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July 27, 2019
Las Vegas, Nevada - Pregame
CATHY ENGELBERT: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to Las Vegas. It's such a pleasure to be here today at my very first All-Star Game as the WNBA commissioner. This weekend represents the best of the WNBA. Congratulations to all the All-Stars led by captains Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics and A'ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces. It is a remarkable accomplishment to be recognized by fans, media, coaches and peers, and I'm very excited this year we have six first-time All-Stars.
For me, it's been a great couple of days, actually having started in this role last week. It really has been great to be here to connect with the whole ecosystem around women's basketball, and a tremendous thank you to MGM and the Las Vegas Aces for hosting us today. The branding, hopefully you've seen it, the branding, the signage for our league and the player and fan experience have all been excellent.
I've also used being here as an opportunity to meet with so many different people, the executives of the teams, players, fans, our referees, and the feedback has been outstanding. So I want to thank everyone for the warm welcome I've received in joining the league. A special thank you to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, NBA Deputy Commissioner and COO and Interim President of the W, Mark Tatum, so thank you, Mark. Christy Hedgpeth is over here to my left, as well, the WNBA COO, Bethany Donaphin and the entire team for all of their hard work this season. I've been so pleased coming into the league at the great work that this team has done, and I'm really thrilled to be here.
So I'm looking forward to working with all of you, our key stakeholders, as well, but especially these elite world-class athletes that play in the W, and we are going to take the W to the next level. There is great momentum around the W right now. Earlier this year, even prior to my start, we announced a new marquee deal with AT&T, expanded coverage on the ESPN networks, and an additional 40 games with CBS Sports Network. We also unveiled a reset of the WNBA's brand that included a new look, voice and attitude, and people have taken notice.
So as we gather here to celebrate basketball at its best, I truly believe that we are at an inflection point in society where women's sports and quite frankly women's leadership are at the forefront, and honestly, it's time we give these elite athletes the recognition they deserve.
I really, really want to talk about the game, but we don't have a lot of time today, but my job and my immediate focus is around partnerships and sponsorships, broadening the fan base, getting more fans in the seats, so any help you can give for that, we'd appreciate, in transforming the W into a sustainable, thriving business.
In addition, as you all know, we're in the midst of a very important CBA negotiations including - we met with the Players Association earlier this week, and it was productive. We all have the same goals, and I look forward to continuing to connect with the players and teams. With everyone sharing a deep passion for this game, I am confident that we can strengthen the WNBA working together and growing revenue, driving improved economics for all. We need broad-based support, so thank you for your coverage, and please continue to profile the amazing stories of our highly talented, community-minded and socially-conscious players.
And speaking of working together with key stakeholders to increase the exposure of the women's game and its amazing athletes, we have a very special announcement to make today with USA Basketball. Please help me welcome on stage USA Basketball Women's National Team director Carol Callan, USA National Team and University of South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, and two all-time basketball greats and fan favorites, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, to announce a new program that we are all very excited about. Again, thank you, and let me turn it over to Carol Callan.
CAROL CALLAN: Thanks, Cathy. We've had such a long-standing relationship with the WNBA and the NBA, and we look forward to now many more years with you. So thank you very much.
We also want to thank you for the opportunity to make this special announcement this morning. Welcome to everyone. USA Basketball is excited to announce an expanded national team program this morning, with the support of the WNBA, the NCAA and other major women's basketball stakeholders, many of whom are in the room this morning, we are excited to add extra training time and have three goals primarily in mind for this program.
Number one, and most importantly, is to prepare to win our seventh straight Olympic gold medal. Let that sink in for a moment. I think that's unprecedented, and we're very excited to be putting our team together to do that.
The second, we want to amplify our women's national team program by keeping our athletes at home.
And third, we want to generate increased interest in women's basketball overall and to provide a good jolt and boost to what is already happening with the WNBA all the way down through the NCAA high school programs and our programs at USA Basketball, as well.
