‘An Absolutely Unimaginable Situation.’ WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert Addresses Brittney Griner Arrest

15 minute read

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Momentous disruptions—and some impressive wins—have marked the tenure of WNBA commissioner of Cathy Engelbert, who In 2019 left her CEO post at Deloitte to take over the league. In 2020, after Engelbert negotiated a collective bargaining bargaining agreement with WNBA players that resulted in notable salary and benefit gains, the pandemic put the WNBA on pause. The league restarted its season later that year in a Bradenton, Florida bubble, dubbed the “Wubble,” that became a nerve center of social activism in the wake of the killing of Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake.

The league, however, thrived through all this tumult; 2021 viewership on ESPN, for example, rose 49% compared to a year earlier, and was up 24% over 2019. Google signed on as a sponsor. The league inked a multi-year deal with Amazon Prime Video to become the first women’s pro sports league streamed on the service. On WNBAStore.com, the league’s regular-season merchandise sales jumped 50% over the prior year, a record growth.

Tip-off for the 2022 season came with great anticipation. But it’s been overshadowed by trepidation. In February Brittney Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star with the Phoenix Mercury—and a two-time Olympic gold medalist—was arrested at a Moscow-area airport, for allegedly carrying cannabis oil. Griner, who also plays for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg, remains in the country. In early May, the U.S. government classified Griner as “wrongfully detained.” On May 13, Griner’s lawyer said her pre-trial detention had been extended by a month.

Opening night, May 6, also arrived four days after the publication of a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, a decision that rankled many players—and the league. “The WNBA believes all women have the right to autonomy over their bodies and fair and equal access to health care,” the WNBA said in a statement.

Engelbert, the first female CEO of one of the Big Four accounting firms—and a former college basketball and lacrosse player—spoke to TIME about the Griner situation, Roe v. Wade, and why women’s sports are so undervalued.

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This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What can you share on Brittney Griner’s status?

It’s an absolutely unimaginable situation for for BG. Our thoughts are with her. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not working on this in some way. It was a really positive development for her case to be transferred into the part of the State Department that’s called the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. When you get this designation of being detained, not under the best conditions, they’ve shown success at getting people out. She does have the legal process to go through. We don’t have a lot of diplomatic options here.

We want to acknowledge her importance to the league, which is why Phoenix led, for all 12 of our teams, a philanthropic effort around BG’s Heart and Sole shoe drive. The support we’ve gotten has been been extraordinary.

Some people have suggested that Brittney’s team and the WNBA should have been more vocal in demanding her release. Have you received guidance from her team, from the government to keep a relatively low profile?

If you talk to any expert around this type of matter, we’re following their guidance to a tee. We’ve met with a variety of government officials, and that’s the guidance they were giving us. Now it’s shifted a little bit with this positive development of her case being transferred. That’s why you’re seeing us and teams and players out there a little bit more. We’re not experts on this. We’re running a sports league.

Have you been in touch with Brittney? Have you been able to talk to her?

You’re able to get messages to her. I’m sure they get scanned and reviewed and things like that. But you’re able to get a message of support to her. The players have talked about that. It’s not like she texts you back or anything. That’s not happening.

Griner’s agent, Linsday Kagawa Colas, wrote a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times: a headline for the piece read “Pay inequality led Brittney Griner to Russia. We must fix it.” Do you agree with that? Why or why not?

I came in to transfer the economic model, to work on that issue. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. This is hard work and it’s huge transformation. In the collective bargaining agreement that I was part of when I came in, we tripled the pay of the top players in the WNBA. With bonuses, players can now make $650,000. For four-and-a-half months of work, that isn’t bad. I wish my daughter who graduated from college four years ago would have that opportunity, but she doesn’t, right? We’re making enormous progress.

We’re being compared to men’s leagues. We have to get the ecosystem to rally around us, around media rights fees, around corporate sponsorship dollars. We’re seeing players make a lot more money. There’s a swath of the players that are always going to go play year round.

