The WNBA commissioner speaks to Boardroom about how she plans to grow the league — from player compensation to expansion — and about Brittney Griner’s detainment.
Sitting at her desk on a recent Monday, next to two Wilson WNBA basketballs and a framed No. 12 Lehigh basketball jersey from her college days, Cathy Engelbert pointed out that it was her three-year anniversary as the W’s commissioner. In her time with the league, following a distinguished career at Deloitte, the WNBA has certainly made strides, fueling high expectations and pressure that these advancements can snowball.
Boardroom spoke with Engelbert about her tenure in charge and hot-button issues like Brittney Griner’s detainment, All-Star weekend in Chicago, and one city she can’t imagine not getting an expansion team.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Shlomo Sprung: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned thus far in your tenure as commissioner?
Cathy Engelbert: There’s obviously a lot of positive momentum surrounding the W and in women’s sports right now. We’re seeing increased viewership, fan engagement, exciting games. The quality of the game is so amazing, and we have a huge changing of the guard right now with the younger generation of players really playing at a such a high level. And then our veterans and legends like Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles, who have announced their retirements after the season. We just had a great All-Star and [are heading toward the] Commissioner’s Cup. So what I’ve learned is keep at it.
Certainly, fan engagement is an important component of our strategy, and finding new ways to get digitally native fans — the younger fans — watching and attending our games. And marketing is such an important part of elevating these players, and really having the ability to have the right narrative around not just the WNBA but women’s sports and how companies are stepping up to support. They’re putting their money where their mouth is at AT&T, Google, Deloitte, and Nike. And now we just signed U.S. Bank. So we gotta keep at it with women’s sports. It’s like pushing a boulder up a hill, Shlomo, but it’s worth it. And now we’re seeing the returns.
SS: In the offseason, the WNBA raised a significant amount of money. What are your visions for how that infusion of cash can help propel the league to the next level?
CE: Great question. Because first, it’s a huge vote of confidence that we were able to go to outside investors who have a lot of confidence in the league, in women’s sports, and raise this money. And I came in from a long career, 33 years in business, where I always had this access to capital to deploy and invest in, whether it was a next-generation technology or whatever. Then I came into the WNBA and we did not have that. So it was really important to get this done. Certainly, we can do some more things now, like transforming the economics of the league including our digital footprint, which totally needs to be transformed.
We’re trying to step back and say if we want to bring more fans in, we have to simplify the fan experience. We have to make it more innovative. We’ve got to show them where to watch, how to rep. We’ve gotta get them into arenas because once they come in, they love the product on the court. So we’re going to be doing a lot with that capital around the fan experience.
And certainly globalizing the game is another area. We have not been very global as a league. I admire what the NBA has done around their own version of Global Games. We need our version of that.
We’re in our second season of our Commissioner’s Cup championship. Last year it was Seattle-Connecticut, and that rivalry has carried over into this season. And giving enhanced player pay more opportunities with our $500,000 Commissioner Cup prize pool is also important.
So there’s a bit of a laundry list, as you can see, but I had a lot of things on my list when we raised this capital. We’re off to a good start in deploying it.
SS: You mentioned your career in business. Why do you feel taking on this role as commissioner has been the right choice for you?
CE: A lot of people ask, ‘you went from 100,000 people at Deloitte to 144 players at the WNBA.’ But what people have hopefully come to learn about me is one, I’m very competitive. I grew up one of eight kids. I had five brothers. I played college basketball for Naismith Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw, who went on to great success at Notre Dame, but I played for her at Lehigh. Actually, my dad was drafted into the NBA in 1957 by the Detroit Pistons. So I have a little bit of that basketball DNA in me.
I love the game, love the WNBA. After 33 years in business, I was looking for something different, something with a broad women’s leadership platform, and something I had a passion for. This job checked all three. But I didn’t even realize how significant the social justice platforms of these players were and how diverse they are and how they’re moms and entrepreneurs. It turned out to be a good fit, while never realizing what we’d hit in 2020 into even today. But something we’re proud of is the growth that we’ve been experiencing.
