Cathy Engelbert on Her Role and the Future of the WNBA

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In a Front Office Sports exclusive, Editor Ian Thomas sits down with incoming WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert ahead of taking over the role in full next week.

Highlights of the interview, edited for clarity, appear below.

On what brought her to the WNBA from Deloitte (0:19):
“Part of it was I grew up in a basketball family. My father was actually drafted by the Detroit Pistons back in the 1950s and had five brothers who played basketball, my sisters as well. I grew up loving basketball and then went into the business and played basketball at Lehigh University under now Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw, who now has coached Notre Dame to obviously great success so I have basketball in the DNA. Quite frankly, as I was thinking about after over three decades with Deloitte, I was thinking about what did I want to do next and I wanted to do something different with a women’s leadership platform – something I have a passion for … this really met that and I think the league was looking for a female business leader with a passion for basketball. It was a really good fit and here I am.”

On the growing interest surrounding the WNBA (1:19): 

“I think there’s no doubt if you look at women’s leadership and you look at what sports can do for women and girls and their confidence, that this is such a moment in time for all of women’s leadership. I think women’s sports is a great feeder into the leadership ranks, at least in corporate America where I was, where a lot of the women leaders had played sports at least through the high school level, if not college. Obviously, these women playing in the WNBA, college graduates, they’re smart, they have social voices, they are community-oriented millennials, digital natives … so it is a moment where I think the WNBA players and the league itself can really step up and really take a leadership role around not just women’s sports but sports and actually, the conversation socially as well.”

On her strategy for helping the WNBA fanbase grow (2:16):

“It is early and I think over the past few months, obviously the league’s been working hard with the owners and the whole WNBA ecosystem with the players, the owners. I think there are three things I’d like to focus on … one is obviously we’re in contract negotiations under the collective bargaining agreements so there are some moments there to make sure that I get engaged and involved in. But really it’s around player experience, fan experience and … the financials of the teams and the league and making sure that we’re driving them to the next level … all of that’s coming together I think at a good time where we can actually set them on a path forward to prosperity as well as, again, raising the brand and the brand relaunch … as well as these women. The product on the court has never been better. I think the women’s game … there’s an appetite for it. We got to expand the fan base, we’ve got to drive corporate sponsorships and we’ve got to drive again the economics and the player and fan experience as well … a lot to do, but all around those areas.”

On how she wants to be a powerful voice in the sports ecosystem (6:15): 

“Because of the time we’re in and because I think there’s a lot of women and girls – and men by the way – one of the things I did in my prior job is whenever we put a policy in effect, it was for women and men like family leave or inclusion councils and things like that … women and men, because men have to be part of the conversation too. No surprise here that I’ll hopefully bring that business leadership and that women’s leadership platform to the WNBA, hopefully in a bigger way to inspire women and girls and men too to either follow the game, play the game, play it at the highest level or at least have an interest in it. I do highly believe in, for me, starting sports at a very young age. That gave me the confidence to ultimately become the first woman CEO of one of the major professional services firms here in the US … my pay it forward is to really think about how I can help the league and then help women more broadly and have a broader impact. Quite frankly, that was one of my criteria of what I do next: how can I have a broader impact on women’s leadership?”