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Cathy Engelbert on WNBA expansion, attendance, marketing, travel, and more

The WNBA commissioner spoke to a small group of media in Los Angeles about the state of the league.

2022 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game Photo by Kena Krutsinger/NBAE via Getty Images

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert is on her 12-city tour of the league, and landed in Los Angeles Tuesday to take in Sparks vs. Fever. Engelbert took some time to speak with the media, which included members of Swish Appeal, about the state of the WNBA and how it continues to evolve.

Incidentally, Engelbert had to have the conversation at halftime instead of a more relaxed environment pregame because she flew commercially to L.A. and was delayed — something the teams in the league are all too familiar with. What follows is a transcript of the Q&A session that took place with the commissioner.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

You’ve talked about expansion. Do you have any cities in mind that you’re thinking about and how do you go about picking the cities? What are the criteria?

Cathy Engelbert: Yeah, good question. I’ve made it no secret that we want to grow the league, and one of the ways to grow the league is grow the number of teams, grow the number of cities that you’re in. So we’ve done huge data analysis. We took 100 cities, put them through a lens of about 20 to 25 different metrics, think about demographics and psychographics and NCAA fandom and viewership, current WNBA viewership — there’s actually some cities out there that really are strong on their current WNBA fandom — Fortune 500 companies, arena situations, diversity of the population and all that. So that’s how we’re determining it. We’re narrowing that down now, but also we want to find the right ownership groups, the right groups, and we’re trying to transform the economics of the league to set new owners up for success. We don’t want them to come in and fail. So that’s everything we’ve been working on.

I’ll just throw out some of the cities that have expressed interest, not necessarily in any order: Bay Area, certainly when technology is driving so much of your economy and you don’t have a team in the Bay Area, and the longest-tenured women’s sports league in the country in our 26th year, that would seem to be one. Denver, Austin, Philly, Toronto, Montreal, Florida, Kansas City, St. Louis, and we have a lot of interest, which is really great, Portland, Sacramento. So I just threw out a bunch of cities that actually have expressed interest in us, and now we’re trying to run all these cities across these metrics and use that as a base to determine where we can find the best ownership groups and the best fans.

Los Angeles Sparks v Seattle Storm
Fans have returned to some arenas in droves, like in Seattle, but not all of them.
Photo by Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images

Thinking of the 12 cities where the teams are right now, how well do you think the league has done to recapture fan attendance with the pandemic?

CE: Yeah, and I was reflecting on that on the way here today that you know, I was here last year and fans weren’t even allowed here. I was here the first game of the season actually. So different environment, at least fandom’s back, which is great to hear. But I still think it’s been a slower uptake than I thought it was going to be because we’ve got variants and new waves and, you know, appreciate that you’re all wearing masks and everything. So it still continues to be complicated. We have a player here who was out with, in COVID protocol recently, so it’s still out there, unfortunately.

But I think we’re seeing some signs. I was in Minnesota last week. Great crowd there. I’ve been doing my 12-city tour. So again, fans are coming back. I wish it was more quickly. But you know, last year, remember coming up, there were virtually no fans in most of our arenas until the Olympic break, and coming off the Olympic break, they started to come back into the Finals, which again, our playoffs do draw really, really well, so I’m looking forward to that. But like Seattle is really having — because they opened a new arena this year, Climate Pledge Arena — so they’re really having great attendance. So you know, part of that is, it’s downtown, for three years they weren’t in downtown, they were up at University of Washington in Everett, so every city is a little different on the comeback but you know, we’re looking forward to fans really showing up.

You had just recently announced that you’re going to have charter flights for the Finals. I’m sure you’ve seen that there have been some issues in terms of logistics and travel with various teams and whatnot. What do you think the feasibility is in terms of you know, having something like that become a regular occurrence?

