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WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert discusses viewership, streaming, Brittney Griner, and more

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert speaks with Yahoo Finance's Seana Smith at Yahoo Finance's 2022 All Market Summit.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: Welcome back to Yahoo Finance's All Markets Summit. The WNBA just wrapped up its most watched season in 14 years, with viewership jumping 16% from just a year ago, and the league shattering fan engagement and on court records. Here for more on that, we want to bring in Cathy Engelbert, WNBA commissioner, also former CEO of Deloitte. Cathy, it's great to have you. Thanks so much for stopping by here at Yahoo Finance.

CATHY ENGELBERT: Great to be here, Seana.


SEANA SMITH: So let's talk about that record setting season that you just wrapped up here. Obviously, the sport is getting more and more popular. How would you sum up this most recent season?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, you just named some of the viewership gains we had, but across social media, even in our partners like ESPN, they had 1.1 billion impressions on W related content. So it's important our partners see the value of the W in women's sports. And there's a huge changing of the guard going on right now with Sue Bird in her last year, just retired, Sylvia Fowles, two icons in the game. But great players like A'ja Wilson, who was MVP of the WNBA finals, and just like an amazing-- and just won the gold medal at the FIBA World Cup for the Las Vegas Aces, now winning their first ever franchise championship. So huge changing of the guard to the younger players and really great with our veterans, too.

SEANA SMITH: That 16% jump in viewership there that you just mentioned in the intro, what do you attribute this to?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Part of it is when-- if you build it, they will come. So one of the things we've done, more marketing, more digital, meet our fan where they are. Our fan skews more diverse. Our fan skews younger, more women. And so finding that fan, bringing them in, retaining them in the game, getting them to games, getting fans in seats. We've come off two tough COVID years for the W, one in front of no fans and last year, in the 2021 season.

So we expanded the number of games up to 36. We had an amazing all-star game and amazing draft, most viewed draft since 2004 when Diana Taurasi was drafted. So, again, a lot-- we raised capital back in February. We're deploying that capital against things like digital and marketing and telling player stories. And the players, the on the court records, triple doubles, double doubles, the excitement of the game is really driving it as well.

SEANA SMITH: Yeah, I want to talk a little bit more about that capital raise in just a few minutes. But first, let's talk about when we talk about getting more eyeballs on the games, a lot of the focus when it comes to sports, at least over the last several months, has been the shift to streaming.

I guess, how important are streaming deals when you're looking to grow the sport? Because a lot of times, we talk about Amazon when it comes with Thursday Night Football. We talk about the MLB's recent streaming deals. But WNBA, you have a deal with Amazon. You've also aired some games, or streamed them, I should say, on Twitter.

CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, the whole marketplace in media is being disrupted as we know. Not just linear and traditional, but also streamers are now being disrupted. And actually, you're trying to get into live sports, is something that's still getting a lot of eyes on the game, both in linear and in streaming. So as we see the NFL roll theirs out, we were a little before them, but we didn't have the marketing quite behind ours. So it's always going to be now a part of the package.

And when your fan base skews younger like our fan base does, and you're trying to bring in that digital native, that Gen Z-er who has probably cut the cord, and you've got to have Roku enablement, Apple TV enablement. You have to have all of that. And that's why you have to know who your fan is and look at the data, and then drive it from a digital perspective.

SEANA SMITH: And Cathy, speaking of that, I know your current broadcasting deal with ESPN ends in 2025. When you're looking for that next media agreement, what are you hoping or what do you want that agreement to include?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Again, I think we're going to look at all different forms of how to bring the game to our fan base, who does skew younger. And really, if you think about how it's being disrupted, it's also around marketing so people know where to find you, and taking the friction out of viewing a game for the fan. They have to know where to go. They have to know where to go on the spot, or they're going to lose interest. And they also-- the content around it, not just the game itself. And we're 120 minutes, and you're done.

So it's not a-- our games are quite fast. But it's the content around it and the storytelling around it and the medium and short form content that's going to drive, I think, viewers in to determine how we think about media going forward.

