NEW YORK – Donna Orender is proud of what she accomplished during her time as president of the WNBA.
From acquiring corporate jersey sponsorships to increasing exposure to having a team turn a profit for the first time, the league was in a better position when her tenure ended Friday than it was when she took the job six years ago.
"I think what I'm most happy about is that from the time I arrived to the time I'm departing there's just a tremendous growth in every sector of the league," Orender said by phone last week. "When I got there, there wasn't a whole lot of enthusiasm. As I depart I am buoyed by the amount of interest, quality of play, and quality of ownership."
Orender decided in early December to step down and spend more time with her family. From the day she took the job after working at the PGA Tour for 17 years, she always had the league's fans in the forefront of her mind.
From responding directly to their e-mails, sharing her thoughts with them on a blog, or just talking to them whenever she walked into any WNBA arena, the league's president knew that the fan base was the league's lifeblood.
"Perhaps there's a part of me that's a fan," she said. "As much energy as I put in, I got my energy back from the fans. They know me, they e-mail me on a regular basis, send me comments, write me letters. I made it a goal to be as responsive to each and every one as I could."
The league has made strides since Orender succeeded Val Ackerman as president in 2005. Four teams now have marquee jersey sponsorships, attendance at games has risen, and the WNBA is in the midst of an eight-year deal with ESPN.
"During Donna's tenure, the WNBA continued its growth and further solidified its position as an icon for social change, providing great role models for young women who want to achieve in sports, business and life," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "Donna's passion and dedication underscored everything she did and we look forward to building upon the success she helped sustain."
Despite the deep recession, the Connecticut Sun this past season became the first WNBA team to turn a profit.
"The best way to look at what Donna's meant to the league is to look at things before," said Connecticut Sun President and CEO Mitchell Etess. "You look at how many independent teams there were before and it was just us. Now you look at independent ownership and there are a bunch of teams. Look at the more broad acceptance of the women's game as a whole, Donna was a huge ambassador for women's basketball."
In the past year alone Orender has helped the league secure new marketing deals with Coca-Cola, Pirate's Booty and Jamba Juice.
"Donna has been great for the league because of her 'just do it' attitude and thinking outside the box for ideas to pull in sponsors and continued support for the league," Indiana Fever star Tamika Catchings wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
"Her charisma and down-to-earth attitude allowed people to get close to her and while everyone has ideas suggestions she did her best to try to use those and turn them into realities for the WNBA."
Besides the growth of the league, Orender was proud of developing a women's luncheon that has honored some of the nation's female leaders, including former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright, as well as TV personality Robin Roberts.
NBA senior vice president Chris Granger will oversee the league's operations until a new president is found.
"I guess we would be endeavoring to get someone before the season starts," Etess said. "Reality is, this is a position I wouldn't want to rush to fill. It's more important to get the right person who has the combination of sales, enthusiasm and basketball."
Orender's departure has prompted some to question the league's viability. The WNBA has seen three franchises fold in the last four years, and another sold and moved.
Etess has a different view.
"If you looked at where the WNBA stands after 15 years to where other major professional sports leagues were in their first 15 years it compares very favorably," he said. "People are looking for reasons the league will fail.
"How many teams move in other sports? I think Donna's departure has nothing to do with the way the league is."
Orender plans to focus on a marketing and media strategy company, though she will still be a league consultant.
"I want to still continue a platform of work on behalf of women and girls," she said. "Creating content and events that are inspiring and educational for women."
(This version CORRECTS Corrects to PGA Tour in fourth paragraph.)