Remember, we’re only 25 years in. The NFL is over 100 years old. The NBA is celebrating 75 years. Forty years into the NBA, the NBA Finals was still on tape delay. They’ve come a long way with big media deals and big salaries. Give us some time. I know it’s not fast enough for everybody. But we’re working hard on it.

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The WNBA also tipped off after another momentous piece of news broke: the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that overturns Roe v. Wade. The WNBA markets itself as a “a bold progressive basketball league that stands for the power of women.” Given this, what’s your reaction to the draft opinion?

It’s extremely concerning. We believe in women’s health care, women’s access, women’s rights. We already have a very divided country on so many issues. We certainly didn’t need to add this one. We’re focused on our season but watching it very closely. We’re doing a unified theme this year around all of our 61 Commissioner Cup games, our special in-season competition, around civic engagement and voting rights. Because elections do have consequences. Look what has happened.

Why is this extremely concerning?

[Roe v. Wade] has been the crux of supporting and advocating for women’s personal decisions regarding their health since I was a kid. It’s ironic that we’re celebrating the 50 years of Title IX and at the same time Roe is being challenged. I was one of those Title IX kids. I got opportunities to play sports because Title IX gave that opportunity to me. As a women’s sports league, we’ll continue to lead and the players will continue to fight. We really need to be focused on who’s getting elected in these state and local legislatures. Sports can be a great uniter on things. But we also have to be the educator on things.

What has been the key to some of the positive metrics the WNBA has been seeing going into this new season?

People are realizing that women’s professional sports are working women in the workforce. And we need to support them in a bigger way. There’s been a huge underinvestment and undervaluation of women in the workforce, and in women’s sports. I came to a league that was really being under-covered. You hear about, less than 1% of all corporate sponsorship dollars that go to sports, go to women’s sports. And in fact, a lot of that goes to individual women’s sports, not team sports.

I’m seeing a transformation before my eyes. We’re starting to be seen as a bold progressive, sports media and entertainment property. We embody diversity and stand for social justice and the power of women. You look at companies, and they all want to make their mark around diversity, equity and inclusion. They all have these big initiatives internally. Now’s the time to use women’s sports as as part of supporting that diversity and equity and inclusion.

Why do you think there was such undervaluation for so many years?

First of all, these big companies are led by men. Second, they’re using metrics that don’t give any quantitative value to things like diversity, equity and inclusion. Things like how strong these players are in their communities. When we launched our Social Justice Council, it wasn’t one and done. They continue with it every year. None of that gets factored into a spreadsheet. It’s just eyes on the game. But if less than 5% of all media coverage goes to women’s sports, it’s a circular argument to say we don’t have enough eyes on the game. You’re not showing us. We’ll have 160 games on national platforms this year, highest in our history. When we get covered, we deliver.

As part of our raising capital, we had outside advisors come with an analysis showing that our viewership is on par with the NHL, NASCAR and MLS. Yet their media rights fees are five-to-15 times ours. How do you get that bias out of that valuation model? That part’s crazy to me. I’m not going to rest till I fix that.

The WNBA announced a $75 million capital raise in February. Where is that money going? What’s the priority for this infusion?

There are so many areas. How do we get merchandise right? Because fans complain they can’t get our merch, even though it’s out there. We haven’t been good at communicating. So [on the tech front] we’re hiring WordPress engineers and things like that to make sure what we’re transforming that. That’s going to take a year or two.

The other thing is marketing. We’re going to pay over $1 million dollars in marketing money to players this year to market the league in the offseason. And finding other ways, like our special competition, the Commissioner’s Cup, and putting up a half-million dollar prize pool that, quite frankly, this capital gives us the confidence to continue to do. Sports betting, NFTs, gaming. Do more in the youth area. Globalize the game—we have not done a good job of globalizing our game, and we need to do that.

I have to get to the the agencies that advise media companies on rights, because there’s this whole ecosystem out there that we have to break, the traditional spreadsheet model on how they value us. So we’re going to spend some money there as well. That’s probably going to be the most impactful longer term, if we can if we can get that disrupted. Our data would show we have about 30 million fans who interact with WNBA content in any given year. I want to get that to 100 million. And I think that’s definitely achievable.