SEANA SMITH: You mentioned that $75 million, that capital raised. You reached that in February. Since then, I believe that you've announced some plans to use some of that money for players to market the league in the off season. What can you tell us about that? And I guess, if it is already underway, how that's progressing?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, so it's just underway. We just finished our season, just handed out that trophy to Las Vegas. And we have 10 players under contract to market the league in the off season. And it's going to be great. We've already had a couple of the players at the league office to talk to them about what this all means, how to build their brands and drive them into the next generation of household names in the sport, so. And they're such great role models for young boys and girls. It's not just young girls. It's young boys, too.

And a lot of people I meet say the first basketball game I want to take my kid to is a WNBA game, the pure form of the sport. So these players are great role models. Obviously, they have very strong social justice stances. And people view them as these kind of multi-dimensional role models. And we have moms in the league. And, you know-- and they're really great role models. So that's why we want to market the players more and spend a lot more of that capital on the players themselves.

SEANA SMITH: And Cathy, when you speak about growing the league, I expansion has been a major topic now for a few years. You currently have 12 teams in the league. Any insight that you can share with us just in terms of what you're thinking for expansion or when you think that WNBA is going to expand?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Well, one of the ways to grow the league is to have more eyes for more cities. And when I joined the league, quite frankly, I said, we're only in 12 cities? This is the longest tenured women's professional sports league in America, double any other. We'll be in our 27th season this year. And we should drive off that strength.

So we're looking at a variety of markets. We're using data, psychographics, demographics, NCAA viewership, current W merch buying. You can get a lot of data by city to determine which cities would be the best. We have to find committed ownership groups with a great arena situation. So there's a lot to think about. But that's certainly one of the areas now. The hard work starts in the off season around strategizing around those cities.

But for instance, I'll just throw one out. When technology is driving so much of your economy, and you don't have a team in the Bay Area, that doesn't seem right, right? So that's on the list, among another or 10 cities.

SEANA SMITH: Cathy, you mentioned efforts that the WNBA has in helping builders really-- or players, excuse me, really build their brand. And it brings me to pay because pay compensation has long been a topic. When you take a look at the WNBA, I know salaries are increasing. 234,000, I believe, is the supermax salary for this upcoming season, the max just over 200,000. Even with these raises, though, players do still tend to make more when they play overseas. I guess, how has this impacted your league, and what are you doing to address that?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, so we're starting to chip away at an economic model. When I came into the league, I was hired by Adam Silver to look at the economic model and how to drive it. And we're actually-- you're seeing a transformation before our eyes but we're not there yet.

And it's all around the ecosystem of how we get valued by corporate sponsors and how we get value through media deals and when less than 5% of all media coverage is women's sports, yet 40% of the athletes in America are women, and when less than 1% of all corporate sponsorship dollars go to women's sports, that denominator is huge in men's sports. So we're chipping away. And, you know, just a couple hundred basis points is moving the numerator. And we really have our WNBA changemakers companies really stepping up.

So we're getting there. We now tripled the top players' pay. We've got a huge-- just marketing dollars. We doubled the playoff bonus this year, up 53%. We have a commissioner's cup now prize pool of over half a million. So we're just chipping away at all the ways to pay players. But you also, you can't do it without being financially savvy about growing an economic model to not just support it for today's players, but support it for the next 25 years.

SEANA SMITH: And speaking of support here for players and also just growing your brand, I guess, how do you also increase the international component of this, which I think would be very important here when we're just talking about growing the value of the WNBA?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, another reason I wanted to raise that capital is to globalize the game. I've seen a-- really admired what the NBA has done through their global games platform and how they turn these players into global stars. So players go overseas, and they're well known. And they're household names beyond the United States. So we've announced a preseason game in Canada as first step, again, coming off the pandemic now. And then I hope to get to, like, EMEA games. And Africa is very interesting, and certainly, Asia.

So this year, we had, I think it was 23 players from 13 different countries. That was our highest. And so we're kind of chipping away at globalizing our own players, as well as then taking our US players and making them more global household names. But it's not easy because the women's game isn't followed as much. But for instance, 3x3 basketball, so three on three is the number one most popular urban sport globally in both men and women, so we can kind of capitalize off of that and bring our game outside the US.