There's always been great investment by our athletes, and to be honest, the only way we can be successful is for our best players to want to play again and again and again, and that's the case. Sue and Diana came to us a little over a year and a half ago during one of our training camps with the idea, and their great interest in making sure that we prepare our team properly for Tokyo and that we also give women's basketball its due. And with the support of our board of directors, we will be adding what we call segments, training camp segments, in advance of FIBA qualification events.
So at the same time that we were talking about the national team program, FIBA also added competitions that will help qualify for the Olympics. It creates meaningful games for us, and we are now working in concert with those events to add some training camps so that our athletes will be able to stay home.
There are eight athletes who have committed to our program, and they will be Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Sylvia Fowles, Elena Delle Donne, Nneka Ogwumike, A'ja Wilson, Skylar Diggins, and Chelsea Gray. Those eight athletes will receive compensation that gives them the option to stay at home.
We've also designed the program to dovetail into those FIBA events so that they will also have other time to pursue their own interests. Some already have things that they do. For instance, Sue has her work with the Nuggets. There will be opportunities perhaps to have a short-term overseas contract. But our events will be designed to lead into the FIBA events and also to take advantage of some of the major basketball stages this next year, the NBA All-Star Weekend, the women's Final Four, and our final segment will lead into the WNBA preseason.
There will also be four roster spots available, and we will rotate a lot of our players from our national team pool. It's a fluid pool, so that we can prepare the entire team properly to win that seventh straight gold medal in Tokyo.
So with that, I'd like to introduce Dawn Staley. No one has been more invested in our national team program. Dawn is a three-time Olympian, carried the flag at opening ceremonies, and she's been an assistant coach in two of the Olympics, and now our head coach. Dawn?
DAWN STALEY: Thanks, Carol. And thanks, Commissioner, for allowing us to share in your first press conference.
Carol said it all. I'm super excited because I've been a part of now this is the second opportunity for our national team to prep for an Olympic Games. The first one was in '95-'96, and we know how that turned out. I think this particular program is necessary in that we get very little prep time for us to get ready to compete for the rigors of winning gold medals at Olympic Games. We get a chance to see Sue and Diana play, something that I think we take for granted. We take for granted seeing someone of their caliber play, all around our country, and this program presents the opportunity to see them as well as some of the other players that were mentioned play and drum up some excitement and get paid to do it, and that's something that the players have been pushing for. I'm glad USA Basketball stepped out there and continues to lead the way in this department.
So I would like to bring Sue up to the podium to say a few words.
SUE BIRD: So obviously we're very excited about this. It started as me and D [Diana Taurasi] just sitting in a cafe kind of talking trash the way we do, and that conversation led to some ideas written in crayon. That part is true. You'll hear about it. That was the only pen we could find. And from a crayon-written paper, it turned into this idea, which turned into a conversation with Carol, a conversation with Jim Tooley, a conversation with General Dempsey, and then it turned into more of a presentation on how we can actually get this done. And it's just really exciting to know that we have the backing of so many, of course the WNBA, USA Basketball. I can go on and on, Nike, you name it, because this is a chance for D and I especially to -- who knows how long we're going to wear this USA jersey. I know it feels like we're going to wear it forever, but I promise you at some point that's not going to be the case. Now we have a chance to represent our country, generate excitement around women's basketball, and really leave a legacy, and I think when it's all said and done, everybody has a legacy, right? We can talk about Dawn's, Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson, and this could be a huge part of my legacy and D's.
So we're just really excited, and I'm sure you guys are going to have some really cool questions, but I'll let D take the mic from here.
