Earlier this month, the WNBA’s Seattle Storm announced that it would host a “Stand With Planned Parenthood” event at its July 18 home game. Support would include a donation of $5 from each ticket sold (a sellout would be 9,686), an auction to raise money for the organization and a rally outside the stadium before the game, which is to be broadcast nationally on ESPN2.
That politics have encroached on the world of sports in today’s highly partisan climate is no surprise. High-profile athletes from Colin Kaepernick to LeBron James have endorsed political candidates and spoken openly about issues like race relations and police misconduct. But the Storm’s activism around a hot-button social issue stakes out new ground as perhaps the most overtly political statement made not by an individual player or a coach, but by an entire organization. Following the announcement, The Nation heaped praise on the effort. “The move by the Storm is a recognition that women’s health is under attack and sports franchises—not merely athletes—can play a role in turning this around,” wrote Dave Zirin. The reaction at Breitbart was less enthusiastic.
Behind the decision to wade into the politics of the moment is the Storm’s ownership group, which is made up of three women: Dawn Trudeau, Lisa Brummel and Ginny Gilder. They purchased the team for $10 million in 2008 and kept the Storm in Seattle when the city’s NBA team, the SuperSonics, was bought and moved to Oklahoma City.
Trudeau, a former Microsoft executive who, until the Storm, had no experience in sports (she wasn’t an athlete in school), is a self-made millionaire. A native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, she set off for Ann Arbor, Michigan, as a teenager with a few hundred dollars and two suitcases, hoping to attend the University of Michigan. Instead, she found a job building computer monitors and taught herself how to program. She eventually relocated to Seattle for another tech job, and, despite never earning a college degree, she landed in 1984 at Microsoft, where she rose to general manager of consumer products. After 15 years with the company, she left to join a venture philanthropy firm. I spoke with Trudeau about her decision to speak out in support of Planned Parenthood, the risks that come with taking a political stand and her journey through the worlds of tech and sports.
POLITICO MAGAZINE: Where did the idea for supporting Planned Parenthood so publicly came from and how did the plans evolve?
DAWN TRUDEAU: Ginny Gilbert, one of my partners, attended a Planned Parenthood fundraiser and came back and said, ‘I think we should try and do something—are you guys interested?’ Lisa Brummel, our other partner, and myself, we both said, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ I’ve been following the national debate on health care, and it is pretty clear that people are in danger of losing some of their health care. For many women, Planned Parenthood is their only source of health care. So we went to our staff and said if we want to do something like this, what can we do? And the staff came up with devoting some of the game revenue.
POLITICO: We’ve seen countless players make political statements in the last few years, but not teams. Did you have discussions about consequences, of turning some fans away from the team?
TRUDEAU: We talked about it, certainly. What’s the worst-case scenario? Would we alienate season ticket holders? Would we keep people from coming to the games? Would we take media hits? We went through all of that and decided we would deal with whatever came up, and we made it clear to the staff that this was something we were doing as owners…We’ve never done this before because we’ve stayed away from political statements as a team, as an ownership group. You want somebody to come into our arena and think it’s a very apolitical place because it should be; because you want everyone to be welcome no matter who they are or how they think or what their voting history is. But this is one of those cases where we just felt what’s going on in health care in this country is going to hurt a lot of people, particularly women and girls. We are a women-owned team, we have women in leadership, we have women players. This was something where we felt it was worth taking a political risk…I don’t know that we would do it for any other organization.
POLITICO: Have you been a long-time donor to Planned Parenthood?
TRUDEAU: I’ve been a donor since I was in my teens, partially because that’s where I got my first birth control. My best friend in high school had gotten pregnant and gave the baby up for adoption and got pregnant again, so I looked at what she had gone through and thought I wanted to be able to choose the path of my life, so I actually got birth control before I had ever had sex because I didn’t want that to be my circumstance. For me, I was very low-income at the time, but Planned Parenthood gave me the choice of planning my life. It’s a very special organization to me.
POLITICO: When you brought the idea to players, what was their reaction?
TRUDEAU: Our players are typically attuned to what’s going on in the world because most of them play overseas during the offseason. They tend to be more politically astute than those in some other leagues. Also, they’re women. They understand their sisters or nieces or mothers or whoever else in their family requires health care and that many, many women have had positive contact with Planned Parenthood in some kind of way.
POLITICO: How about feedback from the league office?
TRUDEAU: They have been very positive. We didn’t ask them to participate in any way, but we said we’re going to do this and they were supportive. We consulted the legal staff of the NBA and WNBA; they told us we had no legal issues and also said they wanted to buy tickets to donate to the cause.
