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Incoming commissioner Cathy Engelbert ‘very confident’ WNBA can thrive in near future

Former Deloitte CEO will assume her role as the league’s first commissioner next Wednesday.

Former Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert will assume her role as the WNBA’s first commissioner next Wednesday.
Courtesy of NBA Photos

Former Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert has already made her mark on the corporate world. Now she’s ready to embark on a new journey.

On Wednesday, Engelbert will assume her role as the WNBA’s first commissioner in the league’s 23 years. She’ll replace Mark Tatum, who was serving on an interim basis after former league president Lisa Borders resigned after last season.

Engelbert, who became the first female CEO of a Big Four firm in the U.S. in 2015, is excited but antsy to officially get to business. Despite a tough road ahead, Engelbert is optimistic about the future.

“I see so much potential and momentum at a time when I think society is at an inflection point around women in leadership and women sports,” Engelbert told the Sun-Times. “My main goals will be around player experience, fan experience, corporate sponsorships, economics, the platform [and] getting fans into the seats.”

Engelbert used her platform as CEO to advocate for diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and she changed the culture of Deloitte by implementing an industry-leading universal parental-leave policy, among other things. She believes she can have a similar impact on the WNBA.

With players fighting for higher wages, transparency with league revenue and better means of travel to road games, among other matters in their ongoing collective-bargaining agreement negotiations, Engelbert said a better player experience is a top priority for her.

“We have the same goals for these elite athletes and are working on chipping away at some of these issues,” Engelbert said. “[Those issues] can be solved with the business-model changes that we’re anxious to get started on.”

The WNBA has made great strides over the last few months. It landed AT&T as its first non-apparel leaguewide sponsorship and reached a multiyear TV deal with CBS Sports Network.

Still, progress needs to be made if the league wants to be financially sustainable on its own, Engelbert said.

Along with the addition of more corporate sponsorships, Engelbert wants to broaden the WNBA audience by targeting a younger, more diverse and culturally engaged fan base. She plans to do this by embracing players’ colorful personalities and highlighting their stories to make them more relatable.

“The women are amazing, world-class, elite athletes who have progressive social voices and are very community-oriented,” Engelbert said. “Getting the fan base to match that diversity is going to be important.

“And I really think driving up a sustainable business model for these women as we think about the new look, the new voice, a new attitude, driving a coolness factor into the brand and elevating the game and the culture, whether it be fashion or music or seeing WNBA players out in the market place doing a lot of great things.”

Engelbert isn’t worried about the product on the court. In fact, there’s a surplus of talented players worthy of being in the WNBA who aren’t able to play because of roster restrictions. Though talk of a WNBA team in Toronto has ramped up in recent weeks, Engelbert said expansion likely won’t happen in the near future.

“As I transition into my new role, one of my priorities right now is to make sure each and every one of our 12 existing franchises is doing as well as they possibly can before we seriously consider expanding,” she said.

Despite the pressing issues, Engelbert is “hugely confident” the WNBA can become a thriving league in the near future.

“We have a lot of hard work to do, I have a lot of listening to do,” she said. “I’m very confident that we will succeed on getting it done.”