WNBA on long track for sustainable growth, commissioner says

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert would like to see arenas packed like this for every game. Allen Kee/ESPN Images.

As final player cuts are made days before the WNBA regular season tips off each year, the majority of those drafted won’t make a roster.

Though this is nothing new, what is different now for the 25-year-old league is that its commissioner, Cathy Engelbert, is working on a long-term economic plan to expand its size by adding more teams. It is an endeavor of many steps that will take a few years to complete, but it is one that will produce lasting results, she said.

The league announced in February that it had raised $75 million from new investors and current WNBA and NBA owners as a step in a strategy to grow in specific areas, which will be part of a long-term business transformation. Brand elevation and marketing, globalization of the WNBA and its players, digital footprint growth, merchandise accessibility and fan experience, and human capital and operational optimization were highlighted as priority areas.

The goal, which Engelbert has had since she was named the WNBA’s first commissioner in July 2019, is to create a stable base on which to expand the WNBA from its current 12 teams, which each allow no more than 12 per roster. The procurement of funds was the first step towards that end.

“To build or grow a business, you have to have access to capital, and you have to have the right human capital and resources to then deploy it, and execute on your strategy,” Engelbert said at a February press conference announcing the capital raise.

“As I learned in my business career, most companies that were deploying hundreds to millions and billions of dollars look for their ROI three to five years out. That’s what a transformation is all about.”

Before coming to the WNBA, Engelbert spent 33 years at Deloitte – the last four of which she served as the company’s CEO. Eight months into her tenure with the league, the COVID pandemic shut sports down. The WNBA played a shortened season that summer in a quarantined location with no fans. Last year fans returned in a limited capacity. As a result, both the league and its teams took a financial hit, and Engelbert was delayed in executing her long-range plans.

“Obviously because of the pandemic the last two years, it’s been a tough go for our owners,” she said. “We came very strong into the WNBA Finals, with big crowds in both Phoenix and Chicago, and then (the) Omicron (variant) came.”

Engelbert is asked about WNBA expansion at every press conference, as earning a roster nod becomes increasingly difficult. Having just 144 available spots available as collegiate-level talent is growing exponentially is a challenge. Add to that the WNBA Players Association’s Collective Bargaining Agreement of January 2020, and the stakes get even higher.

The CBA, which was hailed as groundbreaking for athletes, incrementally raises salaries  50-80 percent for both veterans and rookies each year until 2026. The salary cap for each team, however, rose by just around 30 percent. Consequently, several teams are choosing to carry 11 on their rosters, in what Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve has called “salary cap gymnastics.”

Connecticut Sun coach and general manager Curt Miller’s organization made two cuts Wednesday to whittle down their personnel to 11. He told the Hartford Courant that balancing salaries is a huge, yet underrated factor in a team’s make up.

“After your six guaranteed contracts, there’s a ton of different combinations of how those other five fit the puzzle pieces of your salary cap,” he said. “What the general public forgets at times, it’s not always about the best 11 players, it’s the best 11 players that fit under your salary cap. And that is two different statements. The best 11 players aren’t always the best 11 that fit under the salary cap.”

“So you have to make tough decisions to fit under a league that has a hard salary cap.”

While general managers work math and fans cry out for expanding the league immediately, Engelbert is keeping her eye on the bottom line: taking the steps to grow the WNBA the right way. And that means protecting what is already in place.

“As (our) economic model takes hold in a few more years, I feel very confident that we’re going to be talking about (expansion),” she said in a pre-draft press conference last month. “But again, we’re not there today, and we don’t want to burden the current owners, or any new owners, with a model that’s not going to work for them. Because guess what: sports leagues have done that. They’ve expanded in the hopes that they get the economics right.”

“We’re not going to jeopardize the momentum we have and the economic model we’re actually building right before our eyes right now, positively, in order to accelerate anything like that.”

Cathy Engelbert addresses media before the 2022 draft. Adam Hunger/AP photo.

One of Engelbert’s priorities is what she calls “globalizing the game,” which she said hasn’t been done before. More revenue means more money can go into marketing, which is the league’s primary focus right now.

“You build them into household names, you globalize the game, you turn them into household stars,” she said. “Really having a global game (means) having a global footprint and really turning the players into global stars – not just U.S. stars.”

She said that means “trying to be more culturally-relevant, trying to make sure our stories are told, trying to make sure there are documentaries on WNBA players and teams.”

Toward that end, the WNBA used some of its raised capital to hire new people to grow and sell the league, including chief growth officer Colie Edison, who began Jan. 31. Digital and data engineers have also come aboard to expand the league’s visibility and improve the fan experience.

“There are lots of things fans hopefully will be looking for in the future: consistent production quality….gaming, e-sports….trivia – things we know our younger fans are looking for as we skew a younger fan base and a more digital fan base,” Engelbert said.

That includes making WNBA merchandise more available and easily-accessible for fans, which has been an issue in recent years.

“A fair amount will go into hiring good people who can really market the league, sell this league, transform this league, both at the teams and at the league level,” Engelbert said prior to the draft. “(In the past) we haven’t been able to hire all the capability we need. That takes a while to build up that capability, and now we’re able to accelerate that as part of the transformation.”

Engelbert said last year that her targets were boosting television rights deals – which she referenced in her draft conference – increasing attendance and garnering more corporate sponsorships.

The league rolled out fantasy basketball with ESPN this week, which has generated much interest, and the New York Liberty and WNBPA have new non-fungible token deals. But for this week, at least, the excitement around those initiatives has been overshadowed by dozens of training camp cuts.

Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart said Wednesday that the league is at “a tipping point,” and must soften the salary cap or allow rookies to stay with teams as practice players. Los Angeles Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike suggested a G league, adding that “in no circumstance should we have a league where high draft picks aren’t on a roster.”

Engelbert, however, is committed to staying the course and building a bigger league that will last. She said in February that she wants to position the WNBA so that when new owners are brought in, that “they’re not inheriting an economic model that won’t make them successful.” She has upheld that plan consistently.

Asked last month about expanding roster size in lieu of the number of teams, Engelbert rebuffed the idea.

“I think the conversation to be having is about expansion of the number of teams,” she said. “When you’re only in 12 cities in a country of our size and scale, with a global fan base like we have, we do need to be in more cities.”

Engelbert said roster expansion would be a short-term solution to get more athletes on rosters, but she is focused on building the WNBA for the long haul. The league is currently analyzing data from 100 cities to determine which would be the best fits for new teams.

“We’re still building that economic model I’ve been talking about, but we’ll definitely be talking about this more this summer,” she said. “I know the challenges of the rosters, but I think it just shows the depth and quality of the league.”

Engelbert said she’d love to see some kind of a developmental league, eventually, similar to the NBA’s G League.

“That’s why I’m so interested in this 3X3 format, as we see that take hold,” she said. “You’re going to ask me about (the winter league Athletes United)….I think that was great competition this year, and short-term something that keeps players in the U.S., as well.”

“Anything that grows the game of women’s basketball and grows the names that are both playing in the W, and those that may play in the W in the future that didn’t make a roster in a certain year. I think you’re going to see opportunities for that all around.”

The WNBA season tips off tomorrow.