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Volume 26 No. 139
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WNBA's Cathy Engelbert Details Leadership Stance

Going from the first female CEO of a Big 4 accounting firm to the first Commissioner in WNBA history was a big shift for Cathy Engelbert. But having grown up in an “athletic environment,” with five brothers and a father who played in the NBA -- and even playing herself for coaching legend Muffet McGraw at Lehigh -- Engelbert has been taking lessons from sports her entire life. Appearing on the opening panel of the SBJ '19 Game Changers Conference today in N.Y., Engelbert said one of the biggest things McGraw taught her was to “be my best in ordinary moments.” Engelbert: “As I came into the working world, I saw very disparate systems around women rising in the workforce. So it was really important to me to ultimately use the confidence I learned through sports to lead and bring the next generation behind me. The best piece of advice I got was actually from Condoleezza Rice when I first became the CEO at Deloitte. She said, ‘Cathy, you're not going to be the leader of Deloitte forever. So one of your No. 1 jobs is to find the next generation of leaders behind you and develop them to become you.’ And so that’s always been important to me.”

LEADING THE WNBA: Engelbert said she has three “pillars” of running the WNBA, which are to grow revenue, expand the fanbase and improve on the player experience, which she believes will help lead a “multidimensional transformation” with the 23-year-old league. She said, “The economics are so important here. In order to do things like player experience and fan experience and broaden the fan base, you've got to get the right economic model. And that's one of the main reasons, with my business experience, I was hired. We have essentially one national, non-apparel, corporate sponsorship with AT&T. It's on the front of every jersey this year for the first time. But only 5% of global corporate sponsorship dollars are directed towards women's sports. That's a pretty stark number. And something like 4% of all sports media coverage covers women's sports. I think about those numbers, and you need the whole sports ecosystem to support not just the WNBA but women's sports more broadly, because I think it'll raise everyone up.” One of Engelbert’s short term goals revolves around the CBA, which players opted out of earlier this year and expires in October. “I’m fortunate to have an opportunity to talk to the players and the players' association," she said. "This is a moment where we can really transform the league and aid back to the corporate sponsorship. What's resonating with a corporation is, ‘Oh, we have the opportunity to help transform a lot of women's professional sports league.’ It's pretty compelling.”

ADVICE FOR THE NEXT GENERATION: Engelbert’s biggest advice for young women in the sports business is to “raise your hand.” Before she left Deloitte, Engelbert found that nine men had asked to take over her role, compare to zero women. Engelbert: “Come out of that comfort zone and think bigger.  … There are points of my career after five years, after seven years, after 12 years where I didn't know I was actually taking on a role that would position me for a broader leadership role, but I raised my hand to do something different. As you look at leadership and leadership development, it's all about broadening your skill set.”

* One of her biggest concerns with taking over the WNBA? “Expanding the fanbase.” She said, “All women's sports are struggling with how do we get fans in the seats, and then we can transform everything else. But if 84% of people out there are really interested in women's sports, how do you drive them in? Because once they get in arena, at least in my experience, they like what they're seeing. The WNBA is big enough not to crumble on old ideas and small enough to be bold. So maybe we do some bold things in arena and around tech savvy experiences.”

* On how transitioning from the corporate world to the sports world has met her expectations: “I actually thought it was gonna be really different. What I've learned though is that sports is big business, and business is about relationships.”