06.11.24
Cathy Engelbert | Audio

S11E5: WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert on Talent, Activism, and the Business of Basketball


The WNBA is both the moment and a movement.

Approximately 400,000 fans attended WNBA games during the first month of the 2024 season, the highest first-month attendance in 26 years. An average of 1.32 million viewers are tuning into each game.

Building on years of steady growth, a historic rookie class — including Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark — has brought a flood of new eyeballs to a game with some of the most dedicated fans in professional sports. The league also saw a 200% increase in revenue in 2023 from the year prior, and they are currently negotiating a TV deal independently of the NBA for the very first time.

Come for the talent — they’re among the best athletes in the world, after all — but stay for the power: after years of social justice organizing, the players have turned the league into a force to be reckoned with. (And studied.) Their endorsement even helped flip a U.S. Senate seat in 2021.

In this episode of DB|BD, Ellen McGirt and Jessica Helfand sit down with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who stepped in and up as the league’s very first chief in 2019 after spending 33 years at Deloitte, most recently as the firm’s first female CEO. Engelbert shares how she transformed an almost non-existent marketing department to help revive the 30-year-old league, what the league is doing to support player wellness, and why she considers the WNBA a “growth stock” that benefits everyone.

“And if you really want to support this rising growth stock… Just watch a game. Come to a game,” she says. There is no one type of fan because the game is like no other. “[When] you get connected to it, you’re connected to something more than just sport — we’re at the intersection of sport, culture, and society, and I think the players have done an amazing job putting a product on the court. It’s got to start with that.”

Later in the episode, we will hear from Lindsay Gibbs, a sports reporter and author of the feminist sports newsletter Power Plays. Gibbs explains how this moment in the W fits into three decades of league history, why the long-running record of WNBA player activism can’t be ignored, and what mainstream sports media is getting wrong in their coverage of the league.

“But so, what I'm worried about is if the league doesn't take some of the spotlight off Caitlin Clark to give her time to grow up, to give her time to adjust, to give her time to breathe, and doesn't properly use this spotlight to tell the stories of its other players and its history? Then I think we're in a bad spot,” Gibbs says. “I just hope that the storytelling gets a little bit better. And, you know, a league is not one person. It just can't be. It cannot be one person. And, the WNBA isn't one person.”

On this season of DB|BD, co-hosts Jessica Helfand and Ellen McGirt are observing equity by highlighting the “redesigners” — people who are addressing urgent problems by challenging big assumptions about how the world can and should work — and who it should work for.

This season of DB|BD is powered by Deloitte.

Visit our site for more on this episode and to view a transcript.

To check out the WNBA’s upcoming schedule and how to watch, visit their website.

To read more of Lindsay Gibbs’ reporting, including her piece on Candace Parker’s rookie season, and listen to her podcast, visit her website.

Watch Bruhat Soma win the 2024 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Read more about the integration of Negro League baseball stats into the MLB records.

Follow The Design of Business | The Business of Design on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app.

Episodes are produced by Design Observer’s editorial team. The views and opinions expressed by podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse any individuals or entities featured on the episodes.



Transcript

Cathy Engelbert If you really want to support this rising growth stock, just watch a game and come to a game. I will tell you, every person male, female, old, young, you know, race — when they come to a game, they love it and they come back or they go back and watch and they start to get invested in the players and the fandom. I always say we have the most avid rabid fans because you get connected to it and you're connected to something more than just sport. We sit at the intersection of sport, culture, society.

Ellen McGirt Welcome to the Design of Business.

Jessica Helfand The Business of Design.

Ellen McGirt Where we introduce you to people from all over the world, from different industries and disciplines.

Jessica Helfand You are here to talk about design, business, civility, and the values that govern how we work and live together.

Ellen McGirt This season we are observing equity.

Jessica Helfand I'm Jessica Helfand.

Ellen McGirt And I'm Ellen McGirt. This episode of The Design of Business | The Business of Design is powered by Deloitte's DEI Institute. Deloitte believes that bold actions can help drive equitable outcomes and conversations like this can fuel the change needed to continue to build a more equitable society. Visit Deloitte's AI Institute site at deloitte dot com slash US slash DEI Institute for more of their research and perspectives on equity. Later on, we'll hear from Kwasi Mitchell, Deloitte's Chief purpose and DEI officer.

[general crowd noises]

Jessica Helfand Ellen, today we're talking WNBA.

Ellen McGirt We sure are. And you just heard some live sound from a WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Chicago Sky at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. This game took place in May, and our amazing producer, Alexis, was there to cheer them on and to capture some podcast sound for us.

Jessica Helfand Now, I heard this game was kind of a big deal.

Ellen McGirt You know, it kind of was. It was the first matchup between reigning MVP Breanna Stewart and her Liberty team and the Chicago Sky rookie Angel Reese, the phenom out of LSU who was part of the 2024 rookie class that includes Caitlin Clark and Cameron Brink.

Jessica Helfand And this rookie class is just one of the reasons that in the first month of the 2024 season, WNBA viewership is up an astounding 186% from the same point last year. Viewership averaged out to almost 1.5 million viewers per game just in the month of May.

Ellen McGirt If you haven't heard already, the WNBA is definitely having a moment.

Robin Roberts, Good Morning America The 28th WNBA season. Gets underway tonight, tonight, tonight. And with so many new players joining our favorite all stars on the court really feels like we're ushering in a new era of women's sports.

Ian Cull, NBC Bay Area Today, the Legacy of the Golden State Valkyries begins. The NBA's newest team's name was celebrated around the Bay, the team's shop packed with new merchandise and instant fans.

CBN News The WNBA is expanding outside the U.S. for the first time.

I am honored to officially announce that we have awarded the City of Toronto the 14th WNBA franchise. /cheers

Alexa Phillippou, ESPN The NFL had Brady versus Manning. In the NBA it was Bird versus Magic. And now in the WNBA is Caitlin Clark versus Angel Reese. Both playing key roles in the recent rise of women's basketball.

Jessica Helfand Today we are talking to the lady who leads the league, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. Cathy is actually the league's very first commissioner. She stepped into the role in 2019 after 33 years at Deloitte, including five years as their CEO. She is a lifetime basketball lover, but this was her first time working in sports.

