The 3 women who own the WNBA’s Seattle Storm are changing the game

For the WNBA's Seattle Storm, sports, business, and social justice work in cohort, not conflict.

Seattle Storm owners Ginny Gilder, Lisa Brummel, and Dawn Trudeau at the team's Planned Parenthood rally. CREDIT: AP and Adam Peck
Seattle Storm owners Ginny Gilder, Lisa Brummel, and Dawn Trudeau at the team's Planned Parenthood rally. CREDIT: AP and Adam Peck

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON — Last month, in the middle of the most important non-championship week in the 17-year history of the Seattle Storm, the team’s owners–former Olympic rower Ginny Gilder and former Microsoft executives Dawn Trudeau and Lisa Brummel–sat around a conference table in Gilder’s office building on the west shore of Lake Union in downtown Seattle and took a collective breath.

“I’m in an excitement hangover,” Gilder said. “And I didn’t have one sip of alcohol!”

The previous night, the three owners had held a first-of-its kind Planned Parenthood rally before the team’s nationally televised game against the Chicago Sky. The event, which some in the media considered politically risky, was a smashing success and raised over $50,000 for the health care provider. But the Storm’s week was far from over.

The next three days were filled with non-stop high-profile events all around the city, from the Boys & Girls Club to the Seattle Space Needle to the Seattle Mariner’s game, all leading up to the 2017 WNBA All-Star game in Key Arena on Saturday in front of more than 15,000 fans — nearly twice the number that attended the event in Connecticut the previous year. The owners had been dreaming of hosting an All-Star game since they first bought the team nearly a decade before, and after the game, in the jovial locker room of the game-winning West team, Brummel said the event exceeded her greatest hopes. But she wasn’t ready to call it a “culmination.”

The week, as exhausting as it might have been, was rock-solid evidence that the Storm owners, one of just two all-female ownership groups in the WNBA, can win by doing things their own way, while pushing forward their city and the league as a whole as they go.

“We aspire to do many more things like this, so this was a great proof point,” Brummel said.

The Storm Way

Growing up, this isn’t a week that any of the three women ever imagined was possible.

“I think the age we are, there weren’t women doing things like [owning sports teams],” Trudeau told ThinkProgress during the meeting at Gilder’s.  “So it wasn’t that it was something where it was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can aspire to that.’”

But they all loved women’s sports, and they were especially passionate about the Storm. So, in 2007, when Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett threatened to take the Storm along with its partner NBA team, the Seattle Supersonics, to Oklahoma City, the superfans stepped in. They took a leap of faith, in each other, in the city of Seattle, and in the future of women’s basketball, and came together to form Force 10 Hoops and buy the team. (There was originally a fourth owner, Anne Levinson, but she left the ownership group in 2010.)

But before they did, they decided that they were going to do things a bit differently.

“We had a very big meeting in Dawn’s office at Microsoft just to figure out where we were in terms of values and why we’re doing this,” Gilder said. “We really made sure we were aligned in the philosophical point of view.”

In that meeting, the three didn’t just form a partnership; they invented what they call “The Storm Way” — a mission statement at the unique intersection of business, sports, and social justice.

While they all believe that taking over the team was a good financial investment, and are partly in this to make money, they also own the Storm because they believe in empowering women and in equal rights for everyone, no matter their gender, race, or sexuality. They say that’s a core tenant of who they are.

“You don’t have the privilege of feeling entitled.”

That’s not necessarily unique to the Storm. Women’s sports have frequently been on the frontline of the civil rights movement — such as tennis legend Althea Gibson breaking the color barrier in tennis, Martina Navratilova coming out during the prime of her career, or the U.S. women’s soccer team fighting for equal pay.

It makes sense to Gilder why the fight for equality fits so seamlessly with women’s sports.

“I don’t think you can be a part of women’s pro sports, or even women’s college sports at this point, and not realize, if you’re at all awake, that you’re on the front lines of trying to generate access to opportunity,” she said. “So it kind-of goes with the territory still. You don’t have the privilege of feeling entitled.”

“You also don’t have the assurance that you are going to be accepted, in terms of the legitimacy of the product itself,” Trudeau added.

The Storm owners have been encouraged to see advocacy in sports advance tremendously over the past year, thanks in large part to the Black Lives Matter movement that swept through the WNBA last year, which the Storm players were a huge part of. In many ways, that opened up the door for Trudeau, Brummel, and Gilder to launch their team’s groundbreaking Planned Parenthood partnership.

“I think that says something for the way women athletes feel about their role in society,” Brummel said. “I think they’re starting to say, hey, wait a minute, this is our opportunity to help drive progress.”

Seattle’s support

Of course, the Storm owners couldn’t do any of this without a passionate fanbase, which is why they’re lucky to live where they do —  Seattle has always been a haven for women’s basketball. Brummel, who has lived here since 1989, recalls the support for the University of Washington women’s basketball team, when fans would fill the arena every game while the team contended for national championships on a year-in, year-out basis.

But when it comes to women’s sports, nothing is ever a given. When the WNBA started considering adding an expansion team to Seattle in 2000, Trudeau says that potential head coach Lin Dunn “bounced the basketball around the city to generate enthusiasm for the team.”

And it worked. Enough fans — approximately 3,000 —  signed up for season tickets, that the Storm were born.

While the Storm have never been league-leaders in attendance, they do average over 7,000 fans per game, and they are loud and loyal — the Key Arena is a distinct home-court advantage for the team. This is another reason why Brummel, Trudeau, and Gilder didn’t want to see the team leave with the Supersonics in 2008.

