Worth the Wait? Cathy Engelbert named WNBA Commissioner

By B Terrell

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32 weeks. That’s how long it’s been since the WNBA had been without a president. In the months since Lisa Borders’s resignation on October 2, 2018, the league’s been under the direction of NBA Deputy Commissioner and COO, Mark Tatum. With tip-off just a little over a week away, many were wondering if the promise and timeline of announcing a new commissioner “by the start of the regular season” would be kept.

Well, the long-awaited announcement of who would take the reins and hopefully usher in a new era of growth finally came on Wednesday. With no warning or build-up and in seemingly surprise fashion (add just a little sarcasm), Cathy Engelbert was formally announced as WNBA Commissioner – an obvious title change from president.

Boasting a long list of accolades including being named on Fortune’s list of Most Powerful Women, Engelbert possesses a strong business acumen along with high-level basketball experience. Having served as CEO of Deloitte since 2015 (a role she will hold until June 1), she brings valuable financial accounting experience to the role. That experience could come in handy soon. In November 2018, players voted to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire after the 2019 season. With increased attention on pay disparity, travel accommodations, and overall benefits, Engelbert’s successful track record of leadership will be front and center. Of course, there are the ubiquitous questions surrounding expansion – that’s a different conversation for another day.

A standout two-sport athlete in her own right, Engelbert played on the lacrosse and basketball teams at Lehigh University where she served as captain and graduated in 1986. It was under future Hall of Fame coach, Muffet McGraw, where the challenge to “be your best in your ordinary moments” was issued and accepted. It may be safe to say those ordinary moments have prepared her for great moments.

Engelbert shared her excitement in an official statement from the league: “It is an absolute privilege to be joining the WNBA at such an exciting and important time in its history. I see tremendous opportunity to bolster visibility for the sport of women’s basketball, empower the players, and enhance fan engagement. I look forward to using my business expertise and passion for basketball to promote women in the game and beyond, and to working with the teams and world-class athletes to help grow this league into a thriving business.”

How do the athletes feel about the hiring announcement? I reached out to a few current and former players to get their thoughts. Here’s what they had to say:

“I’m very happy that we have a commissioner in place and thrilled to know that her extensive background in business will serve us well. I think it’s a fabulous moment for her to lead the charge for our young league. Being innovative in her business approach and aggressive in continuing to support the important issues of the players while growing our league should be a focus point for her. I wish her well and I look forward to yet another amazing season in the W.” – DeLisha Milton-Jones, Pepperdine Head Coach

“First thoughts of the new league commissioner is just a sigh of relief knowing we do not have to start the season without anyone representing our league. I’m confident she has our best interests in mind and is ready to help build this league even more with her experience.” – Tiffany Mitchell, Indiana Fever

“Just happy the league finally has a voice for its players.” – Dawn Staley, South Carolina Head Coach

“I’m excited to see what Cathy Engelbert will bring to the WNBA. She has a very impressive resume and I love that she has a multi-dimensional understanding of the business of our game.” – Renee Montgomery, Atlanta Dream

Engelbert begins her role as commissioner on June 17 and it’s no secret that she takes over during a time where there’s a desire for greater visibility. With the demands of technological innovation and overall increased exposure, it’s good to see that news of her hire is being met with optimism. However, it’ll take more than optimism to get the job done.

Buckle up, because there’s a new commissioner in town.

The WNBA will tip off its 23rd season Friday, May 24.