Ellen McGirt Being the first commissioner of a professional sports league is such a feat. I'm just imagining her walking onto the court basketball and hand into a completely empty stadium, looking around like, where is everybody? I know that isn't quite how it happened, but Cathy walked into the WNBA in 2019, just two years after the league had its lowest viewership numbers since its founding in 1996. Wasn't for lack of talent, but over the last five years, the league has really blossomed under her leadership.

Jessica Helfand The league saw a 200% increase in revenue in 2023 from the prior year, and they are currently negotiating a TV deal independently of the NBA for the very first time. And just in the past month, they've made two enormous announcements. One, the WNBA is adding two expansion teams in coming seasons, one in San Francisco and one in Toronto. And two, that players will now fly charter to and from their games, which is an enormous step forward for overall player wellness.

Ellen McGirt You know, it's really been a joy to watch all this unfold. We talked to Cathy about what key levers she pulled to make this growth happen, and why the growth of the WNBA is bigger than sports because it really is. It's bigger than pay equity, even. To me, and Jessica, I'm curious what you think about this — it's further proof that female excellence is worthy of the attention and respect of everybody, all genders. Exploding that second tier status that somehow women's efforts are less than men's and that, pardon the pun, is the game changer.

Jessica Helfand When you mention you pictured that picture of Cathy Engelbert working-walking out on the court for the first time with basketball in hand. I'm imagining that scene in Sex and the City, when Sarah Jessica Parker walks the runway and falls in heels.

Ellen McGirt /laughs.

Jessica Helfand Which-which which- /laughs. I don't know why my mind went there. I know-I think we're nothing without the kind of humility that lets us imagine the catastrophizing of things going south, but in fact, things are going anything but south for these lovely people. Today's episode, by the way, is a twofer. Later in the episode, we will hear from sports reporter Lindsey Gibbs on the history of the WNBA, in which she gets into sticky issues like player pay and what the league has to actually do to keep on growing.

Ellen McGirt That's going to be a mini WNBA history lesson, so do stay tuned for that. But at first, here is our conversation with Cathy Engelbert, the commissioner of the WNBA.

Ellen McGirt Cathy, we know that you've been awfully busy, saving the world, changing the world for sports fans everywhere. So to welcome you to our quieter podcast, we've invited two very special guests. Inspiring to all to welcome you. Ready?

Cathy Engelbert /laughs, Angel and Caitlin. Let's go.

Jessica Helfand /laughs.

Ellen McGirt /Laughs. Oh, and the crowd goes wild. Thank you so much for being here.

Cathy Engelbert I love it.

Ellen McGirt Jessica, you want to start us off?

Jessica Helfand I do, it's been a wild few months for you at the WNBA. Cathy, you've got a draft, a new expansion team, and the WNBA is in a period of what seems to we civilians, to be a period of unbelievable growth. We were wondering just to get us started, Cathy, what have been some of the highlights for you given this incredible period?

Cathy Engelbert Well, it is an incredible moment and momentum around women's sports here in the United States as well as globally. And we've kind of been waiting and preparing for this moment, not thinking it would come quite so soon. But we've been in a huge business transformation, but it really is the confluence of a lot of things happening at one time, a lot of positive elements, for once in women's sports. And it's, you know, the valuation of our assets are going up, whether that's a patch on the uniform, whether it's an endorsement of an individual player or a team seeing lots of corporate partners step up. So the confluence of all of that and brands really recognizing that women's sports is on the rise, I call it-we're growth stock. One of our owners said that, and we really are. And so it's a confluence of great play on the court, great personalities, of the players, also the generational rookie class, capital inflows. I mean, Ellen, I never thought that we'd be able to raise that 75 million in capital back in February of '22 and then deploy that, against a lot of different things that are coming to fruition now around marketing around the league, a global expansion. You mentioned expansion — just announced a new Toronto team last week, in addition to one in Golden State, back in the fall, we announced that. So yeah, it's it's been quite, this confluence of all these positive elements happening at the same time. And, couldn't be more proud of what the players are doing, how they're showing up. And it's it's hard to be a professional athlete. And there are women in the workforce too, just like we are. And, you know, really excited as we think about this talent. And it's not just this year. It's for the next four years. We're starting to see huge talent coming out of the college ranks, coming into the WNBA.

Ellen McGirt So I wanted to ask about that too, because I it's it suddenly matters to us that everybody is a fan of women's sports. It's not just women, it's not just their parents. It's suddenly everybody. What are some of the beneficial knock on effects of this for student athletes or just communities?

Cathy Engelbert Yeah, I think when when brands step up to endorse female athletes, one of the things that they're finding is the fans. For instance, we got a lot of fan data now, fans are more apt to buy from that brand if they see it advertised in the WNBA or women's sports. If 80% of every consumer purchasing decision, household consumer purchasing decision is made or influenced by a woman in the US, then why wouldn't brands want to support women? So it's kind of all of that. And that's fueling a lot of our growth, and it's fueling a lot of the ability for these players to be recognized. Because the one thing I know coming from business that I learned very quickly in sports, you need three things to be successful: You need household names. You need games of consequence. And you need rivalries because that's why people want to watch. I mean, the game has to be great and our game is great, but you need those other three things, and that's what's kind of coming together now. And brands are recognizing it for the first time, and they're really standing not only behind the athletes in college, but we see our players get a lot more opportunities once they come to the WNBA, because now they have a national and global footprint rather than maybe just a local, you know, and national footprint that they had in college.

Jessica Helfand This is a real marketing, for-sort of force field that you have actually inhabit, are inhabiting there. And, and really setting up for the future of these teams. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to this vision? I, I it's my understanding and please correct me if I'm wrong, that the WNBA hasn't always had such marketing prowess and genius. So perhaps you could tell us a little bit and help us dig into that.

