Cathy Engelbert is a really profitable businesswoman. Her business-minded method has not all the time been what’s greatest for the WNBA, although.
When Cathy Engelbert took over as WNBA commissioner in 2019, there was an incredible quantity of optimism across the rent. Engelbert left her place as CEO of Deloitte, one of many largest corporations on the planet, to change into the primary commissioner in league historical past (earlier WNBA leaders held the title of president). Securing Deloitte’s first feminine CEO as the primary commissioner of the league was an enormous win.
On the time of the rent, NBA commissioner Adam Silver known as Engelbert a “world-class enterprise chief” who was “the perfect particular person to steer the WNBA into its subsequent section of progress.”
When Engelbert took over, she stated she noticed “great alternative to bolster visibility for the game of girls’s basketball, empower the gamers, and improve fan engagement.”
Three years in, Engelbert has carried out little to encourage confidence in her skill to try this.
If something, she has carried out the alternative.
Cathy Engelbert has carried out some issues proper…
Engelbert’s first season on the helm went easily. Her first main impediment got here in 2020 when the CBA wanted to be signed.
The brand new CBA had many good provisions in it. Sizable wage will increase, maternity depart, and “improved” journey circumstances had been among the many necessary modifications the settlement introduced.
Then the league had to determine easy methods to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
The league proposed a shorter season to the gamers, however with decreased salaries. The gamers pushed again on the deal and finally received out, securing 100% of their salaries for the season. But it surely wasn’t straightforward, and the gamers felt that the league was “not listening” to them throughout the negotiations.
There have been quite a few unprecedented challenges round participant well being, as properly. Engelbert and the league teamed up with JobSiteCare to plan out the “Wubble,” a small, quarantined web site the place the WNBA might perform its season.
The league secured a deal to arrange the “Wubble” at IMG Academy for a 22-game season. Each recreation was nationally televised and carried a message honoring Breonna Taylor and the “Say Her Identify” Motion, on the request of the gamers.
The season (and events within it) led to the formation of the WNBA’s Social Justice Council, a player-led committee that created “areas for neighborhood conversations, digital roundtables, and different activations to handle this nation’s lengthy historical past of inequality, implicit bias and systemic racism that has focused black and brown communities.”
The league emerged out of the “Wubble” extra in style than it went in. Viewership elevated by 68 %. That progress continued into the 2021 and 2022 seasons, with each breaking viewership information throughout each the common season and postseason. Throughout these seasons, the league added new viewing platforms and continued including nationally televised video games.
Up to now, the “Wubble” is Engelbert’s one shining second.
“Empowering the gamers” has not occurred because it ought to
Let’s be clear: the “Wubble” was a formidable achievement. It did “bolster visibility for ladies’s basketball.” However one spectacular achievement doesn’t outshine a litany of missteps.
Engelbert’s first main failing takes impact this season: the prioritization clause. The clause finally screws the gamers and permits league house owners to be low-cost. The house owners count on gamers to prioritize the league over their different sources of earnings, whereas the house owners prioritize their very own earnings over the gamers’ alternatives. The league took the place that the wage will increase that got had been due to what’s to come back, not what had already occurred. It did its gamers soiled.
Engelbert known as the clause a “quid pro quo” for higher compensation alternatives for the gamers, and “wholeheartedly” supported the house owners in pushing for it. On condition that Engelbert technically works for the house owners, it’s no shock she framed the clause in that approach. However what she’s saying and what the gamers are saying don’t align, in any respect.
The clause has acquired main pushback from among the league’s biggest stars. It places gamers in a tricky place. They usually make extra abroad than they do within the WNBA. Now, they danger a whole supply of earnings no matter which league they select to play in.
On high of that, some imagine that the gamers weren’t given the total extent of prioritization throughout negotiations, since they needed to conform to it, too. Engelbert’s aim was to “empower the gamers,” but prioritization does the precise reverse. And he or she was a driving consider its inclusion within the CBA.
“Simplifying the fan expertise” has not occurred
In February 2022, the WNBA introduced a report $75 million capital elevate. The capital was funded through promoting fairness within the league and was the most important quantity ever raised in a single funding spherical by a girls’s sports activities franchise. Engelbert defined that “remodeling the economics of our league together with our digital footprint” and “simplifying the fan expertise” had been two key areas of focus that the capital would assist enhance.
The 2022 season noticed no modifications to both, regardless of Engelbert saying the league might “do some extra issues now” after securing the funding.
The league’s “digital footprint” confirmed no enchancment in any respect throughout the 2022 season. The official league Twitter web page was lackluster at greatest and made errors, posted incorrect or outdated graphics, and failed to attach with followers.
The league pushed its redesigned app, claiming it was improved from the 12 months earlier than, however the modifications had been merely beauty. The app options some unique movies, however the operate of the app was nonetheless buggy and somewhat ineffective. The tabs for scores, schedule, standings, and stats simply open WNBA’s web site, as a substitute of getting the pages current within the app, that means customers might merely use their cell browser to search out the data they had been on the lookout for.
WNBA League Cross additionally remained a nightmare to make use of, as followers and customers discovered themselves continually being logged out throughout video games, unable to observe video games as a result of blackouts, and unable to observe a number of video games without delay. The app additionally was not accessible on some streaming gadgets, corresponding to Roku. On high of that, as a part of the league’s “progress,” some video games had been proven on different streaming companies corresponding to Amazon’s Prime Video, which additional restricted entry to them.
