WNBA enters new chapter of front-office hiring
Top five playoff seeds share a promising league trend of Black leaders
On Aug. 26, New York Liberty assistant general manager Ohemaa Nyanin sat in the stands as she watched her team take on the Minnesota Lynx at the Target Center in Minneapolis. Nyanin considers herself to be a bit private in public settings, often electing not to wear a lot of Liberty gear outside of team functions as had been the case this evening.
After the first-quarter buzzer, Nyanin is handed a box score by a staff member. This catches a pair of nearby Lynx fans off guard, and they were curious to know who Nyanin was.
“What do you do for the team?” they asked, followed by Nyanin stating her title.
“They were like, ‘oh my goodness,’ ” Nyanin said. Nyanin learned that one of the fans was a former hooper who had played for the American Basketball League, which operated from 1996-98. She told Nyanin that she never thought the WNBA would be the league it is today. The woman then asked Nyanin for a request that caused her to do a double take – she asked for a selfie.
“I’m not Jonquel Jones or Breanna Stewart or Sabrina [Ionescu],” Nyanin said. “She said, ‘no, I just want to show people in my community in South Dakota that there is somebody who has made it.’ To see me in the front office just kind of made her dreams come true. That was really, really special.”
As the WNBA playoffs inch closer to tipoff on Sept. 13, the top five seeds in the postseason share a promising trend in the league – Black executives in their front offices.
Leading the No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces are team president Nikki Fargas and general manager Natalie Williams. With the No. 2 seed New York Liberty, there’s CEO Keia Clarke and assistant general manager Nyanin. Darius Taylor is the general manager of the No. 3 Connecticut Sun and the assistant general manager is Morgan Tuck. Travis Charles is the assistant general manager and vice president of basketball operations of the No. 4 seed Dallas Wings. Former WNBA champion Renee Montgomery is a minority owner of the No. 5 seed Atlanta Dream.
The WNBA has been a league that has led the way in the area of diversity, but recent activity appears to demonstrate a new chapter for front-office hires. Those in the league hope that the successes of front-office personnel this season can continue to drive that change.
“It’s just something to be proud of,” Tuck said. “Diversity is always a really good thing. Seeing it be successful, it opens doors for someone who wants to be in those roles or it opens the eyes of someone about increasing diversity.
“It shows people that you can change it up, give opportunity to a lot of people and still show that you can be successful.”
The 2021 and 2022 WNBA Finals marked the first time in eight years that a Black general manager led a Finals participant in back-to-back seasons. In 2021, James Wade led the Chicago Sky to their first championship in franchise history as coach and general manager. In 2022, Natalie Williams was in her first season as the general manager of the Aces, who also took home their first title. It was the first time that two different Black general managers won WNBA championships in back-to-back seasons. Should the Aces repeat, or the Sun secure their first championship, WNBA history would be written once more.
The 2023 season began with three Black general managers at the helm of franchises: Williams, hired last season by the Aces; Taylor, in his first year with the Sun; and Wade, who had served as the Sky general manager since 2019 and became the first Black general manager to be named WNBA executive of the year in 2022. That number would shrink to two when Wade left in July to become an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors of the NBA.
For the past 10 years, the number of Black general managers has largely remained at two or three, peaking in 2014 at five (with four of them also serving as the team coach), according to the WNBA Racial And Gender Report Card released by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Though that number has remained stagnant, there has been a significant increase in Black assistant general managers.
Charles, who is in his tenth season in Dallas, was elevated to vice president of basketball operations and assistant general manager last August. Last December, Tuck, who played the majority of her five-year WNBA career with Connecticut, was named the assistant general manager of the Sun in addition to Taylor’s appointment as general manager. In January, the Phoenix Mercury hired former player Monica Wright Rogers as its assistant general manager.
Charles, Tuck and Rogers joined Nyanin as Black assistant general managers in the league. It’s a stark change from just five seasons ago when there were no Black assistant general managers in the WNBA at all.
While it’s one thing to be hired at the front-office level, it’s another to succeed in the position. Executives such as Taylor, Tuck, Williams and Nyanin have been a part of some of the league’s grandest transactions this season.
In Connecticut, Taylor and Tuck, the only all-Black general manager office in the league, were faced with heavy lifting from day one. They had to organize the trade of former MVP Jonquel Jones, who had asked for a trade before their arrival, and remain focused on steadying a title-contending franchise as it entered a new era.
In Las Vegas, Williams has managed to keep the Aces’ All-Star core intact and bring in key additions such s Candace Parker and Alysha Clark during the offseason. In June, she signed MVP candidate A’ja Wilson to a multiyear extension.
