Health and Fitness

WNBA’s Cathy Engelbert Discusses Brittney Griner, Roe v Wade


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Momentous disruptions—and a few spectacular wins—have marked the tenure of WNBA commissioner of Cathy Engelbert, who In 2019 left her CEO put up at Deloitte to take over the league. In 2020, after Engelbert negotiated a collective bargaining bargaining settlement with WNBA gamers that resulted in notable wage and profit positive factors, the pandemic put the WNBA on pause. The league restarted its season later that 12 months in a Bradenton, Florida bubble, dubbed the “Wubble,” that turned a nerve middle of social activism within the wake of the killing of Breonna Taylor and the taking pictures of Jacob Blake.

The league, nonetheless, thrived by all this tumult; 2021 viewership on ESPN, for instance, rose 49% in comparison with a 12 months 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 develop into the primary ladies’s professional sports activities league streamed on the service. On WNBAStore.com, the league’s regular-season merchandise gross sales jumped 50% over the prior 12 months, a document progress.

Tip-off for the 2022 season got here with nice anticipation. However 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 hashish oil. Griner, who additionally performs for the Russian group UMMC Ekaterinburg, stays within the nation. In early Might, the U.S. authorities categorised Griner as “wrongfully detained.” On Might 13, Griner’s lawyer stated her pre-trial detention had been prolonged by a month.

Opening evening, Might 6, additionally arrived 4 days after the publication of a leaked draft Supreme Court docket opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, a choice that rankled many gamers—and the league. “The WNBA believes all ladies have the correct to autonomy over their our bodies and honest and equal entry to well being care,” the WNBA stated in a press release.

Engelbert, the primary feminine CEO of one of many Large 4 accounting corporations—and a former school basketball and lacrosse participant—spoke to TIME concerning the Griner scenario, Roe v. Wade, and why ladies’s sports activities are so undervalued.

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This interview has been condensed and edited for readability.

What are you able to share on Brittney Griner’s standing?

It’s a fully unimaginable scenario for for BG. Our ideas are together with her. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not engaged on this indirectly. It was a very constructive improvement for her case to be transferred into the a part of the State Division that’s referred to as the Particular Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. If you get this designation of being detained, not beneath the most effective circumstances, they’ve proven success at getting individuals out. She does have the authorized course of to undergo. We don’t have a whole lot of diplomatic choices right here.

We need to acknowledge her significance to the league, which is why Phoenix led, for all 12 of our groups, a philanthropic effort round BG’s Coronary heart and Sole shoe drive. The assist we’ve gotten has been been extraordinary.

Some individuals have recommended that Brittney’s group and the WNBA ought to have been extra vocal in demanding her launch. Have you ever obtained steering from her group, from the federal government to maintain a comparatively low profile?

For those who speak to any professional round this kind of matter, we’re following their steering to a tee. We’ve met with quite a lot of authorities officers, and that’s the steering they have been giving us. Now it’s shifted a little bit bit with this constructive improvement of her case being transferred. That’s why you’re seeing us and groups and gamers on the market a little bit bit extra. We’re not consultants on this. We’re working a sports activities league.

Have you ever been in contact with Brittney? Have you ever been capable of speak to her?

You’re capable of get messages to her. I’m positive they get scanned and reviewed and issues like that. However you’re capable of get a message of assist to her. The gamers have talked about that. It’s not like she texts you again or something. That’s not taking place.

Griner’s agent, Linsday Kagawa Colas, wrote a latest op-ed within the Los Angeles Instances: a headline for the piece learn “Pay inequality led Brittney Griner to Russia. We should repair it.” Do you agree with that? Why or why not?

I got here in to switch the financial mannequin, to work on that challenge. However Rome wasn’t in-built a day. That is arduous work and it’s enormous transformation. Within the collective bargaining settlement that I used to be a part of after I got here in, we tripled the pay of the highest gamers within the WNBA. With bonuses, gamers can now make $650,000. For four-and-a-half months of labor, that isn’t dangerous. I want my daughter who graduated from school 4 years in the past would have that chance, however she doesn’t, proper? We’re making huge progress.

We’re being in comparison with males’s leagues. We have now to get the ecosystem to rally round us, round media rights charges, round company sponsorship {dollars}. We’re seeing gamers make much more cash. There’s a swath of the gamers which can be all the time going to go play 12 months spherical.

Bear in mind, we’re solely 25 years in. The NFL is over 100 years previous. The NBA is celebrating 75 years. Forty years into the NBA, the NBA Finals was nonetheless on tape delay. They’ve come a great distance with large media offers and massive salaries. Give us a while. I do know it’s not quick sufficient for everyone. However we’re working arduous on it.