DIANA TAURASI: I'm not going to repeat everything Dawn and Sue said. I do want to thank Carol, Jim Tooley, the WNBA and USA Basketball and Nike. You know, there's not a lot of times where you can do something a little bit different, something that hasn't been done for a while. We came up with this just out of nowhere really, and there's only a couple opportunities in your life where everything kind of adds up. And this just added up in a way where Sue and I don't go overseas anymore, a couple other key players from the national team who would rather stay at home, and like Dawn said, be compensated to play here in the United States in front of our family and friends, and for USA Basketball to be able to do this going into Tokyo 2020 is just huge, to be able to prepare, to play in front of our fans, to make sure that people know that we've dedicated our lives to this, for Dawn for over 40 years now (laughter), Sue and I are getting there, and I do think this will probably be the last Olympics for -- and I'm going to speak for Sue because I usually do, this will probably be the last Olympics we'll ever play in. And to have this lead-up to make sure we get there healthy, running all on the same page I think is special. I'm thankful to be a part of it. And we're going to really enjoy the ride.
Q. Sue, I'm sure you and Megan [Rapinoe] have talked a lot about the whole idea of elevating female athletes, and we saw how big of a deal the women's World Cup team was. Will this tour sort of allow that because you'll have opportunities throughout the year and especially going back to college places and more interviews, to maybe build up the attention that we think probably this team deserves and hasn't gotten?
SUE BIRD: Yeah, of course. I think that's a big part of this idea is just visibility. I think watching Megan go through her U.S. soccer preparation for the World Cup really the last two, three years, there's definitely things I got to see firsthand and learn from, and definitely I think things that women's basketball can benefit from.
They've been doing things like this all along, and now here's our chance to, again, the key word is visibility. We're usually gone, we're usually unable to have these types of games with college teams or whatever the case may be, and with that, the more people see us, we can generate that excitement and then have hopefully a big push into Tokyo, again, similar to how U.S. soccer had a big push into France.
Q. D, to the outside world, they see you guys blow through everybody at the Olympics and the competition. Talk about how much tougher it's gotten in your four or 16 years of doing this, that this training is necessary; it's not as easy as you guys show up and win games anymore?
DIANA TAURASI: Yeah, I think it's gotten more difficult. Obviously the logistics of not being around has made these tournaments a little bit tougher for us. As we saw in Spain, people being available has obviously been a problem for us, and I think this just gives us an opportunity to really commit for a full year. If I think back on that '96 team, they did a year tour, and I can visibly remember them being around the whole year leading up to Atlanta, and hopefully this is that tour for us, for younger kids, for the younger generation, and even for kids that maybe weren't in the pool and available for that two-week training camp. Now they have a whole year to really put their names in the hat and make a real commitment and have a real chance to make this Olympic team, which maybe a year ago you thought you wouldn't be able to make. So I think there's just a lot of positives on a lot of fronts.
Q. Commissioner, this is probably a question for you. If we go back to the NWSL example, there are times where national team players are pulled away from the league play. Have you had conversations with USA Basketball about what that schedule would look like with this tour?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Well, you know our off-season will be the primary part of the tour, so obviously our season ending in the fall and then obviously the main part of the tournaments and the games that they will be playing will not be during the WNBA season, and obviously next year during the Olympics we do shut down the league for about a month to obviously enable our elite players to play for the national team.
Q. Dawn or Sue, building on what Erica said, one of the things we've seen from the success that the U.S. women's national team on the soccer side has had is them trying to build that to the national women's soccer league and try and kind of combine these things. Do we see, is there a possibility for there to be some of these games maybe against other WNBA teams or involving other WNBA players, international play? How can these programs really work together beyond just the benefit of having the players here year-round?
CAROL CALLAN: I'm hijacking the question. Thanks for asking it. A little bit with what Cathy just said, we've had such a great relationship in terms of player availability around the Olympics with the break. One of our ideas that falls a little bit into your category in your question is right before the WNBA starts their preseason to perhaps bring in an international team or two and to work with some of the WNBA teams perhaps, as they begin their preseason activities. It's a little hard to actually play games against WNBA teams because we're taking players away from them.
So this is the best alternative to that. FIBA's competition windows will have many tournaments where we'll play international teams in those windows, and so our lead-up with college teams will create the interest, which can then be viewed, and there's an awful lot of other WNBA players from other countries that will be playing in those events, as well. So that's always been the sticking point of trying to play WNBA teams is because we're all playing each other.
