After spending the last five years helping guide the league, she decided Wednesday that she would leave next week to pursue other opportunities that include being an advocate for girls and young women.
"I would say it was an amazing ride," Richie said in a phone interview Wednesday night.
Richie said the decision to go was hers and she wasn’t forced out.
"It feels like it’s time," she said. "I think really taking stock at what’s been accomplished in the last five seasons. I’m proud of the work that we were able to accomplish."
Richie had a discussion with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver this past week to inform him of her choice.
"I’m sorry she’s leaving. She did an excellent job over the last five years but there remains a lot of work to do," Silver said. "Obviously I made comments not so long ago about my disappointment, it was not about Laurel in anyway, but where the WNBA stands in its 19th year as we go into its 20th year."
Silver said about six weeks ago that he thought the WNBA "would have broken through by now."
"My comments were directed at my disappointment having been someone with Val Ackerman and Gary Stevenson who wrote the original business plan for the WNBA," he said Wednesday. "I thought we’d be further along, predicted we’d be further along. Sold to owners in the WNBA and NBA on premise that we’d be further along by now."
The NBA commissioner said it was Richie’s choice to leave.
"Being a commissioner myself, especially in a league where you’re battling every minute of every day for an audience for market share, it can wear you down," he said.
NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum will oversee the WNBA until a new president is hired. A search for the new league president will begin immediately.
"We will take however long it’s necessary to do a thorough process," Silver said. "The discussions with Laurel happened over a very quick period. It was unexpected. We don’t have a secret list in the drawer."
Richie took on the role with the league in May 2011, becoming the first African-American to lead a major sports league.
"I will let others speak to the legacy; that’s a pretty big word," she said.
Richie said that she was humbled by all the emails and texts she received after news of her departure was announced.
"It’s been very humbling today when the news came out," she said. "The number of emails I received from young women in the league office and across our teams and actually from our players as well, reaching out and saying thank you for your leadership and thank you for being a role model."
In her five seasons at the helm, Richie led initiatives to improve the visibility of the league’s players.
She helped ensure a measure of financial stability for the teams by completing an eight-year collective bargaining agreement with the players and extended a contract with ESPN through 2025.
The league closed out its 19th season with a stellar five-game WNBA Finals in which Minnesota beat Indiana in a series that had strong ratings.
"While I’m still in shock, I am thankful for what Laurel has done in her time with the WNBA," Fever star Tamika Catchings said. "Wish her nothing but luck in her future endeavors."
Despite its great playoffs, the WNBA had its lowest average attendance in league history during the regular season. Some of that was due to San Antonio moving arenas while its normal home court was being renovated and Tulsa announcing it was moving to Dallas in 2016.
Richie had to deal with a lot this past year, including star Brittney Griner being arrested for domestic violence and her brief marriage and divorce to All-Star Glory Johnson.
Diana Taurasi sat out the year after being paid by her Russian team to skip the WNBA season. Candace Parker missed the first half of the season to rest.
Richie also oversaw the purchase of the Los Angeles Sparks by Guggenheim Partners and Magic Johnson Enterprises in 2014.
"There have been a lot of things that happened on her watch and she did a great job guiding the league through them," Connecticut Sun President and CEO Mitchell Etess said. "Based on the position of the league now, it’s a much more desirable job than it has been previously. The league’s in a great place, better off than it was five years ago."