Cathy Engelbert to be new WNBA commissioner

WNBA commissioner, Cathy Engelbert (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)
WNBA commissioner, Cathy Engelbert (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images) /

A mixture of the attributes most necessary in a league leader.

Cathy Engelbert is the WNBA commissioner, giving the league leadership at a critical time in its history, the league announced on ESPN early WEdnesday afternoon. The move was first reported by Doug Feinberg of the AP.

Engelbert, a longtime executive at the consulting firm Deloitte, rose to the level of CEO in the company. That elevation itself represented the shattering of a glass ceiling — she became the first female head of one of the industry’s Big Four companies.

“I think as I thought about what I wanted to do next, I wanted to do something with a broader leadership platform,” Engelbert said Wednesday afternoon on SportsCenter. “It’s something I had a passion for. And you mentioned I played college basketball under now-Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw. And so, very excited to be doing something I have a huge passion for, bring kind of a business lens to the WNBA.”

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But Engelbert has been a leader in the field of basketball long before her business career began. After a successful high school career in New Jersey, home to basketball giants like Anne Donovan and Cheryl Reeve, Engelbert went to play for a little school called Lehigh University for McGraw.

Engelbert scored 20 points for McGraw’s Lehigh in March 1986, leading the Engineers to an East Coast Conference championship over Delaware.

“Well, I was a point guard, so I ran the offense, and I had a few steals along the way, too,” Engelbert said.

What followed was a meteoric rise for Engelbert, becoming a partner at Deloitte in 1998. (McGraw went on to do okay for herself as well, leaving for Notre Dame the following year.)

Engelbert has been an advocate for women in the workplace, most recently serving as a board member for Catalyst, a nonprofit dedicated to the issue.

“I think there’s a moment where these are world-class athletes,” Engelbert said. “I think women’s basketball is on the rise. As we think about fan engagement, fan experience, player experience, these are all the things I’ll be looking at as I transition into the role, really, to drive and bring a business lens to run a thriving business here at the W.”

For the league, Engelbert represents the rarest of things: a president steeped in both business and basketball. Lisa Borders, Engelbert’s predecessor who resigned last fall, acknowledged needing to get up to speed on the latter once she took the presidency.

There’s no time for that, not with the WNBA in the midst of CBA negotiations with the players, who opted out of the last CBA last fall. The two sides have until the current deal expires at the conclusion of the 2019 season.

Another reason for optimism: the WNBPA got a chance to meet with the final candidates, getting read into the process earlier than in past leadership decisions.

“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,” the WNBPA said in a release.

“We want to recognize the league for honoring our request to provide our Union the opportunity to meet with the final candidates.

“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.”

And the sign-off from Adam Silver, of course, is vital for a league that needs his buy-in as completely as possible. Accordingly, it is significant that once she begins her new role on July 17, she will report directly to Silver.

“Cathy is a world-class business leader with a deep connection to women’s basketball, which makes her the ideal person to lead the WNBA into its next phase of growth,” Silver said in a press release.  “The WNBA will benefit significantly from her more than 30 years of business and operational experience including revenue generation, sharp entrepreneurial instincts and proven management abilities.”

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