SEATTLE — As the Seattle Storm’s top executive, Karen Bryant has guided the WNBA team capably, even remarkably, for 15 years. During her tenure, the team has won two league championships, reached the playoffs in all but three seasons and developed a strong and devoted following throughout the Puget Sound area.
All of which makes Bryant’s decision to leave the team even more difficult.
Nonetheless, Bryant will step down as president and CEO on July 31. She will go willingly, albeit sadly, and people in and around the team — specifically, the owners, the coaching staff, the players and no doubt many fans — believe her absence will be felt immediately and for years to come.
From the beginning, “she’s been the backbone, the mainstay and the one constant with the Storm,” All-Star guard Sue Bird said. “Her fingerprints are all over the place and they’re not going away anytime soon.”
“We have great ownership,” head coach Brian Agler said, “and, no question, they’re going to do their due diligence to bring in somebody good (as the next team president). But they won’t replace Karen because nobody can replace Karen.”
Even Lisa Brummel, one of the team’s three-woman ownership group, knows as much.
“Technically, sure, someone is going to replace Karen,” Brummel said. “But if the question is, ‘Is there another Karen?’ then the answer is no. There’s only one Karen.”
Bryant was, Brummel added, “the perfect CEO for the first 15 years of this organization.”
The 46-year-old Bryant, who grew up in Edmonds and is a 1986 graduate of Woodway High School, says she is resigning to have more time for herself and her family. She plans to devote a few months to leisure, and then to explore other career opportunities, both in and out of sports.
“I have had 15 amazing years with the Storm,” she said. “Challenging, exhilarating, rewarding (years). But when I think about my life and where the Storm is, it just came to me after last season that this is the right time. It’s the right time for me, and the right time for the franchise to have some fresh energy and new ideas.”
Bryant and her partner Merrily have a 6-year-old daughter, Lindsay, who has started school, “so summers have greater value,” she said. “But that’s also the most critical and busiest time of the year for a WNBA franchise. It’s a 24-7 job, and for so long I was addicted to that. I fed off that. And I’ve never complained or resented that.
“But I just felt that I didn’t want to get to a place where I couldn’t truly appreciate all the things that are special about being the CEO of a WNBA team. And I just felt really deep in my heart that it was right (to leave this year).”
All that said, it grieves Bryant to think of parting from a team she helped bring to Seattle and then nurtured to prominence. The tears come easily when she mentions the relationships that mean so much, among them Bird and Lauren Jackson, two longtime Storm stars and the cornerstones of the 2004 and 2010 championship teams.
“There are 100 reasons that I could quickly spout out for why I should (stay on), but my heart knows it’s right for me and my family (to go),” she said, dabbing at her eyes. “I’m ready for a new challenge and I’m ready for a change.
“So it’s right, but it’s also really hard (because of) the mileage I have with Lauren and Sue … and (the others) who have been there my whole journey.”
Not only is Bryant leaving a team she led for 15 years, she is also leaving a sport she has loved for as long as she can remember. She was a schoolgirl back in 1979 when the Seattle SuperSonics won the NBA championship, and she recalls watching games with her father in the family living room. She cheered and asked questions and cheered some more, and her passion for basketball took hold and never faded.
She became an outstanding player herself, helping Woodway to a state championship in her sophomore season of 1983-84. Two years later the team was ranked No. 1, but Bryant’s season was cut short by a broken foot shortly before the state tournament. The injury also slowed her recruiting — she had been a top Division I prospect — and she ended up for one year at Green River Community College. She later played two seasons at Seattle University before transferring to the University of Washington, where she sat out a year and then played a final season for the Huskies.
She got her professional start outside of sports, but in 1996 she was named director of operations for the Seattle Reign of the American Basketball League, a forebear of the WNBA. The ABL lasted just two seasons and part of a third, but a few months later Bryant was hired by then Seattle SuperSonics owner Barry Ackerley to help bring a WNBA expansion team to Seattle. The effort was successful and the Storm began play in 2000 with Bryant as a Sonics senior vice-president overseeing the team, and later as the franchise’s chief operating officer.
When the Sonics left for Oklahoma City in 2008, the Storm was purchased by Force 10 Hoops LLC, a group of Seattle-area businesswomen. They immediately named Bryant president and CEO.
“She’s an incredibly passionate and thoughtful business leader,” Brummel said. “She’s somebody who cares deeply about women’s basketball and cares deeply about the city of Seattle, and she really had it in mind that she was going to make something of this asset known as the Seattle Storm.
“She deserves a tremendous amount of credit (for the team’s success). She’s out, she’s visible, she’s walking around talking to fans and talking to coaches, and she’s out among the people because she cares about them and she cares about what she does. She’s just an amazing ambassador for the organization.”
Bryant and Agler share ideas on team personnel decisions such as trades and draft picks, but on the business side it is Bryant’s show.
“She’s controlled this franchise, and everybody across the league and everybody in Seattle who’s familiar with the Storm knows it,” Agler said. “We’re sort of the benchmark of the league in a lot of ways and it’s all because of the influence Karen has on everybody.
“If you look at her full body of work with what the Storm has accomplished with championships, playoff appearances, sellouts, attendance, corporate sponsorships, All-Star players and the homecourt advantage that the Storm has enjoyed, all those things are basically because of the foundation Karen built. All the success the Storm has had on and off the floor is a credit to her hard work and effort.”
“Not many people could’ve done what KB has done,” Bird said. “To me, she and the Storm are synonymous.”
Still, the task remains challenging and sometimes frustrating. Team officials, and Bryant in particular, have continually tried to connect the Storm with the region’s mainstream sports fans and not just fans of women’s basketball. The results have been acceptable, but hardly overwhelming.
In the first 14 seasons, the team’s attendance average was between 6,000 and 9,000 a game, except in 2001 when the average was 5,594. A year ago, with Jackson and Bird sitting out the season with injuries, the Storm had crowds of 6,980, the second lowest average in franchise history.
Selling women’s basketball “is still really, really hard work,” Bryant acknowledged. “We accept that, we understand that, and we’re spending a lot of time and energy thinking about how to continue bringing new fans into the building. … I think we’re still too good of a secret in town and sometimes I find that a hard reality to believe, given how much effort we’ve put into it.
“And I think that brings me back to, it’s time for new ideas. To use a basketball analogy, it’s time for some fresh legs. I’ve put in a lot of miles and walked up a lot of really steep hills with a boulder on my back, and my legs are tired. (Having) fresh legs, new energy and new ideas is, I think, a really good thing for the franchise.”
As she counts down the days to her retirement, Bryant finds herself thinking of ways to remain active and fulfilled outside of basketball. She wants to take up the guitar. She is excited to learn more about the wine industry. And she is determined to lower a golf handicap that is around 23.
“My goal is to be a 15 (handicap) before the end of the year,” she said. “And if there’s anybody out there who wants to give me a retirement present of a golf membership, I love the game.
“I have many passions in life,” she went on, “and most of them have been shoved aside. So I’m excited about not having 60 or 70 hours a week that are already scheduled. Now, how can I fill up that time for the next few months, and with the only priority being enjoying it, learning new things, challenging myself in new ways and putting my family first?”
At some point Bryant expects to find another job because, she said, “I’m a natural-born leader and I’m sure at some point that I will run another organization, whether that’s in sports or not.” But in the meantime she vows to relax, to refresh, to reflect and, yes, to keep an eye on the Storm.
And those who know her best say she is unlikely to disappear, particularly on game nights.
As Brummel explained, “She truly loves the organization and the opportunity to be around it. She loves the Storm, she loves being in that arena, and I can’t image her not being there as a fan.”