Cathy Engelbert  Yeah. So when I came into the league a few years ago, again, out of kind of accounting and consulting and my whole life 33 years before, not really marketing, but brand was always very important. And so we had one marketing person, we had very little budget, we had very little people. And so doing that capital raise and kind of, fueling off this growth, we're able to hire people. We've done, we've invested in technology, we invested in people. It's great to have financial capital, but you need human capital. So we now have over 25 people in marketing. And once you hire the right team — so I still say everyone's like, how do you do it? First we got capital, then we hired human capital, and now we're able to afford to run marketing spots and even during the NBA playoffs right now, and even I saw during the NHL playoffs, there's WNBA players in a lot of the ads that are being done by a State Farm and a CarMax and the Michelob ULTRA, and, you know, the list goes on. And they've been such great partners with giving exposure to these athletes because that's how you build household names and that brings more fans into the funnel. I have people come up to me and say, you know, they are starting to idolize these players like they do in the NBA. And, you know, and so it's interesting, when I first joined the league, this is actually a really interesting marketing perception that my CMO and we never had a chief marketing officer until I hired a long time, Nike executive, 27 year Nike guy, and who does marketing better than Nike? Like, especially in basketball. No one. And so when I hired Phil Cook, the one thing he said to me, because what's really interesting about the WNBA, he said from kind of an outside in perspective, he said, is one, in, in the NFL — yeah, a couple quarterbacks are well known things like that, but they wear helmets, teams. In the NBA it is the players — Steph, LeBron, KD, Giannis, now Jokić, Luka — and the WNBA the loyalty is to the league. We needed to drop down to the players in the teams because that's why people attend games. That's why people watch games. So it's great to be up here in, and stand for the power of women and women in sports and be the longest tenured women's professional sports league in the country, by the way, by double any other. So again, I feel very blessed to be leading that. But you need people to know the players. So now Angel comes in and you hear that commet. You know, Caitlin Clark, Camila Cardoso when she comes back from being injured, it's going to be amazing. Cameron Brink and Rickea Jackson out in LA and and now the next couple years of generational players like Kiki Rice and Juju Watkins at USC and Hannah Hidalgo Notre Dame, like we've got this path —Paige Becker's next year coming in from UConn. Like we have this four year run, amazing generational rookies that these young boys and girls are watching. And that's why it's it's such a great time to be to be to be in the WNBA.

Ellen McGirt I have a big question for you about the purpose driven nature of female sports, but particularly the WNBA, which we saw, really come to come to the front during Covid. But I want to circle back to that moment where you you were leaving this extraordinary career in business, the technical side of business, Deloitte and you choose the WNBA — its never had a commissioner before. And you walk into your I'm just imagining an empty stadium. What's your pitch?

Cathy Engelbert So pitch is that you know, with a little investment we're going to put this league on the map. We're going to put these players on the map. We had a three pronged strategy when I first came in, well we had no strategy, when I first came in, I said, what's our strategy?

Ellen McGirt Right.

Cathy Engelbert And people kind of looked at me funny on my team, a very small team at the time, maybe 12 people. And the first thing I said: Oh, now I know I need capital. So the pitch was, we're growth story. We're a legitimate sports media and entertainment property. And it was actually one of our owners who called me and said, you know, he was invested in SPACs and things like that. He goes, Cathy, you have a real business. We just need to grow revenue. We need to grow fandom. So we came up with a very simple three pronged strategy. We're going to be player first, stakeholder success — because we have- it's a very different stakeholder group than I was used to in the corporate world. You have 12 different owners now 14 are essentially running small businesses. And then you have a union and that that's an important stakeholder. You have fans, you have media, very different stakeholder group. And then the third thing was the fan experience. We made it way too hard to be a fan of the WNBA. So we've taken that capital and that was our pitch is we're going to take that capital, we're going to invest in those three pillars that, by the way, sit on the foundation, called the game and the game's never been better. The brand, the brand is actually really strong. The organization needed total transformation. And then the ecosystem, which is still a total mess, in how media companies and corporate partners value women's sports. We're really making a difference of changing that. Less than 1% of all corporate partnership dollars going to sports goes to women's sports. That numbers changed because of companies like Ally and State Farm and American Express and AT&T and Deloitte. So that number has literally changed overnight, which I thought it would take 5 to 10 years.

Jessica Helfand Amazing. I want to ask you diff-a question about a different stakeholder. And that's the players themselves, which is a really a women led organization that really is all about these young women who are just starting out in these remarkable moments in their lives. I read-we read last month that you announced the teams would fly charter this season, and I was thinking about this sort of idea of overall player wellness this morning when I read that, Melinda French Gates will be donating $1 billion over the next two years to individuals and organizations working on behalf of women. She's focused on the reproductive rights. But this question of wellness and supporting these women emotionally and and in terms of their development and evolution as players, but as, as young people who are really need a certain kind of support. Could you talk about how that factors into your strategy and your planning?

Cathy Engelbert Yeah, it's a great question because the mental tax on athletes, professional athletes, women athletes, women of color is-is a toll. And I found that out when, you know, we all spent 92 days together in the WNBA bubble during Covid trying to save this league that was just surviving at the time and now and now thriving four years later. So it is an important part of our platform. We have a whole social justice council, and every year we've asked the players it's very, player led but league facilitated. And we aks players, you can't have an eight lane, eight lane highway in what you want to focus on, whether it's maternal reproductive rights, whether it's maternal health, whether it's with a focus in community color, communities of color, whether it's LG-LGBTQ+ rights, things like that. So, you know, we ask our players like, let's narrow what your focus is each year. This year it'll be on civic engagement, obviously, we have an election year this year general election. And that's why the first pillar of my three pronged strategy is player first, because when you do that, you build trust with the players, and the players are more apt to, you know, do things together with the league because it's, it's important that we work together because they, they have strong stances in the community on a lot of issues. They're role models. They're, I call them very, you know, community minded. We're still building something bigger here on kind of the mental health side, but certainly something I know the players are very, very dedicated to.

Ellen McGirt The-you mentioned the Covid bubble. I, I always recommend, the 144 documentary, the ESPN 144 documentary, because that was the first time you I really got a chance to see the the deep commitment of the players as they were thinking through in real time, the big issues of being parents, of being community leaders, and of caring about social justice. What advice do you have for other leaders in other industries who are struggling with, a passionate, excellent workforce who are trying- who are trying to do a better job working through together how they want to weigh in on these big social issues.

