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WNBA tabs CEO Engelbert as 1st commissioner

May 15, 2019

Mechelle VoepelespnW.com

CloseMechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women's basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

Cathy Engelbert, who became the first woman to serve as CEO of Deloitte, has been named the new commissioner of the WNBA, it was announced Wednesday.

Engelbert is taking over for Lisa Borders, who resigned in October, and will be the league's fifth leader as the title switches to commissioner from president. The New Jersey native has spent her 33-year career at Deloitte, a global professional services firm.

"I'm very excited to be doing something I have a huge passion for, and bring a business lens to the WNBA," Engelbert said on SportsCenter. "These are world-class athletes, and the game of women's basketball is on the rise. As we think about fan engagement, fan experience, player experience -- these are all things I'll be looking at once I transition into the role."

She was chair and CEO of Deloitte's audit subsidiary before beginning a four-year term as CEO of the U.S.-based branch of the company in 2015. Her term with the company doesn't officially end until June, and she will begin her job with the WNBA on July 17.

"Cathy is a world-class business leader with a deep connection to women's basketball, which makes her the ideal person to lead the WNBA into its next phase of growth," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. "The WNBA will benefit significantly from her more than 30 years of business and operational experience, including revenue generation, sharp entrepreneurial instincts and proven management abilities."

Speaking on why the title was changed from president to commissioner, Silver said, "With Cathy's hiring, we wanted to signal to the broadest possible audience that the WNBA is a major league and that she has the same status as the heads of other U.S.-based sports leagues."

Engelbert played basketball and lacrosse at Lehigh, graduating in 1986. Her basketball coach was Muffet McGraw, who moved on to Notre Dame in 1987.

"Cathy Engelbert is the perfect choice to lead the WNBA," McGraw said. "She has the ideal résumé for the job: Division I playing experience, plus extraordinary success in corporate America. She is smart, steady, confident, has a passion for the game and has the respect of everyone she has ever worked with."

Engelbert was ranked No. 18 in Fortune magazine's "Most Powerful Women" list for 2018. She has been lauded for her commitment to diversity and inclusion in the financial industry, and she is a member of several charitable boards, along with being CEO of Catalyst, a global nonprofit organization that states its mission as "building workplaces that work for women."

Approximately 43 percent of Deloitte's U.S.-based workforce of more than 94,000 is made up of women.

Engelbert, who has a daughter and a son, also is credited with introducing Deloitte's 16-week paid family leave program in 2016, which provided support not just for new parents but for those in a caregiver position for family members.

"I'm not a big rattler, but I rattled some people," Engelbert told Time in 2018 about that leave program. "I said we're just going to do it."

Engelbert will take over a 12-team league that starts its 23rd season on May 24 and is going through collective bargaining negotiations with the players' union, which exercised its opt-out of the agreement last fall. Terms are in place for this season, but an agreement needs to be reached before the 2020 season begins.

Deloitte is one of the advisers for the Women's National Basketball Players Association, but Engelbert had no direct contact with the branch that worked with the union. WNBPA executive director Terri Jackson has had a chance to meet with Engelbert recently.

"We are encouraged that the league has selected an individual who possesses a multi-dimensional understanding of the business of our game, with a proven ability to unlock real revenue and growth opportunities," the WNBPA executive committee said in a statement. "We want to recognize the league for honoring our request to provide our union the opportunity to meet with the final candidates.

"We look forward to working with Cathy, and seeing a redefined commitment to policies that value and support the working women and working mothers across the league. The progressive thinking and values Cathy has demonstrated throughout her career leave us optimistic about what the future could look like for WNBA players."

The WNBA isn't a totally unexpected detour for Engelbert, who grew up in a family of eight children and coached her daughter's middle school travel basketball team. She has spoken frequently in interviews over the years about her lifelong love of sports and how being an athlete helped her in the business world.

"The skills I learned early on from sports -- teamwork and competitiveness -- coupled with risk taking have driven my career path and helped me adapt to shifts and turning points along the way," Engelbert told Forbes in February 2018. "I use my experience in sports in business often, and like to empower people to raise their hand and build their capabilities under the analogy that 'you don't make any shots you don't take.'"

She reiterated that Wednesday in a teleconference after her hiring was announced.

"This role brings together kind of a perfect combination of my more than 30 years of business experience and my passion for the sport of basketball," Engelbert said. "I am a huge basketball fan I would say since I was 4.

"I can think of no better place to take the next level of my career than at the WNBA. Looking forward to connecting with all of the players and stakeholders that surround women's basketball and women's sports."

The WNBA, which launched in 1997, had Val Ackerman as its first president. She was followed by Donna Orender in 2005, then Laurel J. Richie (2011-15) and Borders (2016-18).

"Cathy will be a great collaborator and build bridges connecting all the major stakeholders of our game," McGraw said. "I am thrilled that she will be representing women's basketball at the highest level."

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