In honor of the 25th anniversary of the three-time WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury franchise, PhoenixMercury.com is reminiscing with those who have made this team a success over the past quarter century.
Cathy Engelbert was named the first Commissioner of the WNBA in May of 2019. Within her first year, she successfully worked with the players on a new eight-year collective bargaining agreement that features increased compensation, enhanced travel standards, expanded career development opportunities and an overall focus on the player experience.
THE MERCURY AND THE WNBA’S INAUGURAL SEASON WAS IN 1997. WHAT WAS GOING ON IN THE LIFE OF CATHY ENGELBERT IN 1997?
Engelbert: “I was 11 years into what turned out to be a 33 year career at Deloitte. It was a pretty important year in terms of my personal life because that’s the year I had my daughter, my first child. Who, by the way, I went on to coach her in travel basketball from fifth to eighth grade. That was a year of enormous change because of having a child and I was going to be up for partner the next year at Deloitte. It was a big career year and a big personal year. I do remember hearing about the WNBA being launched, having played college basketball 11 years too late. I graduated in 1986. Nor would I have probably been good enough, but I remember the launch of the league.”
WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION WHEN YOU FIRST HEARD THAT THE WNBA WAS FORMING?
“I thought it was great coming off the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. I remember the gold medal and the crowd. I just thought it was great. I’m also a huge beneficiary of Title IX from the early 70’s. I played, basically the 70’s into the 80’s, three sports in high school and two in college. To me, all the advancement of women’s sports coming off of Title IX were coming to fruition back then in ’97.”
HOW HAVE YOU SEEN THIS LEAGUE GROW THROUGHOUT THE YEARS?
“I obviously can speak much more closely about the last 19 months since I’ve been the Commissioner of the league. I followed it over the years, but I also had a career and raised two children. Seeing how successful it was in the beginning and seeing all the momentum we have now coming off of that historic collective bargaining agreement, our revolutionary partnership platform called WNBA Changemakers, and really the long-term commitment of our owners, including Phoenix, to work on the player experience, the economics of the league, transforming the league. I can’t be any more pleased with how we’re thinking about our growth plan over the next year. But, we’re not where we need to be. We’re on this transformation journey. If you look at last year, to have a season amongst the global pandemic, in a bubble, very competitive, 22 games — we saw a 68% increase in regular season average viewership. Ratings for just our Game 3 of the WNBA Finals were up 35% in a very crowded sports landscape. Also, really proud of the players. They’ve always been leaders in social justice, but now, millions know what they stand for around social justice because of the last year. Using that platform to really drive the advocacy for, not just the WNBA, but for women’s sports and women in society.”
THE MERCURY ARE IN A UNIQUE POSITION AS THE ONLY ORIGINAL WNBA TEAM TO STILL BE UNDER THE SAME OWNERSHIP GROUP. WHAT DOES THAT SAY ABOUT THE SUPPORT THIS ORGANIZATION HAS FROM OWNERSHIP AND HOW IMPORTANT IS THAT FOR THE SUCCESS OF THIS LEAGUE?
“I think it’s tremendous. It says so much about Robert Sarver and the rest of the management team. They’re valuing basketball at all levels in Phoenix. I’ve been out to Phoenix pre-pandemic to assess the vibe and feel and the fans. It’s just so amazing. I think what Robert has done is signal the long-term value proposition. It’s not easy owning a sports team, certainly not over the past year in the pandemic. To win three championships with the Mercury, it just feels like you’re in the playoffs a lot, obviously having legends like Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner and then bringing in Skylar Diggins-Smith last year, just really signals that long-term commitment that we’re going to need as we transform this league. Hopefully, Robert and the team can continue participating in the rising value of women’s sports and the WNBA’s place in that.”
HOW PROUD ARE YOU OF WHAT THIS LEAGUE HAS BECOME OVER THE PAST 24 YEARS, AS WELL AS THROUGHOUT YOUR TIME AS COMMISSIONER?
“To be leading a league that is the only women’s professional sports league in the U.S. to reach 25 years, to survive and now thrive, I’m just so proud. So proud to have worked with the WNBA players when I first came in on the collective bargaining agreement. It was hard, but building trust with them, showing them that I’m a player-first commissioner. Just thinking about the number of accomplishments this league and these players have achieved over the past 24 years, I’d call it more admiration. Having come from 33 years of business and come into a league where — yes, we still need to improve the player experience. Yes, we have to enhance the fan engagement and boost the economics of the league — but I’m just so proud of the momentum that’s all been set up before I got here.”