The WNBA just signed a lucrative television contract with CBS Sports, a major step forward for a league filled with talent but short on promotion and stability.
Cathy Engelbert is the first commissioner of the league but its fifth leader. The WNBA can’t seem to secure a longtime commissioner and Engelbert, the CEO of the Deloitte company, gets her shot after being named to the position on Wednesday.
The league is thriving with on-the-floor talent and it has endured through some lean years with a stable of 12 teams and increased interest.
But there are some issues Engelbert will inherit. The players are seeking a new collective bargaining agreement, and several have commented over the past few years about their lower salaries compared with NBA players and being forced to play overseas to supplement their income.
Several top players have either passed up on the WNBA season to concentrate on overseas teams or have been hurt playing internationally. The WNBA will be without reigning MVP Breanna Stewart because of a torn Achilles’ suffered while playing for her Russian team last month.
Also, former MVP Maya Moore is sitting out the season to concentrate on her goal of being a minister. And center Elizabeth Cambage demanded a trade out of Dallas to one of her preferred teams and threatened to sit out the season.
The WNBA needs its stars to stay healthy, play every season, and earn a comfortable wage. Engelbert’s primary responsibility will be to foster the growth of the league.
“I think there were a lot of issues that came up during the process, which I was hearing before this role, and that’s certainly one of them,” Engelbert said of the league’s pay scale. “There were other issues. I know the bargaining negotiations are going on. They’re certainly aware of the issues. I think an advantage of coming in during my transition; I will be listening to a lot of the players, the owners, the union. I did have the opportunity to meet with the union prior to the announcement. So, that obviously is one of them.
“There are other [issues] around player experience and, obviously, we all want to drive the league to greater heights financially, from a revenue perspective. Those are all the things that we’ll hit the ground running on.”
The WNBA and the league’s owners (mostly NBA owners) will come to an agreement. The league can’t afford a strike or lockout, but the players want more of the share of the overall wealth. The WNBA uniforms are littered with advertisements — with a small team logo — but the question is whether the players are truly enjoying some of the revenue of those advertising dollars.
“I’ll be engaging with both the players, the union, as well as with [NBA deputy commissioner] Mark [Tatum] and his team, where we are with those issues and continue to hopefully drive those forward,” said Engelbert. “He and I have talked several times about this particular issue and he’s assured me that I’m up to speed on the issues that the players want to see dealt with as well as, obviously, the league.”
WNBA players generally earn more money and enjoy more prestige playing overseas and many have lamented being appreciated and rewarded more outside of the United States. Stewart is one of the league’s superstars and led the Seattle Storm to the WNBA championship.
While a league MVP missing a season or part of the season because of an injury suffered in another league is unprecedented in the four major men’s sports, it’s commonplace in the WNBA.
“Obviously, injuries are part of the game, and whether she had it overseas or here at home, I don’t think it’s as important as unfortunately our women train and they train hard and they’re going to get hurt,” Engelbert said. “They obviously want to make money. They want it to be a career for them.
“And so I think it’s a very astute observation around that it is a different athlete. I know when I came out, there was no WNBA, and I would have loved to have played. Maybe I wouldn’t have been good enough.
“But I do think those are some of the things that hopefully I will bring a business lens. Everything is solved by putting more fans in the seats, having higher revenue, having a broader revenue base, trying to attract a fan experience — particularly against the young millennials and digital natives that might be different than the fan base today. And I think it’ll all kind of build on its own momentum because I think these are different athletes, but they’re fabulous world-class athletes that we need to make sure believe that they have the confidence that we’re going to build this into a higher-level, thriving business.
“I do have ideas, but I want to be respectful that I haven’t even started yet, so I’ll talk with them and the league management about this and will get into that as I get transitioned in.”
The good news for the league is that Engelbert has run a successful, thriving company. She has strong ideas about how to improve the business model. The WNBA is an exciting league worth the attention of the everyday basketball fan, and there needs to be strong, consistent, and dedicated leadership at the top to continue the growth.
“I had lots of questions about what are the aspirations for the players, the owners, the league, the management of the NBA and WNBA,” Engelbert said. “Really this is about a business model to drive a thriving growth model, so everything I was thinking about in the interview process leads to questions about how can I bring my business acumen, my business connections, my business networks into a league where, again, the quality of the basketball, the quality of the athletes is very elite, and let’s try a business model that supports that and also around broadening their brand, broadening the fan base.
“I’m very excited about the upside potential here to really bolster the visibility for the sport and drive a coolness factor, and again, a platform for these women so that their play is excellent and elite. And make sure they’re recognized for that in the general public and among the fan base, especially among younger Americans.”
At 7-6, Fall wants to buck the trend
Is there such a thing as too tall to play in the NBA? The answer often has been yes. Players who have exceeded 7 feet 3 inches have been essentially pushed out of the NBA because of their lack of speed, conditioning or inability to defend.
Central Florida center Tacko Fall is a mammoth 7-6, but he is athletic and nimble for his size. Fall is trying to prove he’s worthy of a chance — a draft pick or a training camp invitation by an NBA team. He’s at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, playing against some of the best prospects, showing that he is more than just a rim protector.
The spotlight shined brightly on Fall when he helped Central Florida nearly beat Duke in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Against one of the best teams in the country, Fall finished with 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots in 25 minutes in Central Florida’s 77-76 loss.
