Prior to WNBA Finals Game 1 between the Connecticut Sun and Washington Mystics Sunday, league commissioner Cathy Engelbert answered questions from media:
COMMISSIONER ENGELBERT: Good afternoon, everyone. It’s great to be in Washington tipping off the WNBA Finals presented by YouTube TV. I want to begin by congratulating the two teams who are here with us today and, quite frankly, all of our playoff teams.
The Washington Mystics are making their second straight trip to the Finals. And the Connecticut Sun are returning for the first time since back-to-back appearances in 2004 and 2005. Both teams are seeking their first WNBA championship. And seeing how they played all season long, I know we are in for a great series.
The playoffs have been quite exciting with competitive play and enormous talent on the court. I hope you all have seen that. We have two at the top vote-getters with Elena Delle Donne, in our 2019 MVP balloting, with Elena Delle Donne, who was our VP, and Jonquel Jones, from Connecticut, who finished third in the voting.
Teams are averaging in the playoffs 85.3 points per game, the highest in our postseason history. In addition, since changing the postseason format in 2016 and seeding teams one through eight regardless of conference, this marks the third time in four seasons that the teams with the two best regular season records have reached the Finals.
I spent a good part of my time as Commissioner since mid-July on the road traveling to all 12 of the markets, meeting with teams, players, fans, media, potential sponsors, supporters, advocates for our league. I’ve been encouraged by the support I’ve seen and the attention people are paying to the W.
We attracted over 1.3 million spectators/fans to our arenas this year with combined average viewership across all networks was up five percent. Merchandise sales were also up 38 percent. And the WNBA experienced heavy fan engagement across social media with more than 18 million likes and followers globally across our league – team and the players’ social media platforms.
I’ve received a lot of feedback, as you can imagine, in my 12-city tour, which has been helpful as we transform this league into a sustainable and profitable business. And I continue to evaluate a series of data that is that has actually troubled me and that I wasn’t aware of coming into this role. I’ve learned over the past couple of weeks that only five percent of global investment in corporate sports sponsorships are directed to women’s sports. And only approximately five percent of sports media coverage is about women’s sports. Yet 84 – I saw a statistic – about 84 percent of people surveyed are interested in women’s sports.
It was concerning to learn that fans can’t easily find our games, whether they’re looking on cable TV, social media or sports websites. You can find other sports with one click. But with the W you have to make a concerted effort to search. My goal is to get with the decision makers of these organizations to make sure the W is on the radar as they code these things into their programming.
These are just a few small examples, but I truly believe there’s no better time than now for us to take advantage and take this league to new heights. We welcome those who want to invest in our league that showcases without doubt, and I’ve seen this myself, the best athletes in the world. And it’s also a league that’s empowering women and young girls with our female role models and is in growth mode.
My three pillars that I talked about in Las Vegas that will lead to this growth actually remain the same after my entire tour. First, further develop the economics of the league. My team and I are working very hard to bring in potential sponsors who share the same commitment as we do in growing women’s sports and lifting up women more broadly in society.
As part of developing the business, we need more fans in our seats, which is my second pillar. We will be discussing and looking at new innovative ways to attract more fans, to increase fan engagement, including in a more tech-savvy way.
And, of course, improving the player experience has been my third pillar, utmost importance, and as you’re aware we’re in the midst of collective bargaining negotiations. We can continue to have productive conversations and meetings. This remains a top priority for all involved and we all share the same goals to grow this league and have the athletes in the WNBA receive the recognition they deserve.
We can’t thank you enough for all your efforts in telling the amazing stories and your in-depth coverage of the W. We greatly appreciate it and urge you to keep telling the great stories of our players and teams and to continue to push your organizations to give these elite women role models the coverage and attention they deserve year-round. With that I’m happy to take your questions.
Could you give a specific of your 12-city listening tour, the positives you heard from people and maybe something that needs to be worked on? Second part, to be a little more specific on the CBA, have you been negotiating lately, do you wait until the Finals are over? Is there a more concrete answer than just we’re just aware of it and we’re obviously a top priority, or was it more than just that?
COMMISSIONER ENGELBERT: First on the 12-city tour, a lot of positives – the play on the court, the intensity. I think because of our short season, with 34 games, coming off the All-Star break, which is when I started my tour, the play on the court, the fan engagement, quite frankly, as I went around the league, you know the fan experience, arena experience. So there’s a lot of good there.