CATHY ENGELBERT: Again, I just want to give a big shout out to Diana and Sue for coming up with the early thoughts around this and then the execution in collaboration with the WNBA by USA Basketball and the support. It's great for the sport and great to expand our reach.
Q. You had mentioned in your opening remarks kind of wanting to grow the game. Just how important has Las Vegas been? The Aces have been a team for two years now and the success that they've had, three All-Stars here, just how important has Las Vegas been to growing the game of basketball?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, obviously in their second season and how well the team is doing this year and the arena and the vibe is -- Las Vegas being the entertainment capital of the U.S., at least in many people's eyes, so it's great for the brand. It's great to increase, again, our visibility more broadly. But we need to do this in every market and all of our 12 franchises to make sure we're maximizing the momentum around women's sports and women's basketball.
Q. I know you just got started a week ago, getting your feet wet. Before you took over officially there was obviously some negative things going on, the domestic violence issues, the drunk driving issue. Is that something you think you'll address in the upcoming CBA as far as there should be a policy for whatever happens for domestic issues of that nature?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, thanks for the question. I think we do have an absolute opportunity, but first let me say we take all of these situations seriously and investigate allegations. But we do have this opportunity because we are in CBA negotiations to talk with the players and to come up with resources and training and discipline and bring clarity to this issue. But certainly a very top priority for me.
Q. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about your early thoughts given it's your first few weeks about the schedule and how to trade off schedules so you can optimize viewership, whether that's on TV or digital platforms versus scheduling to kind of optimize attendance, for example, trying something similar to the NBA players where there's an East Coast game and West Coast game in primetime every night or kind of the more diverse schedule we have in the W right now, which I'm guessing is going to be much better on the attendance front. Do you have any thoughts on that?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, so this is, I hate to keep saying, on the list, but obviously something we're looking at. Now, next year will be unique because of the Olympics and shutting down the season, so the schedule is a little more complex just because of that and we're still going to try to get our full season in obviously during the time we have, even with the break in July for the Olympics. So we absolutely want broader exposure.
You look at the expanded games on ABC this year have been huge for us, and looking across all of our platforms, whether it's Twitter, whether it's NBA TV, so looking across all of our platforms and gaining that exposure, and again, we want to be a year-round league as far as the exposure to our athletes, and that's part of the plan. Thank you.
Q. Two questions: Diana Taurasi in a recent Q & A was very critical about how the WNBA has treated their stars overall historically. Have you had a chance to read those comments, and what comment do you have? Secondly is that the NBA is always talked about every day of the year, yet the WNBA doesn't seem to get that same kind of attention. Will this new program that you have with USAB do that where every day the WNBA will be talked about even through an NBA broadcast, those type of things?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, so on the first part of your question, one of the things I've been really, really amazed at is the strong voice of our players, and we want our players to be expressing what they think some of the things that have worked and haven't worked in the league, and I certainly look forward to engaging with the players and getting that feedback on this listening tour that I'm already on that started -- kind of kicked off here at All-Star. I've been able to meet so many of the players and so many of the executives, owners of the team, general managers. So that's absolutely something I want to hear all of the issues and make sure that I'm prioritizing things right, especially as we're in CBA negotiations, while trying to transform the league, grow revenue, get more fans in the seats.
Year-round, I kind of touched on that. We do have a golden opportunity I think to really keep the conversation going year-round because of this inflection point around women's leadership and women's sports, and you saw it with the U.S. women's soccer team, and we already touched on that. So there is absolutely a desire for us, and that's why I said in my remarks, I need your help in telling our stories, keeping the conversation going. Certainly this collaboration with USA Basketball and having our players in games, in market, outside of our season will help, as well, to keep the conversation going leading up to a patriotic event like the Olympics and then obviously continuing our season next season. Lots on the plate as it relates to making sure we are taking, grabbing this momentum and making sure we can make this a year-round conversation to elevate our players and elevate the brand of the league.
