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New WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert a perfect fit to lead league

May 16, 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.

The WNBA took seven months to name its new leader, but it was worth the wait. Cathy Engelbert, named Wednesday as the league's new commissioner, brings to the WNBA a highly impressive business background; she has been CEO at Deloitte LLP and had a 33-year career at the Big Four professional services firm. Now the NBA is showing it will truly let her lead, changing the title of the job from president to commissioner. It's an important and necessary step.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the title change was to signal the WNBA's major-league status.

"I'm honored and humbled to have that title," Engelbert said Wednesday during a teleconference. "I think it comes with enormous responsibility."

Engelbert has spent the past four years in charge of Deloitte's U.S. operation, which has more than 100,000 employees and handles billions in transactions every year. She worked her way up in the company she joined in 1986 right out of Lehigh University, where she played basketball (for current Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw) and lacrosse. She solidified her reputation by winning the trust of individual clients. She built a career in an industry that was not friendly or encouraging to women when she entered it, and she has done tangible work in changing that.

"There are lots of parallels, I think, certainly from business into the WNBA, which, again, I hope to bring a fresh perspective on," Engelbert said. "However, having said that, I think these women are already much more powerful than I was when I came into the workforce, and I think their voice and their standing amongst the communities in which they live and work and play is already pretty amazing. They have such a powerful platform at this moment in time with women's leadership."

She's more than qualified to be the boss of the WNBA and have an approach that says, "The buck stops here." Past WNBA presidents have had a different title and not quite as much autonomy or authority as that position needs to be most impactful and move the league forward.

New WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert was the first woman to hold a CEO position at one of the Big Four global professional service firms. John Lamparski/Getty Images

That doesn't mean Engelbert won't value the expertise of NBA commissioner Adam Silver and others on the NBA side, including interim WNBA president Mark Tatum, especially as she transitions into the job. Tatum has earned high marks from many for how he has managed things since Lisa Borders resigned as president last October, and one can expect he'll still be involved in the ongoing collective bargaining negotiations with the players' union.

But the players will benefit from dealing with a commissioner they know is really in charge and who will come to the WNBA able to home in on a more dynamic business model. All that Engelbert has done on a global scale in the professional services world is relevant to the present and future of the WNBA.

You could say that Engelbert has led the equivalent of a fleet of massive ocean liners. The WNBA is a smaller ship but one that needs a captain unafraid of navigating difficult, and in some cases uncharted, waters. This can be professionally gratifying for her because she can be hands-on about decisions that directly impact the players' lives and the league's growth. What she has been doing on a macro level will now be more micro.

To be CEO of Deloitte requires a nimble understanding of the complex challenges of Fortune 500 companies in regard to everything from their finances, to constant technological changes, to evolving human resources demands. She has done that while being an advocate for diversity and inclusion and is used to working with some of the most financially powerful people in the world.

To read her comments over the years is to see that she's at heart a problem-solver and relationship-builder. Both qualities are needed to be WNBA commissioner. She has spent her career in a business that makes a ton of money. The WNBA's ultimate goal is to become self-sufficient at some point, and Engelbert can help the league work toward that while bettering the everyday lives of the players.

"I think that's probably one of the reasons I was selected for this role, to come in and bring a business plan to build the WNBA into a real business and a thriving business, quite frankly," said Engelbert, who added that engaging more young millenial-aged fans is one of her goals. "I want to get in, do my listening tour, figure out what's worked, what hasn't worked."

That she enters the league when it's in the midst of collective bargaining is fortuitous. Under the leadership of Terri Jackson, the union has gotten much greater engagement from the players than in the past. No one expects that Jackson and Engelbert will agree on everything, but there's reason for optimism that they'll find considerable common ground in negotiating.

For one thing, figuring out more ways players could opt out of overseas play should be on the table, including with business internships. It's not realistic to think playing overseas is going away for WNBA players, but it would benefit them and the league if they have more options to limit or avoid that, if they so choose.

Engelbert instituted a more progressive family-leave policy while CEO at Deloitte, which also should be encouraging to WNBA players. And while no CEO is ever completely free of controversy or questions, Engelbert's overall record over three decades with Deloitte is laudable -- both for her savvy business sense as she has embraced new technology and different responsibilities, and how openly she has spoken in the past about conquering her own doubts about whether she could do it all as an executive and a mother of two. Engelbert's daughter is now in college, and her son in high school.

Each of the past WNBA leaders brought her own experiences and skill set to the job. Val Ackerman was an attorney who worked for the NBA and helped launch the league in 1997. She understood how things got done in the parent league. Her strong working relationship with then-NBA commissioner David Stern was critical to the WNBA getting off the ground.

Donna Orender's expertise came from working with the PGA in television negotiating. And while her personal style might have rubbed some people the wrong way, she gets credit for helping the WNBA through one of its most challenging times -- during the global financial crisis from 2006 to 2009, when the league lost championship franchises in Houston and Sacramento.

Laurel J. Richie's strengths were mostly in marketing, although she had no sports background. She seemed to have good relationships with most of the WNBA owners but ultimately didn't appear to have strong backing from the NBA.

And Borders' background was in business and politics. Her relationship seemed stronger with the players. When many of them took bolder and more public stands than ever before in regard to social issues beginning in 2016, Borders -- despite an initial stumble -- was able to support them in a way they appreciated.

Each dealt with the challenges the league has had: trying to establish itself in the midst of a clogged sports calendar, facing the normal difficulties of any start-up, and combating the specific barriers of sexism, racism and homophobia the WNBA faces.

Engelbert has a lifelong love of sports. And she has a career-long mastery of surviving and thriving in big business while maintaining a commitment to making that a better environment for all. She's the right person at the right time to lead the WNBA.

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