There are challenges, though. Fans, I got to meet with lots of fans in lots of cities around their frustrations around merchandise, their frustrations, again, around the attention the W, around playing the players, all things that are all elements both of the CBA and the pillars.
And your second question, around CBA, again, we’re in active negotiations. We’re not waiting for the Finals to be over and we continue to look at those pillars there around player well-being, player pay and obviously player travel experience, which again are all part of my player experience.
And I think I’ve shared this with some of you as I was on my tour about how interesting it’s been for me coming over a long three decades in business around how enduring this negotiation, how it’s very clear that we all have the same goals here – again, to lift the players, the player experience, whether it be from travel, health and wellness or pay, we need an economic model that will sustain this league and make this league a thriving one for the future
Your impressions on this building, and then more broadly having the WNBA Finals in the nation’s capital proper, especially given last season when the Mystics were kind of nomads in the playoffs?
COMMISSIONER ENGELBERT: I think arenas are really important to our fan experience. And since that’s one of my three pillars, this is really important.
I think you’ll see the play today. You’ll see the fan experience. I understand we’re going to have a great crowd today. I think it’s great to have the Finals back here in, back from last year in the nation’s capital.
And I really think – this is my fourth time in arena here – because I did attend a couple of the playoff games in addition to the regular season game – and I think the Monumental Sports, Monumental Basketball has done a great job of bringing the fan experience into a smaller venue where the intimacy and the intensity of the play and as a fan being close to the play is a great thing.
I think as I look again at other cities, I think some play in bigger arenas, some in smaller arenas. And I think there’s no one-size-fits-all, but I think if we do work on providing our fan a great experience and adding a little tech savviness and broadening our fan base, I think that’s part of the goal. But very pleased with what I see here in Washington.
(WNBPA executive director) Terri Jackson put out a statement this morning talking about the fact that it was a waste of time to consider the WNBA’s economics compared to the NBA’s. I’m wondering if you see it that way, number one. And number two, whether you see new investment as a critical part, new investment from the NBA as a critical part in getting a CBA done that’s amenable to all sides.
COMMISSIONER ENGELBERT: I think Terri is the head of our Players Association. We’ve been working hard with Terri to discuss what is the right economic model to fund the things we want to do around player experience. So that’s number one.
And I think, I applaud Terri’s statement this morning around how the players are thinking, how we’re thinking to make sure that we reach an agreement that’s fair to both parties. And, again, I don’t view it as fair to both parties. I actually quite frankly view it as we have the same goal here to lift the players year-round. So I think that’s that.
And again, I never say nothing’s – everything’s possible, but first you need to transform the economic model of this league in order to get the W’s recognition. You heard the statistics that I was most concerned about that, that I did have on my radar prior to coming in this role. If we can move those and tick them up, not even saying get them to 50 percent but get them to a real healthy percentage of corporate sponsors, advocates’ influence in our leagues, more coverage, broader year-round.
We’ve got this opportunity with USA Basketball to be highlighting our players who are all WNBA players throughout the year, going into Tokyo 2020 and into our 2020 season.
So lots of things pointing north, I’ll call it, and lots of positives. So, again, these are all things we’re thinking about, how we market the league, the sales and marketing capability at the team level, and obviously the media sports attention and corporate sponsorships are all things that I think all come back to driving economics to a higher level so we can start answering that question with more specifics.
You mentioned I think the five percent in terms of global sports sponsorship from the corporate world. That was your world for over three decades. What do you think is the biggest impediment to why there hasn’t been more buy-in especially from, let’s put the onus on female executives, but that there hasn’t been more in general and maybe specifically women executives having a specific interest in sponsoring the WNBA?
COMMISSIONER ENGELBERT: Great question. I think part is making sure we have the right narrative and platform to market and sell this league. When you look at – and I was on the other side of the table negotiating sponsorships, and what interests that the corporate world would have in an amazingly diverse set of female athletes, role models, college graduates, who you really can activate a sports sponsorship around.
So I think it was around the right narrative talking to the right people in these corporate organizations and certainly something hopefully that I’m bringing from the business side is to know who to talk to, what the right narrative, what the platform is, what are the assets of the WNBA that we can market to a corporate to activate against.
Those are all the things the team, (league executives) Christy Hedgpeth, Bethany Donaphin and myself, we’ve been all working hard on honing that, pitching that to (corporations) and getting them to essentially sign on to support what I say is not just women’s basketball but women’s sports.
