The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, April 14, 2021
The pipeline needs to get bigger — Cathy Engelbert talks macro WNBA outlook — Must-click women's basketball links
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Cheryl Reeve, WNBA general manager, head coach and The IX subscriber, didn’t mince words when asked about WNBA expansion on Wednesday morning.
“We’ve been at 12 for a very very long time as far as number of teams,” she said on a media Zoom just a few minutes ago. “And, and we have this strange notion that we treat women’s sports differently than the men’s sports and men’s sports. The narrative isn’t that you have to have 30 financially healthy teams or quality teams before you expand… The narrative [in the WNBA] is well, we have to have 12 healthy teams before we’ll do anything. And that makes no sense… the more teams in the league, the healthier the league becomes overall. So you have to understand, the business gets better with expansion, more revenue opportunities, And I do believe that Cathy Engelbert, the, commissioner, the one that is going to be charged with it — to me, this is going to define her tenure, our ability to expand.”
It is something clearly on Engelbert’s mind, as she made clear in a response to my question about it on Tuesday. The women’s sports conversation has clearly shifted, and so, too, are the smaller conversations, between Engelbert and would-be investors, as one would expect.
“I think the conversations have definitely changed for the positive,” Engelbert, also a The IX subscriber, said. “Conversations we might have been having a year ago before we even hit the pandemic around where people were willing to invest in the league, whether it’s a corporation, whether it’s a media deal or whether it’s a new owner of one of our teams, those are definitely all moving in a positive direction.”
As for the delay, well, Engelbert has been commissioner for 20 months, and during that time she’s revamped and set the league’s long-term economic plan through a massive CBA with the players, then navigated the WNBA through the global pandemic. You know, normal new job stuff.
But with the majority of teams set to resume playing with fans next month, amid a season starting on time and with nearly a full slate of games (32, down from 34 in 2019 and the planned 36 in 2020), amid an Olympic year that should only shine more light on the league’s biggest stars, it makes both the possibility of expansion and the urgency for it greater than ever.
There’s no event I love more than covering a draft, and my two favorites are the WNBA Draft and the NWSL Draft. The reason is pretty straightforward: you cover a draft, and every five minutes you get to watch someone’s lifelong dreams come true. Who couldn’t love that?
But in the WNBA and NWSL, well, these are women who may not have known or believed they could earn a living playing professional sports. I’ve loved tracking, year-by-year, the NWSL players recounting where their professional dreams began, as the league ages, earlier and earlier. The WNBA’s emergence over the past half-decade has altered the answers on the basketball side, too. You get more and more WNBA draft picks who grew up watching Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart now, rather than the answers primarily focused on NBA players.
I miss the live covering of this event — I remember late in the evening back when the draft was held at Mohegan Sun, watching Breanna Stewart, the best player in the world, running around with her shoes off, a young woman just reveling in the joy of the moment, racing from greeting Seattle Storm fans virtually to go spend some more time with her mom and dad. The future has lived up to the promise of that night.
But I know, too, how many players will get drafted on Thursday night but won’t make a roster. I know that there are hundreds and hundreds more places for a man who wants to pursue professional basketball in America than a woman. Forget the pay gap (for the moment) — the NBA has 30 teams, 15 roster spots. There’s the G-League, another 29 teams and 13 roster spots. The WNBA? 144 at most, and with many teams carrying 11, far short of that.
As Reeve put it: “Our G-League is international play.”
And while Reeve said, correctly, that a full-on G-League is far away on the WNBA side, it is worth remembering that the NBA’s G-League took time to get to the current, virtually one-to-one correlation between G-League team and parent club. Back when it began as the NBDL, it had eight teams, total!
Back in March of 2020, I laid out a vision for WNBA expansion. Yes, it increased the total number of teams to 20. But it also added six WNBA G-League teams in college towns relatively close to some WNBA franchises, too, giving everyone ease of movement, the chance to keep tabs on a wider array of players, and the extension of hundreds of additional dreams.
It’s easy to see how the league getting to this point would help define Engelbert’s tenure, as Reeve put it. And it would make for a longer, more satisfying joy out of draft night and all that comes after it.
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Five at The IX: Cathy Engelbert meets the media
Some notable excerpts from Cathy’s avail with us on Tuesday.