POLITICO: Have you heard directly from (NBA Commissioner) Adam Silver?
POLITICO: What about the reaction from fans, either positive or negative?
TRUDEAU: Our fans have said they are proud of us. I’ve been getting calls and emails from all over—Australia, Iowa and New York. There’s been lots of people around the country saying thank you for doing this. As far as the negative side, the story got picked up by Breitbart…and if you looked at some of the local coverage, you can see it in the comments sections. But we always get those kinds of comments because there are some people in the world who think it’s very important to denigrate women’s professional sports, so I think it’s the same trolls who say we can’t play basketball or nobody cares about the WNBA.
POLITICO: How are ticket sales for the game on July 18?
TRUDEAU: Outpacing sales for a Tuesday night game. Right now we’re trending like a weekend game. We did not sell out immediately; we’re getting a steady flow of people buying group tickets or buying tickets and donating them.
POLITICO: The NBA has become a place where players and coaches have become very comfortable speaking about politics. The league was involved in the Pride Parade in New York recently and coaches like Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich have been outspoken critics of Donald Trump. Players like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony have also talked about issues like race relations and gun violence. Is there a reason the NBA and WNBA have been so vocal?
TRUDEAU: Our league leadership is very socially conscious. Just because someone is an athlete doesn’t mean they’re not a citizen…Our league is progressive in that respect. They realize our players are people and have the right to express themselves.
POLITICO: The industries of sports and tech often come under fire for not being as supporting of women as they could be. Can you compare your experience in each? Has one been easier to navigate than the other?
TRUDEAU: The NBA and WNBA are terrific in terms of how many women are in leadership positions, so I think it’s really important to talk about that. But on the product side—we’re talking about the game—that’s where there is a huge amount of resistance. People say girls don’t play sports as well as men do, that it’s a different game, things like that. There’s a lot of misogyny in that respect and a lack of understanding of how great this basketball is. In technology, the barriers you’re fighting against are different. Men and women use (Microsoft) Excel the same way, but there is a huge resistance to women in leadership roles, and to taking women seriously in their technical capabilities. You don’t see a whole heck of a lot of women rising through the ranks of technology, as CEOs or sitting on the board of directors. You see women have trouble getting into positions of authority.
POLITICO: There is a big push right now to get more women into politics, and studies have shown that girls who play sports are more likely to run for office in the future. Do you see yourself as having a platform that might help empower women politically through getting them involved in sports?
TRUDEAU: We’ve made the connection in business. If you look at women who are CEOs or on the board of companies, more than 80 percent of them have played sports. That’s one of the reasons we think sports is so important for girls to participate in because it teaches you confidence in facing challenges, but also in a physical sense. So there’s a definite correlation between playing sports and taking business risks, taking leadership positions. If you think about business, you’re always competing so building that comfort level with competition is really important. That translates to politics, too, because it gives you the courage to get out there. So we want to expose as many girls as we can to sports, and absolutely encourage them to be involved and playing.
POLITICO: The NFL has been heavily criticized for the way it has responded to issues around domestic violence. Would having more women at the decision making table—either at the league office or leading teams—allow them to better understand the issue from a broader perspective?
TRUDEAU: I don’t see how it couldn’t help them be better. The diversity of thought and voices speaking who have personal experience or who have that other perspective, it has to help. It’s like having people of color around you—you hear their voices and listen to their experiences, and you understand a whole lot better what it’s like to be that person, like what institutional racism is, for example.
POLITICO: As the owner of pro sports franchise do you have any reaction when you hear NFL owners talk about Colin Kaepernick—John Mara of the New York Giants, for example, has said he’s received letters from fans asking that he not sign him—but at the same time, team after team—including the Giants—keep giving players involved in domestic violence disputes more chances to play?
TRUDEAU: I would say it’s a statement of their values. How could you say it’s anything other than that? Which is more egregious or has a bigger impact? Is it someone making a political statement or someone actually hurting another human being?
POLITICO: Do you think the world of sports should set a better example?
TRUDEAU: I do.
POLITICO: Do you have any advice for girls or young women who want to go into sports business?
TRUDEAU: Pursue it and go for it. Just because you don’t see a lot of role models, there are some. There are jobs and there are career opportunities for women. You can see people breaking through all the time. Becky Hammon is an assistant coach in the NBA (for the San Antonio Spurs). That didn’t exist before, but I can’t believe there aren’t girls saying ‘Look at her, I want to do that.’
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.