Many of those points had been turnoffs for diehard followers. Their affect on newer or extra informal followers was much more great. For a league whose commissioner swears they’re “listening to followers,” it actually didn’t look like it this season, regardless of the build-up across the capital elevate.
And that’s simply the digital fan expertise
Engelbert additionally made an enormous mess of WNBA All-Star Weekend. The occasions had been hosted in Chicago, residence of the 2021 WNBA champion Sky.
The weekend was a catastrophe from day one.
The primary day featured the talents competitors and 3-point capturing contest. Nevertheless, as a substitute of being held in Wintrust Area the place the Sky play, the occasions had been held in a conference middle close by. Wintrust was unavailable due to a cookware conference. To make issues worse, the relocated occasions had been closed to the general public.
Followers had been compelled to observe the occasion on TV, and even that was a multitude. Some followers moved to the “fan fest” space, which was described as “little more than a mosh pit in a parking lot.” The competitions had been slated to play on ESPN however had been moved to ESPNU simply minutes earlier than their begin so ESPN might play the top of the boys’s doubles at Wimbledon. ESPNU isn’t as broadly accessible as the primary channel, and the transfer knocked many followers out of having the ability to see the occasion. Whereas ESPN did rebroadcast the competitions later, the injury had already been carried out.
Later that day, there was an invitation-only live performance that includes Chicago rapper Likelihood the Rapper. When requested why the live performance attendance was so restricted, Engelbert had this to say:
Due to safety considerations given courting approach again to Mandalay Bay, courting again to different issues which have occurred right here in Chicago and Uvalde and Buffalo and there’s a number of concern about outside occasions proper now sadly in our nation, so we had been simply making an attempt to do the most effective we might.
Engelbert added that she and the league had “consulted with safety consultants, Chicago PD, our WNBA safety consultants.” Chicago PD shortly launched a press release saying that they “did not advise the WNBA to cancel or not to hold outdoor events.”
The All-Star weekend fiasco stems instantly from Engelbert and the league’s failure to plan additional prematurely for what ought to’ve been an thrilling weekend in a basketball hotbed. As a substitute, it was a failure that deviated from a profitable precedent.
The dearth of progress on enlargement is regarding
The most well liked subject across the WNBA has been enlargement. Followers need it. Gamers need it. However the league appears overly hesitant to maneuver in direction of it.
A part of what has all the time made the WNBA distinctive is its willingness to make bold modifications. Early within the league’s existence, it was possibly a bit too bold. Between 1998 and 2000, the league doubled in dimension, including eight groups in simply three years. Of the 16 groups that performed within the 2000 season, 10 are nonetheless round immediately, with three having relocated.
The Sky and Dream had been added in 2006 and 2008, respectively, and each have seen nice success. So why the hesitation now?
That could be a query Engelbert herself can’t even give a stable reply to.
When discussing expansion with The Athletic, Engelbert stated a complete lot of nothing new:
We’ve received information, we’ve received attention-grabbing discussions happening however it’s not one thing we’re going to hurry it to only to say we increase. I’ve informed so many enterprise leaders this, and so they all appear to agree with me — like I’m a giant, huge believer in let’s rework the economics after which we’ll increase, not increase after which hope that economics rework. We wish to convey new house owners in which can be going to achieve success in standing up a franchise that may compete for a championship. So I’m not in a rush, however yeah, would we prefer to get it carried out within the subsequent few years? Completely.
Examine that to the best way NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman discussed the expansion of her league, and also you’ll see why WNBA followers are fed up with Engelbert’s constantly obscure solutions on the subject.
Engelbert additionally added that the league is 10 explicit possession teams, which was the identical quantity she gave when she spoke to The Athletic in June. She additionally informed them at the moment that she aimed to “identify one or two cities for an expansion franchise by the start of the WNBA playoffs in September or by year’s end at the latest.”
Effectively, it’s now December, and neither deadline has been met, and Engelbert nonetheless hasn’t been capable of give a stable reply as to why, or what the league has been doing within the meantime. She even went so far as saying that they had been “busy helping” with the “full hands-on effort” to convey Brittney Griner home.
Engelbert is a businesswoman, however not a sport businesswoman
There’s a massive disconnect between the WNBA entrance workplace and just about everybody else within the league. Engelbert doesn’t appear to grasp the nuances that include working in sports activities. She is extra centered on issues like company partnerships than persevering with to construct the fanbase. For all the great she talks concerning the gamers, it doesn’t look like she is really on their facet usually sufficient.
Even in her enterprise endeavors, there are considerations that beg the query if she is the best match for this explicit league. Her praise of former President Donald Trump, involvement with ICE, and mishandling of a sexual assault investigation don’t align in any respect with what the league stands for. It actually doesn’t align with what the gamers stand for.
As necessary as cash is, the WNBA isn’t in a spot the place that may be the only real focus. Alienating present followers, hindering new followers from accessing the sport, and making gamers have to decide on between league and livelihood are usually not methods to raised the WNBA. Not proper now.
There are methods to enhance the monetary standing of the league with out utterly ignoring what makes it distinctive. Engelbert makes use of the buzzwords that go together with doing that: accessibility, visibility, enlargement. However her actions have spoken far louder than her phrases.
There must be extra emphasis on the human factor of the WNBA. And Cathy Engelbert isn’t the best particular person to try this.