Cathy Engelbert Yeah, it's complex. And the one thing I tell our players, and this is what I used to say when I was at Deloitte, if you use your voice on everything, you lose your voice. So find the things that are important to you, to your talent, to your workforce, find the things that are important and then kind of go hard at those. You don't have to speak up on everything we have, as we know, Ellen, we've been in the trenches in a very divisive society for, you know, a long time now. But it is important to use your voice when it's an important issue to you, your players. So that's why, again, coming off of that 2020 season with, you know, a global pandemic causing global economic hardship for a lot of people, you know, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, then we get thrown in the middle of a political battle in Georgia for that Senate seat with one of our owners. So, I mean, I just think about everything that happened in that, that five, six month period of time and how the players stepped up. And we talked to them about how to be an advocate for the things that are important to you. And so that would be my advice to any, leader of a business is go hard at the things that matter and make sure you're listening. I mean, one thing that, you know, I didn't have any sports background other than having played, and growing up in a big family with seven siblings and always playing sports, but, coming in sports is big business. Big business is about relationships. You've got to build trust with your stakeholders, particularly in our case, the players early. And that's what we did. But make sure you listen. I mean, I spent probably the first three months in the league doing a 12 city tour and just doing a lot of listening, which, by the way, I hadn't done a lot of in a.

Ellen McGirt /Laughs.

Cathy Engelbert Long time because I was I was leading over 100,000 people and we were just decisions,

Ellen McGirt Yeah.

Cathy Engelbert Allocation of capital, culture change, all that. But yeah, I listened for quite, quite some time because this was a different stakeholder group for me.

Jessica Helfand I would imagine growing up in a family with all those siblings, you had to do your share of listening.

Ellen McGirt /Laughs.

Jessica Helfand And the sports part is interesting to me because, my boyfriend comes from a big family and sports is part of the language that I am learning. I am on the other side of this. For someone who doesn't know a lot about the NBA, I'm looking at myself and my family. We were not big sports people, but I've become so interested in your story and what you're building there and what you've done in the five short years as the WNBA commissioner, what would you say to someone who has never watched a WNBA game? What would you say makes the WNBA so special?

Cathy Engelbert Yeah, I think it's the players and it's always going to come back to the players. And you know, we now say like, you know watch, buy, attend, rep. Because everyone's like why don't they get paid? Oh not because you got to watch by a ten rep. And if you really want to support this rising growth, stop start, just watch a game and come to a game. I will tell you, every person male, female, they- old, young, you know, race. When they come to a game, they love it and they come back or they go back and watch and they start to get invested in the players and the fandom. I always say we have the most avid and rabid fans, because you get connected to it and you're connected to something more than just sport. We sit at the intersection of sport, culture, society. And I think the players have done an amazing job of putting on a product on the courts. Got to start with that. But everything they stand for, I can't tell you when Steph Curry and Sabrina Ionescu did the three point competition during the NBA All-Star weekend, to have Sabrina out there on that platform, I can't tell you how many moms now come up to me and say, because my daughter, eight year old, ten year old, 12 year old, saw Sabrina on that court on that stage, she picked up a basketball now, or she picked up a sport. And we know girls who play organized sports tend to build leadership skills and resilience. And so I talk to moms and dads about that a lot that, you know, the more- not every kid has to play sports. But, come watch and you'll see, you know, where the leadership is coming from.

Ellen McGirt Well, speaking of leadership and and this is I'm not rushing you out of the post, but I do want to ask my succession question because you are also a role model. And you are-and I'm hoping that there's going to be more women who will be team owners, right, that that the that's the as the league expands. There'll be more women in professional life in-in major sports because they're going to be bringing up this these issues of physical and mental wellness. They're going to be bringing up these issues of pay equity. How do you think about training the next generation of sports executives and and how are you going to think about your successor?

Cathy Engelbert Yeah, I feel so blessed to be from a culture like Deloitte that was an apprenticeship model where we always worked on succession. I mean, the first thing I did when I became the CEO there, we put together kind of a succession management development process, identified 30 next generation leaders, two now of which have succeeded me in successive four year terms. So I'm really proud of that. And same thing here I and building a team of people, whether that successor comes inside the WNBA or outside all the presidents before me and now me as commissioner came from the outside. And if we could really work on developing our internal candidates, I mean, I have some fabulous people now working for me that I have my eye on. But you always look outside for succession, too. So I think the sign of a great leader is one who's working on succession the moment they get in the role, because it is important. I'm not going to be here for forever. And I'm, you know, now in my 38th year of business, let's call it. And now the business of sports. And I love sitting at this intersection of business and basketball. And to find people, especially women who want to sit at that same intersection is how I'm thinking about succession.

Ellen McGirt And then they're prepared to do other things out in the world, too. I mean, that's that's the beauty of it, is that it just sort of it blossoms the excellence. Sorry, Jessica. I didn't mean to start yet to shut you up there.

Jessica Helfand No, I, I actually with with the time we have left, I wondered if there's anything that you'd like to talk about that we haven't asked you because we, of course, could do this for four more days, and we realize we have about seven more minutes.

Ellen McGirt /Laughs

Cathy Engelbert No, I just say, you know, look, coming from leading a firm of 100,000 to a league of 144 players is a little shock to the system, I must say. So, but I, you know, one piece of advice I give, you know, a young people thinking of a career transition like I had was: Write a three things down on a piece of paper. Just three things — like don't write 9 or 15, write three simple things and follow it as you think about what you want to do in your career, because it's even a nice goal setting type of leadership development thinking that you can put in. And I wrote down three things when I was retiring from Deloitte. I wanted something different, something with a broad women's leadership platform and something I had a passion for. And my father was actually drafted into the NBA in 1957 by the Detroit Pistons. So that's where the passion thing came from, and growing up in a big family. So and then, you know, broad women's leadership platform — oh yeah. This is this check that that's way more than I thought it would because I inherited a small league. But we've obviously are on the map. And then something different. Again, sports is the business of sports isn't that different, you're building something. You're transforming. We did a whole digital transformation, but the impact on tens of millions of young girls and boys, by the way, you should see the boys like, you know, we all talked about girl dads when I first came into the league. And Kobe Bryant, who was, you know, I'd met with, you know, a couple months before, that horrible tragedy. And, you know, people talked about that. But no, this is for young boys and girls and youth to see role- female role models like the WNBA players. So again, I'm, I'm so blessed to be in women's basketball because again, we've got four more years, ten more years, decades of the impact that these players are making today and even just announcing a team in Canada. So it's our first team outside the United States. It's amazing the generations that they're telling me, the generations of young girls that you're impacting by bringing a WNBA team here.