CE: We’re gonna chip away, which is why I want to do it for Finals this year. I’m feeling confident, we got a presenting partner for the Commissioner’s Cup this year, we signed US Bank as a WNBA Changemaker, so the more corporate step up, and media companies and the coverage, the more confident we’ll be to just chip away. Now, I haven’t made it a secret either that it’s over $20 million a year for the whole season plus the playoffs, so it’s very expensive. No one has stepped up to help us fund that, no one’s stepped up to sponsor it. So if we get to the point where we get a next big media deal and we bring in significant revenue to fund it. I’m not going to jeopardize the health of this league to do it because you’d be out of money in two and a half, three years. So the growth of the league is great, but we have to keep chipping away at it, which is why we announced for the Finals.

And look, this summer has been really tough for travel. By the way, coming here today, I sat in the airport for six hours before I boarded a plane and I was on four different flights. So it’s very difficult right now, and I totally empathize with the teams that have struggled. I know LA’s had issues. Almost every team has had an issue because if you’re a traveler, and I’ve been on this 12-city tour, you’re having issues, so it’s unfortunate, but we’ll chip away at it as our economics and our budget allows.

Piggyback on the big media sponsorship. That has been a complaint from fans and players how difficult it is to watch the game, but obviously the league benefits from having these big media partnerships. Have you thought about how you can continue to grow these media partnerships while at the same time building the viewership fan base?

CE: Number one, we have to make it easier to be a fan so our fans know where to watch us. So we’re thinking about a whole transformation of our digital footprint to make sure that the first thing you can see is where you can watch each game. So that’s something we’re working on. It takes a year or two to do a full digital transformation, but we’re underway with that. And then again, 160 games on national platforms this year, and then obviously, we have our League Pass for those that are on and then obviously there’s local RSNs. The interesting thing about the media landscape is even since I’ve been in the league now, a couple years, it’s changed enormously. The streamers were upending, you know, linear, and now the streamers are being disrupted. You see Netflix and things like that and there’s got to be consolidation, yet the average American has probably 10 or 12 subscriptions to things. I know I’m paying a lot of subscriptions and I still didn’t cut the cord, so I still have cable.

So that’s all going to be moving really fast, so we’re already planning and thinking about what does our platform look like. Do we have a DTC (direct-to-consumer) platform? do we have streaming? Do we have linear for the fans that still want to watch the old traditional way, I’ll call it. We’re watching as households using TVs and people using TVs is going down. We’re just, again, trying to stay on top of that and see what the best package of media rights that we can get the next time we go to negotiate them. But we’re thrilled that Prime Video is doing 16 games, we’ve got obviously a great partnership with ESPN. But I know our fans are frustrated because they don’t know necessarily what game is on what, when’s it on CBS Sports Network, when’s it on ESPN or ABC. We’ve done great on ABC over the last couple years, you know, because our fan base skews people who watch more ABC than they watch ESPN. So chipping away at that and using data, again data, to figure it all out.

What will the expansion draft look like? And how can that potentially affect player compensation in the league?

CE: So the expansion draft, we’re still taking a look at that, working with our general managers, head coaches, talking through how that would work. We haven’t had one I think in many, many years. So obviously it would be, you know, each team would get to protect a certain number of players. And as teams are starting to sign players to longer-term deals we need to make sure the GMs know. And it’s very strategic to be a GM now in our league because coming off the last collective bargaining with the free agency cycle we now have, so that’s all being talked about and discussed right now as to how that’s going to work.

Can you share anything with us on the status of Brittney Griner at this point?

CE: Yeah, so good question. Obviously, there’s not a day that goes by that we’re not working in some way on Brittney’s case. Now that she’s been deemed wrongfully detained by the US government and the State Department. Working with the Special Presidential Envoy for hostage affairs, which is a division of the State Department, who works on wrongfully detained Americans overseas, particularly in places like Russia where Brittney is. As you can imagine, it’s very complex, geopolitically, diplomatically, legally, but our number one goal is to get her home safely and then as quickly as possible. And so you probably saw what we did at All-Star last weekend, two weekends ago now, at halftime, all the players coming out in their Brittney Griner 42 All Star jerseys. And then Brittney held up a sign when she had her court appearance of that, and I was so touched by that. I still get chills when I think of it. So we want to make sure she knows that we’re remembering her, but we want her back safely as possible.