It was an audition of sorts because Fall was playing against the nation’s best competition — Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. He may not be the next Shaquille O’Neal, but Fall believes he can be a productive NBA player despite his height.
“I’m not going out there and doing anything out of character,” Fall said. “I’m staying true to myself, talking [on defense], playing hard, doing everything I need to do. I had to come here and play against this competition. With all the scouts out here and just showing what I can do.
“I’ve shown that I can move, that I can run the floor, that I’m in better shape. I’m just trying to compete at this level.”
Fall measured out at 7 feet 5¼ inches, 288 pounds with an 8-foot-2¼-inch wingspan. Physically, he can protect any rim. He would be a major defensive factor. But what about when he is pulled away from the basket?
Many traditional centers have been rendered obsolete because they can’t defend the pick-and-roll or stick with point guards on switches. So they don’t play. Fall has to prove he has the footspeed and agility to at least prevent guards from scoring at will.
“The things that I do well, NBA teams really need that, especially defensively,” Fall said. “My presence, how I can change the game on that side of the court. I can run the floor. I can move better than people think I can. Offensively, I have good hands, I am an easy target around the rim. The more I play, the more experience I get, the better I get.”
Fall realizes he carries a large presence. There is nowhere he can hide or have anonymity. When a 7-6 person enters a Walmart, McDonald’s or anywhere, people notice and stare. Fall, who moved to the United States from Senegal when he was 16, didn’t start playing the game until he nearly reached college.
But he said he’s become accustomed to the stares, to people asking his height or kids who raise their heads high to see his size with their mouths wide open.
“At some point you just get used to it,” he said. “That’s all I know. The more you experience something, you just get used to it. Obviously when it first happened, I was a little shy, but now I’m used to it. It’s fine with me. I’m really blessed to be in the position I am.”
Tough times for suspended Evans
The NBA suspended free agent guard Tyreke Evans, who last played for the Indiana Pacers, for two years for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Evans joins O.J. Mayo as current players who are under league suspension. There appears to be more questions than answers about Evans’s misdoings.
The league does not release the particular drug that got Evans banned, just the penalty. But for certain, Evans was in the league’s drug program because he was being tested for “drugs of abuse.” The suspension means he violated the terms of the program — he either tested positive again, refused treatment or otherwise was in noncompliance of the program.
The NBA or the Pacers are not allowed to reduce the suspension. The suddenness of the announcement is purposeful by the league. The NBA does not want media or teams to know that players are in the program. Evans, like Mayo before him, was already in the program and had already tested before the suspension.
In Section 10, Article A of the collective bargaining agreement, it says: “Any player who, after entering Stage 1 or Stage 2 of the Drugs of Abuse Program, fails to comply with his treatment or his aftercare program as prescribed and determined by the Medical Director, shall be suspended. Such suspension shall continue until the player has, in the professional judgment of the Medical Director, resumed full compliance with his treatment program.”
Mayo is eligible to apply for reinstatement but hasn’t. Evans will have to wait two years to apply and he will be 31 by then. It may be the end of his career.
“The Indiana Pacers were informed Friday by the NBA that Tyreke Evans has been dismissed from the league for a violation of the league’s anti-drug policy,” the team said in a statement. “We take these matters seriously and will reach out to Tyreke to offer our support.”
Evans was a free agent and had interest from several teams before the suspension.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird will be united once again as they will each receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the NBA Awards on June 24. Previous winners of the award are Celtics great Bill Russell and triple-double king Oscar Robertson. Johnson, who just resigned as president of the Lakers, and Bird, who remains with the Pacers as a consultant, will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of their NCAA championship clash between Michigan State and Indiana State, a game that revolutionized college basketball. The two competed against each other for the next 13 years, including three NBA Finals clashes . . . Harvard guard Bryce Aiken remains in the NBA Draft, although he was not invited to the draft combine, a sign that he probably needs to return to school. Aiken is continuing to work out for NBA teams and has until May 29 to make a decision about returning to Harvard . . . The Lakers’ naming of Frank Vogel as coach is curious move with Lakers faithful because of his mediocre reputation after stints with the Pacers and Orlando Magic. Vogel is a strong coach who led the Pacers to consecutive Eastern Conference finals. He took a three-year deal with the Lakers where most coaches, including new Cavaliers coach John Beilein, signed a five-year deal. Length of contract is why the Lakers moved on after being interested in Tyronn Lue. Vogel was looking to get back in the NBA after his firing from Orlando. He turned the Pacers into a workmanlike team led by Paul George that challenged the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference. Jason Kidd was named Vogel’s assistant in Los Angeles as a mandate from management. Most folks expect Kidd to eventually succeed Vogel as head coach. Kidd already has a reputation for power struggles with the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks . . . Beilein has been a target of the Cavaliers for several years but was actually approached by the Pistons last season before turning down the job. The Cavaliers job was intriguing because Beilein wanted the opportunity to build an NBA winner and he wanted to determine whether his coaching style can adjust to the professional ranks. That leaves the Memphis Grizzlies job as the lone open NBA position, and it seems the Grizzlies are going to take their time — unless their target is continuing to coach in the playoffs. One dark horse for the position is ex-NBA forward Jarron Collins, a Warriors assistant who interviewed for the position last month.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.