WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert on the League’s Impact Over 25 Years, Its Continued Growth

Player-first initiative, fan engagement has driven success

When Candace Parker and the Chicago Sky raised the WNBA Championship trophy last weekend, they capped off the league’s 25th season. The league has made some pretty significant strides in those 25 years, and a growing fanbase has pushed its broadcasts to better ratings, greater traction on social media, and more popularity than ever in the professional-sports landscape. At SportsBusiness Journal’s recent World Congress of Sports, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert reflected on the massive success of the 2021 season and how this established league can become even bigger.

On developing more fan-engagement opportunities:
[Our fanbase] skews younger, more diverse, and more women. We’ve taken that information and realized that everyone watching has a second screen, like their phone, with them. Some of our players, who are digital-native and around 24-25 years old, watch all of their content on their phones. So we tried to find a way to partner with companies to get our fans involved in voting for the W25, the GOAT, and the WNBA All-Star Game. Every company is a technology company, and sports leagues are no different. That’s why we’ll continue to engage the fan through our Tap to Cheer within the app, our search-engine optimization, or our League Pass and digital footprint.

On progress made over 25 seasons:
The WNBA isn’t the only women’s professional league to survive 25 years, but we’re also thriving. Our ratings were through the roof this year, including +78% in the postseason alone — in a very crowded sports landscape with MLB Postseason, NFL regular season, and the upcoming start of the NBA. We’re really proud of what these players were able to accomplish both on and off the court. The 25th season has meant a lot, and there’s a lot of [positive] momentum for women’s sports that we all need to pay attention to.

On how exclusive activations for the 25th season drove increased interest:
Anyone who knows women’s sports knows how hard it is to grab [media] exposure. We used this 25th season to drive marketing campaigns, create more household names, and focus on what the last 25 years have meant for the league. We tried to [slowly] move the needle and made enormous progress. All of the activations that we did around this year — the W25, the GOAT — recognized the history of where this league has come from. The social-justice platform that the players have created, which started last year in our “Wubble,” has carried into this year to support health and equity in communities of color, voting rights, and civic engagement. We’re in a multidimensional, multi-year business transformation; the 25th season couldn’t have come at a better time.

On how digital innovation will power the league’s next 25 years:
If you want to go from survive to thrive in this environment with all of the competition that we go up against, you have to find ways to differentiate yourself. As we go into the next 25 years, we are on a great path towards growth, but we also need to find more partnerships, and obtain more media-rights deals. That will enable us to invest in the future through digital and other innovative ways to appeal to new fans. This includes sports betting, gaming, and fantasy sports — aspects that we haven’t scratched the surface on. Some of our teams are able to sign off on legalized sports betting as it gets to more states. We’re working hard on a lot of things, but we’re very pleased with where we are now and how we’re leading 25 years in.

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