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Momentous disruptions—and some impressive wins—have marked the tenure of WNBA commissioner of Cathy Engelbert, who In 2019 left her CEO post at Deloitte to take over the league. Engelbert negotiated a collective contract bargaining arrangement with WNBA player that led to notable benefit and salary gains in 2020. The league restarted its season later that year in a Bradenton, Florida bubble, dubbed the “Wubble,” that became a nerve center of social activism in the wake of the killing of Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake.
But the league thrived despite all of this turmoil. 2021 ESPN viewership rose 49% in comparison to one year ago and increased 24% over 2019. Google was a sponsor. The league inked a multi-year deal with Amazon Prime Video to become the first women’s pro sports league streamed on the service. On WNBAStore.com, the league’s regular-season merchandise sales jumped 50% over the prior year, a record growth.
It was a moment of great anticipation when the tip-off ceremony for 2022 took place. But it’s been overshadowed by trepidation. In February Brittney Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star with the Phoenix Mercury—and a two-time Olympic gold medalist—was arrested at a Moscow-area airport, for allegedly carrying cannabis oil. Griner remains in the United States, where she plays for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg. In early May, the U.S. government classified Griner as “wrongfully detained.” On May 13, Griner’s lawyer said her pre-trial detention had been extended by a month.
Four days following publication of the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion, which was deemed invalid by it, opening night came on May 6. Roe V. Wade, a decision that rankled many players—and the league. “The WNBA believes all women have the right to autonomy over their bodies and fair and equal access to health care,” the WNBA said in a statement.
Engelbert, the first female CEO of one of the Big Four accounting firms—and a former college basketball and lacrosse player—spoke to TIME about the Griner situation, Roe V. Wade, and why women’s sports are so undervalued.
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The following interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
What can you share on Brittney Griner’s status?
It’s an absolutely unimaginable situation for for BG. We are thinking of her. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not working on this in some way. It was a really positive development for her case to be transferred into the part of the State Department that’s called the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. When you get this designation of being detained, not under the best conditions, they’ve shown success at getting people out. There is a legal process that she can follow. We don’t have a lot of diplomatic options here.
We want to acknowledge her importance to the league, which is why Phoenix led, for all 12 of our teams, a philanthropic effort around BG’s Heart and Sole shoe drive. The support we’ve gotten has been been extraordinary.
Some people have suggested that Brittney’s team and the WNBA should have been more vocal in demanding her release. Did you receive guidance from Brittney’s team or from the government in order to maintain a low profile?
If you talk to any expert around this type of matter, we’re following their guidance to a tee. We’ve met with a variety of government officials, and that’s the guidance they were giving us. Now it’s shifted a little bit with this positive development of her case being transferred. That’s why you’re seeing us and teams and players out there a little bit more. We’re not experts on this. We’re running a sports league.
Brittney, have you ever gotten in touch? Are you able to speak with Brittney?
You’re able to get messages to her. I’m sure they get scanned and reviewed and things like that. But you’re able to get a message of support to her. That has been discussed by the players. It’s not like she texts you back or anything. That’s not happening.
Griner’s agent, Linsday Kagawa Colas, wrote a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times: a headline for the piece read “Pay inequality led Brittney Griner to Russia. We must fix it.”Are you in agreement? Why?
To transfer an economic model and to address that problem, I arrived. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. This is hard work and it’s huge transformation. We tripled the salary of the top players of the WNBA in our collective bargaining agreement, which I was part in when I first came in. Now, players are able to make $650,000 by taking advantage of bonuses. For four-and-a-half months of work, that isn’t bad. I wish my daughter who graduated from college four years ago would have that opportunity, but she doesn’t, right? We’re making enormous progress.
We’re being compared to men’s leagues. The ecosystem must rally behind us around media rights, corporate sponsorship, and other issues. We’re seeing players make a lot more money. There’s a swath of the players that are always going to go play year round.