(For protection of the way forward for work, go to TIME.com/constitution and join the free Constitution publication.)

The WNBA additionally tipped off after one other momentous piece of stories broke: the leaked Supreme Court docket draft opinion that overturns Roe v. Wade. The WNBA markets itself as a “a daring progressive basketball league that stands for the ability of ladies.” Given this, what’s your response to the draft opinion?

It’s extraordinarily regarding. We imagine in ladies’s well being care, ladies’s entry, ladies’s rights. We have already got a really divided nation on so many points. We actually didn’t want so as to add this one. We’re centered on our season however watching it very carefully. We’re doing a unified theme this 12 months round all of our 61 Commissioner Cup video games, our particular in-season competitors, round civic engagement and voting rights. As a result of elections do have penalties. Look what has occurred.

Why is that this extraordinarily regarding?

[Roe v. Wade] has been the crux of supporting and advocating for ladies’s private selections relating to their well being since I used to be a child. It’s ironic that we’re celebrating the 50 years of Title IX and on the similar time Roe is being challenged. I used to be a type of Title IX children. I received alternatives to play sports activities as a result of Title IX gave that chance to me. As a ladies’s sports activities league, we’ll proceed to guide and the gamers will proceed to combat. We actually have to be centered on who’s getting elected in these state and native legislatures. Sports activities could be a nice uniter on issues. However we additionally need to be the educator on issues.

What has been the important thing to a number of the constructive metrics the WNBA has been seeing going into this new season?

Persons are realizing that girls’s skilled sports activities are working ladies within the workforce. And we have to assist them in a much bigger method. There’s been an enormous underinvestment and undervaluation of ladies within the workforce, and in ladies’s sports activities. I got here to a league that was actually being under-covered. You hear about, lower than 1% of all company sponsorship {dollars} that go to sports activities, go to ladies’s sports activities. And actually, a whole lot of that goes to particular person ladies’s sports activities, not group sports activities.

I’m seeing a change earlier than my eyes. We’re beginning to be seen as a daring progressive, sports activities media and leisure property. We embody variety and stand for social justice and the ability of ladies. You take a look at corporations, and so they all need to make their mark round variety, fairness and inclusion. All of them have these large initiatives internally. Now’s the time to make use of ladies’s sports activities as as a part of supporting that variety and fairness and inclusion.

Why do you assume there was such undervaluation for therefore a few years?

To start with, these large corporations are led by males. Second, they’re utilizing metrics that don’t give any quantitative worth to issues like variety, fairness and inclusion. Issues like how robust these gamers are of their communities. Once we launched our Social Justice Council, it wasn’t one and performed. They proceed with it yearly. None of that will get factored right into a spreadsheet. It’s simply eyes on the sport. But when lower than 5% of all media protection goes to ladies’s sports activities, it’s a round argument to say we don’t have sufficient eyes on the sport. You’re not exhibiting us. We’ll have 160 video games on nationwide platforms this 12 months, highest in our historical past. Once we get lined, we ship.

As a part of our elevating capital, we had exterior advisors include an evaluation exhibiting that our viewership is on par with the NHL, NASCAR and MLS. But their media rights charges are five-to-15 instances ours. How do you get that bias out of that valuation mannequin? That half’s loopy to me. I’m not going to relaxation until I repair that.

The WNBA introduced a $75 million capital elevate in February. The place is that cash going? What’s the precedence for this infusion?

There are such a lot of areas. How can we get merchandise proper? As a result of followers complain they will’t get our merch, although it’s on the market. We haven’t been good at speaking. So [on the tech front] we’re hiring WordPress engineers and issues like that to verify what we’re reworking that. That’s going to take a 12 months or two.

The opposite factor is advertising and marketing. We’re going to pay over $1 million {dollars} in advertising and marketing cash to gamers this 12 months to market the league within the offseason. And discovering different methods, like our particular competitors, the Commissioner’s Cup, and placing up a half-million greenback prize pool that, fairly frankly, this capital provides us the arrogance to proceed to do. Sports activities betting, NFTs, gaming. Do extra within the youth space. Globalize the sport—we’ve got not performed a very good job of globalizing our sport, and we have to try this.

I’ve to get to the the businesses that advise media corporations on rights, as a result of there’s this entire ecosystem on the market that we’ve got to interrupt, the normal spreadsheet mannequin on how they worth us. So we’re going to spend some cash there as properly. That’s in all probability going to be essentially the most impactful long run, if we will if we will get that disrupted. Our knowledge would present we’ve got about 30 million followers who work together with WNBA content material in any given 12 months. I need to get that to 100 million. And I believe that’s positively achievable.

