You could consider this the challenge of Alisha Valavanis’ professional career. She is leaving college athletics, her area of expertise, her comfort zone. And she is entering the arduous business world of the WNBA, where she’s now charged with keeping the Seattle Storm alive.
The job title is chief operating officer. Really, though, she’s the director of franchise sustainability. How do you make an American women’s basketball franchise consistently profitable? It’s a question that has consumed many good ones before her.
And, for added pressure, how do you replace outgoing chief executive officer Karen Bryant, perhaps the greatest champion of pro women’s hoops in this city’s history? It’s a question that could intimidate plenty of great leaders.
But if you think Valavanis (pronounced VAL-AH-VANIS) is fazed by any of this, you’re mistaken. Within 10 minutes of conversation, it becomes clear why Storm owners Lisa Brummel, Ginny Gilder and Dawn Trudeau chose her as the Storm’s new top executive.
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“I’m a passionate woman,” Valavanis said. “It’s how I lead, but it’s also how I live my life. I’m about team. I’m one of six children. I have five siblings. I’m a twin. Team started early for me. Building team is what’s really important to me. And I’m competitive. I want to win. You better believe I want to win.”
Valavanis, the former California assistant athletic director of development, was named the Storm COO about two weeks ago. She’ll be in Seattle full-time starting next week, but she already seems emotionally invested in her latest task.
“It’s a challenge I’m excited to take on,” said Valavanis, 37. “The WNBA is looking for additional revenue-generating opportunities and to find a sustainable financial model. It’s critical for the league and for the Storm.
“I look at the college market as an affinity market. Many of the stakeholders are alums. It’s similar to women’s sports because the fans are truly, emotionally invested in the team, especially Storm fans. Building on those relationships is the goal.”
Valavanis was attracted to the Storm brand. She knows it’s strong in a Seattle community that supports women’s athletics. But no sports team is immune to the ebb and flow of revenue because so much of that is tied to winning, and success is cyclical in pro sports.
With superstars Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson missing the entire 2013 season, the Storm averaged a record low in attendance (6,980) despite making the playoffs for a record 10th consecutive season. This season, Bird is back, but Jackson isn’t, and the team is off to a 7-11 start. This will be another season without making a profit.
But you can’t call the situation dire. The owners remain committed. With coach/general manager Brian Agler in place, there is stable leadership on the basketball side. If Valavanis can provide a fresh take and get the most out of the franchise’s positives, there is potential for growth.
“I’m excited about everything I’ve heard about the Seattle community,” Valavanis said. “I’m drawn to the energy and to the people of Seattle. With the Storm crazies, there are so many things that align us.”
Valavanis and her twin sister, Alexa, had a successful run in the backcourt at Chico State in California from 1995 to 1999. Alexa was the point guard. Alisha was the shooting guard, and when she finished her eligibility, she was the school’s career leader in three-pointers made (139). After college, Alisha went into coaching, as an assistant at her alma mater and then at Pacific.
At Pacific, she wasn’t just in charge of the team’s defensive system and developing the guards. She also led the program’s marketing and community-relations efforts. She took responsibility for the booster club. She created a “Chalktalk” newsletter for all the program’s followers. So it’s no surprise that she ventured into the business side of college athletics.
Consider Valavanis a guard who sees the entire court. She understands basketball in every way: as a player, coach, administrator and fan of the game. California athletic director Sandy Barbour simply calls her “a superstar.”
“I’ve really, really spent time in my career aligning myself with things I value,” Valavanis said. “With the Storm, the focus on passion, women’s empowerment, diversity, community — all of these things spoke to me. It’s a model franchise. It’s very clear that my charge is to elevate a great brand.”
The challenge is immense, but Valavanis has the energy for it. Her track record says she has the talent, too.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277
On Twitter @JerryBrewer