Ellen McGirt You're going to be renegotiating your TV contract next year. That's a big thing. How are you preparing for that?

Cathy Engelbert Actually already doing it. Another thing that you can't wait until you're going to announce it or to your current one expire. So our current one expires October of '25, so after next season, less than 5% of all media coverage covers women's sports. That year, we only had 80 of our 240 games on national platforms. Last year, we had 205 of our 240. So if you build it, they will come. We got more national TV spots, we got better windows, we got better times. And our teams and our players have stepped up to fill, you know, essentially a building of, of the business around that. So again, our viewership is on par with some of the men's professional leagues. Yet their rights fees are 12 to 15 times ours. So how do I bridge that gap? What are the quantitative and qualitative metrics that they're using that we're not filling because guess what — then over the next 2 to 3 years and again this was two and a half years ago, we can fill those gaps and build so we can get a historic media valuation. And that's what we're going to do. I'm very excited. So stay tuned.

Ellen McGirt And the crowd goes wild.

Cathy Engelbert /Laughs

Jessica Helfand Thanks, Cathy. Thanks so much.

Ellen McGirt Okay, Jessica, before we reflect. Did she convince you to tune in to the WNBA?

Jessica Helfand Well, I was already intrigued by our wonderful producer, Alexis, getting all excited about this episode.

Ellen McGirt That's like, my favorite part of this, actually, is watching Alexis be just so happy.

Jessica Helfand The joy that somebody gets from watching sports is something that perhaps escapes me because of my own sports challenged background.

Ellen McGirt /Laughs.

Jessica Helfand Simultaneously, I've learned that my my son's, partner of many years is a lovely young woman named Tarpley who's working on a book about Barbie, as a matter of fact, is doing some reporting for a financial website, writing a story about, pay and the WNBA. And she I've known this girl for 15 years, turns out to be a huge WNBA fan. So here are two people close to me who, just get all enthusiastic when they talk about this. So, yes, it's got me kind of excited to start watching some games.

Ellen McGirt So I tell you, Cathy, walking into that empty arena and not face planting.

Jessica Helfand /Laugh.

Ellen McGirt Meant, right, meant-meant that she had the focus and the confidence and the wellspring of excellence herself to look around and understand what needed to be provided — you know, where is the marketing? Where-where is the outreach? Where are we taking better pla-pre- the players, and where are we handling like external threats that you couldn't predict like Covid? Amazing.

Jessica Helfand I found her incredibly impressive as a very approachable, very human, but extremely skilled leader, right. And those things don't always go hand in hand. You, more than anybody can probably tell us, the people that you've interviewed in your long career as a business journalist.

Ellen McGirt Mhmh.

Jessica Helfand But I think her enthusiasm shines through. Her experience and expertise shine through. Right? I mean, this is somebody who understands the, you know, the different branches of what it takes to lead an organization that is changing and growing and expanding and the challenges for viewership, the challenges for fans, the challenges for fundraising. They're just enormous.

Ellen McGirt We've had women's basketball on the brain since our conversation with Cathy, and we wanted to learn a little bit more about how this current moment fits into the league's almost 30 year history. After the break, our amazing producer Alexis will talk with sports reporter Lindsey Gibbs. Lindsey writes the women's sports newsletter Power Plays and co-hosts the feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down — now that's a title. She was also featured in Shattered Glass, a documentary about the WNBA player association that came out this spring. So stay tuned.

Ellen McGirt I'm here with Kweai Mitchell, Deloitte's chief purpose and  DEI officer and good friend and sponsor of today's episode. Good to see you, Kwasi. Thank you for joining us.

Kwasi Mitchell It's good to be here, Ellen.

Ellen McGirt I want to ask a question. That was one of the first questions that we ever discussed years ago when we first started talking about these issues, which is the value of DEI in the workplace, in organizations. Can you share what you believe to be the key benefits of implementing DEI practices into any organization, particularly now?

Kwasi Mitchell I think that there's a multitude of things, as we talked about over the course of several years, Ellen, on the importance of DEI in the practices within the workforce. I do think the business case on DEI being good for business in that it creates a more diverse and inclusive organization that is a more effective one. It creates diversity of thought. It creates diversity of action. It also allows for organizations to be more nimble and innovative. So that's a core piece of why DEI is important. The other piece of why DEI is important is that for people who are truly focused on it, and they're dismantling all of the inequitable practices that have accumulated within core aspects of the way that businesses operate historically, it really-it really is a situation that benefits all employees. So for me, the critical aspect of DEI is that doing it well benefits all, and it helps us to navigate beyond the tribalism or some of the zero sum thinking that can, in fact, surface in organizations and is a reflection of what's taking place in society more broadly, that we really need to make sure that people understand and use DEI as an enabler to rise all time.

Ellen McGirt Always great to hear concrete ways we can move forward. I appreciate you, Kwasi.

Kwasi Mitchell Same and it's always a pleasure talking to you, Ellen.

Lindsay Gibbs My name is Lindsey Gibbs. I am the author and founder of the women's sports newsletter Power Plays.

Alexis Haut The WNBA is seemingly everywhere at this moment. We have record high viewership numbers, revenue numbers, like the draft is the highest watched in league history — but the league is also almost 30 years old at this point. So I'm just wondering from your perspective, like, how would you situate this moment in the WNBA in the context of the league's history?

Lindsay Gibbs Yeah, it's absolutely an exciting moment. And it's, you know, the popularity of Caitlin Clark, and to different degrees, Angel Reese, and Camilla Cardoso, and Cameron Brink coming onto this stage is certainly bringing a lot of new eyeballs and new fans, new business interest. But also, I think the timing is so good because the WNBA has been on an upward trajectory for the last, five years. And so what's really exciting is that viewership has been increasing, attendance has been increasing. All of the franchises, are in really pretty solid places right now of growth and investment. The league has a lot of new partners. And so this new attention, it's kind of coming, you know, it's like adding fuel to a fire that's already burning pretty steadily. And that, I think, is such a great place to be as opposed to having, you know, these people come in and be expected to, quote unquote, save the league or resurrect the league. So that's the important context I think people are sometimes missing is that, you know, because it's their first time watching, they think it's everyone's first time watching, you know? But the truth is that it has been booming. I think that positions the W well, to capitalize off of this, you know, these increased eyeballs. Because it's not in a desperate state right now.

