By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) – Cathy Engelbert left her mark during a four-year stint as chief executive of Deloitte and now hopes to have a similar impact in her new role as commissioner of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).
Engelbert, 54, will join the WNBA on July 17 as the league’s first commissioner and her immediate focus will be on bolstering visibility for the sport of women’s basketball, empowering the players and enhancing fan engagement.
For Engelbert, a former Lehigh University basketball player, the timing could not be better as she feels society is at an inflection point for women and plans to tap into that as she looks to elevate the WNBA and its fanbase.
“That’s quite frankly one of the reasons I took this role,” Engelbert told Reuters in a telephone interview. “I have been very impressed with the WNBA players and their strong voices on social issues, their strong voices in their communities.
“There is a moment here to capitalise and leverage that as part of enhancing the brand, and when you do that you grab a coolness factor among a broader set of the fanbase and hopefully that will attract more fans to the games.”
Engelbert, who became the first woman to head a Big Four accounting firm in the United States when she was named chief executive of Deloitte in 2015, brings plenty of business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit to her new role.
When the WNBA announced Engelbert’s hiring, it highlighted her achievements at Deloitte, including a 30% rise in revenue during her tenure as chief executive, a commitment to diversity and inclusion and 16-week family-leave policy.
After gaining more than 30 years of business and operational experience, Engelbert was motivated to take on a new challenge, one with a broad women’s leadership platform, and something she had a passion for.
The WNBA, which had been without a permanent leader since Lisa Borders resigned as president in October, named Engelbert as commissioner in May. The change in job title, bringing it in line with the heads of the other major U.S.-based leagues, was every bit intentional.
Engelbert, who NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called a “world-class business leader” in the news release that announced her appointment, said the title change was intended to signal to the broadest possible audience that the WNBA is a major league.
“It’s appropriate, especially in this environment with the discussion around gender parity and women in business, sports, government, whatever you call it,” said Engelbert, who will report to Silver. “So I think it’s quite progressive and smart.”
A change in someone’s job title alone does not transform a league overnight, so Engelbert will have plenty of work ahead as she takes over the helm of a league that recently underwent a refresh of its brand complete with a new logo.
Not helping matters in her first season in the job is that some of the WNBA’s most visible stars, including reigning Most Valuable Player Breanna Stewart, are either out due to injuries or for personal reasons.
But Stewart, who led the Seattle Storm to a championship last year before she tore her Achilles in the EuroLeague title game in April, may still be able to help the brand off the court as she has been hired as a league ambassador while she recovers.
Engelbert has an added challenge given the WNBA will need to work out a new collective bargaining agreement since players decided to opt out of the current labour deal after the current season.
The WNBA, in its 23rd season, is well established and many years removed from being considered a novelty by some, and according to Engelbert the time is ripe to take the league to heights once considered unimaginable.
While Engelbert is open to expansion “down the road” she stressed that her immediate focus will be on the health of the existing 12 franchises and making the WNBA, which is subsidised by the NBA, a sustainable business.
“Certainly, fully committed to looking at and evaluating opportunities presented down the road on expansion but first we’ve got to make sure the league is a sustainable business,” said Engelbert.
“My immediate focus is going to be on the overall health of our existing 12 franchises and making sure I get out to meet everyone in the ecosystem: the owners, the players and hopefully corporate sponsors.”
For Engelbert, she has a crystal clear idea of what success at the WNBA would look like through her eyes.
“We want more fans in the seats, we want more corporate sponsorships, more exposure for the brand and for these women who have strong social voices to do a lot in the communities in which they live, work and play,” said Engelbert.
“Bringing all of that together will be an important part of my focus.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond)