WNBA commissioner sees ‘some momentum around the W’
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has been on the job for about two months, but already the former Deloitte CEO is well-versed with the challenges and opportunities within the league as it enters its postseason.
The WNBA’s 2019 regular-season average attendance dipped 3.5% to 6,535 fans per game this year. That number was affected by the Washington Mystics’ move to the far-smaller, 4,200-seat Entertainment & Sports Arena this year from the 20,000-seat Capital One Arena, resulting in a 25.9% drop in attendance.
The WNBA had 41 sellouts this year, the same as last season and tied for the fourth-highest overall in the league’s 23-year history. Engelbert sees one positive at the gate, as the percentage of arena capacity increased this season by 2.1% to 81.7% in the 12-team league.
On television, the WNBA saw combined viewership across all its networks in ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and NBA TV increase by 5% with combined viewership on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 growing by 7%.
In addition, the league is building off its new logo and branding effort this season by debuting a 30-second spot to promote the playoffs. The branding effort has been well received and aims to amplify the league’s pop cultural presence.
With a short body of work, Engelbert feels most confident in comparing metrics.
“Coming from my old life, I am always looking at comparisons,” said Engelbert, who joined the WNBA in July. “We are showing that the WNBA is broader than attendance and viewership. There is some momentum around the W based on the impact it is having in women’s sports.”
Engelbert spent her first two months on the job visiting every WNBA market, and she now faces the upcoming offseason charged with negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement while also looking to drive league revenue and improve fan and player experiences.
The league is currently in CBA negotiations for a new labor deal after the players opted out of the current agreement.
“We are having productive discussions,” Engelbert said of the CBA talks.
She would not discuss the profitability of the league, given that the season is still underway and that she has only been working for the league since July. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told the Associated Press last year that the WNBA has lost an average of $10 million per year.
“One of the reasons I was hired was to assess the economic model of the league and teams,” Engelbert said. “Everything is solved by broadening the revenue base. My role is to look at the financials and how we drive a sustainable model going forward. We have got to work really hard to find ways to broaden our revenue base.”
Engelbert faces the challenge with no prior experience in the sports industry, but she said she is finding that her business background lends itself well to the WNBA.
“I thought it would be so different, but sports is business and business is about relationships,” she said. “Given my long history in the corporate world, I’ve been pleased that my skill set is transferable.”