After 33 years and a CEO role at Deloitte, Cathy Engelbert was hired in May 2019 as the WNBA’s fifth leader (though the first to get the commissioner title). She took over two months later. Today, as the first-ever Commissioner of the WNBA, Cathy Engelbert is responsible for bolstering visibility for the sport of women’s basketball, empowering WNBA players, and enhancing fan engagement.
In her time as Commissioner so far, Cathy has executed a player-first Collective Bargaining Agreement, built a new economic framework to drive league revenue and owner success, and led the league to a successful 2020 season during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think she’s taken steps to gain players’ trust. When you have a league that has a good relationship with a commissioner, it tends to go a long way. You can see it in the NBA, how the relationship has been really helpful. And maybe in a league like the NFL, how at times it’s been really detrimental.”Sue Bird said.
So today, we take a look at some of Cathy Engelbert’s WNBA quotes, to get a fuller picture of her impact on the game and of her vision regarding where she’s guiding it.
From the goals of the historic 25th season to diversity in the league, the possibility of WNBA expansion, and even the new playoff format, hear directly from the WNBA Commissioner herself.
The 2020 eight-year collective bargaining agreement features a 53 percent cash compensation increase in WNBA salaries, better family leave benefits (including full salary while on maternity leave and an annual childcare stipend), upgraded travel accommodations, and more career development opportunities in the off-season, among other benefits.
“My thought is we went big on our collective bargaining agreement, and the players were very, very happy with where we came out because it was a holistic look at how to treat a professional female athlete, and my hope is that that transcends into, not just women in basketball, but women in sport and women in society,” Cathy Engelbert told Worth.
“We announced our bargaining agreement on January 14,” Cathy recalled. “Who was texting me that day with a big thumbs up? Kobe Bryant.” She continued, “This guy was a true advocate for women’s basketball.”
One of Cathy’s first challenges stepping into her role was combating the pandemic that shut down all sports for months. While safety was a top priority, another key part of getting players to commit to the bubble was reassuring them of the league’s support for social justice issues.
As she was developing the league’s go-forward plan, Cathy explained, “I’ve been involved with a lot of crises, mostly on the financial side, not a global health crisis that now obviously is creating financial strain on many people. We will evolve out of this, but it’s the challenge of a lifetime for live sports.”
“I am a firm believer that decisions and investments you make while you’re in the middle of a crisis will serve you well long term,” she continued, reports ESPN. “Even if they turned out to be not great decisions, you would learn from them and wouldn’t do them the next time.”
“As I’ve come into the role as commissioner of the WNBA, the vision is to run a very player-first agenda,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said behind the scenes at the Women and Worth Summit. “We have 144 of the most diverse athletes in sport and really use that women’s leadership platform to drive change in society around how a women’s sports league gets valued, how a woman gets valued, how she gets paid, how she gets a benefits package and how she gets travel upgrades and things like that.”
The goals of the 2021 WNBA season were simple: pay homage to the league’s rich history and give it steam to ride another 25 seasons. So how does Cathy Engelbert measure the season’s success? “We have a high level of competition, players emerge as stars, we build household names and we build these rivalries,” she told Swish Appeal.
The league’s 25th-anniversary “Count It” logo is a nod to Title IX, and visually it tallies the league’s successes. “I’m really proud that this is future-facing but it’s to signify the tallies won’t stop coming,” Cathy Engelbert said. “It’s a look back at the league’s history while counting on the future.”
“[Our fanbase] skews younger, more diverse, and more women. We’ve taken that information and realized that everyone watching has a second screen, like their phone, with them. Some of our players, who are digital-native and around 24-25 years old, watch all of their content on their phones. So we tried to find a way to partner with companies to get our fans involved in voting for the W25, the GOAT, and the WNBA All-Star Game. Every company is a technology company, and sports leagues are no different. That’s why we’ll continue to engage the fan through our Tap to Cheer within the app, our search-engine optimization, or our League Pass and digital footprint.” said Cathy Engelbert.
“The WNBA isn’t the only women’s professional league to survive 25 years, but we’re also thriving. Our ratings were through the roof this year, including +78% in the postseason alone — in a very crowded sports landscape with MLB Postseason, NFL regular season, and the upcoming start of the NBA. We’re really proud of what these players were able to accomplish both on and off the court. The 25th season has meant a lot, and there’s a lot of [positive] momentum for women’s sports that we all need to pay attention to.” Cathy said, reports Sports Video Group.
