The honeymoon period will be brief for newly appointed WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
Appointed by NBA commissioner Adam Silver on Wednesday, Engelbert, who will start on July 17, enters the league as it is about to go through the biggest and most contentious period in its 23-year history.
WNBA players have agreed to pull out of the collective bargaining agreement after the 2019 season. The players are seeking significantly higher salaries, better working conditions, and benefits from a league that says it cannot afford to increase its financial obligations in dramatic fashion.
The players want to significantly change the league’s financial structure, and the possibility of a work stoppage is already in the conversation.
A native of Collingswood, N.J., and a graduate of Lehigh University, Engelbert will have to square things quickly with women who have watched NBA salaries skyrocket, while they making a small fraction by comparison.
These are not the pioneer players of the WNBA, who were primarily happy just to have a professional league in the United States where they could perform.
Simply put, these women feel they work as hard as men and want to be compensated more like their NBA counterparts.
“I think one of the reasons I got this role was to come in with a business blend to build the WNBA into a thriving business,” said Englebert, CEO of the Fortune 500 company Deloitte, a global professional services company. “I agree that these are different athletes who expect to play in the WNBA and obviously want to make money. They want this to be a career for them.
“I hope those are things I can address, with having a business background. Everything is solved by putting more fans in the seats, having higher revenue and a broader revenue stream.”
Engelbert said she has had contact with the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, but expects talks to intensify once she starts.
“We need to attract millennials, which is different from the fan base we have. These are fabulous world-class athletes who I think we can build momentum off of," she said.
“We need the players to have confidence that, as a league, we are going to grow this to a higher level.”
At Lehigh, she played for Muffet McGraw, the current Notre Dame coach and a Basketball Hall of Famer. Engelbert certainly brings enthusiasm to her new position.
“It is a pleasure to join the WNBA at such an important time in its history,” said Engelbert, who takes over for Lisa Borders, who stepped down in October. “More important, this is a moment in time for women’s leadership.
“There’s no place like sports for women and girls to gather confidence to become professionals in life.