Q. I have two questions for you. The first one is are we expecting fans in attendance when the season opens on the May 14?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Okay, so first question on fans, yes. So I think it’s right now nine of our 12 markets, but we’re negotiating on the 10th because you have to negotiate locally as well as with the local health officials.
I think in nine of our 12 markets we’ll have the ability to have fans. It’ll be reduced, and we’re hoping as we go into the Olympic break and come off of that maybe we can have more full arenas.
But yes, we’re going to start with about three quarters with fans.
Q. Can you say anything about the testing protocols? I think camps open up on May 25, so I’m guessing they need to start getting there sooner for testing purposes.
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yes, very good. You’ve learned from the Bubble last year that there will be a testing protocol before they get into the market and then leading up to group activities, so they’ll be able to do individual workouts during kind of an initial quarantine period and then we’ll start group activities on or about the 25th.
If all goes well, of course.
So yes, there will be a whole regimen, and it will be different whether you’re vaccinated or not vaccinated. If you’re fully vaccinated we’ll have a shorter quarantine based on the guidance we’ve gotten from our experts and the CDC, and unvaccinated players will have to comply with the longer protocol.
But we’ll ask all of our players to get into market so we can start group activities for all on the 25th.
Q. I thought it was a pretty powerful piece that you wrote on WNBA.com a couple days ago, and I just wanted to ask you if — you said this thing about now after two years you’ve seen clearly the disparities between men’s and women’s sports and dealing with the media. Are you surprised after spending time at a corporation which seems to value women that the sporting world seems to lag so far behind?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, excellent question, and for those that don’t know, I wrote an opinion piece on, yeah, it is kind of my observations now after like 20 months in the role, and given that there was a lot of discussion around the NCAA situation between the men’s and women’s tournaments.
But that’s why I wanted to grab the narrative away from that and just give some of my insights and observations being in this role now and being in sports. Coming from big business, a lot of similarities, but there are some differences.
I’d say some of the things did not surprise me. Other things do. Like the media rights fee gap definitely surprised me, which is why I focused in the opinion piece on that, because that doesn’t make sense to me, and the only thing that could make sense is that the valuation model underlying the way those media rights fees are calculated between the women’s sports and men’s sports must be flawed, right?
Q. The WNBA Draft seems to be a reminder every year how much talent there is out there and how few of these players make the league with the number of roster spots. Has there been any discussion about WNBA expansion and what would it take for that to happen in the near future?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, so it’s an important question, and I think we’d probably have a much more developed answer if it hasn’t been for the pandemic and not having fans last year and limited fans this year, with an Olympic postponement into this year.
So lots of moving parts obviously to make sure we have a successful season this year. But as I’ve mentioned, expansion is certainly on the list of things I’ve been thinking about down the road.
It is interesting to note how competitive and how deep the talent in this league is, and so it’s certainly something that as we come out of this pandemic, hopefully next year, that we’re prepared to start talking about.
But right now we’re still focused on the transformation I talked about last year. We had a little bit of pause in some of those activities because of the pandemic and trying to get the Bubble done last year, but I think if we have a very successful season this year, this time next year we can certainly start talking about what expansion would look like, how many, and the time frame over which that would occur.
Q. There’s been a lot of talk for the last few weeks going on with Draymond Green and with the WNBA players as far as how he felt and some players, whether they agreed or wanted to enlighten him on what’s going on. Do you believe that just to have that national talk, that talk on social media and now with everybody, do you feel like that could be beneficial for the league as far as a company making an investment?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, good question. So, certainly having that national dialogue around the disparities is, again, one of the other reasons why I issued the opinion piece, to kind of put them in context, again, from my experience so far in the league.
You know, I think having that dialogue — and we’re always happy for NBA players and other professional athletes to weigh in on their observations, and we’ve had other NBA players weigh in, as well. We’ve had advocates of the league from the NBA.
So I do think having the dialogue is healthy. It’s a healthy part of what players do on social media, right? I’ve had to get used to that a little bit coming in from the business world where that didn’t happen as much.
But yeah, I think that dialogue is healthy. I think we’ve got to look at all the different perspectives and the way people see us outside in, inside out, and determine what the best way is to market our players, to grow the league, to look at how we bring investors into the league, how we look at teams and their operations, how we transform our digital platform.
So we’re always open for all feedback. And yes, having a national dialogue around that is always welcome around the WNBA.