SEANA SMITH: Well, Cathy, speaking of international, playing overseas, I want to turn to an issue that I know is very front of mind for you, and that, of course, is Brittney Griner, the seven-time all-star detained in Russia since February. I guess, first, just what can you tell us about her condition and how she's doing?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Well, first of all, wrongfully detained-- important to use that word-- wrongfully detained in Russia. And Brittney is amazing. She wrote me a letter recently. She can only handwrite letters that go through the government, I'm sure, there to lawyers. Then it gets to me. And we've been writing her periodically throughout the year. And this is just an unimaginable situation.

I'm sure mentally, it's very, very taxing the longer she's there. She's got an appeal coming up on October 25, which we're pretty sure we know that the legal process there is not going to yield anything favorable to Brittney. So we've been talking with the State Department, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, and everybody in the administration. And they're all Brittney all the time. They're trying to find every different way to get her home safely first and as soon as possible second.

So her 32nd birthday is tomorrow. And so we'll be making sure she knows we're remembering her as part of a social campaign around [INAUDIBLE] and bringing Brittany home safely. So it's geopolitically complex. So you never-- when you take these jobs, you never know how complex it'll be in situations. And this one certainly one of the more complex situations I've dealt with.

SEANA SMITH: Well, speaking of that, when President Biden recently saying that he would only meet with Vladimir Putin at the upcoming G20 meetings if, quote, "he came to me at the G20 and said, I want to talk about the release of Griner, I'd meet with him." I guess, what's your reaction to that and whether or not the president should be more forceful in pressing this issue?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, I think from our discussions with the administration, they're trying everything they can do to get a deal done. Obviously, the legal process, we knew, was not going to yield a favorable answer to Brittney when it should have. But that's why she's deemed wrongfully detained by the State Department and the administration.

And I think the government has been doing everything they can, but there's not a willing party on the other side. And the Russians need to step up, get a deal done for both Brittney and Paul Whelan, who's another wrongfully detained American there. So again, our hope is, first, number one, get her home safely and as quickly as possible.

But as I mentioned, if you think of diplomatically, geopolitically, even if you had a neutral party step in, there's no easy answer here. And I think the administration is full court pressed, to use a basketball analogy, to try to get Brittney home. And I think you need the other side to come forward with a reasonable deal.

SEANA SMITH: And Cathy, while we have you, I also want to get your thoughts on a massive story that really rocked not only the sports world, but also had ripple effects through every single industry, and that was what we just heard about the National Women's Soccer League. That year-long investigation finding systemic abuse of players. As commissioner of the WNBA, what steps are you taking to protect your players?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, this is really, really important. It's really important not to have a misstep in this area. It's unacceptable. It's disappointing. I know they've had leadership changes over the years. And as a commissioner of the WNBA, we want to be leading with a player-first agenda, respect in the workplace, all of that, making sure that our policies, which have been in effect for years, are solid, and that players feel comfortable coming forward when there's an uncomfortable situation, whether it's with a coach and owner or whatever.

So it's important to create a culture where players-- well, it's great to have a hotline. Just in the corporate world, where I worked for 33-- over three decades, it was great to have an anonymous hotline. But if nobody's using it, then it's like, OK, they don't feel comfortable because the culture is not there. So culture always important in the workplace. And sports is an interesting place because people don't think of culture in the workplace in sports. But it's just like you and I working in the corporate world.

SEANA SMITH: You mentioned your three decades experience in the corporate world. You were CEO most recently of Deloitte. How do you think that prepared you for the job you have today as commissioner of WNBA, those two very, very different roles-- if you look at them, I guess, from a 50-foot view.

CATHY ENGELBERT: Yes, I always say I went from a 100,000-person workforce to 144 players, so it sounds very different. But sports is big business. Big business is about relationships. So I was so blessed to have the career I had at Deloitte that prepared me for things like collective bargaining four days into the job when I came in, building relationships with players, and the whole ecosystem and the stakeholder group, like 12 different owners, 30 NBA owners, who also own a share of the WNBA.

And then lastly, really, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, a league of 80% women of color and dealing with a workforce-- call it that-- was really rattled and rocked. And I learned a lot by listening to the players and trying to put myself in their shoes. And that's all stuff when you're leading a big company like Deloitte come in handy when you're leading something like the WNBA.

SEANA SMITH: Cathy Engelbert, great to have you. Thanks so much for taking the time to join us today.

CATHY ENGELBERT: Thanks so much, Seana.