Jeanie Buss on WOW, Lakers Show Legacy and Jerry West in Winning Time – The Hollywood Reporter

Jeanie Buss on WOW, Lakers Show Legacy and Jerry West in Winning Time – The Hollywood Reporter

Jeanie Buss may be best known as controlling owner and CEO of the Los Angeles Lakers, but she is also the force behind Women Of Wrestling, the only all-female wrestling organization with a global TV footprint. Buss has been involved in the property for almost two decades, and on Sept. 17, WOW will relaunch in syndication via Paramount Global Content Distribution, marking the largest-ever distribution deal in the history of women’s wrestling.

The sports exec has had a particularly buzzy last six months on top of her wrestling and Lakers commitments, premiering Hulu docuseries Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers (of which she’s an executive producer) in August while also facing an onscreen portrayal of herself and her family in HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. Ahead of WOW’s return, Buss spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about her commitment to women’s sports, the handling of Kobe Bryant‘s story in Legacy and thoughts on Jerry West’s Winning Time depiction.

Why did you want to bring Women Of Wrestling back with this new, larger platform?

When I was growing up, the passage of Title IX really changed my life. When I was in high school, one day they told me, “You’re on the girls golf team” and I said, “I’ve never played golf in my life, why am I on the team?” And they said, “Well, because of Title IX, we can’t have a boys team unless we have a girls team, and we’ll teach you.” So because of that, I got an opportunity that I never would have taken, I never even would have thought of, and learned how to play a game that I’ll play the rest of my life. So I knew that in my position, being a high-profile woman in sports, that people would look to me and say, “How are you investing in women’s sports?” There are so many great collegiate athletes that participate in sports because of Title IX. It’s great for them because they earn a scholarship and get to play, but once their eligibility expires, what do they get to do unless you’re going in the WNBA or a professional tennis player or an ice skater or something? There’s not a lot of places for women to go and participate in sports in front of their hometown.

Being a business woman on the sports side had to be something that I would invest in that would be sustainable — that would be something that if we built would outlast me; it would be giving back something that could reward women in wrestling forever. Wrestling was the right platform to give these women an opportunity to shine and be center stage. Certainly women have been featured in wrestling before, but WOW is the only all female-wrestling [organization]. Usually women would be given the undercard match or the side show, never center stage, so that’s why I thought this was the right property for me to get involved in, and invest my own personal money. This isn’t Laker money, this is my money.

Are there any big changes coming with new launch?

It’s character driven. What I like to point out is how diverse our cast is, that every young woman will be able to see herself in our characters and performers. So I think that as time has evolved, and we’re trying to expand diversity and inclusion, that’s what you’ll see in our wrestling.

What does this distribution deal with Paramount Global mean to women’s wrestling and the access that’s being provided?

Having CBS Paramount as our partner, they see the value in women’s sports, they are willing to become partners in what our vision is. They’ve given us a stage that’s larger than anything that women’s wrestling has ever had in the past. The idea that they’re stepping up and supporting what we’re trying to build, it’s been a great partnership. Everyone from all the markets that we’ll be airing in has really embraced our vision [of] what our women stand for and they also want to have a lot of fun and be entertained. It kind of hits all the marks of what we’re trying to do in this business.

How have you seen women’s wrestling change throughout the time you’ve been involved?

I’m a person that when I went to see the wonder woman movie, when it came out a few years ago, I cried during the opening credits because that was always my dream — why can’t there be more, why isn’t there a woman superhero that could launch a movie? That movie obviously was a huge success and led to sequels, and we’re just seeing this timeframe where women now can hold center stage: they can open a movie, they can carry the US Open like Serena Williams did to huge ratings. Now is a great time for women in sports.

WOW creator David McLane was also the founder of Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling — did you see any increase in interest around women’s wrestling from the Netflix show GLOW?

Certainly the GLOW scripted series added more credibility for people who weren’t around in the ’80s; now the GLOW scripted series introduced them to what Women Of Wrestling is about. I think they captured a lot of the hopes and dreams of women who want to be performers, and there’s just no outlet, there’s not a lot of opportunities for women to shine and be centerstage. And that’s what WOW is providing, opportunities for women.

Women of Wrestling

Courtesy of WOW Television Enterprises, LLC

How does your work with WOW compare to your operation of the Lakers?

It’s very different, certainly I’m not working on WOW day-to-day. I’m the investor, it’s my personal funds, I’m a fan of WOW, but it’s not my day job. My day job is with the Lakers and that’s where I am day-to-day. They’re very similar, but they’re very different, meaning that we’re dealing with larger-than-life personalities in both; we have to deal with the day-to-day reality that they’re athletes, and with athletes comes injuries. You hope for health and well-being, and you do your best in training but sometimes it’s inevitable. You have to figure out how to solve the problems that an injury might bring up, so they’re very similar, but different. And I enjoy both of them.