Q. Since taking over, have you had a chance to sit down with Breanna Stewart yet, and can you talk a little bit about how you see not just her role but similar roles like that going forward and how you can use players and perhaps their popularity to help grow the game for years going forward?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, and this is interrelated to talking about this year-round, this league year-round, is people like Breanna and others and trying to get them in appearances, so Breanna has been here. She'll be at the Junior NBA World Championships, so absolutely talking with Breanna about how she can enhance our league through the ambassador role and certainly looking more broadly at that role as, again, we're in CBA negotiations and other things that play into those discussions. So really look forward to using, again, these elite athletes with amazing stories, socially conscious, community minded, really enhancing that, because I think as we try to enhance and expand our fan base, try to get more millennials and digital natives to attend our games and follow our sport and really inspire the next generation of players, all of this is interrelated to our ambassadors and our advocates and influencers, not only from our players but others in the basketball ecosystem. Thank you.
Q. I know expansion has always been a very touchy topic, but would you feel you'd like to see some NBA teams pick up teams or are you happy with free-standing teams, independent WNBA teams?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, I think on expansion, I don't think it's as touchy a subject as maybe you think. I think that's something certainly as we look at growing the fan base for our 12 existing franchises and growing the economics, and one of the reasons I was hired was to come in and look at the business models and the revenue models, so that is my priority on behalf of our 144 players and our 12 franchises, and quite frankly on behalf of women's basketball and the next generation.
Having said that, certainly we're always open to discussions around other cities that I think are great basketball cities that do not have WNBA teams because that's certainly something as we look longer term we certainly should be looking at because if we're successful in growing the league and the brand and getting our 12 franchises where they need to be from a financial model perspective, certainly that's something that we'd talk about and is on the list, but we've got to get our 12 franchises, and that's what I'm focused on.
Q. Will you have a chance to visit each of the 12 WNBA cities and teams this year, or is that something you'll spread out into next year?
CATHY ENGELBERT: No, so I -- on my trip down to the Washington Mystics last Sunday on Amtrak, I took the schedule and looked at the calendar, and I will be in every market before the Playoffs this year.
Q. What's the most common feedback that you've gotten from both front office people and also players?
CATHY ENGELBERT: The greatest part of this job so far is I'm in listening mode, and I've gotten a lot of feedback, as you can imagine.
And you know, the feedback varies from -- depending what seat you sit in. Obviously the one thing is, and I'm not shy in talking about kind of three pillars: Fan experience, player experience, and economics. Those three things will be a primary focus because I think if we work on those from a league perspective and in working with the owners of the teams and the players, I think a lot of the other things that people complain about will be solved.
Q. One thing that the players have consistently been talking about this season is about travel, and the difficulty that they have, not just making flights but being comfortable on flights and possibly missing games because they're arriving too late. Does that have to be part of the CBA, or are you looking at the league in terms of putting together not just a conversation but perhaps accountability to fix this for the players?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yes, so as I talked about my three pillars, player experience is very high up on the list, and within player experience is health and wellness as well as obviously the travel issue. So I am going to work tirelessly on this particular issue, whether it has to be negotiated within the CBA or we have flexibility to look at enhancing the player experience, particularly the travel experience. I mean, these are elite players. This league has been around for over two decades, so this is something I will work very hard and the team has already been brainstorming and thinking about ways we can enhance the broad player experience, but certainly from a travel perspective.
Q. I wanted to go off of the other two things that you mentioned, so that being the players and the economics. I'm curious with the partnership with USA Basketball, are there potential sponsorship opportunities and partnership opportunities as you talked about earlier that will enhance the WNBA, or both truly, but then also if I did the math correctly, there will be 12 players that will be able to directly benefit from this partnership. I'm curious if there have been conversations with the Players Association and/or how this partnership will then be able to be beneficial to all, at this moment, 144 players in the league.
