Nine days before the start of the 2019 WNBA season, the league finally hired a commissioner. Cathy Engelbert, the former CEO of Deloitte, will be at the helm of the WNBA in its 23rd season.
This is the first time the WNBA has had a commissioner, and she will report directly to Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner. Previously, the leader of the WNBA was termed a ‘president’. Lisa Borders, the fourth president of the WNBA, stepped down in October, and the league had been searching for a replacement while NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum served as acting president in the interim.
Engelbert has spent 33 years at Deloitte, where she rose to become the first-ever female CEO of one of the industry’s Big Four. She is also the CEO of Catalyst, a global nonprofit with the mission of “building workplaces that work for women”. Her experience fighting for inclusion and diversity make her a natural fit for the WNBA.
Engelbert also played college basketball at Lehigh, where she was coached by Muffet McGraw. McGraw made headlines at the Final Four earlier this year when she stumped for more women in leadership positions and said she would never hire another man to coach on her staff. She gave a ringing endorsement of Engelbert’s candidacy to ESPN.
The new commissioner’s background in both business and basketball will help her get up to speed when she officially begins on July 17, as the WNBA is headed towards collective bargaining negotiations this offseason. The Players Association opted out of the current CBA in the fall of 2018. Among their priorities for the new agreement are more transparency regarding the league’s financials, a more equitable distribution of revenue, improved travel conditions and higher compensation.
The WNBPA leadership had the opportunity to meet with final candidates for the role of commissioner, and issued a statement of support for Engelbert:
“With the announcement that Cathy Engelbert has been hired as the next WNBA President, 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….
“We look forward to working with Cathy, and seeing a redefined commitment to policies that value and support the working women and working mothers across the league. The progressive thinking and values Cathy has demonstrated throughout her career leave us optimistic about what the future could look like for WNBA Players.”
Although the WNBA is receiving more national exposure than ever, the league is also in a precarious position as several of its stars are sitting out the upcoming season for personal reasons or due to injuries suffered while playing year-round basketball to maximize their earning potential. The league has never had a work stoppage, however, and Engelbert’s primary task will be making sure that streak continues as she presides over labor negotiations.
It is a challenge for a new leader, but it is encouraging that the WNBA finally has empowered someone with authority to take charge of this league.