One thing about my tour in the 12 markets, I’ve kind of – it hit me probably midway through the tour that we had this moment in women’s sports coming off the USA Soccer win. We had this momentum around the WNBA that I felt during my 12-city tour, and then we have this movement around women’s empowerment. And that kind of triangle, taking advantage of that from the W’s perspective and taking advantage of that in a narrative and a platform with corporates and how they can activate against that and how they then can make their talent platform and raise that for all people, inclusion more broadly not just the diversity of having a — supporting female athletes.
You stepped in and got travel for Vegas and for Los Angeles to fly private during the playoffs. I wonder what you think is possible short term going forward from a league standpoint in terms of that. And also, we never seem to get clarity whether private travel is viewed merely as inconvenient or prohibitive. And I wonder if you could tell us where that line is right now.
COMMISSIONER ENGELBERT: Yeah, and obviously we were evaluating – it’s part of one of my pillars, player experience and player health and wellness and wanting the highest level of play in the playoffs. When we saw there was only one day rest between Round 2 and the Semifinals with west-to-east, not great flight opportunities in commercial, which is required today by the collective – the old Collective Bargaining Agreement. We evaluated what was the right thing to do when at that point you would only have four teams left because you’re traveling west to east.
So we made that decision to provide the charter flights, which I think was the right decision. And we were evaluating again would it – had it been needed for the last series, the semifinals, if it had gone to a Game 5 because we would have had another east-to-west -west-to-east, one-day – and actually even worse because East Coast time, the game in Vegas would have gotten over quite late.
These are the things – and, again, you only had three teams left; Connecticut had already won. And we’re evaluating, again, we want the highest level of play in our playoffs.
There is an economic model that would need to be driven to support that at a broader level. Here’s another area where can we get corporates in to sponsor that angle of player experience, whether it’s broadly travel or whether it’s just charters itself.
Today, again, we don’t have the economics to support that broadly. This is an item that, of course, player travel experience is part of what we’re negotiating in the collective bargaining. So, I think these will continue, at least for now, to be one-off, a case-by-case basis to ensure player health and safety and to ensure we’re doing the right thing for the level of play we want to present on the court.
I’m curious, one, about your relationship with Adam Silver, how closely you’re in contact with him. And more specifically, your opinion on some of his comments that we should really rethink what the WNBA is and not just make it, I think he said a lighter version of the NBA?
COMMISSIONER ENGELBERT: Obviously being in the WNBA, NBA organization, Adam and I speak from time to time regularly. He and I were just on a panel last week and the week before. Nice thing about having this commissioner title is I get invited to be on panels as a commissioner of a major sports league. And it’s great to have a woman up there, I believe, in that commissioner seat amongst usually many men.
So, again, regular contact with Adam. Adam has empowered the W even before I got there and certainly with me in the commissioner role to essentially bring the W, as you said, not the lighter form of the NBA, but to have the W be its own brand. And that’s – you saw the team launch the rebrand and refresh the brand even before I started.
And we’re just continuing to be empowered by Adam and the NBA and resourced by them to drive this league to the next level. So that’s where we are with that relationship.
As you’ve gone through your first year as commissioner and gotten to know Ted Leonsis, what are you able to say about Ted as a WNBA owner and an advocate for women’s sports with what he’s done here?
COMMISSIONER ENGELBERT: Yeah, I think – I’ve only been in the job two and a half months, not quite a year yet, but I’ve had the opportunity to meet with Ted and obviously four trips here. And really impressed with Ted and Monumental’s support, not only of the Mystics but of women’s sports more broadly and the coverage in the Washington press, too, which I think Ted has asked for and, I think, received, which I think is great.
And really just, Ted, again, as well as our other owners offer a great platform in the business community for the discussion around the W and these elite athletes and these great role models, whether it’s the social consciousness they carry or the community mindedness. And I think Ted’s been so supportive of the players.
It’s nice that Washington had such a great year and were dominant offensively – the MVP and obviously in the WNBA Finals. So, really pleased by the support – by the way, of all our own owners, but Ted has been really supportive of women’s basketball here in the nation’s capital as well as more broadly women’s sports. And he and I and others were frustrated around: Why don’t we have a better revenue model? Why don’t we have more sponsorships? Why don’t our players have more endorsement opportunities? Why aren’t we covered year-round? Why aren’t we talking about our Olympic team, which is all WNBA players, going for their seventh consecutive gold medal next year with a record of 100 wins and one loss?
It’s all these things that Ted sees and I see so clearly, the opportunity and the upside of supporting women’s basketball and the WNBA and women’s sports in society more broadly.
