In Cathy Engelbert’s fourth year as the WNBA’s first-ever commissioner, the league is on record pace for its’ most successful season yet.
Viewership has grown 67 percent over last year, the league has added A-list investors like Condoleezza Rice and Tom Brady and growth for partnership revenue is up double-digits this year at an all-time, 27-year high.
That in itself is an impressive growth spurt in four years, but the triumph of Engelbert’s tenure so far is that she did it all while thwarting a series of unpredictable adversities for the league.
In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Engelbert opens up about her approach to loudening the league’s voice and letting players take the lead.
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The daughter of former Detroit Pistons player Kurt Engelbert, she spent years as Deloitte’s CEO, where she earned accolades, including an honor as one of Glassdoor’s annual Employees’ Choice Awards’ 100 Highest-Rated CEOs and four consecutive years being recognized as one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in New York.
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Six months before her contract with the accounting firm was set to expire, Engelbert says she was being “courted for multiple corporate jobs.”
“I was very confused. What am I going to do next?”
In exploring her remaining professional goals, Engelbert made a list of three requirements for a new role. “I wanted to do something different, something with a broad women’s leadership platform, and something I had a passion for,” she shares, adding that at the time, she envisioned a possible move to a “not-for-profit, or something like the American Heart Association.”
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It was the vision and perseverance of her former Deloitte colleague Byron Spruell, the current President of League Operations at the NBA, that led Engelbert to the WNBA.
“Byron called me and said, ‘I have the perfect job for you: commissioner of the WNBA.’ And my immediate reaction was, ‘No way. I don’t know anything about running a sports league.’ I go, ‘I know business. Sports, I played basketball and lacrosse in college. I’m an athlete, but no.’ ”
It took Spruell four months to convince Engelbert to meet him in the NBA’s offices in New York City on April 15, a date the commissioner says she’ll “never forget” – not because of the life-changing revelation she’d have, but “because it was tax day.”
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The meeting is still a vivid memory for Engelbert. “I’d never seen anything like it. There’s basketballs and hoops and pictures of Kobe Bryant and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain, who my dad played against in summer leagues, and I’m like, mesmerized.”
The position checked all of her boxes. “Something different, check. Broad women’s leadership platform. Check, check, check.”
In her first year as commissioner, Engelbert knew there was a lot of work to be done. “We needed a lot of transformation, needed to hire capabilities in marketing and basketball ops and engineers and social WordPress engineers, digital. We just launched our new app and our .com site.”
The ecosystem of the league “was a mess,” she remembers, referencing the lack of household-name players who brought in outside marketing opportunities for their teams. “We’re trying to change the narrative – that we are a sports, media and entertainment property, growth property, that will deploy this capital and marketing stars, building rivalries and globalizing the game.”
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That growth is evident as more WNBA players have signed brand deals than ever before, but Engelbert’s then-“simple” plan for the W’s growth was derailed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The WNBA’s 2020 draft was scheduled for three weeks after then-Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert forced the NBA to shut down when he tested positive for the virus before a game on March 12. “We knew we couldn’t be out of the sports landscape for long without serious setbacks,” she says.
Through Engelbert’s savvy, the draft happened as scheduled — in her living room. “ESPN brought a truck to my house, and literally my two kids were my stagehands. We were literally steaming the jerseys because they had come out all wrinkled on the steam cycle in my dryer.”
“Then, during the broadcast, my kids would hand them to me when I had to read the next pick.”
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“This is my first draft and there’s no ESPN teleprompter. So my daughter’s holding an iPad, ducking, and I’ll never forget this. She’s squatted underneath the camera and the teleprompter on the iPad freezes and she has the wherewithal just manually to page it up. Oh my gosh, she saved my life that night. I tell her that to this day.”
That willingness to tackle seemingly impossible — and certainly difficult — tasks is Engelbert’s secret sauce. “We’re small and mighty, we’re not as old and we’re trying to build capability across so we get everybody involved in everything.”
To her colleagues, Engelbert is respected for her ability to adapt.
“Cathy is so equipped to be bold and transformational,” says Head of League Operations Bethany Donaphin. “And I think when you’re talking about growing a women’s league, there’s so many different headwinds you’re navigating, and that you have to be willing to go to battle for, to break the barriers. And that’s what she’s done over the last four years. It really feels longer than four years because of all the things that we’ve accomplished.”
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Comparisons to the NBA have long been one of the WNBA’s loudest criticisms, despite Adam Silver’s league’s 60 years of seniority to Engelbert’s. As Deloitte’s former CEO, Engelbert trusts her blueprint to create gradual and sustainable growth in all areas of the league through an “all hands on deck” mindset.
“People ask why we aren’t in the same place as the men’s league,” she says, citing recent gripes from fans and players regarding commercial travel and the shortage of roster spots forcing top draft picks out of the league.
Engelbert says the few roster spots are “a dilemma” for the W, but it’s important to note that the NBA has 30 teams, while the WNBA has 12. “What will help is expanding the number of teams,” she says. “I haven’t been shy about talking about expansion.”
Expansion is certainly on the way, but her business cognizance reminds her that timing is everything.
The 20,000-person turnout to a pre-season game between the Chicago Sky and Minnesota Lynx in Toronto before the season tipped off was a step in the right direction for the commissioner. “It was an amazing signal of interest, and not just in Canada, but there’s a fair amount of other cities that are very interested.”
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“You’ve got to build an economic model to fund everything they want; higher pay, travel benefits, etc. It’s important our players understand where we get our revenue, where all the expenses are going and their questions around that,” Engelbert says.
“We’re still a sports entertainment league at the end of the day,” she explains. “But they can use their platforms, amplify voices, and bring attention to issues that really matter to them. Yes, money’s important, but we try to put our money where our mouth is when it comes to supporting organizations and doing this kind of work.”
Meeting the economic demands of a professional sports league is a requirement for the commissioner. Still, Engelbert shares the same vision as the league’s stars for the league’s potential impact on sports.
One of the league’s successful initiatives for this is the Commissioner’s Cup, a selection of games throughout the season in which donations are made for both the winning and losing teams to several organizations.
Where it’s able, the WNBA “follows the players’ lead,” she explains. “Off-the-court initiatives are very player-led, like what Brittney Griner is doing right now with the Bring Our Families Home campaign around wrongfully detained Americans.”
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Griner’s 10-month detainment in Russia put Engelbert in another unfamiliar position as she navigated working with the star’s legal team, family and the Phoenix Mercury organization.
In her role at Deloitte, Engelbert encountered federal practices while working with the State Department and Homeland Security, but she couldn’t have been prepared for the months that would follow as the Biden Administration worked to bring Griner home.
While maintaining league operations, Engelbert was suddenly participating in weekly calls with the State Department and seeking guidance from Roger Carstens, Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs of the United States of America, a department she was unaware existed before Griner’s arrest. Engelbert says Carstens, one of the few persons on the tarmac when Griner landed in San Antonio after her release, was “an amazing resource” during the ordeal.
Griner’s first game back was the most-watched regular season game on cable in 24 years and the most-viewed opening day on ESPN network in 11 years, averaging 683,000 viewers on ESPN.
As the WNBA season enters the second half of its most successful season yet, Engelbert reflects: “We’re proud of our players, our fans and our message, and that’s only going to fuel us to continue taking the league where we want it to go.”
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