WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert Visits Minnesota Lynx
Talks about league expansion, marketing, WNBA 25th anniversary and more.
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On August 31, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert visited Minneapolis as the final stop of her 2021 tour of WNBA team cities. Engelbert spoke with Bally Sports North game announcers Marney Geller and Lea B Olsen on air during the second quarter of the New York Liberty at Minnesota Lynx game at Target Center, and then again with local media at halftime. It was her first visit to Minnesota since August 16, 2019 - which at that time was just three months after taking on the Commissioner role.
The league has gone through and accomplished quite a bit in Engelbert’s tenure so far including a successful season in the Bradenton, FL wubble due to the pandemic, social justice initiatives, a new collective bargaining agreement and the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup.
The Commissioner had ample data and statistics to show the progress the WNBA, celebrating its 25th season this year, has made.
Below are topics discussed and quotes from the Commissioner.
Replying to a question of expansion related to the city of Oakland approving a WNBA team: So, first of all, the conversation on expansion is a great one to be having for a league that's growing. And so it's a good signal and sign that everybody's talking about it and different cities are contacting us and things like that, but we need to be very thoughtful about it, I think I told you, a year ago or so in the lead in to the draft and the season that we're undergoing a business transformation around the economics of the league.
I think the depth in the league would support expansion. Because you look at first and second round draft picks, it's very difficult to make a WNBA team. So I think we'll be talking much more seriously about how many and where and the types of cities this time next year. It's going to be driven by data and analysis of markets that would support women's professional basketball, women's sports, committed owners, the right demographics values and all that stuff, so there's plenty of cities in this country that deserve a WNBA team, so we'll be talking more seriously about that.
We're thrilled whenever we can sign deals, whether it's the Players Association or the WNBA. We announced Google and Amazon Prime Video in the same week this year; two of the biggest technology companies in the world. We're very proud of that and the Players Association announcing their collaborations.
I would like more individual endorsements of our athletes because they are the greatest players in the world and they deserve more individual endorsements. We're doing very well at the league level in selling sponsorships and partnerships - and more to come on that as we get into the playoffs this year. I'm very pleased with where we are, this year and last year. Companies have stuck with us, and companies have stepped up.
Whenever you have companies like Google, Deloitte, Nike, and AT&T who are WNBA changemakers, it's working. They know (that) to support these diverse women is the right thing to do for their business and their own talent, and the right thing to do, societally. So we just need more companies to step up. I think what the Players Association is talking with companies about, as well as ourselves at the league, we're partnering certainly together on all of that so we're excited about it.
Player Marketing Opportunities
Candace Parker on [NBA] 2K cover, on the SLAM cover. I'll never forget walking in the airport in June and seeing three WNBA players on the cover of Sports Illustrated (Parker, A’ja Wilson, Sue Bird). I think about the role models that they serve. Also the commercials, you know the State Farm commercials with Sabrina [Ionescu], Chiney Ogwumike on Doordash, Sue Bird in the CarMax commercials with Steph Curry. These are all signals and signs of the health of the league. Building these players and telling their stories and building them into the household names they deserve to be.
Updating WNBA Playoff Format and Single-Elimination Games
I know it's on Cheryl's list so you're probably hearing it from Coach Reeve. We do have a committee looking at it. I was told the history is, we just changed the format a few years ago. I do like some single elimination format personally because I love the March Madness format which is all single-elimination. When eight out of 12 teams make the playoffs, you need probably some single elimination format to lead into playoff rounds, but we're looking at it now. This year obviously was not a year to change the playoff format with the Olympic break, and we wanted to get in the new special competition (Commissioner’s Cup) where we put a half million dollar prize pool. So this wasn't the year.
Next year happens to be another challenging footprint with the FIBA World Cup on the back end in Australia, in September, so we'll start earlier and end earlier. But we're definitely looking at it. I think the first round single elimination is appropriate. But I know my team has already done some great analysis on all different variations. In some ways they tell me it's back to the future a little bit because they're like well this is how we used to have it and now people have a new format and some are complaining about it. I think broadcasters like it, fans like it but I understand why coaches sometimes don't like it. We committed to our coaches, our general managers and our teams that we would take a look at it for future years..
25th Anniversary Merchandising and New Uniforms
With the 25th season, new uniforms, new ball at Fanatics and the WNBA store and Dick's Sporting Goods and Walmart all carrying (merchandise). That's a great brand thing that a young girl can go in and buy a WNBA basketball in a Walmart. We've upgraded the merch selection. I know there's not enough youth sizes, toddler sizes. Every time we upgrade it we get asked for more which is great, that's part of the business transformation. Last year the (WNBA) orange hoodie was a top 10 SKU in the NBA store and it was number one in the WNBA store. Never before, I assure you, have we had something top 10 in the NBA store, so we're going to keep going at it. We want to use the orange hoodie as the signature.. I don't know if you saw, I was at the White House with the Seattle storm last Monday and gave President Biden that orange hoodie. It's part of the brand, it’s part of the power of the WNBA. We'll continue to work on merch selection and merge sizes.
