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Volume 22 No. 32
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WNBA makes new push to up its business game

The WNBA opens a crucial 2019 season on Friday with significant new business initiatives and a new commissioner while also grappling with potential labor issues.

“We are at an inflection point in the growth of the league,” said WNBA Chief Operating Officer Christin Hedgpeth. “I’ve been around for several offseasons and I’d say without question that this has been the most productive offseason of my time here and we are proud of what we have accomplished.”

Cathy Engelbert, formerly CEO at Deloitte, was named commissioner last week and will oversee a branding overhaul.
Photo: nbae / getty images

Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert, who was named WNBA commissioner on May 15, takes over the league after an offseason that brought a branding overhaul led by Sylvain Labs that will be rolled out over the next year. That effort includes a new logo, advertising campaign and marketing approach aimed at a younger audience.

Engelbert is the league’s first commissioner; previously the top executive at the league held the title of president. The more significant title speaks to the league’s increased emphasis on expanding its business.

The league has boosted its exposure by adding CBS Sports Network as a TV partner with a deal that will put 40 live games on the network. CBS Sports Network joins ESPN and NBA TV as the league’s media partners. The WNBA also added a new marquee partner in AT&T that puts the company’s logo on WNBA team jerseys.

The challenges ahead are led by attendance. Last season the WNBA averaged 6,769 fans per game during the regular season, down 12 percent from 2017. It was the first time the league has ever dipped below an average of 7,000 fans per game.

The WNBA also must work out a new labor deal with players, who informed the league that they will opt out of their collective-bargaining agreement after this season (see related story). Issues around labor and player salaries were highlighted this past offseason when Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart ruptured her Achilles tendon playing in Europe. Many WNBA players spend the offseason playing in Europe to supplement their WNBA salaries.

Another key business challenge is league profitability. The WNBA reportedly has lost an average of $10 million per year over its 22-year history.

“The topic around pay is something that is not a gender issue, it is an economic issue,” Hedgpeth said. “We need to focus on the topic of creating a healthy, vibrant, sustainable business model. We all want the same thing. We are committed to getting to a fair agreement.”

WNBA team executives see the league’s new business efforts as the key to growth.

“We recognize the importance of this year,” said Ethan Casson, chief executive of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx franchises. “The brand relaunch is exciting and we recognize the importance of the decisions that are being made that impact the future and to grow and widen the fan base. We want to see the league not just survive, but thrive. We think the upcoming season is a critical period for the league but also an opportunity for us to innovate and try some things.”