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WNBA commissioner: 'We have a marketing problem'

The Women’s National Basketball Association and the Women’s National Basketball Players struck an eight-year labor deal that includes boosting the average player salary to six figures, guaranteeing full pay during maternity leave and providing better travel conditions.

Cathy Engelbert, the commissioner of the WNBA, was instrumental in negotiating the collective bargaining agreement. A core part of the vision is to help catapult WNBA’s players like Candace Parker and Sue Bird into global superstardom, akin to the way LeBron James and Steph Curry have become household names.

Prior to joining the WNBA in July 2019, Engelbert was the first female CEO at one of the ‘Big 4’ professional service firms. Her 33 years at Deloitte serve as a solid foundation for the league’s future, with her previous employer becoming an inaugural partner for “WNBA Changemakers,” the new corporate sponsorship program.

“One of the things i noticed is we have a marketing problem. We really need to step up our marketing dollars. In the collective bargaining agreement, we put forth substantial dollars in league and team marketing agreements so that now we can actually employ and pay our players to help us market the league...we don’t have the typical economic model through media and sponsorships that men’s leagues have,” she said in an interview with Yahoo Finance at the MAKERS conference in Los Angeles this week.

FILE - In this Sept. 29, 2019, file photo, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert speaks at a news conference in Washington.  The WNBA and its union announced a tentative eight-year labor deal Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020,  that will allow top players to earn more than $500,000 while the average annual compensation for players will surpass six figures for the first time. I call it historic," WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a phone interview. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

“We’re really going to step it up and market these players. I would love to have all 144 under these agreements. But we’re going to pick some of our top players who have a real feel for marketing and appealing to the fanbase, and bring in new fans.”

The way people look at women’s sports

Engelbert, a former college basketball player, was recruited for the role, which she chose over another role in corporate finance. Though initially it took some convincing, meeting with NBA commissioner Adam Silver sealed the deal for her. She also recognized how her background could be crucial in helping the WNBA become a money-making business.

“On average (we’ve lost) over $10 million every year we’ve operated,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told the Associated Press in 2018.

“It’s great to have a second career in sports and use all of those relationships because sports is big business, and big business is about relationships. So that part of my new job is very similar to my old job—furthering these relationships, tapping those relationships that I’ve built over time,” said Engelbert.

“We’re going to change the way people look at women’s sports, especially women’s team sports, since less than 4% of all media covers women’s sports and less than 1% of all corporate sponsorship dollars globally go to women’s sports. So we’ve got to change those numbers and move those percentages up,” she added.

MAKERS and Yahoo Finance are both part of Verizon Media.


Melody Hahm is Yahoo Finance’s west coast correspondent, covering entrepreneurship, technology and culture. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm. Read more:

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