In New York, Nyanin was a direct player alongside Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb in one of the craziest and “nerve-racking” offseasons in WNBA history in which the franchise ultimately secured three of the league’s top players in Jones, Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot.
Nyanin, who was promoted to assistant general manager of the Liberty in 2022, aspires to one day become a general manager. She credited Kolb for his mentorship and advocacy in helping her reach that next step.
“What brings me joy is to see the other teams being able to do it,” Nyanin said. “There are other allies and other advocates that see that diversity matters and it is possible to be elite and have diverse front offices. I think when things work, that then becomes the example.”
Despite the hiring progress being made in WNBA front offices, there’s still more work to be done, Taylor said. While the general manager position has experienced a shift, he still wants to see that shift extended to ownership and board of governor positions, whose decision-making steers their franchises and the league.
“The league has done a great job in leading in diversity and putting people of color and women in positions of leadership and in senior administration to be successful,” said Taylor, who previously was an assistant general manager with Atlanta. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that we still have a ways to go in terms of leadership in other avenues. There are other positions and opportunities that we need to continue to knock on the door to have a seat at the table.”
“Yes, you want the diversity, but you don’t want to pigeonhole it to certain positions,” said Tuck, who decided she wanted to be a general manager when she was in middle school after watching Pat Riley lead the Miami Heat. “It also creates opportunities for those who maybe aren’t at that working age yet that you can see a path for yourself that’s in a lot of different aspects. Everyone doesn’t want to be a GM, everyone doesn’t want to be a coach. There might be another way.”
In the last 10 years, there has been a dramatic shift in hiring at the team governor level. In 2013, there were just seven people of color who held ownership-level positions in WNBA teams. In 2018, that number rose to 11. In 2022, it was 18 – from the Washington Mystics’ Sheila Johnson, who became the first Black woman to hold part ownership in a WNBA team in 2005, to Montgomery, who was named a minority owner of the Atlanta Dream in 2021.
When Montgomery became a part owner of the Dream, it affected Tuck.
“I can say I never thought about being a part of an ownership group until Renee,” Tuck said. “I never thought I couldn’t, but I never thought about it. I think it definitely opens doors. I think the more positions you can get like that, the more it’s going to inspire so many people because it’s making it seem realistic.”
An example can be seen in Chicago. In January, Nadia Rawlinson became a co-owner of the No. 8 seeded Sky as well as the team’s operating chairman. Since her hiring, the team welcomed a new majority-female investing group, including people of color, in June. The following month, in July, former NBA player Dwyane Wade became a co-owner of the franchise.
At the daily operations level, Clarke – who was promoted to CEO by Liberty owners Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai in 2019 – has made diversity a priority. Clarke has been with the franchise since 2011.
“I think in my experience as someone that came up in various roles through the team I saw the need and then had this really fortunate opportunity to look at the landscape of the opening roles and say what do I need,” Clarke said. “I really was afforded the opportunity to achieve a really diverse team by being at the helm, by being at a leadership position.”
In 2023, Clarke and Fargas are the only two Black people at the CEO or team president level in the WNBA. In the last 10 seasons, the highest number of minority team presidents in the league peaked at four (2015, 2018). Clarke said that to increase that number, it’s important for organizations to commit to “building a bench” where future candidates can run their own departments.
“Having the skill set to operate a business is something that comes with having the opportunity to gain experience,” Clarke said. “It’s about carving out lanes for people to hone their skills until an opportunity arrives or an opportunity comes up. I really truly believe in building a bench that has many different types of people on it so that when their time comes, they’re ready.”
Clarke pointed to her No. 2 on the business side of the organization, Morgan Taylor, who is vice president and head of business operations of the Liberty. Taylor also works with the organization’s NBA G League affiliate, the Long Island Nets, as its head of business operations.
“That’s preparation for a future next step,” Clarke said. “Those types of opportunities are important. It’s just easier said than done to create those opportunities.”
As the WNBA continues to grow, Nyanin is encouraged by the progress that has been made in regards to diversity in the front office. Nyanin says the fact that franchises with strong hiring of minority employees at the highest levels are finding success is proof that, in practice, diversity works and can be done in an elite way.
She hopes to see it continue.
“The growing number of diverse voices within the front office needs to continue,” Nyanin said. “Diversity isn’t only Black and white or female and male. There are a multitude of other ethnic minorities that aren’t represented. Just continuing to help pave the way for them as well, I think, is superimportant.”