This is a good time for women’s sports. They’re being played at a higher level than ever before, excellence most recently exemplified by the US women’s soccer team’s successful World Cup defense. They’re being talked about as much as ever, too, considering that team’s public fight for pay equity spawned a national conversation complete with unrivaled support and utter contempt. The current landscape just feels different, set against a backdrop of #MeToo awakenings that keep this dialogue fresh and ongoing.
All of which makes it so easy to cast these recent years of progress as something new. But that does a disservice to the breakthrough moments that preceded them.
Enter the WNBA. It’s been here for decades.
The longstanding league is the premier professional outlet for female athletes in the US, but as it approaches the All-Star break of its 23rd season, there is a distinct aura of evolution, a brand reset of sorts best reflected in new commissioner Cathy Engelbert. Hired May 15, the former CEO of Deloitte officially began her tenure Wednesday, ready to usher in a new era of a league that has yet to turn a profit, but that Engelbert is confident can work to engage new fan bases, employ new corporate sponsorships, and ultimately, maintain their position as a leader in opportunity, platform, entertainment and brand loyalty.
The road won’t be smooth, not with a players union that has already channeled some of the salary dissatisfaction of its soccer and women’s ice hockey counterparts and announced it will opt out of the current CBA at season’s end, not as the ugly side of pro sports problems seeps in as well, with players serving and facing suspension for domestic violence arrests. But Engelbert, the 54-year-old former basketball/lacrosse player at Lehigh (where she played hoops under future Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw), the woman well trained by fighting for space among her five brothers, the mother well versed in managing the schedules of her two similarly athletically-involved children, is ready.
I spoke with Engelbert Thursday morning.
Q: As the league’s first-ever commissioner (her predecessors all carried the title ‘president’), what is your vision going forward?
A: “I think as I was thinking about the next step in my professional journey I was looking for something to do with a women’s leadership platform and something I had a passion for. As I’ve gotten to know the WNBA from the inside, it’s a progressive league, it stands for the power of women. When you see how great the level of play is, we really need to enhance the brand of these incredible, elite women athletes. I’m excited to take on this very diverse league, with players who are culturally aware, socially conscious, and role models in the community where they live in play. I’m really excited to have this great women’s leadership platform.”
Q: How can you assure the WNBA continues to position itself as a leader in women’s sports?
A: “First, I think the WNBA has been ahead of its time, the only major women’s professional sports league around for over two decades, in its 23rd season, and I do think it’s a major league, which is one of the reasons I have the commissioner title, the same status as the heads of other leagues. I do think the WNBA has an opportunity to step up with a strong voice on lots of different issues. These women already do. It’s really about driving the league to the next level, making sure it gets the recognition it deserves as the only major women’s professional sports league with a tenure like it has. It’s such a great time as you look at the level of play, the draft, lots of veterans who are making significant contributions, a lot of parity in the league. It’s really a good time. But there are things we will be working on, our vision, the player experience, fan experience, financial issues, corporate sponsorships, or more broadly, the business model for a really sustainable league.
“We need a more diverse fan base, more millennials, digital natives. I come from a place at Deloitte where we had 100,000 employees, 75 percent of which was millennial. I have a good feel for how to engage them, the generation coming out of college.”
Q: NBA commissioner Adam Silver was honest in a recent assessment of the league not being as far along as he envisioned when it began. Are you at all surprised by that or is it as much a reflection on how hard it is to build a league?
A: “I think it was an honest assessment for sure, and it didn’t take me by surprise. I’ve been an observer from the outside of the WNBA and other sports, and obviously, in the league, we have goals. We want the league to be as successful as possible. We want it to be the leading force, we have great players, incredible depth throughout the league. This should be that hard, but I realize the honest assessment is hard. That’s why we’re now signaling to the broadest possible audience, we’re here and women’s empowerment is something everyone should be supporting, especially as we embark on corporate sponsorships and ways of elevating the coolness factor.”
Q: Sometimes it’s easy to dissect what’s wrong with the status quo than appreciate what’s right, so what gives you the best hope of the future going right?
A: “I think as it relates to the issues, the whole ecosystem, the owners, the players’ association, the league, the teams, the fans, the coaches, we all have the same goal here, so my job in uniting the league is to bring us together and work toward the relevance of this league, the way it’s perceived. Obviously there are issues and it’s really important for me to go out, listen to the ecosystems, with big focus on how to engage a new audience, set the economics right for 12 franchises and believe that momentum will take over. That’s my job to make sure we’re bringing this system together.”
Q: As one issue of curiosity, is playing the season in the summer still the best way to go, as it sets the stage for players to play internationally in the winter, leaving them unavailable to market themselves at home?
A: “Those are questions that should be asked, and I have asked them, and as you look at arena availability, player preference, teams, owners, the summer season seems to be the right time. Obviously, not having it during the NBA season, having our own season, own voice, own ability to make a mark and not be a sub-line to the NBA or college basketball or D-league. There are lots of opportunities for families and teams and AAU teams during the summer to attend games. It’s a good question to ask, but one for now we’re good. Having had two kids who played sports, summer is only time where you can sit back and attend games.”
Q: What do you feel is the impact of seeing current and former WNBA players working on TV for both men’s and women’s basketball games, former players joining NBA coaching staffs?
A: “That’s great, we’re preparing future leaders in sports, male or female. We’re preparing them, giving them a training ground. I’m a big believer in sports driving women’s leadership abilities. Again, having grown up in a male-dominated world, to have role models like that who are kind of shattering the glass ceiling and doing things women generally women haven’t been drafted to do, it’s inspiring other women and girls — men and boys, too — to set goals and reach those goals, diversify their capabilities. Women have to raise their hands and take on stretch roles and build their cap more broadly. That’s how you get opportunity.”