SS: A huge topic of conversation this season obviously surrounds Brittney Griner and her detention. How is the league working with the Mercury, its players, and external partners to respond to such an extremely difficult situation?
CE:It’s not only difficult but extremely complex. So I’ve dealt with a lot of complex situations in my career, and this is obviously legally complex in Russia given their court system, diplomatically very complex given the invasion in Ukraine, and we’re working with the State Department and national security advisors. The special presidential envoy of hostage affairs is someone I talk to personally from time to time to get updates and work through her wrongful detainment first and now to get her home safely and as quickly as possible.
And certainly we’re working with the Mercury on what we’ve been doing all season with BG 42 on the courts and with her Heart and Soul Shoe Drive, which was her carrying on her community actions. And then just knowing who BG is at our All-Star Game, having every player come out with a BG 42 jersey and a variety of other activations. And [her wife] Cherelle was there to watch the action, which was great.
We want to represent how important she is to this league and that she’s not forgotten. And I don’t know if you saw in her court appearance last week. She held up a photo of the players all in her jersey coming out at halftime from the All-Star Game that we just had in Chicago. So we’re thinking of her, we’re working with the government, the State Department, her agent, the team, and everybody. It’s all hands on deck in getting her home safely and as soon as possible. But it’s extremely complex.
SS: You mentioned successes during All-Star weekend, but there was some amount of criticism from fans and players. What are your hopes for next year’s event and what might we expect to see in future iterations of the game and the weekend?
CE: Obviously, we take all fan feedback seriously and we hope to improve next year, but ultimately this was the first year we ever had any kind of festival. We called it WNBA Live and if you were there, it went great. That was open to fans. There were a couple things that were not open to fans because of space constraints or availability of the arena and things like that.
We’ve learned a lot of lessons coming out of this year, but anybody that was there had a great experience at WNBA Live during the day. And then the game could not have produced a better outcome with Sylvia hitting the first three and her dunk and Sue Bird and the send-off and again, the changing of the guard to the new generation of players like Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, and others. So, I’m really proud of what we put on, but we take all that feedback seriously.
SS: During All-Star weekend, you confirmed some upcoming changes, including an expanded schedule, updated flight policies, and greater bonuses. How did these particular initiatives go to the top of the priority list, and how do you envision their place in the future evolution of the W?
CE: Whenever you’re in a business transformation, you want to start chipping away at some things that we know are affecting either the player experience or the fan experience. So one of those things obviously is travel. We’re starting to feel confident that we’ve had new sponsors and partners step up, and we really need to be considered a very legitimate sports, media, and entertainment property. And that’s a lot of what I’m working on around the transformation, because when I came in, we were not considered that. Now we’re chipping away and being considered that after our All-Star viewership was up 53%, our draft was the most viewed draft since 2004, the year Diana Taurasi was drafted.
There’s a lot of things we’re doing to try to drive change. We’ll start chipping away at some things. We announced charter travel during our WNBA Finals for the two teams that make it, and we announced a huge increase in the playoff bonus pool again. So we’re finding ways where we can make significant change, we can pay the players more, and give them a better experience to the extent where we want to be financially sound in those decisions. So we can’t just do things that are going to jeopardize the health of the league, but we want to start chipping away at that, as we feel confident as companies are stepping up to support the W and help us transform the economic model.
SS: If you could only improve the league in one way over the next 12 to 18 months, what improvement would you prioritize?
CE: The number one thing that needs to be transformed in women’s sports is the ecosystem around it. And the valuation of women’s sports, whether it’s a patch on the uniform, a placement on the court, a media rights fee, those are all hugely undervalued. I wrote an op-ed on this after the NCAA weight room controversy about it being just a microcosm of the broader issue in society of the undervaluation of women in the workforce. The WNBA is no different than that. We are women in the workforce. These players are. This is their craft. They’re the best at it in the world, and they get hugely undervalued by society and primarily corporations.