Remember, we’re only 25 years in. Over 100 years ago, the NFL was founded. Celebrating 75 years, the NBA celebrates. The NBA Finals were tape delayed forty years ago. They’ve come a long way with big media deals and big salaries. Please give us time. I know it’s not fast enough for everybody. But we’re working hard on it.
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After another important piece of news, the WNBA tipped off: The leaked Supreme Court draft opinion which overturns Roe V. Wade. The WNBA markets itself as a “a bold progressive basketball league that stands for the power of women.” Given this, what’s your reaction to the draft opinion?
It’s extremely concerning. We believe in women’s health care, women’s access, women’s rights. There are many areas where we have already been divided. We certainly didn’t need to add this one. We’re focused on our season but watching it very closely. We’re doing a unified theme this year around all of our 61 Commissioner Cup games, our special in-season competition, around civic engagement and voting rights. Because elections have consequences. See what happened.
How can this be?
[Roe v. Wade] has been the crux of supporting and advocating for women’s personal decisions regarding their health since I was a kid. It’s ironic that we’re celebrating the 50 years of Title IX and at the same time RoeI am being challenged. I was one those Title IX students. I had the opportunity to be a part of Title IX, which gave me that chance. As a women’s sports league, we’ll continue to lead and the players will continue to fight. We really need to be focused on who’s getting elected in these state and local legislatures. Sports can help bring people together. However, we must also be educators.
Which of these positive metrics has the WNBA seen going into this season?
People are realizing that women’s professional sports are working women in the workforce. They need our support in a greater way. There’s been a huge underinvestment and undervaluation of women in the workforce, and in women’s sports. It was a league that I found to be under-covered. You hear about, less than 1% of all corporate sponsorship dollars that go to sports, go to women’s sports. And in fact, a lot of that goes to individual women’s sports, not team sports.
I’m seeing a transformation before my eyes. We’re starting to be seen as a bold progressive, sports media and entertainment property. We are a symbol of diversity, and we stand up for women’s rights and social justice. All companies want to leave a mark on diversity, inclusion, equity, and inclusivity. These big projects are all within their companies. Now’s the time to use women’s sports as as part of supporting that diversity and equity and inclusion.
Is it possible that the undervaluation of the stock market has continued for many years?
First, the big corporations are run by men. Second, they’re using metrics that don’t give any quantitative value to things like diversity, equity and inclusion. These metrics include how active these people are within their local communities. When we launched our Social Justice Council, it wasn’t one and done. Each year they continue to do it. All of this is not included in a spreadsheet. It’s just eyes on the game. But if less than 5% of all media coverage goes to women’s sports, it’s a circular argument to say we don’t have enough eyes on the game. You’re not showing us. We’ll have 160 games on national platforms this year, highest in our history. When we get covered, we deliver.
We had external advisors provide an analysis that showed our viewing habits are comparable to those of the NHL, NASCAR, and MLS. This was part of our capital raising. But their media rights fees cost five-to-15x ours. Is it possible to remove that bias from the valuation model? That part’s crazy to me. I’m not going to rest till I fix that.
In February the WNBA reported a $75 Million capital raise. What’s the purpose of this money? What’s the priority for this infusion?
You can find many different areas. What are the best ways to get merchandise? Because fans complain they can’t get our merch, even though it’s out there. We haven’t been good at communicating. So [on the tech front] we’re hiring WordPress engineers and things like that to make sure what we’re transforming that. That’s going to take a year or two.
Marketing is the other aspect. We’re going to pay over $1 million dollars in marketing money to players this year to market the league in the offseason. And finding other ways, like our special competition, the Commissioner’s Cup, and putting up a half-million dollar prize pool that, quite frankly, this capital gives us the confidence to continue to do. Gaming, betting on sports, and NFTs. Get involved in youth activities. Globalize the game—we have not done a good job of globalizing our game, and we need to do that.
I have to get to the the agencies that advise media companies on rights, because there’s this whole ecosystem out there that we have to break, the traditional spreadsheet model on how they value us. So we’re going to spend some money there as well. That’s probably going to be the most impactful longer term, if we can if we can get that disrupted. We have data that shows we have around 30 million fans who interact in any one year with WNBA-related content. It’s my goal to increase that number to 100 million. And I think that’s definitely achievable.
