Why is Cathy Engelbert taking such a pedestrian approach to growing WNBA?

Photo Credit: Lamar Carter

Since Cathy Engelbert took over for Lisa Borders and assumed the WNBA’s primary leadership position (which was changed from “league president” to “commissioner” upon her arrival), she has clearly attempted to take a more business-centric approach to her role. 

Engelbert, among her W accomplishments, has presided over the ratification of the WNBA’s new collective bargaining agreement with the WNBPA (which recently announced its new executive committee), a number of new sponsorships to help the league gain more financial stability and the massive undertaking to move the 2020 season to its bubble amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But even with Engelbert’s list of accomplishments continuing to grow, it appears that in some areas she is continuing to take a more pedestrian approach to growing the WNBA. 

Two news happenings this week, in what has been a busy news cycle lately for our beloved W, seemed to spotlight this fact. Let us start with the expansion topic which is one that always has our WNBA family in a tizzy. 

Earlier this year, it was suggested that the WNBA would hope to announce expansion cities by the end of this calendar. This surely had many a WNBA aficionado abuzz as to which cities would get new teams – especially with dueling ownership groups in the Bay Area in competition to earn the W’s blessing. 

Instead, Engelbert revealed that expansion would indeed be delayed until at least 2025 – the same year that the WNBPA has the option to opt-out of its current CBA that runs until 2027. According to The Athletic, Engelbert revaled a list of cities that the WNBA has narrowed down its expansion prospects to. That list reportedly includes both Oakland and San Francisco as well as Philadelphia, Nashville, Toronto, Portland and even Columbia, South Carolina. 

In addition, it now appears that the WNBA will indeed only expand by one city as opposed to two as has been widely speculated. Our take is if the W is indeed only planning on expanding by one, then expansion may very well be a two-horse race between the two Bay Area cities. 

The last time the WNBA expanded was in 2008 when the Atlanta Dream were added. Former league president Lisa Borders and WNBPA Board of Advocates member Stacey Abrams have been instrumental with their work with the Dream over the years. Since then, the WNBA has been stuck at 12 teams and there has been more news about teams relocating (see: Las Vegas Aces and Dallas Wings) than there has been about expansion. 

Compare and contrast this to the WNBA’s football counterpart – the NWSL. It is nowhere near as old as the W, but despite being mired in scandal after scandal, the NWSL is seemingly more poised to add its 13th team than the W is anytime soon. 

A report recently came out indicating Boston, San Francisco and Tampa are on the shortlist for NWSL expansion. If that league wants to walk the walk, it may not want to touch Tampa given Florida’s anti-woman politics and how that state’s politicians have reacted to the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Previous WNBA commissioners (and, yes we are putting the “ex-commissioner” title on the W’s previous four chief executives because…vibes) – and even players – have toed the company line relentlessly with the stance that until all 12 teams are financially healthy that expansion will be put on the backburner. We know the W and its teams have had its fair share of financial struggles over the years, but one has to believe that not every NWSL team is exactly in the green with its books (or every NHL team or every MLS team) and that has not stopped them from expanding either.

Granted, there are the realities of investors wanting to put more money into a league that is predominantly white rather than one like the W that is overwhelmingly Black and also has a heavy LGBTQIA+ presence. A white woman also being the first to get the official title of “commissioner” as opposed to a Black or Brown woman in a league that is predominantly Black is also a worthwhile conversation to have.

This past week, there was also a report indicating that the WNBA would indeed go back to Las Vegas for its All-Star festivities. The W held its All-Star weekends in 2019 and 2021 in Sin City with the 2022 rendition emanating from Chicago. 

The Chicago version of All-Star weekend was one honeycombed with logistical shortcomings – those that were heavily highlighted in the days following the event. But at least it showed some willingness on the W’s part to have its All-Star weekend in different cities on a year-by-year basis. This was a highlight of the Borders years as they saw All-Star introduced to new places such as Seattle and Minnesota.

If the WNBA does go back to Las Vegas for the All-Star Game, it does continue the desire to have the festivities be more of an event as opposed to a standalone game. But it also harkens back to the WNBA’s original (dark) days when it seemed as though All-Star was essentially a game of ping-pong between Mohegan Sun Arena (the home of the Connecticut Sun) and Madison Square Garden (the former home of the New York Liberty) with the occasional nod to Phoenix. 

How has Los Angeles never hosted the All-Star Game? Or Washington, D.C.? Or another city that may not have a WNBA team (as we asked Engelbert at her press conference before tip-off of last season’s All-Star Game). After all, if the NBA in 2007 can hold its All-Star festivities in Las Vegas at the Thomas & Mack Center, what is stopping the WNBA from staging its All-Star party in a place like Oakland, Houston, Charlotte, Miami or Philadelphia (or even Knoxville or Columbia – two cities with rich women’s basketball histories through their collegiate successes).

To be fair, the WNBA has an extremely progressive fanbase and the anti-woman politics of the states some of these cities are in may make some backers of the W a bit skittish as it does in the case of the NWSL and where it decides to expand to.

Someone needs to tell Engelbert that corporate sponsorships cannot be the only strategy in growing the WNBA. Yes, having AT&T, Google and Deloitte (the accounting firm Engelbert worked at in a previous life) as WNBA Changemakers is cool. Yes, having Sue Bird, Candace Parker and Jonquel Jones in Carmax commercials is cool. Yes, having Sabrina Ionescu in State Farm commercials with Chris Paul is cool. Yes, having A’ja Wilson on Ruffles bags is cool – shoutout to Jade Li English. 

We understand Engelbert does not want to be too aggressive in attacking the rim and risk being called for an offensive foul. But between delaying expansion and keeping All-Star stuck in Nevada, it may not be an offensive foul the W may need to be whistled for. 

Instead, it may be a 3-second violation.