“It was such a really disheartening experience to be seeing what was being given to the men — a men’s team that didn’t exist.”

“We were those fans, we were enthusiastic fans, and we didn’t want to lose the team,” Brummel said.

But despite the team’s success–they have won championships in 2004 and 2010 and are the home for one of the most popular and successful basketball stars ever, Sue Bird–they have often found themselves overlooked and discarded in the city’s fight to get a new NBA franchise.

Back in 2008, the Storm negotiated a great deal to play games at Key Arena, during a time when the NBA was leaving, the country was deep into a recession, and the city really needed a steady contract at the stadium. But a couple of years later, the team found themselves completely left out of discussions to get a new arena in order to attract a NBA team. According to Gilder, despite the fact that then-mayor Mike McGinn had brokered a deal in order to get $100 million in city and bond money for a potential new arena, he was “extremely disparaging” to the Storm, and dismissed them as an afterthought because he said the team was “subsidized.”

“We were like, wow, that’s not how we look at it, we negotiated a good contract,” Gilder said. “It was such a really disheartening experience to be seeing what was being given to the men — a men’s team that didn’t exist.”

A Seattle Storm fan displays her feelings about the possible move of the team moments before the Storm's WNBA basketball playoff game against the Phoenix Mercury, Friday, Aug. 24, 2007, in Seattle. The game could be the Storm's final one in Seattle. Sonics and Storm owner Clay Bennett has said he will begin the process to move the Sonics, and may take the Storm with him, if the Seattle area can't produce an agreement for a new arena by Oct. 31. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A Seattle Storm fan displays her feelings about the possible move of the team moments before the Storm's WNBA basketball playoff game against the Phoenix Mercury, Friday, Aug. 24, 2007, in Seattle. The game could be the Storm's final one in Seattle. Sonics and Storm owner Clay Bennett has said he will begin the process to move the Sonics, and may take the Storm with him, if the Seattle area can't produce an agreement for a new arena by Oct. 31. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Throughout it all, the Storm’s fans and owners never stopped fighting for the team — fans even showed up to city council meetings to showcase how much the team meant to them.

Now, years after that particular new-stadium deal fell through and McGinn lost his reelection bid, things have completely turned around. The Storm has negotiated another 10-year contract at Key Arena; the team has one of the brightest on-court futures in the WNBA with back-to-back first overall picks in the draft, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Lloyd, starting on the team; and the city of Seattle fully embraced the team during the All-Star game, flying the WNBA flag on the Space Needle and lighting the entire city orange in support. The gestures are far more than symbolic.

“I can understand the desperation to get the men’s team,” Gilder said. “But now there’s an open acknowledgement that, here’s the women’s team, and it’s important.”

The challenges ahead

While the week of the Planned Parenthood rally and the All-Star game was undeniably a success, the Storm owners know that there are many roadblocks left in their future. First, they have to deal with a team that has been underperforming on the court, and failing to live up to the expectations that having a trio like Bird, Stewart, and Lloyd generates.

When they bought the team, it consisted of a developing group of veterans who were already on the brink of a championship, so having a young team is a completely new experience–and it’s requiring a dose of patience.

“Why has it got to be that women’s sports are always second tier?”

“The excitement increases and the expectations increase,” Brummel said. “That’s kind-of what we’re managing now. It’s like okay, you’ve been here three minutes, okay, let’s go, we want a championship. And I agree — we want one too!”

But as general manager Alisha Valavanis handles the on-court specifics, Trudeau, Brummel, and Gilder focus on things they can control, such as making their players feel at home in Seattle and helping the team become an attractive free-agent landing spot, getting more fans to the arena, and pushing for more media attention overall.

“I’d personally like to see the media acknowledge the incredible talent and quality of play. I think it’s ironic that the Golden State Warriors are the darlings of the NBA at this point, and actually, they’re style of play is more like the WNBA than it is the traditional NBA,” Trudeau said, when asked what improvements she’d like to see in the media coverage of the league.

“I don’t know why it’s always the Mariners or the Seahawks above the fold. Why has it got to be that women’s sports are always second tier?” Gilder said.

The fight for legitimacy in women’s basketball is ongoing, but the Storm owners are up for an extended battle. They care about having success now matters, but know it only truly carries its weight if it guarantees success in the future.

Two of three Seattle Storm owners Ginny Gilder, left, Dawn Trudeau, smile as they look on at a news conference Thursday, April 21, 2016, in Seattle. The Seattle Storm unveiled No. 1 pick Breanna Stewart, alongside former No. 1 pick and soon-to-be teammate Sue Bird. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Two of three Seattle Storm owners Ginny Gilder, left, Dawn Trudeau, smile as they look on at a news conference Thursday, April 21, 2016, in Seattle. The Seattle Storm unveiled No. 1 pick Breanna Stewart, alongside former No. 1 pick and soon-to-be teammate Sue Bird. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

“I view us as pioneers,” Gilder said. “Someone has to carry water for an idea. Does that mean we’re not going to make money? Actually, I’m in this to make money, because if you’re not selling the franchise, the league will fail. We have got to make this work. Otherwise, without that tangible expression of value it’s going to fail.”

Sitting with them for an hour during the most important week of their careers, it’s hard to imagine anything the Storm owners doing failing. They raised the bar for the rest of the WNBA when it comes to hosting an All-Star game, and their Planned Parenthood partnership raised some eyebrows around the league too–in a good way. Other owners across the league are already considering following in their footsteps.

“I know of at least one owner who has said, ‘Wow, great job, I’m going to think about this,’” Gilder said.