As you look at the statistics that are out there, less than 1% of all corporate sponsorship dollars go towards women’s sports, and less than 5% of all media coverage of sports is women’s sports. So when 40% of the athletes in this country are women and 80% of every consumer purchasing decision is made or influenced by a woman, companies are starting to see that they all have an enormous diversity, equity, and inclusion platform.
So as I think about the number one thing, my goal is probably going take more than 12 to 18 months, but the next two to three years is totally about upending that valuation model. Compared to some of the major men’s sports like MLS and NHL, their valuations are 5-15 times ours yet our viewership, our social justice platform, and the diversity of our league should count for a lot in those models that today do not get taken into consideration. So that’s the number one thing, other than getting Brittney home safely. That’s my number one business priority.
SS: Where are we in terms of expansion and what are you looking for in an expansion city?
CE: Good question. As I looked at the league when I came in with 12 teams, obviously it’s an economic model that needed to be transformed. How do you grow? You grow globally, you grow your digital footprint, you bring in more fans, younger fans, and you grow the number of teams because the more markets you’re in, the more eyeballs you’ll have on the game. So being only in 12 cities as the only major women’s professional league ever to reach 25 years, we need to expand.
Not to have teams in certain cities in this country that are vibrant and would be great markets for a WNBA team. I have not been shy about saying we need to expand, but we want to do it through when we can find the right ownership groups with the right arena situation in the right cities that we think will be supportive. We didn’t want to bring in new owners in 2019, and certainly not in 2020 and 2021 when we were still feeling the effects of the pandemic. But now it’s the time to start thinking about when and how many. And in the next couple of years, I think you’ll see us expand by a couple of teams.
SS: Are there venues and investors who have attracted you?
CE: Well, there’s a lot that have contacted the league, which is great news because we’ve been out there talking about it. I could rattle off 10 to 15 cities that have been interested in us. When I came into the league — coming from Deloitte, which had offices in 100 cities in the U.S. — that when technology is driving so much of your economy, not to have a team in the Bay Area seemed like a missed opportunity, especially with Stanford’s women’s basketball program having been so successful. So it kind of struck me that would be a market that would be of interest.
There’s many others like Austin, Philly, Denver, Toronto, Nashville, Charlotte, Florida, Houston, Sacramento, Portland. There’s a ton of cities that have shown interest. Now we have to find the right ownership groups to step up with the right kind of capital investment. And we wanted to make sure that we could help make them successful. That’s why coming off of two tough years of COVID— and remember last year, people forget that up to our Olympic break, most of our cities weren’t allowing fans, and then coming off the break into our finals, we started to see fans return in a big way— we want to make sure we’re setting these new owners up for success.
SS: What about cities in states where reproductive rights may be limited?
CE: Again, we’re looking at all the factors. We have run an analysis of data on over 100 cities through 25 different metrics, psychographics, demographics. So I think some of that stuff would be picked up in the psychographic analysis of the diversity of the workforce there, the diversity of the population, the LGBTQ+ community, certainly NCAA viewership, current WNBA fandom. So we’ve run these 100 cities through 25 different metrics. And certainly you’ll see as we start to think about where the best places will be, I think they will be in states that hopefully support reproductive rights. And obviously we put out our statement with the NBA and have put out additional statements that support reproductive rights.
SS: What are your hopes for the next generation of WNBA players?
CE: My hope is that we get this big media deal in a few years and that the next generation gets paid a lot more, has a better travel experience, and that it feels confident while in our league. With how progressive our 2020 CBA is, we’ve set the stage for that next generation to thrive again as these professional working women where basketball happens to be their craft. So that’s my hope, that we’re able to improve on all of those things multidimensionally and make sure that we’re setting them up for a lot of success no matter how long they play basketball and in their post-basketball lives.
One of the reasons I took the job was to set them up for success, knowing that they could be between 30 and 40 and they’d have 20 more years to be at work. And what are they going to do after their playing career? Because their bodies will obviously only hold up for so long. That’s my hope for the next generation of stars, and we have plenty of them either in the league or coming in from the NCAA ranks or overseas in the next few years. So I’m excited for that.