Alexis Haut Yeah. This that's like a really good point. Like, I was at— I'm a Liberty fan, and I was at the final finals game when we lost to the Aces on home court, which was really sad. But Barclays was sold out and this was before, I don't even know if I knew who Caitlin Clark was at like that point in time, to be honest. So I'm just curious, like, it seems like things have really been steadily rising in the last few years. So prior to this new rookie class that is bringing a lot of new eyeballs, like, what levers do you think that were being pulled to put the WMBA on this ascendancy that has been really capitalize on with this new class?

Lindsay Gibbs Think, you know, labor rights is a very important part of the story. The WNBA players association actually formed two years, just two years into the WNBA existence. So it's almost as old as the league itself. And that is such an important context because it is just had to fight tooth or nail for every single scrap it's gotten, you know, from the league, all the way through the history. But it really started gaining steam and gaining cultural force, I think, around the Black Lives Matter movement. I think first of all, I do want to say, like, even when we're talking about this, right, the down year. Like if you look back at the Minnesota Lynx, when Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen and Simona Augustus were there —when their finals were there, the Target Center was packed, like it was, you know, like booming. The Sparks Lynx finals are some of the best basketball you will ever see period, like that rivalry. But I think that, you know, in the summer 2015, 2016 — sorry, the summer 2016, I believe it was, with the Black Lives Matter protest and the death of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, you really saw the WNBA players at the forefront of social activism. This is a summer before Colin Kaepernick took a knee. WNBA players were holding media blackouts like they were saying — I was covering the Washington Mystics at the time, I was a beat reporter, and we would go into their locker room and they would say, we are only talking about police brutality against Black people today. And this really put them on the radar of a lot of people who don't, you know, normally follow sports and especially women's sports. And I think the way they were able to use their voices as social voices for social justice, to advocate for themselves, for their community, for the queer community, to fight against, I mean, the league was not supportive of their activism at all at first. It tried to fine the players, it tried to shut it down. And through that, the players and the players' union only got stronger. And that solidarity from that summer helped lead directly to the solidarity that helped them fight for, their 2020 CBA, which is the one they're currently under, which at the time was a groundbreaking CBA at almost double the price from, for top players from around $120,000 to $220,000, and I think now it's up to about $240,000, because, of course, their mechanisms to increase the rookie scale went from in the 40s to in the 70s and the CBAs before that, you hadn't seen that much growth at all. So it's so funny because already that CBA looks so out of date, you know, based upon the viewership numbers, based upon, the growing excitement around the league, based upon the attendance, based upon the new sponsors. But it's important not to rewrite history and to to say that I don't-like I don't think you can tell the story about the WNBA current boom without starting that summer, when they were doing the media blackouts for the Black Lives Matter protests.

Alexis Haut Yeah, absolutely. I love that you brought that up, because I remember in 2020, which I think like was another big moment for the league. Like, you know, the the NBA had their media, had their walkouts, had their strikes. But like that was only after the WNBA players have done it already. And like were walking out wearing Black Lives Matter shirts and we're like saying we're not going to play in the bubble. And I think the whole situation with the Atlanta Dream and stuff like that.

Lindsay Gibbs They flipped a Senate seat. They helped flip a Senate seat.

Alexis Haut Yeah.Which is wild.

Lindsay Gibbs Like it's all connected.

Alexis Haut It is unbelievable.

Lindsay Gibbs Right. And I think that's why, you know, some of the new fans are like, well, take, you know, we don't want to talk about the social justice stuff or, you know, don't bring race into this and everything. And I think the reason that does hit W fans so hard and W players so hard is because I think when you started really seeing the turnaround for the cultural import of the W is when they stopped listening to people who were saying that, right. For years, the W hadn't been at the forefront of social issues. It had tried to keep players in the closet and promote, players who were more white and feminine, you know, I mean, if you look back at how Sue Bird was marketed when she first got in the league, right, like, you know, she was going to events with Nick Carter, like you're totally trying to make her like a Britney Spears, like, but like a, you know, not the bad Britney Spears. Like the good Britney Spears, you know? I mean, it's just ridiculous. And, you know, I think that for so long, you know, I think that because we don't have that many female athletes as role models and because we especially you don't see many Black women and certainly not, you know, more masculine styles and presentations of womanhood and gender that the W shied away from that and didn't want to forefront that, but I think it was right when the players started sharing where their personal lives, started coming out, started embracing fashion of all types and starting advocating openly for Black lives and for queer lives. Like that's when you saw the league really start to blossom. So to say, leave that at the door. That's like leav-.I mean, that's like telling them to like put away their superpower almost.

Alexis Haut It's been really interesting to watch like just from my purview of like games I've gone to have like how the fan base has changed as the players have been allowed to be more of themselves. Like the people that I think feel more connected to it. But let's ask you a little bit more about the CBA, because I think, yeah, that's a really important piece of this puzzle as well. And I recently just watched, Shattered Glass, which I saw you in as well, but I think the CBA obviously was was huge. The 2020 CBA, you mentioned like the pay scale and were different benefits and stuff, included. But I know that a lot of players feel as if it hasn't gone far enough, and I know that there's an option for them to opt out at the, end of this year. So I'm just wondering, like from their perspective or from what you've heard and from your perspective, what is missing? And like, what does the league still need to make up for I guess, in terms of overall player compensation and wellness?

Lindsay Gibbs I mean, you know, one of the main things was travel, which the league has taken care of this year, which is phenomenal, right. So that's one thing that I know the players were gonna fight really hard for in this next CBA, but it's nice they don't have to. But look, the number one thing is the salary cap just needs to drastically, drastically increase. The salary cap has been going up by 10%, 30%, you know, these marginal increases, in the salary cap. You know, I mean, I think you can look and maybe see it go from, you know, in ten years, maybe double, right. And that's but from 700,000 to like now where it's about 1.3, 1.4 million, you know. So these are just such incremental changes and it's so hard to do a lot with that as far as increasing meaningfully increasing player salaries. So I think just number one is there needs to be a much larger salary cap. I'm not talking increase it by 50%. I think it needs to at least triple. And that might sound extreme, but I think that the league, if this TV deal comes as big as it is- as big as it could, it should not be ridiculous to have 5 million or $6 million as a salary cap like it just shouldn't. If they're bringing in 150, and that's a conservative estimate, you know, $1 million, per year on broadcasting deals. So, when that happens, you can start seeing these salaries breathe a little bit. And I think there also needs to be mechanisms for some flexibility. Maybe get rid of the hard cap. Maybe there is an injured reserve. Maybe they can keep practice players. Maybe, you know, they can, offer full- you know, they do offer full benefits now, for pregnancy, but it really does punish the teams. The pregnancy benefits are pretty good right now. That was something that was achieved, in the previous CBA, but again, because of the tight salary gap. So I'm just repeating myself over and over again. But I think that's that's it all comes down to that. Give the players more money.