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How soon do you think that’s doable?

A couple of years. The more exposure we get, the more we grow the fan base. Once we bring them in, they come back. We’re proud of what we’ve been able to do so far. But we’ve got a lot of hard work to do.

What are the league’s expansion plans?

We are looking at expansion. We’re doing a huge analysis of it and we have lots of cities that are interested. We don’t want to bring new owners— whether it’s two or four or one— and not have them the set up for success. We’re doing all the data analysis for a 100 cities, through a lens of all the demographics and psychographics and arenas and Fortune 500 companies based there, the NCAA viewership, the current WNBA fandom in that city.

In a country of our size and scale, with an increasingly diverse population, and the most diverse league is in only 12 cities, that’s not enough. By mid to late summer, I’ll have more to say on where we’re trending.

Since you’ve done some analysis, I just can’t help but wonder if there’s an early standout, or a dream city where you’d like a WNBA team to land?

I don’t have a bias right now. We’re talking to a fair amount of cities. I will say, think about the cities where we’re not and where we used to be, you know, like Houston and Sacramento and Portland. Also the Bay Area. Think about the tech center of our country. Technology is driving so much of your economy and there’s no WNBA team in the Bay Area. But we’re open to all options.

In March, Sports Illustrated reported that the New York Liberty was fined $500,000 for using charter flights on trips last season, and for violating other league rules. But critics noted that the league was essentially punishing a team for treating its players too well. What’s your response to that?

We have rules for a reason. The players are unionized, and the players signed the collective bargaining agreement. We’d love to be able to have an economic model for better travel. But it comes back to this undervaluation of women. If we had billion-dollar media deals, we’d be flying on charters. They’d be making a lot more money. But you just can’t allow the violation of the agreements that both owners and players sign. You can’t allow one team a competitive advantage. That’s why we’re working on this transformation to try to get an economic model to support all of these things that the players complain about. You have to have thick skin to run a professional sports league. But you have to also enforce the rules that you have. That’s what we did here.

What challenges are unique to running a sports league that you didn’t find in your prior CEO life at Deloitte?

What’s different is you have 12 owners who are all competing against one another. And they all want to win a championship. And then you have, obviously the media, it’s much more of a public facing role than I thought. Certainly versus Deloitte, a private company. And then the fan stakeholder is really interesting. When I go to arenas, I like to meet with fan groups and hear what their peeve points are about us, and what their positives are.

I never had a union workforce. Right now it’s a union workforce. So I went from 100,000 people to 144. And you might think it’s a lot easier. Nope.

So given the nature of the fan stakeholder, I assume you don’t get yelled at as much as the CEO of Deloitte walking into your workplace as you might in the WNBA, right?

[Laughs] Yeah, especially complaints about refereeing. I love that part of the job because fans are so avid and rabid around their team. I’m one of eight kids with five brothers. I’ve been a huge sports fan my whole life and we all think there’s biases in this system. So but I love that part. Because that means we’re relevant.

What’s your de-stressing technique?

A couple of things, I learned this at Deloitte because when you’re running a firm of that size, you have to find time. We dubbed them smors. My EA used to put them on my calendar: Small moments of recovery. You need moments during the day. One thing as an executive, you can’t wait for the weekend. You’ve got to put the smors on your calendar during the day or you’ll go crazy.

I didn’t know this when I took the job, but once our games start, this calmness comes over me. It’s kind of neat.

Can you give our readers a prediction, or projection, on what the WNBA will look like in five years?

We’re hopefully going to have more teams. We’re going to have more household names, more people knowing who WNBA players are, what they stand for. And I think we’re going to hopefully have players, who are really proud of what they’ve accomplished, to set the next generation of players up for the next 20 years after that. Let’s get to the point where our players are known worldwide, not just here in the US.

On a scale of one on a scale of one to 10, what’s your belief that that’s going to happen?

Probably a nine. If I could control it all I would be a 10. But since I don’t control the whole ecosystem, I have to leave myself a little bit of room.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com