Speaking about the NBA, how will Teresa Weatherspoon’s position with the Pelicans help the WNBA?
COMMISSIONER ENGELBERT: Yeah, Teresa Weatherspoon’s new role with the Pelicans, obviously she just got inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, which is fabulous, fabulous spokesperson for our league and a fabulous representative and ambassador for our league.
And there’s a variety of other women. It’s a great sign when you see women being appointed to these positions, whether it’s in the WNBA or other professional sports. I’ve been attending some sports conferences and I’m meeting some fabulous women who are rising in the sports ecosystem.
And I think Teresa, as well as many others that have been hired over the last year, is a great sign for diversity and inclusion in professional sports. And I think this is great for the next generation of our players today. And one of the reasons I took this job was to make sure I could help our players with their platform after their playing days.
So, Teresa’s appointment as well as several other WNBA players is a great signal and sign for diversity in sport.
I was wondering after visiting Connecticut, the franchise there, the Sun, if there’s anything that stood out to you about what they’ve been able to do there and take advantage of what many consider to be the basketball capital of the country?
COMMISSIONER ENGELBERT: Certainly the women’s basketball capital of the country up in Connecticut, again I’ve been so impressed with the passion of the fans, with the entertainment experience in arena.
Obviously with the local college there, UConn, having such great success in women’s basketball, and therefore you have these passionate women’s basketball fans who might even say “Men’s basketball, what’s that?”
So it’s a great environment, and that’s why I’ve been so pleased with the top two teams from the regular season record competing in the WNBA Finals over the next week and a half or so. It’s going to be a great series and a great home court advantage for both teams because of the fan bases and the arena feel. So I’m looking forward to that.
New York, critical market that they are about moving, that news, per se, I know they want to move, have they given you any idea yet of places they’re looking at to play home next season?
COMMISSIONER ENGELBERT: I think my understanding, as everyone knows today, the New York Liberty or New York-based WNBA team is playing up in Westchester. New ownership came in earlier this year, Joe Tsai and his group, and they’ve now purchased the Barclays Center as well as the remainder of the Nets that they didn’t own.
So again I know the team, and we’ve been talking with their team about making a decision around where the New York Liberty would play. You might have seen in our Draft lottery that the New York Liberty got the number one Draft pick. So that’s exciting for them as well.
I think for all 12 of our franchises I would say this, but particularly New York where I happen to have lived since 1992, we need a viable, thriving fan base in New York City, one of the biggest cities in this country, to drive the W to the next level. Again, I’d say that about almost all of our cities but New York City, we’re working with their team. But it’s their decision and we look forward to their decision in a few weeks, I would think.
You addressed this a little bit in your opening statement about TV exposure. With your understanding that network obviously has a big say in scheduling, would it not have served the league better (indiscernible), if it were not on an NFL Sunday, and how much is that part of what you want to get done if you don’t want to have conflicts with the NFL going forward?
COMMISSIONER ENGELBERT: Yeah, it’s a great question and one, which coming in new to sports from the business world, I had the same question about scheduling, whether it’s on an NFL Sunday or a college football Saturday.
And it seems, once you get into the fall and now you have Major League Baseball playoffs, when you get into the fall it’s a tougher time.
Now if we want to expand our game and grow our game and expand our season and maybe add to the number of games, or next year we have to take a month off for the Olympics because we support our WNBA players on the USA Basketball team, so this is – it’s more complex than we all think to get the scheduling right.
I will say what I was most impressed with here in Washington was the Washington Post sports page the day after Washington, the Mystics, clinched to go to the Finals.
The same day the Washington Nationals clinched the playoff spot, and thank you to the Washington Post, had the Mystics as the lead story on the sports page, because I happened to be here for some meetings that day. So I was proud of that.
But we do need to compete with other sports. I also think to the extent people are watching sports and channel surfing and that’s why I’m so obsessed with making sure you can find our games and you know where they are and when they are, I think the more people watching and talking sports, that’s helpful to us too.
We are competing in a very, very crowded entertainment market more broadly. But that’s why, with your help and with the help again of our advocates, influencers, sponsors, et cetera, endorsers, I think we can actually drive the broader recognition of the play on the court because nobody’s debating how great the product on the court is.
So, looking forward to again continuing to compete with all these venues today, 3 p.m. But hopefully people are watching sports, watching football, and they’ll turn to ESPN, and at 3 p.m. they’ll see a great WNBA game.