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WNBA commissioner details her plan to supercharge the league

Melody Hahm
West Coast Correspondent

The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and the Women’s National Basketball Players struck an eight-year labor deal that includes boosting the average player salary to six figures, guaranteeing full pay during maternity leave and providing better travel conditions.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert was instrumental in negotiating the collective bargaining agreement. A core part of the vision is to help catapult WNBA players like Candace Parker and Sue Bird to global superstardom, akin to the way LeBron James and Steph Curry have become household names.

“One of the things I noticed is we have a marketing problem,” Engelbert told Yahoo Finance at the MAKERS conference in Los Angeles. “We really need to step up our marketing dollars. In the collective bargaining agreement, we put forth substantial dollars in league and team marketing agreements so that now we can actually employ and pay our players to help us market the league... we don’t have the typical economic model through media and sponsorships that men’s leagues have.”

Watch full coverage of the 2020 MAKERS Conference

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. (Source: Yahoo Finance)
(Source: Yahoo Finance)

Prior to joining the WNBA in July 2019, Engelbert was the first female CEO at one of the ‘Big 4’ professional service firms. Her 33 years at Deloitte serve as a solid foundation for the league’s future, with her previous employer becoming an inaugural partner for “WNBA Changemakers,” the new corporate sponsorship program.

“We’re really going to step it up and market these players,” she stressed. “I would love to have all 144 under these agreements. But we’re going to pick some of our top players who have a real feel for marketing and appealing to the fanbase, and bring in new fans.”

The way people look at women’s sports

Engelbert, a former college basketball player, was recruited for the role, which she chose over another role in corporate finance. Though initially it took some convincing, meeting with NBA commissioner Adam Silver sealed the deal for her. She also recognized how her background could be crucial in helping the WNBA become a money-making business.

“On average (we’ve lost) over $10 million every year we’ve operated,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told the Associated Press in 2018.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 10:  Alyssa Thomas #25 of the Connecticut Sun shoots the ball against the Washington Mystics in Game 5 of the 2019 WNBA Finals at St Elizabeths East Entertainment & Sports Arena on October 10, 2019 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
Alyssa Thomas #25 of the Connecticut Sun shoots the ball against the Washington Mystics in Game 5 of the 2019 WNBA Finals at St Elizabeths East Entertainment & Sports Arena on October 10, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

“It’s great to have a second career in sports and use all of those relationships because sports is big business, and big business is about relationships. So that part of my new job is very similar to my old job—furthering these relationships, tapping those relationships that I’ve built over time,” Engelbert said.

She continued: “We’re going to change the way people look at women’s sports, especially women’s team sports, since less than 4% of all media covers women’s sports and less than 1% of all corporate sponsorship dollars globally go to women’s sports. So we’ve got to change those numbers and move those percentages up.”

MAKERS and Yahoo Finance are both part of Verizon Media.

A version of this post was originally published on Yahoo Finance.

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Melody Hahm is Yahoo Finance’s west coast correspondent, covering entrepreneurship, technology and culture. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm. Read more:

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