Alexis Haut Yeah. I mean then it's interesting too, because with the increased growth, like the increased number of eyeballs on the league, the more that we're all aware of sort of the the machinations of it, like Brittney Griner's detainment in Russia like allowed a lot of people to understand that, like: Oh, she doesn't make enough money to support herself and her family just playing in the US. So she has to be in Russia over the summer. Or like Caitlin Clark, who's everywhere, is only getting paid, you know, $75,000 a year or 76 or whatever it is. And I remember like, seeing the Skyler Diggins-Smith situation where she doesn't feel like she was treated fairly, like postpartum. It's like this double edged sword for the league. But I think it's great in the sense that people are aware of these things. And I just I want to ask you a little bit like we were talking in the beginning of the call about media coverage in general, because that also, I think is a double edged sword. Because we're talking just the Monday after the- over the weekend, the Chicago Skys and Chennedy Carter's hard foul on Caitlin Clark. And it has created a storm of conversation. And I think that has been brewing in the month or so that she's been in the league already, where a lot of people feel like the some WNBA players are being really unfair to Caitlin Clark being really physical. And some people are like, this is just the general rookie treatment. And I think it's brought up this whole conversation that includes that's about gender, that's about race. And so all these different things from your perspective is all coverage, good coverage, like is it good just that people are talking about it?

Lindsay Gibbs I think I would have said yes, a while ago, but right now I'm like, no, we need to take away your rights.

Alexis Haut /Laughs

Lindsay Gibbs People are so weird about women.

Alexis Haut Like so weird. Yeah.

Lindsay Gibbs And it just goes to like what I've been writing about, which is just kind of how threatening this all feels to men, I think. And, men who have been in this sport space, you know, the growth of women's sports is upsetting the status quo. And there's starting to be this really ridiculous backlash. I mean, just today it was, you know, Stephen A Smith saying, who has done more coverage of the WNBA than First Take, which is just one of the most ridiculous sentences I have—

Alexis Haut Absolutely absurd, yeah.

Lindsay Gibbs And he was being serious. Like, it's just it's just was served and then you had. Anyways, Pat McAfee, you know, use the B-word when talking about Caitlin Clark and like, it's just-it's just out of control. But. Who I think everything is really, really, really heightened. And, I'm not surprised. I think that it is sensitive for players, in a predominantly Black league, to have their history and their value kind of completely erased and undermined, by a public who just wants to focus on, Caitlin Clark. And there is a lot of the narrative around it that- not that Caitlin herself, but has been there's a lot of great white hope being put on her arrival to the W. Things are on the upward swing already, and the truth is that Caitlin Clark needs the W just as much as the W needs Caitlin Clark, because this is the platform where she's going to grow her legacy. Like this- it has been built up. It is a steady league that stands the test of time. It does have these television contract. She is going to be able to create, or at least given the chance to create, a legacy, right, a basketball legacy that rivals the greats. TGet's her into the Hall of Fame, like all of these things. So I think that there's there's a couple things here. First of all, Chennedy Carter's foul absolutely deserved to be a technical and like there should absolutely be punishments within the sport and the guidelines of the sport that punish like that, like it was not a basketball play. Nobody can say it was a basketball play. I don't hear anyone excusing Chennedy Carter's foul or saying like: Yay! Like that should be allowed in games, right? I think what gets hard is this narrative that all the physical plays like that are uniquely targeted to Caitlin Clark, and that there is this big, huge anti Caitlin Clark bias amongst players in the league. And more than that, there's people literally saying out loud that they should be nicer to her because of the new fan she's going to bring to the league. And they should be like letting her win even. And so, you know, we're having so many conversations at once. But I don't think it needs to be like, I don't think we need to be pearl clutching, and I don't think we need to be, saying that the WNBA has a PR problem because of how players are treating Caitlin Clark. I went back and, to a piece I had done about the 2008 brawl between the Sparks and- the Los Angeles Sparks and the Detroit Shock, which was Candace Parker's rookie season. And, first of all, like, talk about the WNBA having had success in the past. That game, that was just a regular season game. There were 12,000 fans in Detroit there for that game. It was on ESPN 2, like it was a big deal already. You know, and you know, that brawl got started because Pearson, a young, tough, gritty player who was trying to, use her physicality to kind of gain a spot, regular starting spot and respect in the league really hip checked, Candace Parker on the free throw line, and, very strong box out. And, Ca-Candace Parker retaliated, and Candace Parker was the one who was supposed to save the WNBA back in 2008. If you read the coverage, which I reposted a lot of it on Power Plays. Like, you know, she had that narrative and, around her and she was actually the MVP her rookie year, like, absolutely absurd rookie season. Never- that will never be done again. But she said like she knew players are coming after her more and being more physical towards her, because of her age and her success. Like, it's kind of a normal thing in sports. It all takes on a life of its own, because there seems to be this paternalistic, desire to protect Caitlin Clark. And if we want to talk about the people who aren't protecting Caitlin Clark, I think that should go to the WNBA itself, who put this schedule in place where the Fever played 11 games in the first 19 WNBA days and flying all around the country, playing the biggest teams in the world with 36 of their 40 games are on television. When you knew the team was going to be bad, and you're exposing her to this level of attention and gusto and exhaustion that has worn her down. And I'm not sure the Indiana Fever coaches have done a good job of, setting her up for success either. So when I look at, like, the people who haven't-who haven't set up Caitlin Clark for success, or if we should be mad at anyone for the treatment Caitlin Clark's getting, which I don't really think we should, but if, like, that conversation is way less directed to players who are, but who are very competitive and who, I must say, if they weren't being competitive, if they were giving Caitlin Clark special treatment, the people who were criticizing them now would be criticizing them again, just for different reasons.

