In her fifth day on the job, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert made her first official appearance at a game Sunday in Southeast Washington. The trip down from New York was part of a busy afternoon that included meeting Washington Mystics season ticket holders, team owner Ted Leonsis and players from the Mystics and their opponent, the Atlanta Dream.
Engelbert, who came to the WNBA after serving as professional service firm Deloitte’s first female CEO at the culmination of a 33-year career in the corporate world, also made time for a 30-minute conversation with reporters. She discussed many topics, from what she believes should be the league’s role in issues of domestic violence — two players have been involved in cases this season — to negotiating the collective bargaining agreement, which expires Oct. 31 after players opted out.
Engelbert said CBA negotiations provide an opportunity to outline the league’s role in domestic violence cases more clearly. “We have an opportunity,” she said, “because we’re in collective bargaining negotiations now together with the players, to develop training, discipline, resources for the players and their families and make sure that we’re supporting them in those tough situations.”
While learning the ins and outs of the CBA and working with Terri Jackson — the executive director of the players’ union — are a focus for Engelbert, they’re not the most pressing issues in the early days of her tenure.
“We’ve got a league to run, and we’re in-season, and we’ve got a lot going on positively. We’ve got to think about sales and marketing in a different way and corporate sponsorships,” she said. “So I’m focused on [bargaining negotiations], but I’m focused on a lot of other things that are hopefully going to make the CBA a lot easier to think through.”
Engelbert’s background differs from those of her predecessors. Lisa Borders, who stepped down in October, had a politics and business background. Laurel Richie worked in marketing and corporate branding. Donna Orender and Val Ackerman honed their executive skills in other sports leagues.
Hiring someone with Engelbert’s corporate pedigree signaled a priority shift for the league. Last year, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the WNBA hasn’t been profitable in its 23 years of existence. (The NBA owns 50 percent of the league, and Engelbert reports to Silver.) It’s clear to Engelbert that she was hired to change that.
She said her priorities as commissioner are threefold, all designed with an eye on fostering financial growth: player experience, fan experience and attendance. Engelbert said every metric of the league’s growth — from social media interaction to merchandise sales — falls into those three categories.
“Any metric you drive off has to be measured off of fan engagement, fan experience, player experience and then, obviously, if we can get more capital investment into the game through corporate sponsorship or otherwise,” she said. “Then you can use that to grow the game. Whether that’s some of the issues we’re going to deal with in collective bargaining or whether it’s, really, how do you do sales and marketing at a time when everybody’s looking for a diversity and inclusion platform? Why isn’t the [WNBA] the D&I platform for a corporation to say you’re supporting women, you’re helping women to be successful?”
Engelbert said the biggest hurdle in terms of financial growth is increasing attendance. Totals across the league took a dip last season, down nearly 1,000 fans per game, but a major part of the decrease was tied to the New York Liberty moving from Madison Square Garden to a much smaller venue.
“You’ve got to attract the more digitally minded,” she said. “I look at today with my children who are digital natives — they’re not even millennials; they’re behind them. Would they want to go to a WNBA game? Do they have the awareness? Do they know how great the product on the court is? Do they want to support a platform like the [WNBA] offers? So we have to have a narrative and a platform. …
“A lot of things get fixed when you broaden the fan base, get more fans in the seats.”
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