The 2019 season of the WNBA began on Friday, amid enthusiasm for a newly-hired commissioner, increased visibility in the media from new sponsors, and new direction from a strategist who wants to change the way that investors and fans look at the game.
In April, the WNBA announced that Cathy Engelbert would take on the role of commissioner — a title that replaces that of president — following the resignation of Lisa Borders in October. In addition to steering the league toward popularity and profitability, Engelbert faces the immediate challenge of negotiating fair pay and treatment for her players who have been vocal about the inequities they face as female athletes.
As president, Borders had been unable to make any headway in advocating for the players to be given a greater share of the profits. “We do not have the revenue today to support greater revenue sharing with our players, but it’s coming,” Borders said, only a month before stepping down. But fair pay was not, in fact, coming — at least, not while she was in charge. Borders left the organization to become the first CEO of the advocacy group Time’s Up.
Engelbert, a former college basketball player herself, will be joining the WNBA in July after finishing out her term as chief executive of Deloitte, where she presided over expanded family leave policies. Her credentials, both as a strategic leader as well as an advocate for the people on the ground, has the WNBPA (the players’ association) feeling hopeful about the fresh direction. “We are encouraged that the league has selected an individual who possesses a multi-dimensional understanding of the business of our game, with a proven ability to unlock real revenue and growth opportunities,” the WNBPA said in a statement. “We look forward to working with Cathy, and seeing a re-defined commitment to policies that value and support the working women and working mothers across the league.”
The league will no doubt get a boost from important sponsorships that will help to draw in more fans. CBS Sports Network recently announced that they would be airing 40 regular season games, which follows closely on the heels of the WNBA’s deal last season with ESPN; at this time, ESPN airs only 16 of the regular season games as well as many of the playoff games, but has brought the league a much-needed boost in revenue. Actually, the fact that this revenue hasn’t yet trickled down to the players is one reason why the players’ association has been pushing for changes in their revenue-sharing arrangement. AT&T has also joined the WNBA as a partner and will collaborate with the league on programming.
Outside of the WNBA administration, there’s an enthusiastic gamble from Joe Tsai, the new owner of the New York Liberty, who hopes to get fans excited about women’s basketball by using his pull to put the WNBA at the forefront of American culture. Tsai, an executive from Alibaba, is considering moving the Liberty to the Barclays center in Brooklyn from their current home in Westchester, New York, as a way to get fans excited about attending games; Tsai happens to be a co-owner of the Brooklyn Nets. Build a fanbase, he insists, and the sponsors will come.
He also framed WNBA fandom as a sort of obligation that we all have if we want to support women — and not just in sports. In an interview last month with ESPN, Tsai explained that as a father of daughter who was involved in athletics, he felt he had a vested interest in directing his business acumen toward something like the WNBA. “I really want to support women’s sports because I think young girls need role models to look up to. I’ve mentioned before that sports really develop people’s leadership skills so that we need to have more women leaders in this world. So for me, it’s beyond sports. It’s leadership. I think they are the role models for young girls.”