We have our 25th anniversary. I saw a fair amount of our 25th anniversary shirts out in the crowd tonight. I know that Minnesota fans are always one of the most supportive fan bases in the league. The uniforms have been a huge hit. Those are available at Nike as well Dick’s (Sporting Goods), and WNBA Store, so yeah, I can't be more proud. And I love the Rebel edition, but I also like the traditional white uniforms and the Heroine and Explorer. That whole moniker that Nike put out there. And Nike has been, again, one of our WNBA changemakers and has been a big supporter.
Streaming Games and Local Networks
So for streaming, we all know the media landscape is shifting enormously. Especially in the WNBA where we have a lot of young fans. We're trying to meet our fans where they're consuming their content, and a lot of them are consuming it in smaller bites and on streaming platforms, and on social media so we've got to be in the game with social. That was one of the reasons why we wanted Amazon Prime video, one of the largest tech companies in the world, to support the WNBA by taking the 16-game package this year. so I think it's great, they did the Commissioner Cup Championship as well so it's kind of the dawn of a new day and we're experimenting with that as part of our national TV. This year, we'll have 150 games on national platforms, that's an all time record for WNBA coverage. It's pretty impressive. I didn't even know that until someone told me that statistic. And that includes Facebook and Twitter. Some people don't necessarily like the format and commenting on Facebook and Twitter but young people love it for some reason. I'd rather watch the traditional broadcast. Some people love the alternate broadcast. What we're trying to do is meet our diverse fan base in different ways with the streaming platforms.
The local regional sports networks deals are driven by the teams, not the league. But we're absolutely talking with our various local teams about how to structure those, and how to get more exposure. Because you know the old adage ‘If you build it they will come?’ We proved that last year with so many games on national platforms and our viewership up 68%. And again this year we're up I think 48% so far this year which is pretty amazing over 68% jump last year in a very crowded sports landscape coming off of no sports for some time. So we couldn't be prouder of where we are. But we've got to work on bringing our game on various different platforms. The local thing is challenging because the economics are typically challenging for the (regional networks) and they're all going through their own shifts and they've got to probably shift to streaming, and at least some kind of alternate than traditional linear so we're monitoring all that. So everybody's a little bit different, but we work with the teams to try to help them with the narrative of why it's important to carry more games.
WNBA Scheduling this season with several off days and then several games on the same day at the same time:
A couple of things are happening this year. First of all, the ones that are at the same time is because locally, the teams - and I think that happened last week when they were all east coast, local - , they all want their games to start at seven o'clock so when we're on national broadcast we need broadcast windows. When we're local the local team determines when.We wouldn't have the opportunity to bring most fans in, give them a great two hour experience - remember I think we're the greatest 120 minutes in sports because you're out in two hours. And so seven o'clock happens to be that time on the East Coast when teams want their teams in-market. So, so the clumping is a little bit this year with the pandemic, and the Olympic break.You see a little more breakage in the back half of the season because we wanted to leave time in case we had to cancel any games or postpone games because of COVID. So I think the first half of the season, you probably didn't see a lot of that and even this because we're trying to get as many games as we could and the commissioner Cup games and before the Olympic break, knowing that we thought, knock on wood, we didn't have to. But we thought we might have to push some games into this back half of the season, which we haven't had to.Like the Lynx only played a game in a week because we were reserving some time in this back half and just for density of the schedule. Because when you take a month off for the Olympics, you want to make sure you're not playing too many games per week but I don't think you'll see that in years where we don't have this Olympic break in the middle of the season.season.
Social Justice Initiatives
I call it player-led, but league-facilitated. The players take on a heavy burden while they're playing to continue their platform, and that's why we launched the Social Justice Council during the 2020 season. Obviously the players stepped up and took on this huge burden, but also effected real change and the Minnesota Lynx have been leaders in that for many, many years, but now millions know what the WNBA players stand for.
Minnesota Lynx/Timberwolves Ownership
I have had a very recent conversation with the new owners (Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez), particularly Marc. I'm excited to engage with them but obviously Glen (Taylor) has been a longtime supporter and owner here and a huge supporter of the Lynx, and we'll continue to work with Glen and the new owners Marc and Alex.
(The Lynx are) a premier franchise. Glen Taylor has been such a great owner for so many years., All the young talent too. I was here two years ago handing the Rookie of the Year trophy to Napheesa Collier, last year to Crystal Dangerfield in addition to Sylvia (Fowles) and some of the veterans picked up in free agency. I think Minnesota has been a premier franchise, and whenever I spend a couple of days out here I'm always excited about the avid fan base here too because you know fan experience is one of the pillars of our strategy as well.
The Next 25 Years
We've got to globalize the game more. We've got to innovate. We just issued our first NFT's, and Sabrina (Ionescu) sold for $10,000, and so did A’ja Wilson. So innovating around digital products, innovating around sports betting. There's so many different things we're working on right now to grow the game. I said ‘Survive to thrive’ but this is about the 25th year, and taking that into the next 25 and building these players and building household names and rivalries. So one of the things we launched this year was the Commissioner's Cup, and that's to help build conference rivalries that we don't get the opportunity to build because our playoff format is by seeds, not by conference. We're excited that it actually gave a lot of significance to the first half of the season.
It’s refreshing to see the league under Cathy Engelbert’s leadership make such big strides in such a short time, while at the same time keeping an eye on the future for more innovation.