She also elaborated at the 2021 WNBA Championship pre-game press conference, “Recall our tag line for the 25th season was, “Count it.” Well, I hope you agree that the WNBA continued to count it this season. We delivered our most-watched season since 2008 for our television partners ABC, CBS, ESPN, and ESPN 2 with viewership up 51% over last year. That was after we were one of the only sports leagues with double-digit viewership increases last year during the beginning of the pandemic.”
“And recall that one of our games this year in the back half of the season peaked at almost 1.6 million viewers. So we saw record growth with a 50% increase over last year from our WNBA merchandise. We set records for our social media engagement, as we know we have a more digital native fan coming into our league. We had 135 million video views, 14.5 million actions, and grew our League Pass subscriber base significantly.”
“Playoffs this year, were up 78% versus 2020 and 54% versus 2019. That’s all to say the league has come a long way since inception, and I know some of you have been with us along the way, but we still have a long way to go. But I’m excited, I’m optimistic about the future.”
For the 17th straight year, the WNBA received at least an ‘A’ in overall, racial, and gender grades. In a statement, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said it remains a priority to remain “one of the most inclusive and progressive leagues,” and that the TIDES report card reflected that emphasis. “We are focused on creating opportunities across every level of the WNBA and will hold ourselves accountable for upholding a strong culture of diversity,” she continued.
“Our Social Justice Council which came out of the events of last year has continued their work very fervently this year, I may add, on three pillars. One is health inequities, particularly in communities of color, one is LGBTQ+ advocacy, and the third and where we’ve spent a lot of time is voting rights and civic engagement.
“I’m proud of the work we’ve been doing in all three, but the voting rights and civic engagement and what we just did with Rock the Vote and some of the activities, again, that our team has led. I’ve said all along the social justice work of the WNBA is player-led, league facilitated and amplified…”
“I think that’s probably what I’m most proud of — these players command other social justice leaders in society to actually come talk to them about their strong voices and what change they want to see.” reflected Cathy.
Cathy is taking aim at what she calls a broken sports ecosystem that has historically and dramatically undervalued women’s sports. “It’s a male model discounted by 80 to 90%,” she said. Fittingly, she spoke up during the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball weight room fiasco, penning her own op-ed. She has a five-year plan that includes assembling a group of powerful stakeholders who want to persuade corporate America that the WNBA is more than the NBA’s “little sister.”
Elaborating on the plan, Cathy shared, “We’re in the middle of a five-year business transformation plan, and we have several key places we’re going to invest as we go forward. First is investing in our digital product transformation to bring fans closer to our game on their devices….”
“Second is growing the WNBA footprint and giving the consumer more touch points with the WNBA brand. That’s really important to me as we think about our new events, think about our merch, think about collaborations. And down the road, yes, I know you’re going to ask, growing the size with additional WNBA teams.
Third, we’ll continue to uphold the foundation of the game while also amplifying the players’ voices around social impact, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and it’s really important to us that the players kept their strong social justice voice this year through the actions and activities of our Social Justice Council.”
Cathy Engelbert has said the league is considering future WNBA expansion. “It’s certainly on the list of things that I’ve been thinking about down the road,” she said in 2020. “It is interesting to note how competitive and how deep the talent in the league is. And so it’s certainly something that as we’ve come out of this pandemic hopefully next year that we’ll prepare to start talking about…I think if we have a very successful season this year, this time next year we can certainly start talking about what expansion would look like, how many [additional teams], and the timeframe over which that would occur.”
When it comes to picking the specific cities, Cathy elaborated that the tough decision will be data informed at the 2021 AT&T WNBA All-Star game, “It’ll be data driven, by the fans. By the popularity of college basketball in that market. There’s a lot to consider in picking a location for expansion…I get a lot of suggestions over social media for new places for location.”
“It’s an active data analysis that we’re doing today, so I just had a meeting readout on it this past week about different cities, some of the metrics that you look at are D1 college basketball, how popular it is, viewership of current WNBA games in those markets that don’t have a WNBA team, merch sales in that market.
“So there’s a myriad of probably 15 or so metrics that we’re looking at to determine whether a market or city could be good. Then obviously you have to evaluate what ownership groups would step forward and support the team because the owners are a very important cog in this whole thing around picking cities to expand in.”
“So those are all the things — again, timeline. I think in my state of the league at the beginning of the season, I talked about that time next year we’d be talking about a little more details on the plan. So I think I would stick with that into the spring and summer next year and into the 2022 season we’ll be sharing more.”