Alexis Haut Yeah. I mean, I, I appreciate this. I, I think I think it's so important I think yeah, I watched the Liberty Fever game yesterday. I mean, and it's it's kind of just like demoralizing. I also really feel for Aliyah Boston, who was her teammate, who was a rookie of the year last year, who it feels like she's expected in her second year to carry so much of the emotional weight of that team. So I guess, like, what would you like to see in terms of how the WNBA can continue to capitalize on this momentum? How they might be able to bring in new viewers? They might be able to sustain this. And just like, what are your, like, hopes and hopes and dreams for the WNBA?

Lindsay Gibbs Yeah. I mean, I hope we just like first of all, just like everyone take a deep breath. And, you know, remember that this is a game and, these are grown women who can handle themselves and you know that everything's going to be okay. But, you know, in the big picture, I think that, it's just all about storytelling. And I think, you know, you've got to do a better job at telling more stories than just Caitlin Clark's, because it's not fair to her like to carry this much of a load, and it's not fair to the other players in the league. It's not fair to anyone. So what I'm worried about is if, A. the league doesn't take some of the spotlight off Caitlin Clark to give her time to grow up, to give her time to adjust, to give her time to breathe. And B doesn't, properly use this, this spotlight to tell the stories of its other players and its history, then I think we're in a bad-a bad spot. So, I just hope that the storytelling gets a little bit better. A league is not one person. It just can't be. It cannot be one person. The WNBA isn't in trying to pretend that it is is just damaging to everyone, including Caitlin.

Alexis Haut Well, thank you Lindsay so much. I appreciate you taking the time.

Lindsay Gibbs Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.

Jessica Helfand You know what that music means, Ellen.

Ellen McGirt It's big swing, small wins time. Jessica, I believe you've got our big swing this week.

Jessica Helfand Well, as I like to say, as we all like to say, it's all about the kids.

Ellen McGirt /Laugh.

Jessica Helfand And our big swing this year has to go to a kid from Saint Petersburg, Florida. I'm talking about Bruhat Soma, the 12 year old — speaking of phenoms — is a 12 year old phenom who won the 96th annual Scripps Spelling Bee, which has become a very nerdy sporting event of its own. My kind of sporting event, perhaps.

Ellen McGirt Same, same.  

Jessica Helfand He won actually in a tie breaking spell off. I mean, just the thought of it makes me nervous.

Scripps Spelling Bee Anouncer Your first word is brouette.

Bruhat Soma B-R-O-U-E-T-T-E [ding]

Scripps Spelling Bee Anouncer Adelantado

Bruhat Soma A-D-E-L-A-N-T-A-D-O [ding]

Scripps Spelling Bee Anouncer Hyporcheme.

Bruhat Soma H-Y-P-O-R-C-H-E-M-E [ding]

Scripps Spelling Bee Anouncer Bisellium

Bruhat Soma B-I-S-E-L-L-I-U-M [ding]

Jessica Helfand He spelled 29 words correctly in a 90 second  span to beat his rival, phys Faizan Zaki, who managed 20 correct words, no mean feat that. Evidently Bruhat practiced the spell off religiously during his training, and it truly paid off. The spell off is a new feature. It's only been needed once before, but it's of course needed when you have somebody who's in a tie with somebody else. And I think we should celebrate this lovely young man. Future spellers, take, take notice of him. And I think we should also do a little shout out to his family and parents, because I'm sure they have been practicing with him at home for months to be ready for this incredible moment. So congratulations go to Bruhat Soma from Saint Petersburg, Florida. What's our small win this week?

Ellen McGirt So this news item really made my week. It's also sports themed. After a very long time of review and calculation, Major League Baseball successfully integrated Negro League baseball statistics from the year 1920 to 1948 in their record books. It was long overdue. It's harder than it sounds. Now, it doesn't erase the years of injustice of a segregated league, and it absolutely reminds us about what was missed by not including these extraordinary players into the mainstream enjoyment of baseball, and of course, in the big conversations about race and respect and dignity and all that very important stuff. Here's one really thrilling change. When you include the Negro League stats, the tragic Josh Gibson, one of my favorite players, replaces Ty Cobb as the all time batting leader and also replaced Babe Ruth with a stat called on base plus slugging. I could go on and on, but just Josh Gibson getting his moment in the sun of acknowledgment means so much. But all of these players outperformed, under some of the most vile racist conditions. It's a small win, long overdue, but it feels really good.

Jessica Helfand What an amazing story. And I just want to say that I think that the Scripps Spelling Bee should include something they call on base plus slugging.

Ellen McGirt Right?

Jessica Helfand Spell slugging perhaps, they could do spells slugging both out without physicality, but-

Ellen McGirt Spell it backwards. Like how fast could you spell it backwards.

Jessica Helfand In 90 seconds.

Ellen McGirt Right?

Jessica Helfand What a beautiful story Ellen. Thank you for that incredible and long overdue.

Ellen McGirt Yes, and thank you to all the listeners. Stay tuned. We've got another wonderful episode coming up in two weeks. And for us fans, go wild for Alexis Haut, our amazing producer. Thank you for pulling all of this together today. Yes.

Ellen McGirt The Design of Business | The Business of Design is a podcast from Design Observer.

Jessica Helfand Our show is written and produced by Alexis Haut. Our theme music is by Warner Meadows. Justin D Wright of Seaplane Armada mixed and mastered this episode. Thanks to Adina Karp and Focus Forward Podcast studio in Providence for production support. And Ellen, who do you want to thank this week special just for you?

Ellen McGirt I would like to thank the boys of Summer who are currently making my life interesting, that not one, but two broods of cicada that has driven me into the back bedroom, to record this podcast and for reminding me that everything is in a cycle.

Jessica Helfand That's right. There is no light without shadow. There was. There is no podcasting without the din of the natural world.

Ellen McGirt Yes, that's so true.

Jessica Helfand /Laugh.

Ellen McGirt And for more long form content about the people redesigning our world, please consider subscribing to our newsletter, Equity Observer and The Observatory at Design Observer dot com.

Ellen McGirt The Design of Business | The Business of Design is produced by Design Observer's editorial team. The views and opinions expressed by podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse any individuals or entities featured on the podcasts.




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