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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

New WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert knows her business

The CEO who climbed ladder to the top in a male-dominated profession believes millennials are crucial in increasing the fan base and the bottom line for the WNBA.

Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert participates in the

 Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert participates in the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit: A World of Change at The Times Center in New York on Sept 20, 2018. Photo Credit: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/Evan Agostini

Can a certified public accountant make the WNBA cool?

That, in essence, is the primary task being handed to Cathy Engelbert, whom the WNBA named commissioner Wednesday after a seven-month search.

Engelbert, currently closing out her four-year term as the CEO of Deloitte LLP, a financial services company, comes to the table with an impressive resume. After playing basketball at Lehigh under future Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, Engelbert entered a male-dominated profession and climbed to the top, becoming the first woman to lead a big-four professional services firm. In 2018, she was ranked 18th on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list as she led a firm with more than 100,000 U.S. employees.

Engelbert is taking over a league that is looking to re-brand itself and is in the middle of a potentially messy labor negotiation with a fast-approaching deadline. She comes from a business that makes a lot of money to one that still is working on being profitable.

In a telephone news conference on Wednesday, Engelbert made it clear that her top priority is to turn the league into a thriving business, the kind that can reward its world-class athletes with better pay.

“Everything is solved by putting more fans in the seats, having higher revenue, having a broader revenue base, trying to attract a fan experience, particularly [for] the young millennials and digital natives that might be different than the fan base of today,” Engelbert said.

The WNBA has dealt with some unique challenges over the course of its 23 seasons, including sexism, homophobia and racism. Legacy sports media — particularly television, radio and print  – haven’t paid much attention to women’s sports beyond high school.

“In Las Vegas, we maybe have an article or two a week about the Aces,” said Nancy Lough, a professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas who specializes in researching gender equity and marketing. “It starts with the media. It’s a major problem for the WNBA and women’s sports. Awareness is critical to everything that happens, creating an audience that wants to follow the team, a fan base that wants to follow players.

“It's not on the consciousness of what is mostly men in the media. It’s not like I don’t think they personally don’t want to cover women’s sports. They just don’t think of it.”

Yet in some ways, the WNBA is very well positioned to cash in on younger viewers, the millennials and Gen X-ers. The WNBA is diverse and its athletes have a strong commitment to social justice, values that are generally embraced by younger fans.

“The younger generations embrace diversity and have a whole different language when it comes to gender and gender issues,” Lough said.

It’s clear that this is the direction that the league is hoping to expand its fan base. Engelbert said that at Deloitte, 75 percent of her employees were millennials with an average age of 27. Engelbert, looking for ways to both attract and keep young talent, came up with a number of creative perks, including a 16-month paid family leave policy.

Now she will look for ways to attract and keep new young fans.

“I think it will be really important to continue to expand the fan base,” she said. “That absolutely has got to be part of the strategy, and I think it is today, and we need to come up with some creative ways to do that, and I think all the sports are struggling a little bit with how ‑‑ with the attention spans of these digital natives, to find the right platforms, to engage them, to drive the coolness factor and drive the energy so that we get the followership.

“I really think there’s a lot of opportunity to bolster the visibility for this sport and give it the cool factor it deserves.”

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