“The data looks like it’s going to read out some interesting information for us to start having exploratory discussions with certain cities and make sure that we can find great ownership groups to support a WNBA team and great fan bases. So that’s why I think looking at how those cities are already supporting the WNBA through whether it’s viewership, merch sales or other things, or whether they’re supporting women’s sports or women’s college basketball are great indicators of how it would get supported if a WNBA team were to go in that market.”
“To the media, thank you for your coverage all throughout. It’s been a very action-packed year. We launched the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup championship right here in Phoenix, groundbreaking marketing partnerships we announced this year, increased viewership, other exciting signals, and signs, I keep saying, of the league’s growth. We appreciate your work because it’s so critical to continue to tell the stories that uplift this league, women’s sports in general, sharing success stories, highlighting the incredible athleticism that you’ve seen just throughout the playoffs let alone what we will see here in the WNBA Finals.” recapped Cathy at the WNBA Finals 2021 Championship pre-game press conference.
“The media landscape has the power to unlock our success. So that’s why you tell these inspiring stories. They’re so critical to the growth of the league, to building household names. Isn’t that what this is all about? These inspiring athletes on the court who are inspiring millions and millions of young girls and boys to be just like them.”
“One of the reasons we wanted to do this was to build more rivalries, build competition, have a little conference rivalries that we don’t see when we get to our playoff format. So I’d say very successful on all those points.”
“Whenever you’re trying to build an asset, a special competition, a new competition, it probably takes a couple years for fans to understand, for media to understand it, everyone understand it. I think once we paid out the player prize pool this year, the players really understand it now and how important it is to the competition, how important it is to the first half of the season and giving meaning to the regular season. So I think those are all positives.”
“Obviously, as you know, it’s something I’ve been talking about and thinking about since I joined the league and talking with airline executives since I joined the WNBA, based on my relationships from my prior job.” said Cathy.
“So it is an important issue…That’s why we’re doing the business transformation. We’re making a lot of progress. There’s nobody that wants this more than me. But we’ve got to chip away at this transformation, build more viewership, build more sponsors, build more media rights deals, and there will be a point in time when we can have an economic model for it.”
Cathy said, “It’s something, obviously, as part of our strategy, we’re working on how to evolve the consumer of our game, where they’re consuming our game, how we draw in the viewers to the compelling game that’s on the court, and how you build those rivalries. I’m a big studier of history of sport, and rivalries put leagues on the map and grow fandom and grow fan bases.
When you’re only in 12 U.S. cities, part of that also is what we’re trying to really be thoughtful about how we grow our fandom, even outside the 12 cities, so we can draw in a broader viewer because we do quite well in the cities we’re in on viewership, but when you go outside, they might not know that a WNBA market is in their region, for example.
So I think there’s some tactics we can work on to draw that rivalry interest higher. One of those was to introduce a new special competition. One of those is to have household names compete against each other, like we have here in the WNBA Finals with Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker, two of the W25 that just got voted on by the media and by basketball pioneers, and then the fan vote on the GOAT.”
The WNBA Board of Governors approved changes to the league’s playoff format and postseason seeding, effective with the 2022 season, the WNBA announced on November 18, 2021. The reconfigured postseason structure includes three rounds of series-play using a best-of 3-5-5 format.
“We have been evaluating different playoff formats over the past 12 months, and the new playoff format being announced today will enable fans to engage with all of the league’s best teams and top stars right from the start of the postseason with all eight championship contenders immediately involved in exciting, first-round action,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
“Following significant discussions with our Competition Committee and a Playoff subcommittee we formed last year, it was clear that while the prior format’s single-elimination games created a win-and-advance level of excitement to the start of the postseason, the new best-of-three series format will provide added opportunities to create and showcase rivalries with all playoff-eligible teams participating.”
“Coming off our historic 25th season when the WNBA enjoyed its most-watched season since 2008 and set records for merchandise sales and engagement across social media platforms, we are looking forward to what is already a highly anticipated tip off of the 2022 season in May,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement. “The 36-game schedule will provide fans greater opportunities to see the best players in the world compete at the highest level.
“The confidence that built me into the leader I am today, it all started in sports,” Cathy said. “And I didn’t know it at the time, but now…people ask, ‘How did you get here,’ and it was like, I built all this incredible confidence when I was in high school and college to compete in an otherwise male-dominated world, and that’s what helped me, so I want to help other women do the same thing and succeed.”
Now you know more about where the league is headed! To stay up to date with all of Cathy Engelbert’s latest musings, you can follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Up next, learn more about WNBA rookies and what it takes to make it in the best women’s basketball league in the US.
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