CATHY ENGELBERT: Right, so thank you for your question. I would say as we think about broadening this league and the reach of this league and the followership of this league and the coolness factor of this league, I think this is one of the most diverse leagues in professional sports, probably maybe all of sports, and the fact that we can offer a platform for -- whether it's because of our USA Basketball collaboration or because of women's basketball, women's sports, the conversation about women in business, women leaders, women in politics, whatever you want to say, I think we have a unique opportunity to offer our assets as a platform to corporations for partnerships, sponsorship, and really use that platform to enhance the diversity, inclusion and conversation in society. That is where our opportunity is within the USA Basketball situation as well as broadly for the WNBA.
One of the reasons I took this job quite frankly is I saw huge potential and momentum as it relates to the brand of this sport, of this league, of these women and their stories, and that's why I ask you to share their stories as much as you can year-round because people read what you write, people follow what you do, and we need your help to expand it, absolutely making this attractive from that perspective.
As far as the players, we're always trying to inspire all of our players and the next generation of that 144, so as you think about this, people dream of being a WNBA player, young girls, young women, and they also dream of being Olympians. And so I think we can use this all as part of our platform as we go out and try to gain corporates to sponsor us, again, whether it be Olympics, because obviously there's a whole ecosystem of USOC and Olympic sponsorships already in place, but obviously for women's basketball and this game, my commitment is we're going to do a better job of articulating our narrative and our platform around how amazing it would be to sponsor these women.
Q. Building off that question, a lot of players this weekend have talked about visibility and how important it is to have that visibility, and it's kind of hard for even media people and these players, they're here for a few months and then they disappear for half the year because they're playing overseas. Do you think it's feasible that the WNBA could be in a position to pay these players enough so they could stay here, all of them, and attend, whether it's NBA games or USA Basketball events to kind of build the brand?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, and that's certainly one of my priorities is to tackle this issue of, again, the economics of the league, the financials of the league and the owners, and really to tackle that in a very multidimensional way, not through just CBA negotiations but through corporate sponsorships, through other models. We need to upgrade our capability around sales and marketing and ticket selling and attracting fans in the seat and marketing our players year-round. So all of that's interrelated, because again, I think a lot of that gets solved when you start to bring in the financial resources to drive, again, different revenue models, different platforms that we could offer during and in the off-season, certainly attracting our players to stay here and play. But some of our players need to get better and they need other avenues to play outside of our season.
So this is a multidimensional answer to your question, but it's also a multidimensional solution as we think about it. But I think give us some time. I'm new in role, and we'll have a lot more on this in the future.
Q. I was wondering, I know you're going around and meeting with all these franchises, what you're looking for as you're kind of evaluating where they stand. Obviously the W in the past few years has had a few pretty successful moves as far as moving to Vegas, the team transferring from Tulsa to Dallas, and you know, some franchises that were struggling have really kind of revamped. I was wondering what you think the role of the league as a whole is when franchises are struggling, how you go about evaluating that.
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, I mean, clearly there is a group and a process in place to meet with each of the teams, to determine best practices across the teams, to share those, what's worked, what hasn't worked, particularly in what I'd call getting fans in the seats and ticket selling and sales and marketing both at the league and team level. There's absolutely a partnership between the teams as well as the league to drive more success at that level, the franchises that have metrics that look better than others, again, really taking that -- and this is one of the things clearly I did in my prior life is being able to look across a variety of companies and bring best practices in to make sure that, again, in our case with the 12 franchises we're all thriving. So that's my role is to make sure all of these franchises have economic models that are sustainable and thriving and ultimately that we're sharing what does and doesn't work. There is something here, think globally, act locally. Things have to be executed in local markets because the fans are local and the fanbase is passionate and local, and so again, some best practices -- some practices won't work in some markets. So that's all obviously -- the NBA has a lot of success and we're leveraging off that capability in the W, as well.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports