Storyteller in Chief: Power Player

BY LINDA WESTON

In 1996, after a 17-year career in the destination marketing industry, where I gained national standing as the CEO of the Convention & Visitors Association of Lane County, I was recruited by the founders of a new professional basketball league for women. The American Basketball League (ABL) hoped to leverage the success of the 1996 USA women’s national team at the Atlanta Olympics — much like USA Soccer is now leveraging the U.S. Women’s National Team’s victory in the World Cup. The ABL wanted a team in Portland, and they wanted me to be its general manager.

BY LINDA WESTON

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Linda Weston and Lin Dunn (January 1999).

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In 1996, after a 17-year career in the destination marketing industry, where I gained national standing as the CEO of the Convention & Visitors Association of Lane County, I was recruited by the founders of a new professional basketball league for women. The American Basketball League (ABL) hoped to leverage the success of the 1996 USA women’s national team at the Atlanta Olympics — much like USA Soccer is now leveraging the U.S. Women’s National Team’s victory in the World Cup. The ABL wanted a team in Portland, and they wanted me to be its general manager.

I grew up in a sports-oriented family, had been married to a pro athlete and had always been a huge basketball fan. But the idea of walking away from an established career to take a risk this big was daunting. Most new sports leagues fail, especially those focused on women. On the other hand: What a great opportunity to do something really different, in a sport I loved! Over the course of several months, I agonized over the decision.

My daughter, who was 24 at the time, asked a simple question: “Mom, what’s the worst that can happen if you do this?”

“The league could fail, and I would be out of a job,” I said.

But I knew I could get another job. I knew I didn’t want to look back, years later, and think, “I wish I’d taken that chance.” I also knew it would be a tremendously challenging experience and that I would learn a great deal.

So I said yes. I became general manager of the Portland Power, the first women’s basketball team in the history of Portland.

It wasn’t an easy gig. We started with no staff, no team name, no logo, hardly any marketing dollars, and opening day was only 90 days away. I scrambled to hire key team members who knew how to do the things I didn’t: manage game operations, scale the “house” and work the ticketing system. I made personal sacrifices, like putting $10,000 worth of Oregonian advertising for our first season ticket campaign on my personal credit card, with no guarantee I’d get reimbursed. The league office asked me not to cash my paycheck, so the rest of the front office staff and the players could cash theirs.

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 Portland Power basketball team (December 1998).

The hours were grueling. During one of my first days on the job, I pushed a shopping cart through Office Depot, buying office supplies at about 7 p.m., wondering if Bob Whitsitt, the Blazers GM at the time, ever did that. I’m pretty sure the answer was no.

There were personnel issues I never anticipated. One day the head coach came into my office and asked, “What’s our policy on pregnancy?” I called the league office immediately to ask and was met with about 10 seconds of dead silence. Clearly, they hadn’t thought about it either.

During our first training camp, we became the first ABL team to trade a player — and she couldn’t stop crying. We were also the first team to fire a coach, something the league founders and I did that first season, in my living room, on New Year’s Day.

We marketed the team with no marketing budget, and there was constant pressure to raise money to support not only the Portland team but the league. The players, coach and I made hundreds of personal appearances as part of the team’s community outreach philanthropic strategy. It was grueling.

Despite the challenges, I knew we were doing something special. We were creating the opportunity for the best women basketball players in the world to continue their playing careers here in the U.S. — rather than go overseas and play an American game in China, Israel, Turkey or Japan, which is what they had been doing previously.

Lin Dunn, the second coach we hired, was a winner and helped us create a winning culture. She took us from “worst to first” and won ABL coach of the year in 1998. One of our players, Natalie Williams, was the league’s MVP. Both are now in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Lin also helped us to create a culture where humor was key. I learned something from her every day.

We were successful in Portland, but ultimately the underfunded league folded. So that part of the story didn’t end well. However, happy endings come in many forms. And the hard work paid off for me in the form of empowerment. The job was about problem solving, and I learned I’m good at that. It was also about building positive relationships quickly, and I learned I was good at that, too.

Being GM of the Portland Power was great preparation to lead the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network. Just as the ABL rode the surge of interest in women’s sports after the 1996 Olympics, today there’s a surge of interest in building an ecosystem to help entrepreneurs grow their companies.

I can empathize with what startup founders go through to launch and grow their companies. I understand what it’s like to scramble to hire key team members, the constant pressure to raise money and the fact that you have to be all-in while making personal and financial sacrifices.

Most of all, my Portland Power experience helped me to learn that sometimes taking that leap of faith is the right thing to do. A leap I might not have taken had my daughter not asked me one simple question: “What’s the worst that can happen?”

  • Linda Weston is executive director of the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network 

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