Profile: Cathy Engelbert
The WNBA’s new commissioner is betting on women
By Stacey Adams

Photo: Jennifer Pottheiser

Next month (barring any new announcements), the WNBA is scheduled to begin its regular season. At the helm will be Collingswood native Cathy Engelbert, the league’s first commissioner. Even though the WNBA lost over $10 million last year, Engelbert believes it’s a whole new ballgame today – and she plans to help women start winning.

In one of her first moves as commissioner, Engelbert showed her commitment to the leagues’ players, taking a pro-active role in the collective bargaining agreement. She fought for – and got – a 53% pay raise for all players, triple pay raises for top players, paid parental leave and fertility benefits. She added smaller benefits too, like private rooms when they travel and chartered flights for some coast-to-coast flights.

“We’re betting on women. They’re elite athletes,” she says. “They should feel the WNBA is behind them. If we didn’t go bold, we wouldn’t have a league in a few years.”

Engelbert says she wants to get rid of the built-in biases that have held back women’s sports.

“I’ve stepped away from the spreadsheet,” says Engelbert, who served as CEO of Deloitte before stepping into this new role. “Spreadsheets don’t yield great answers for women. In today’s world of algorithms, I worry about the bias built in by coders. Even something as simple as how you find sports on TV. You go to a menu and women’s sports aren’t even at the top. And then you click on more sports, and you have drag racing and UFC fighting. Those are coded by people who don’t think women’s sports should be at the top of the menu.”

While it may be a daunting road that lies ahead of her, you could say Englebert has been preparing for this her whole life.

As one of 8 siblings in a sports-crazy family, Engelbert and her 5 brothers would play basketball outside her Collingswood home whenever it was warm enough outside. Her father, who was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in 1957, eventually implemented a rule: no playing after 10 pm, because you know, they did have neighbors.
At Collingswood High School, she was a point guard on the girls’ basketball team. Still, she was recruited for lacrosse by Lehigh University and was actually a walk-on for basketball, where she played 4 years for celebrated coach Ann “Muffet” McGraw, now a hall of fame coach for Notre Dame. In her senior year, she served as captain of both sports teams.

“My mom used to say to me, ‘You can do anything the boys can, after all, you’re growing up alongside 5 of them,’” she recalls. “My brothers treated me very equally in the backyard, and I think that actually helped lead to the positions I obtained.”

Engelbert started at Deloitte in the 1990s and became its first female CEO in 2015. As she tells it, the CEO at the time drove a diversity agenda and his support of women in the workplace paved the way for her.

During her tenure, revenues grew over 30%, and she is credited with implementing programs focused on work-life balance, including Deloitte’s 16-week family leave policy. She earned praise for her leadership, including listings among Fortune’s Most Powerful Women, Glassdoor’s annual Employees’ Choice Awards honoring the 100 Highest-Rated CEOs and among Crain’s 50 Most Powerful Women in New York.

At the WNBA, a 12-team league which unfortunately has no teams in the Philadelphia region, Engelbert became the first commissioner because, previously, the WNBA’s highest executive title was president. The position of commissioner was created for Engelbert to elevate the stature of the league. And that, she says, was a true game changer.

“There’s a very significant difference between the titles ‘president’ and ‘commissioner’ relating to the social conversation about gender, and it’s really driving the league,” she says.

Although she hasn’t been on the job to see through a full season, the league has already grown in important ways and gained important allies, including the late Kobe Bryant. A photo of him wearing an orange WNBA sweatshirt, sitting courtside with his teenage daughter Gigi at a Laker’s game, went viral after the helicopter crash that tragically took both their lives in January.

Bryant, who was heavily involved in Gianna’s basketball-playing career, reached out to Engelbert late last year about investing in the league. She says she gave the sweatshirt to him at a meeting that was supposed to last an hour but went for at least two.

“He was really interested in hearing how we’re going to transform the league,” she recalls. “He wanted to help us invest, help advocate. Thank goodness we have that picture to remember his advocacy by.”

April 2020
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