2022 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game
The WNBA All-Stars all wore Brittney Griner’s name and number in the second half of the 2022 All-Star Game.
Photo by Mary Kate Ridgway/NBAE via Getty Images

The league raised $75 million in February from investors, what is the plan for the allocation of those funds?

CE: So first a capital raise, when you raise capital, it is to invest in innovation, digital, globalizing the game, higher player pay, there’s a lot of things that we have planned for that; marketing, marketing, marketing, which is important, building rivalries. Some of the things we did at All-Star, we did our first WNBA Live outdoor festival. So a lot of things that we’re trying to do to look at every consumer and fan touch point, and also grow the league. And by the way, just to raise capital at the size and scale that we did is a huge vote of confidence in the league, in women’s sports, in the WNBA. To have investors like former Secretary Condoleezza Rice and Michael Dell and business people and half of our current owners that also invested, including the L.A. Sparks ownership group. So it’s just an amazing thing that we were able to accomplish, but now you have to deploy it over usually three to five years, and you start to see that return. So that’s what we’ve started to do. We’re doing more ad buys, media, more marketing of players, we’ll have about over $1.5 million of money that we’ll pay players to market the WNBA in the offseason, so hopefully you’ll see us more in the offseason, especially with our season ending a little earlier because of the FIBA World Cup. I know that was a lot, but that’s some of the stuff we’re deploying the capital against.

How have you seen your relationship with the NBA evolve since you’ve been a commissioner? And how would you like to see that grow or change going forward?

CE: It should be no surprise that the reason we’re the only women’s sports league to reach 25 years, double any other women’s professional sports league, is because of the NBA and their support. So (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver and I work together closely. I’m on the senior leadership team of the NBA, so I get to see kind of some of the innovation that they’re doing. And then Adam’s empowered me as the commissioner of the WNBA to really go off and build this business and change the economic model and really help all of our stakeholders — players, fans, media, and our owners — have more success in this league. So I can’t be any more thrilled with the support that we get from the NBA, and the NBA players. I mean, think back at the bubble when we got the orange hoodies over to Orlando and you know, players were coming out, and it’s just such a great, and there’s NBA players courtside in so many of our games and just thrilled for that support too. We’d always like more from the players, because they’re such icons in their communities around basketball, and I think our players really appreciate when they show up.

What do you think the W can do to maximize some of the players’ brands? Players like A’ja Wilson, Nneka Ogwumike, Diana Taurasi who have huge brands, how can you push those players forward to kind of help spread the game?

CE: Yeah, so that’s part of that marketing dollars I talked about is actually to pay the players more to help market them. We had three players in this offseason who we had under marketing arrangements who are now getting their own personal endorsements. And then you saw the Jonquel Jones State Farm commercial which is amazing.

Sue’s obviously had, and Candace Parker’s obviously had a lot of opportunities. But now there’s a bit of a changing of the guard going on in the WNBA. We have now Sue (Bird) and Sylvia Fowles — and Sylvia is amazing — who have announced their retirements and now kind of handing it off to the A’ja Wilsons and Kelsey Plums and Sabrinas and now Rhyne Howard and you know just a lot of changing. And then you have Nneka here who’s obviously always a star and such a great representative of the league. So we’d like to spend more money with the players to do that marketing, build their brands, get into personal endorsements in addition to league and team money that they’re eligible for. I don’t think a lot of people know they’re eligible for league marketing money as well as team marketing money and so you cobble that all together. And then we also have internships available for those who want to work on what they’re going to do post their basketball career and that was important to me.

So all of that, you know, leads to, we do need to lift their brands, we need to give them more exposure and we’re starting to chip away at that. I’m starting to see it: Sports Illustrated swimsuit, cover of Slam and W Slam, and I just saw that Canada did their version of W Slam and Kia Nurse is on the front of that. So it’s awesome. It’s just in my office when I was in yesterday. So again, I call it the signs and signals that we’re really being viewed as a legitimate sports media and entertainment property and the WNBA is, no doubt. But when I came in the league, I don’t think we were considered that, but now there’s been so many strides to get us there, but we still have a lot of hard work to do.