What are the challenges of operating women’s sports compared to men’s?

People ask me, “What do women’s sports need in order to grow?” They need people like me who are willing to invest their personal funds and their passion into creating opportunities for women. And the more opportunities that come, the more the growth will be. This is my small contribution to women’s sports. I had the great fortune of being mentored and a friend for a lifetime in Billie Jean King. She was such an influence on me from the time when I was 11; I watched Billie Jean King play Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes,” and it just blew my mind because until that time, I never saw a girl get to play a boy’s game or be in the game with the boys. It just opened up a whole realm of possibility of, why ever be short-sighted of what’s possible for you as a woman? I hope that I can inspire the next person like me by doing what I’m doing and being outspoken about it, and trying to be a leader and a role model in this area.

Speaking of the Lakers, you have this Hulu series Legacy that’s rolling out now — with all of the Lakers content coming out right now, why was that the one your family wanted to be a part of?

It’s coming up on 10 years since my father Dr. Jerry Buss passed away. Over the years, since he’s been gone, I’ve reminded people of all the great things that he did — the innovations that he brought to the NBA, like the Laker girls, and really marrying sports and entertainment in one game. We decided that it would be time to tell that story from the people who lived it. It was a seven-year process of putting it all together, but once we signed the director, Antoine Fuqua — who is so well respected in his industry and such a great storyteller — that’s when we really hit our stride. I’m very proud of the final product. It’s very revealing behind the scenes, but it’s really not the entire Laker story. It’s from when Jerry Buss bought the team in 1979 and how the Lakers and culture really reflected each other in terms of what was going on in the world. It’s almost like a history lesson for what was going on in Los Angeles, what was going on in the nation.

How did you want to handle Kobe Bryant’s life and legacy in the show?

It’s still painful, it’s going to be painful for a long time. We’ve talked about all the ups and downs of being a Laker fan; there has been some amazing highs and some heartbreaking lows, like when Magic Johnson had to retire because of the HIV virus. Certainly, we miss Kobe every day, we miss [his daughter] Gianna every day; I wear my bracelet to think about them and what Kobe left for the Lakers. He really set a standard for Laker excellence and I feel, personally, that we will continue and operate at the level that he brought us to.

Was his family involved in the show at all?

Those conversations are private so I really don’t want to share that. But we’re very, very, very much supportive of the Bryant family.

What do you think of this six-month span when there’s been multiple Lakers projects coming out at once? (On top of Winning TimeJohnson also released Apple docuseries They Call Me Magic in April.)

It does seem like a lot. We are not involved in the HBO scripted series. I have watched it — I don’t recommend people watch it or I don’t tell people not to watch it; everybody’s grown up, they can make their choice. They got a lot of stuff right and they got a lot of stuff wrong. I thought John C. Reilly did a good job playing my dad and in capturing that enthusiasm that he had for the sports; some of the other stuff, not so much. When you’re a high-profile organization, those are the things that happen, people want to talk about you. That’s a good thing when people want to talk about the Lakers.

Hadley Robinson as Jeanie Buss in ‘Winning Time’

Courtesy of Warrick Page/HBO

What did you think about your portrayal in the show? It seemed pretty positive to me.

Yeah, until it’s not. As much as they portrayed my character as having a lot of the input into the Laker girls and things like that, that’s not the case. But I was there, right at the beginning and I was just there as my dad’s right-hand man, whatever he needed to do he was happy to turn it over and say, “Go get donuts,” “Go to Russia and try to get some events to come back to the Forum.” Whatever he needed me to do is what I wanted to do, and those were some great times in my life.

jerry west hasn’t been particularly happy with the show, what do you kind of think about his portrayal?

Jerry’s a very, very successful man, both on and off the court, and he was over the top. That was not the Jerry West that I remember growing up with.

Were there specific things you didn’t like? Did you feel like it was particularly damaging?

I don’t think a scripted show could ever damage the brand. If that was the case, there would be serious repercussions legally, if they were out to try to destroy the brand. We’re operating a business in real life, not in the scripted world.

Is there a Lakers scripted show you would ever want to do?

We do have an agreement with Mindy Kaling and her production company. So we are in development of a scripted comedy, kind of based on a family that owns a basketball team.

We’re a few weeks out from the return of the NBA season, how are you feeling about getting back into it and where the Lakers are right now?

This is the time of year everyone’s optimistic. We made a big change in hiring a new coach, Darvin Ham, who brings that work ethic that Laker fans really expect. I’m optimistic, but certainly injuries are what you can’t control, so we try to control everything that we can and set ourselves up for the best possible success. But everything else has to kind of go our way as well.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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