Fever chief Krauskopf optimistic about pivotal season for state's WNBA franchise

June 8, 2009

Indiana Fever Chief Operating Officer Kelly Krauskopf is an eternal optimist. The team's founding chief executive will happily discuss at length why she thinks the Women's National Basketball Association franchise will be in this city a very long time.

Krauskopf is also a realist with a calm, easy demeanor. At her core, though, say those who know Krauskopf best, is a fire that fuels an intense competitor.

There's no easy way to typecast the native Texan who moved to Indianapolis in 1999, but those around her say her seemingly at-odds characteristics have bred a recipe for success.

"She is one unique person," said Pacers Sports & Entertainment President Jim Morris. "A rare find."

Krauskopf, 47, is one of the three most respected leaders within the WNBA, Morris said. And WNBA President Donna Orender leaves little doubt that is true.

"In a pinch, we always go to Kelly for her insight," Orender said. "She's an extraordinary talent with a 360-degree view."

As the Fever enters its 10th season, sports business experts said Krauskopf will have to draw on her greatest strengths to ensure an 11th season.

Pacers S&E co-owner Herb Simon has said this season for the Fever--which tips off June 7--is critical for determining the franchise's future. Fan following for the team has fallen somewhat since its inaugural season and the WNBA franchise has struggled to reach profitability.

Krauskopf is undaunted.

"I think every season is make or break," she said. "We're trying to build a business, and we have to show progress. That's the bottom line."

Orender isn't overly concerned, either.

Krauskopf has built the Fever into a WNBA title contender with an unparalleled work ethic, "never-say-die attitude" and equal parts sense of purpose and sense of humor, Orender said.

"The mark of a Kelly Krauskopf franchise is one that is run with passion and a belief," Orender said. "When you build a business, it takes a strong belief, and that's what builds a following. She is the picture of perseverance and has given that franchise real stability."

Significant gains

Krauskopf's perseverance seems to be paying off. In the worst economic downturn in a generation, the Fever has increased sponsorship sales 10 percent this year over last. Season-ticket sales are even with last year, but Krauskopf hopes mini-season packages and single-game ticket sales will give the franchise a boost.

There are also some significant gains at the league level, including a new TV deal with ABC/ESPN, which for the first time means the network pays the league to broadcast games. Previously, the league bought air time and helped sell ads to recoup costs.

With a hard WNBA salary cap of just below $800,000, Krauskopf said the team is inching toward profitability. But the roller-coaster ride hasn't been easy. A decade ago, the Fever sailed past the league-mandated 5,500 season-ticket sales mark to earn the expansion franchise, but, over the years, ticket sales have slowly declined.

During the team's inaugural season in 2000, the Fever was fourth in the fledgling league, with average home attendance of 11,267. Last year, Indiana was 10th in the 14-team league, with average attendance of 7,702. That figure, however, was a 7.2-percent increase from 2007.

Fever forward and Indianapolis native Katie Douglas said Krauskopf sets the tempo for everyone else, from players to coaches and front-office personnel.

"She's always striving to be the best at her position," Douglas said. "She's a great role model."

"She's fiercely competitive," said Indiana Sports Corp. President Susan Williams. "She's just as intense during Fever games as Larry Bird and Jim Morris are during Pacers games. But she's always level-headed, always analytical, and that's what you want in a leader."

Varied interests, experiences

While single-minded on the job, Krauskopf's interests and experience are as varied as the players on her roster.

Krauskopf, a self-described dog lover who shares her Meridian-Kessler home with a 7-year-old dachshund named Indy, learned a love of art from her mom and two aunts--all accomplished artists--and learned a love of basketball and competition from her brother, David. Maybe most important, Krauskopf learned from her mom, also an avid tennis player, that women could excel in sports well into adulthood. It's a lesson that has led her to a career that has taken her around the globe.

Krauskopf's experiences go far beyond her stint in the Fever front office.

After graduating in 1983 with a journalism degree from Texas A&M University, where she played basketball, Krauskopf set out to get a job in the male-dominated world of sports broadcasting. The door was promptly slammed in her face.

"My dream was to work in sports television," Krauskopf said. "There were no women doing sports, especially in Texas. They were saying, 'No way. You're not reading our football scores.'"

Undaunted, Krauskopf took a post with her alma matter in 1985 as an assistant to the athletic director. There, she founded a club responsible for fund raising for women's athletics. She raised $80,000 in her first eight months.

"I was 23 years old, getting paid what amounted to a part-time salary and working 12 hours a day," she recalled. "But they looked at what was raised and said, 'Hey, that's not bad.'"

In 1990, Krauskopf took a post in the administrative office of the NCAA's former Southwest Conference. She was the second woman to hold an executive position in the conference's 84-year history.

"I never really felt intimidated," Krauskopf said. "At times it was frustrating, but I never felt diminished."

Krauskopf said it was difficult getting some people to understand the importance of developing women's athletics.

"They just thought it was about Title IX, and something that had to be dealt with," she said.

Title IX is landmark federal legislation requiring that women athletes be given athletic opportunities equal to men at educational institutions.

Krauskopf continued her crusade to promote women's athletics as well as handling her multitude of duties as an assistant commissioner for the conference.

She left the Southwest Conference when it began to merge into the Big 8 Conference, which later became the Big 12 Conference.

She joined a small advertising agency, then a broadcast network. In 1996, her path crossed with NBA Commissioner David Stern and Val Ackerman, who would later be named the first WNBA president.

Getting the Fever

Ackerman, sensing Krauskopf's leadership abilities and vision for marketing and promotion, invited her to become the new league's first director of operations. After Krauskopf helped launch the WNBA, she exited the league for about nine months, leaving New York for her native Texas, taking a post with Host Communications to start a division for women's programming.

The WNBA's pull was too strong, and when the Pacers called, Krauskopf was again faced with an easy career decision.

While serving with the Fever, she worked with USA Basketball in composing the 2004 and 2008 women's Olympic basketball teams. Krauskopf's varied background spurred Williams to make her a member of ISC's President's Council.

"Kelly is someone I could turn to for advice on almost any matter," Williams said. "And she is so community-minded, she never hesitated to offer her services. There's nothing I ever asked of Kelly, where she didn't come through for us."

Krauskopf's skills go far beyond women's athletics, said the Pacers' Morris.

"I'd trust her to run just about any business," Morris said. "She's a marketing genius with extraordinary insight not only in the game of basketball, but in entertainment and business."

Krauskopf readily admits that her career path has taken some unexpected twists.

"Anytime you're breaking barriers, it's a journey, and you're going to have ups and downs," Krauskopf said. "Shoot, 10 years ago, I had hoped we'd have 10,000 season-ticket holders by now. There have been times I wanted a punching bag in the back room."

But Krauskopf said she learned to manage her expectations and persevere. "The one thing that fuels me is when people tell me I can't do something," she said.

And she has little doubt that, eventually, there will be a payoff, financially and in terms more difficult to measure. The Fever is not just a team, she said, it's a vehicle for showcasing women's strength and leadership.

"I'm living the benefit of what sports has done for me: teaching me teamwork, trust, commitment, self-identity and self-esteem," Krauskopf said. "I want that opportunity to be even more abundant for future generations.

"We're building this league today for someone's 4-year-old daughter."

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