How Cathy Engelbert Steered the WNBA Through the Pandemic

Last March, Cathy Engelbert saw that her first full season as commissioner for the Women’s National Basketball Association was not going to go as planned. The pandemic promised to improve the league’s draft and schedule, but missed a season that threatened to alienate sponsors and fans. “It would have been existential not to be in the sports landscape for 20 months,” she says.

Ms. Engelbert says her 33 years at Deloitte LLP, including a four-year tenure as CEO, helped prepare her for this uncertainty. After working for the accounting firm during the savings and credit crunch of the 1980s and 1990s, the dot-com bubble and the 2008-09 financial crisis, she had a knack for meeting strangers with scenario plans. When the pandemic started, she suggested several avenues and decided to put all the players and staff at the IMG Academy’s sports complex in Bradenton, Florida in a “bubble” where the games would be played without fans.

“I said, ‘Follow science,'” said Ms. Engelbert, 56, on the phone from her home in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. For nearly 100 days, more than 300 people, including coaches and referees, submitted to rigorous testing protocols, tracking and isolating in what was affectionately known as “Wubble”. This enabled the 12-man league to play a shortened season of 22 games without incident.

“My next career could be in infectious diseases.”

“My next career could be in infectious diseases because I’ve learned so much about what the virus is like,” says Ms. Engelbert. The players could have young children with them and some had partners, but most athletes were quarantined alone with their teams. The sacrifice has paid off. The WNBA’s average regular season ratings across all networks increased 68% from 2019, and goods sales increased 50%.

Although the league hopes that teams will play in their arenas for the 25th time this summer, Ms. Engelbert does not rule out the possibility of another Wubbles. “It was hard,” she says. “But it was worth it.”

This is an unexpected second act for Ms. Engelbert, who took over the helm of the WNBA in July 2019 after ending her tenure as CEO of Deloitte. The job matched her love of the sport – she led both the basketball and lacrosse teams at Lehigh University – and her desire to invest in the next generation of women leaders.

Ms. Engelbert (photographed Jan. 22 at her Berkeley Heights, New Jersey home) is the fifth head of the WNBA, but the first to be named a commissioner.


Guerin Blask for the Wall Street Journal

Ms. Engelbert is the fifth head of the WNBA, but the first to be called the Commissioner. The title change came from Adam Silver, head of the National Basketball Association (which is partly owned by the WNBA), who praised Ms. Engelbert for recognizing the women’s league as a professional sports organization. “It’s a place at the table that you can’t get with other titles,” she says.

She has a feeling for the professional challenges women face. As a senior manager at Deloitte, where she started working after graduating from college in 1986, she admits that she “gave up almost everything” when she became pregnant in 1997 with her first child. “I thought I couldn’t do all of this,” she recalls. She stuck with it after two male supervisors praised her potential and convinced her that the juggling act was possible. A few years later she had a second child.

“At that time there was a cultural change that made a big impression on me.”

In the early 1990s, the company’s CEO, J. Michael Cook, launched an initiative to “retain and nurture” women in the hope of increasing Deloitte’s proportion of female partners to over 5%. “At that time there was a cultural change that really impressed me,” she says. The company offered 16 weeks of paid family vacation while it was CEO.

In her first week as Commissioner, Ms. Engelbert met with the players’ union to discuss protection and rights. The league’s relatively low pay encourages around half of its players to seek work in China, Russia, Turkey and elsewhere in the off-season. Breanna Stewart, a Seattle Storm forward who won her second MVP award for the WNBA final in 2020, put the 2019 season on hold after tearing a tendon in Hungary.

“If you want to support working women, you have to have advantages like I had at Deloitte,” she says. The league entered the 2020 season with an eight-year contract that increased the average league salary to nearly $ 130,000 (over six figures for the first time) and tripled compensation for top players. The contract includes fully paid parental leave, more childcare support, and a 50-50 model of dividing revenue based on revenue growth. Seasoned players who may have delayed childbirth can receive up to $ 60,000 for costs related to adoption, surrogacy, egg freezing, or fertility treatment.

Ms. Engelbert is currently working on an income model that will finance these costly benefits. She says the investments will pay off. “If you want to solve your sales and marketing problems, if you want to build household names, the players need to be motivated to help you market the league,” she says.

More weekend confidential

Another major factor in helping the players last summer was the decision to devote the 2020 season to a number of social justice issues, particularly criminal justice reform. In a historically pronounced league where nearly eight out of ten players are colored people, many members of the WNBA felt that the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others warranted special attention. “The emotions were so raw,” says Ms. Engelbert. “It got bigger than basketball.”

Players who were fined for their political protests a few years ago suddenly went on strike and played in courts that had the words “Black Lives Matter” on them. After a white police officer shot a black man named Jacob Blake seven times in the back in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August, the entire league gathered for a candlelight vigil. “I couldn’t be prouder how they turned up,” says Ms. Engelbert.

In conversation, she quickly distracts praise and encourages others – a leadership style that she supposedly cultivated in courts and in the fields. She wasn’t a top scorer as a point guard in basketball, but she ran the offensive and indulged in assists. Great leaders “know how to surround themselves with great people,” she says.

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