Cathy Engelbert addresses USA Basketball partnership, other issues at All-Star Game press conference

Photo Credit: Lamar Carter

The chief executive in charge of the WNBA has a new title – commissioner – and a new person assuming that role in Cathy Engelbert.

She assumed her new role a few days ago and had her introductory press conference at the 2019 WNBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas.

The signature announcement of Engelbert’s presser was it was actually a joint presser meant to announce a new partnership between the WNBA, NCAA and USA Basketball.

The announcement was of a new national team program that, in addition to focusing on winning a seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, will also emphasize more player exposure as well as ensuring players do not have to go overseas.

The program was the brainchild of Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. In addition, it was announced that Sylvia Fowles, Nneka Ogwumike, Chelsea Gray, A’ja Wilson, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins-Smith also committed to the program.

Four other roster spots will also be available and will be chosen from USA Basketball’s national team pool. Five training sessions would take place and the players would be paid $2,000 a day at each camp as well as for games in the run-up to the Olympics. Players can also earn bonuses.

They will be paid by USA Basketball up to $100,000 to ensure they will not have to head overseas to make up for the lack of salary they receive through the WNBA.

It is believed that the level of exposure for the United States Women’s Basketball National Team will only be amplified with them staying stateside as opposed to having to do additional travel overseas.

Sue Bird talked about how previous WNBA greats have left legacies and that this program can be part of hers and Taurasi’s. Taurasi mentioned that next year’s Olympics will likely be the final Games for both she and Bird.

Now we have a chance to represent our country, generate excitement around women’s basketball and really leave a legacy.

–Sue Bird

In addition, national team director Carol Callan and USA Basketball (and South Carolina) coach Dawn Staley were also on hand.

I think we have a unique opportunity to offer our assets as a platform to corporations for partnership, sponsorship and really use that platform to enhance the diversity, inclusion and conversation in society.

–Cathy Engelbert, WNBA commissioner

To have this lead up to make sure we get there healthy, running all on the same page I think is special. I’m thankful to be a part of it and we’re really going to enjoy the ride.

–Diana Taurasi

Engelbert mentioned that an important part of the tour will take place during the WNBA’s offseason. The WNBA then, of course, shuts down during the preparation for the Olympics.

The idea, Bird said originally came out of a brainstorming session with Taurasi with ideas written in crayon. What was crayon was now reality.

Bird, of course, is also the girlfriend of Megan Rapinoe who was one of the leaders of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team winning a second consecutive World Cup this year in France. She got to see with her own eyes how much buzz there was around Rapinoe and the soccer team and believes the same can be created for women’s basketball.

Watching Megan go through her US Soccer preparation for the World Cup, really the last two or three years – there’s definitely things I got to see firsthand and learn from. And definitely things that I think women’s basketball can benefit from.

–Sue Bird

Taurasi mentioned that the added training is needed not only for creating a greater amount of visibility for the women’s game, but also because USA Basketball’s competition from teams such as Australia and others has only become stiffer.

If I think back on that ’96 team, they did a year tour and I can visibly remember them being around the whole year leading up to Atlanta. Hopefully this is that tour for us for younger kids, for the younger generation, and even for kids that, maybe, weren’t in the pool and weren’t available for that two-week training camp. Now, they have a whole year to really put their names in the hat and make a real commitment and have a real chance to make this Olympic team, which, maybe, a year ago you thought you wouldn’t be able to make.

–Diana Taurasi

Tying into the announcement about the WNBA and USA Basketball was something that Engelbert mentioned in the same press conference that one of her goals is to make the W into a sport that is constantly mentioned throughout the year, not only during the spring and summer.

We want to be a year-round league as far as the exposure to our athletes…

–Cathy Engelbert, WNBA commissioner

Players going overseas is certainly a point of contention for the WNBPA in its CBA talks with the WNBA. Breanna Stewart now has an ambassador role with the league, but her injury while playing overseas put a larger lens on the issue of overseas play given how she is establishing herself as a new face of the W.

Engelbert was asked about the league’s ability to pay players a decent wage so going overseas would not have to be a must for them after the WNBA season concludes. She said it was one of her items on her to-do “list.”

That’s certainly one of my priorities is to tackle this issue of … the economics of the league, the financials of the league and the owners and really to tackle that in a very multi-dimensional way. Not through just CBA negotiations, but through corporate sponsorships. Through other models.

–Cathy Engelbert, WNBA commissioner

She did also mention that it is a complex issue and that some players may need to play in other leagues as the level of competition inside the WNBA only increases.

Some of our players need to get better and they need other avenues to play outside of our season…

–Cathy Engelbert, WNBA commissioner

Engelbert described an earlier meeting she had that week with the union as “productive.” The partnership with USA Basketball may be one reason why she believes the WNBA can become a 365-day-a-year sport, but the concept of a changing society that sees values women in leadership roles is another.

We do have a golden opportunity, I think, to really keep the conversation going year-round because of this inflection point around women’s leadership and women’s sports…

–Cathy Engelbert, WNBA commissioner

That inflection point may be reflected in the success of the team and city that hosted this year’s All-Star festivities – Las Vegas.

Imagine an ownership group such as MGM Resorts putting the resources and money they have invested in making the Aces a success if this were 30 or 35 years ago. It probably would not happen.

Engelbert’s hope is that the meteoric rise of the Aces into the WNBA’s elite can be replicated with the other 11 teams.

We need to do this in every market in all of our 12 franchises and make sure that we’re maximizing the momentum around women’s sports and women’s basketball.

–Cathy Engelbert, WNBA commissioner

In addition, Engelbert also said she plans to visit all 12 team markets prior to the playoffs. Las Vegas is off the list, she mentioned during the presser that she took a train to Washington, D.C. and being in New York as WNBA commissioner, White Plains is a Metro-North ride up from Grand Central Station.

What about the idea of a 13th or 14th team market? Or a relocated team. Engelbert was going to be surely asked about the e-word, expansion and it comes amidst talk of an ownership group planning on bringing a team to Toronto. That ownership group has come under scrutiny because of greater skepticism about one of its owners.

WNBA COO Christy Hedgpeth has said that before the WNBA expands, the financial health of the other 12 teams has to be solidified. Engelbert echoed Hedgpeth’s remarks, but also said it is on her brain as well.

We’re always open to discussions around other cities that I think are great basketball cities that do not have WNBA teams because that’s certainly something as we look longer-term, we certainly should be looking at because if we’re successful and growing the league and the brand and getting our 12 franchises where they need to be from a financial model perspective, certainly that’s something that we talk about.

–Cathy Engelbert, WNBA commissioner

Getting the 12 franchises on level footing from a financial perspective is one thing and getting them on level footing from a travel perspective is another. More players this year have told of their less-than-stellar experiences at airports and everyone remembers the Aces’ travel debacle that cost them a game at the Washington Mystics last year (and possibly a postseason berth).

Addressing travel, she says, is certainly “on the list.”

I am going to work tirelessly on this particular issue.

–Cathy Engelbert, WNBA commissioner

Engelbert said that the best part of her new job is that she is in constant “listening mode” that she is soaking in all of the feedback she has been receiving. She expressed that she understands how WNBA players have been underappreciated and not recognized fairly in the past and that it is time for that to change.

I truly believe that we are at an inflection point in society where women’s sports and, quite frankly, women’s leadership are at the forefront and, honestly, it’s time we give these elite athletes the recognition they deserve.

–Cathy Engelbert, WNBA commissioner

We are going to take the W to the next level.”