LAS VEGAS — Cathy Engelbert sounded more like a tactician than a cheerleader for the WNBA, and that was a good thing.
How Engelbert spoke was as important as what she said at this past weekend’s All-Star Game, her first official event as new WNBA commissioner. Business-focused strong leadership is what the league needs. But there still has to be a responsiveness to some long-running frustrations of players and fans.
Engelbert officially took over on July 17, so detailed answers about specific issues were not expected during her news conference ahead of Saturday’s All-Star Game. WNBA followers were looking for evidence of eagerness to tackle information gathering and problem solving. As former CEO at Deloitte, where she worked for more than three decades, Engelbert had to be adept at both.
Saturday, she boiled down her focus in the WNBA to what she called “Three pillars: fan experience, player experience and economics.”
“If we work on those from a league perspective,” Engelbert said, “and in working with the owners of the teams and the players, I think a lot of the other things that people complain about will be solved.”
Engelbert steps into the job just as the league and the players’ union are negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that needs to be in place before the 2020 season.
It was notable the league sent out a release about those talks last Thursday night: “Earlier today, the WNBA and WNBPA held a comprehensive and productive meeting regarding the Collective Bargaining Agreement. We are encouraged by the discussions and look forward to additional meetings in the near future.”
Obviously, that doesn’t say much. Yet the public acknowledgement of the discussions during the All-Star break was a positive sign for a league that sometimes fails to communicate.
From the players’ perspective, better travel experiences and their day-to-day comfort level as elite athletes are priorities, along with salary issues. Extreme travel delays — trips with mechanical and/or weather delays taking 24 hours or more — happened to the Aces last season and the Fever this season. But even the average travel day in the WNBA can be taxing, especially things like players stuck in middle seats on lengthy commercial flights. Charter flights for all travel aren’t likely anytime soon, as they are cost prohibitive. But having the option to charter for a limited number of trips, as well as getting better seats and accommodations for coach travel, could help significantly.
“Within player experience is health and wellness, as well as obviously the travel issue,” Engelbert said. “So I am going to work tirelessly on this particular issue, whether it has to be negotiated within the CBA, or we have flexibility to look at enhancing the player experience, particularly the travel experience.”
Some of the players have had initial conversations with Engelbert, and their feedback is positive.
“We’re just getting to know her now,” said Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, president of the players’ union. “We’re really excited to have her on board.”
Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne, one of the All-Star Game captains, said, “I think she’s got that business mind that we need to help change things and really take a big next step. She seems super confident and ready.”
Part of Engelbert’s news conference was also about USA Basketball’s enhanced training program for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It’s not a WNBA-managed program, but eight WNBA players are committed to being available for five training segments that will take place from November 2019 to April 2020 and include exhibition games against college teams.
The WNBA can benefit from the visibility and marketing around the players being in the United States most of the winter, rather than playing overseas or not competing at all. The U.S. team is seeking its seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal.
Trying to increase visibility for the WNBA is two-fold: The league seeks to do that both nationally/internationally and locally. There has been more success with the latter, and some franchises get more recognition in their local markets than others.
The All-Star Game in Las Vegas was an example: Aces owner, MGM Resorts International, had signage at Mandalay Bay and other resorts on the Strip advertising the game. In general, the Aces — in just their second season in Las Vegas — have moved high on the list regarding player experience and marketing.
But unlike the NBA, where there’s a level of billionaire sameness among owners, the WNBA has disparity in that regard. The WNBA teams owned by companies like MGM, or by NBA teams, have deeper pockets than other teams.
That fact has a wide-ranging impact, beyond how much a franchise could spend to put on an All-Star Game. It affects issues such as the relative lack of player movement in free agency, thanks to the “core” player designation and other restrictions that essentially work to keep stars long term on the teams that draft them. There’s some good in that, but it also has produced some stagnation. And it largely prevents the WNBA’s free agency from being newsworthy — a stark contrast to the NBA.
Engelbert said she would visit all 12 WNBA franchises before the playoffs begin in early September. There’s a lot to take in, as teams have different strengths and weaknesses based on geography, history, ownership status and fan base, among other things.
“This is one of the things clearly I did in my prior life,” Engelbert said, “being able to look across a variety of companies and bring best practices in to make sure that, in our case with the 12 franchises, we’re all thriving.
“And ultimately that we’re sharing what does and doesn’t work. Some practices won’t work in some markets. The NBA has a lot of success, and we’re leveraging off that capability in the W, as well.”
The NBA and WNBA are in completely different places, though, and Engelbert must keep that in mind. That said, the NBA wasn’t always the self-perpetuating marketing giant it is now.
Studying what helped the NBA grow and then directly applying it to the WNBA won’t necessarily work, though. There still has to be an understanding of the obstacles that women’s sports generally face in acceptance. But also, optimistically, that awareness can be paired with enthusiasm to cultivate potential fan bases that might be less served by other pro leagues: the LGBTQ community, businesswomen who confront their own glass-ceiling challenges, families seeking affordable entertainment options, for instance. Similarly, the WNBA also can use its players’ off-court qualities — most are college graduates, and several have entrepreneurial interests including owning businesses and real estate — to lure sponsors.
“I think we have a unique opportunity to offer our assets as a platform to corporations for partnerships, sponsorship,” Engelbert said. “And really use that platform to enhance the diversity, inclusion and conversation in society.
“One of the reasons I took this job, quite frankly, is I saw huge potential and momentum as it relates to the brand of this sport, of this league, of these women and their stories.”
Engelbert will do her job by talking up the WNBA, certainly. But backing that up with real action is how she can really distinguish herself. And it’s exactly what the WNBA needs.
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