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How soon do you think that’s doable?
In a couple of years. We grow our fan base the more exposure we have. We bring them back once we have brought them in. We’re proud of what we’ve been able to do so far. But we’ve got a lot of hard work to do.
What are the league’s expansion plans?
The expansion is on our minds. We’re doing a huge analysis of it and we have lots of cities that are interested. We don’t want to bring new owners— whether it’s two or four or one— and not have them the set up for success. We’re doing all the data analysis for a 100 cities, through a lens of all the demographics and psychographics and arenas and Fortune 500 companies based there, the NCAA viewership, the current WNBA fandom in that city.
In a country of our size and scale, with an increasingly diverse population, and the most diverse league is in only 12 cities, that’s not enough. By mid to late summer, I’ll have more to say on where we’re trending.
Since you’ve done some analysis, I just can’t help but wonder if there’s an early standout, or a dream city where you’d like a WNBA team to land?
I don’t have a bias right now. We’re talking to a fair amount of cities. I will say, think about the cities where we’re not and where we used to be, you know, like Houston and Sacramento and Portland. The Bay Area is another. The tech capital of the United States. Technology is driving so much of your economy and there’s no WNBA team in the Bay Area. But we’re open to all options.
This March Sports IllustratedThe New York Liberty received a $500,000 fine for charter flight use on league trips and other violations. However, critics pointed out that the league was actually punishing a team because it treated its players too badly. What’s your response to that?
Rules exist for a reason. All players have signed collective bargaining agreements and are currently unionized. We’d love to be able to have an economic model for better travel. This is due to women’s undervaluation. If we had billion-dollar media deals, we’d be flying on charters. They’d be making a lot more money. But you just can’t allow the violation of the agreements that both owners and players sign. You can’t allow one team a competitive advantage. That’s why we’re working on this transformation to try to get an economic model to support all of these things that the players complain about. To run a professional league of sports, you need to be tough. You must also ensure that the rules are followed. That’s what we did here.
What challenges are unique to running a sports league that you didn’t find in your prior CEO life at Deloitte?
What’s different is you have 12 owners who are all competing against one another. They all desire to win the championship. And then you have, obviously the media, it’s much more of a public facing role than I thought. Deloitte, which is private. The fan stakeholder, then, is truly fascinating. It is my pleasure to visit arenas and meet fans to find out their opinions and positives.
It was never my experience to work with a unionized workforce. Right now it’s a union workforce. It was a huge leap from 100,000 to 144. And you might think it’s a lot easier. Nope.
So given the nature of the fan stakeholder, I assume you don’t get yelled at as much as the CEO of Deloitte walking into your workplace as you might in the WNBA, right?
[Laughs] Yes, there are many complaints about refereeing. It’s a great job, because the fans love it. I’m one of eight kids with five brothers. I’ve been a huge sports fan my whole life and we all think there’s biases in this system. But that’s the part I love. Because that means we’re relevant.
What’s your de-stressing technique?
A couple of things, I learned this at Deloitte because when you’re running a firm of that size, you have to find time. They were dubbed “The 5” Smors. These were the small steps of recovery. Moments are needed throughout the day. One thing as an executive, you can’t wait for the weekend. You’ve got to put the smors on your calendar during the day or you’ll go crazy.
I didn’t know this when I took the job, but once our games start, this calmness comes over me. It’s kind of neat.
Could you make a projection or prediction for our readers on the future shape of the WNBA in five years’ time?
We’re hopefully going to have more teams. We’re going to have more household names, more people knowing who WNBA players are, what they stand for. And I think we’re going to hopefully have players, who are really proud of what they’ve accomplished, to set the next generation of players up for the next 20 years after that. Let’s get to the point where our players are known worldwide, not just here in the US.
On a scale of one on a scale of one to 10, what’s your belief that that’s going to happen?
Probability a 9. It would probably be a nine. But since I don’t control the whole ecosystem, I have to leave myself a little bit of room.
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