortable in my own skin, and when I see something that’s wrong, I feel like I need to speak out about it,” Delle Donne said recently. “It’s so much more than the game of basketball. I want to be a feminist and be out there. Speak. Use my voice.”
When she was ready to start speaking out more on behalf of the WNBA, Delle Donne made sure she had statistics to back her words.
She asked her agent, Erin Kane, to run analytics on her Instagram account to determine the demographics of her followers the day she heard Silver’s comments. About 50 percent of them were women in the age range Silver said doesn’t pay attention to the WNBA, a number she cites whenever the issue comes up. She also talks to Kane about ways she can maximize the league’s visibility.
Delle Donne recently served as a judge during Washington’s Capital Pride Parade. It was a way to stay involved in a cause she cares about deeply and get the Mystics in front of the community at the same time.
“Things like that, just getting out into the community. Hopefully they see our faces and they’re like, ‘Hey, maybe I’ll come to a game!’” she said.
Support from the league has made embracing her leadership position much easier. WNBA President Lisa Borders gives Delle Donne frequent feedback.
“She’ll see something that I said and be like, ‘Love it. Keep using your voice.’ Just encouragement, so I know our commissioner is behind us, whatever we do. She’s all about it. She’s pushing, too,” Delle Donne said. “It’s great that our league is so supportive. When we say something, they’re generally backing us. They want to help us be able to speak our minds and be free about it. Luckily, we don’t have a league that tells us we can’t, you know, kneel."
As veterans such as Diana Taurasi and Lindsay Whalen start to relinquish their positions as the primary voices of the league, Delle Donne and 27-year-old Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks are among those often mentioned as the next group of leaders in the WNBA.
Tamika Catchings, the legendary Indiana Fever forward who retired in 2016 as the WNBA’s all-time rebounding leader and served as the union’s executive committee president for more than a decade, shared her thoughts on Delle Donne’s statement.
“It’s something that had to happen,” said Catchings, who now works in the front office with Pacers Sports & Entertainment. “Eventually, our youth were going to grow up, and there’s going to be more youth that come in after. For now, the cast of leaders has shifted generations.”
Catchings, Delle Donne and Ogwumike acknowledge that the league has become more outspoken as younger players have taken leadership roles. Part of that is thanks to social media and a younger, savvier generation coming of age.
It took Delle Donna years to become comfortable enough to speak out. Now she can’t imagine any other way.