Learn extra: How Atlanta Dream, WNBA Helped Warnock Defeat Loeffler

How quickly do you assume that’s doable?

A few years. The extra publicity we get, the extra we develop the fan base. As soon as we deliver them in, they arrive again. We’re pleased with what we’ve been ready to take action far. However we’ve received a whole lot of arduous work to do.

What are the league’s growth plans?

We’re growth. We’re doing an enormous evaluation of it and we’ve got a lot of cities which can be . We don’t need to deliver new homeowners— whether or not it’s two or 4 or one— and never have them the arrange for fulfillment. We’re doing all the info evaluation for a 100 cities, by a lens of all of the demographics and psychographics and arenas and Fortune 500 corporations based mostly there, the NCAA viewership, the present WNBA fandom in that metropolis.

In a rustic of our measurement and scale, with an more and more numerous inhabitants, and essentially the most numerous league is in solely 12 cities, that’s not sufficient. By mid to late summer time, I’ll have extra to say on the place we’re trending.

Because you’ve performed some evaluation, I simply can’t assist however surprise if there’s an early standout, or a dream metropolis the place you’d like a WNBA group to land?

I don’t have a bias proper now. We’re speaking to a good quantity of cities. I’ll say, take into consideration the cities the place we’re not and the place we was once, you understand, like Houston and Sacramento and Portland. Additionally the Bay Space. Take into consideration the tech middle of our nation. Know-how is driving a lot of your financial system and there’s no WNBA group within the Bay Space. However we’re open to all choices.

In March, Sports activities Illustrated reported that the New York Liberty was fined $500,000 for utilizing constitution flights on journeys final season, and for violating different league guidelines. However critics famous that the league was primarily punishing a group for treating its gamers too properly. What’s your response to that?

We have now guidelines for a motive. The gamers are unionized, and the gamers signed the collective bargaining settlement. We’d love to have the ability to have an financial mannequin for higher journey. However it comes again to this undervaluation of ladies. If we had billion-dollar media offers, we’d be flying on charters. They’d be making much more cash. However you simply can’t permit the violation of the agreements that each homeowners and gamers signal. You may’t permit one group a aggressive benefit. That’s why we’re engaged on this transformation to attempt to get an financial mannequin to assist all of this stuff that the gamers complain about. It’s a must to have thick pores and skin to run knowledgeable sports activities league. However it’s important to additionally implement the principles that you’ve. That’s what we did right here.

What challenges are distinctive to working a sports activities league that you just didn’t discover in your prior CEO life at Deloitte?

What’s completely different is you could have 12 homeowners who’re all competing towards each other. They usually all need to win a championship. After which you could have, clearly the media, it’s rather more of a public dealing with function than I believed. Definitely versus Deloitte, a non-public firm. After which the fan stakeholder is de facto fascinating. Once I go to arenas, I like to satisfy with fan teams and listen to what their peeve factors are about us, and what their positives are.

I by no means had a union workforce. Proper now it’s a union workforce. So I went from 100,000 individuals to 144. And also you would possibly assume it’s loads simpler. Nope.

So given the character of the fan stakeholder, I assume you don’t get yelled at as a lot because the CEO of Deloitte strolling into your office as you would possibly within the WNBA, proper?

[Laughs] Yeah, particularly complaints about refereeing. I like that a part of the job as a result of followers are so avid and rabid round their group. I’m one in all eight children with 5 brothers. I’ve been an enormous sports activities fan my entire life and all of us assume there’s biases on this system. So however I like that half. As a result of meaning we’re related.

What’s your de-stressing method?

A few issues, I realized this at Deloitte as a result of while you’re working a agency of that measurement, it’s important to discover time. We dubbed them smors. My EA used to place them on my calendar: Small moments of restoration. You want moments throughout the day. One factor as an government, you possibly can’t watch for the weekend. You’ve received to place the smors in your calendar throughout the day otherwise you’ll go loopy.

I didn’t know this after I took the job, however as soon as our video games begin, this calmness comes over me. It’s form of neat.

Are you able to give our readers a prediction, or projection, on what the WNBA will seem like in 5 years?

We’re hopefully going to have extra groups. We’re going to have extra family names, extra individuals figuring out who WNBA gamers are, what they stand for. And I believe we’re going to hopefully have gamers, who’re actually pleased with what they’ve achieved, to set the subsequent technology of gamers up for the subsequent 20 years after that. Let’s get to the purpose the place our gamers are recognized worldwide, not simply right here within the US.

On a scale of 1 on a scale of 1 to 10, what’s your perception that that’s going to occur?

In all probability a 9. If I might management all of it I’d be a ten. However since I don’t management the entire ecosystem, I’ve to depart myself a little bit little bit of room.

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



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