September 11, 2022
WNBA Finals 2022 - WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert Press Conference Transcript
THE MODERATOR: Welcome to the 2022 WNBA Finals presented by YouTube TV. We'll begin with Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and we'll turn it over to question and answer.
CATHY ENGELBERT: Thanks everyone for being here today. I know we have a bunch remote and good to see a full room here in person for the 2022 WNBA Finals presented by YouTube TV.
So as we prepare to start this great series, it's important to reiterate that we are always thinking of Brittney Griner and our commitment to bring her home safely and as quickly as possible. That has not wavered. We continue to work with the State Department and the U.S. government and administration and others on this very complex situation. I recently received a handwritten letter from BG and I am so inspired by her courage in the face of enormous adversity. We are fully focused on getting her home safely and she remains such an important part of the WNBA family. I also wanted to pause to remember those lives lost on 9/11. As someone who worked across the street in the world financial center at the time, it's really always a somber day today in memory of those lost.
We are here for a series, and I want to take the time now to congratulate both the Las Vegas Aces and the Connecticut Sun for earning spots in the WNBA Finals. These are two incredibly talented teams facing on what has been and more to come a truly incredible postseason, including, in case you missed it, the Las Vegas Seattle game on ABC just a week ago today averaging close to a million viewers and peaking at 1.4 million viewers. Both of these teams today battled hard to get here, and Game 5 the other night with Connecticut; and I don't know about you all but the level of play that these players are putting on the court every day and every night is nothing short of extraordinary.
And this was a memorable 26 season. Exciting basketball moments but also some great business momentum. We secured the largest ever capital raised for a women's professional sports league back in February. We announced new and renewed partnerships like our newest WNBA Changemaker U.S. Bank, who joins AT&T, Deloitte, Google and Nike, and great games that have led to increased viewership. You've seen all the statistics on that we and ESPN have put out.
But I do want to take time to pause and thank ESPN for the expanded game coverage this year, both during the regular season and remember we had expended playoffs this year and new programming including the WNBA Countdown Show. And really want to give a shoutout to Google as well, who partnered with ESPN to bring us more visibility and more coverage, and that's what women's sports has lacked for so long. Really important to have these two partners, ESPN and Google step up during the season.
For the third consecutive season, I'm happy to be talking about the new records set across the board this year. Records were broken this season for the number of triple doubles in a season, high scoring offenses, page views, WNBA.com visitors to that site and fantasy game users, betting and more. So lots of great business statistics out there.
From a viewership perspective, we just delivered the most-viewed WNBA playoffs in 20 years. And the most-watched regular season in 14 years for all of our television partners, ABC, CBS and ESPN.
And when looking at ways that our fans can experience the WNBA in person this year, our tentpole events continue to be some of our most popular events on calendar. We had the most viewed WNBA All-Star Game in six years with average viewership up 50 percent from last year, and we set an all-time WNBA record for merchandise sold in Chicago for a WNBA All-Star. Also WNBA Draft was also the most watched draft since 2004, by the way the year Diana Taurasi was drafted. That was up with 20 percent from the 2021 season.
We are continuing to globalize our game. That's been one of my pillars with not only more players on rosters from outside the U.S., but I'm excited to announce the first ever preseason WNBA Canadian exhibition game which will be held prior to next season. We'll have more to say about that in the coming months, but we are excited to bring the WNBA to Canada. This will be the first time since 2011 that the WNBA has played an international game, but as WNBA games currently air in 207 countries and territories, we know there's a great appetite to see WNBA action live and we are looking forward to bringing the W to our fans across the globe.
And lastly, thinking about, reflecting last night on the plane here, thinking about what is really driving all, this it's the players, and so improving the player experience and compensation has been a main priority for the league since I joined. And I want to clear up any confusion that may be out there when it comes to player compensation.
Top-earning players now have the opportunity to make up to $700,000 players, including base salary, Commissioner's Cup, award bonuses, player and league marketing deals at the team and league level, among other incentives. When I first joined the league in 2019, the max base pay was 117,000, and so we are proud of that. But we are still working on that every day, and the owners of this league have really stepped up with their commitment.
Significant process is being made as you're seeing in all the statistics I threw out earlier. And we just worked so hard with the Players Association on the ground-breaking CBA, and it's coming to life now through the ability to pay the players more, invest in the coverage and visibility these players are getting as a real legitimate sports, media and entertainment property that they are playing in.
We have grown our player marketing platform moving into the off-season. So one of the things that we did in the CBA, we are going to pay a subset of the players across the off-season and we allocated money last year and were more than tripling the number of players we are going to put under league marketing agreements this year. We have more than a hundred different types of opportunities available to be set up for our player marketing agreement players. So that's going to really help in the off-season. Thank you for those that cover us year-round. This is part of the purpose of that is putting more money into this, and it helps our players grow their personal brands and get more opportunities for endorsements and the value that they are bringing in their communities and in society.
So you know, we have multiple players that normally went overseas who are going to play under these player marketing agreements this year. It's something we are going to continue to work on and hopefully continue to expand. A couple of the players that we had under agreements last year are returnees under agreements this year, so we know this is resonating with players and they want to build their personal brands and build themselves into household names, not just here in the U.S. but globally.
And you all know I talk a lot about transformation of the league and transformation does not happen overnight. It's a combination of really small, consistent and sustainable changes that quite frankly are like we see the holistic shift in both the economics of the league and the enhancement of the brand, and I can't be more pleased with some of the items I've mentioned today.
As we move forward, these are all signals, signs and signals -- I call 2022 that, the business transformation we are implementing and the efforts we are putting in that are building results for the players and the league. I hope everyone enjoys these incredible, incredible two teams as they show off their athleticism, competitiveness, that brought them here to Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.
With that, thank you again for all your coverage, all your reporting, and I'm happy to answer any questions.
Q. Wanted to ask about prioritization. If it costs you one of the league's better players, is that the tradeoff of having players back in time worth it, or is there any consideration of relaxing that rule at all?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Right. So as everyone knows, as I just mentioned, the owners really stepped up on the compensation side for the players in this collective bargaining cycle, and I think the kind of quid pro quo for that was prioritization, showing up on time for our season, and quite frankly after 36 years of working in my working world, there wasn't once where I wasn't required to show up on time.
I think our owners are very steadfast in their commitment but we're also chipping away at the ability to pay players more so that we are not going to take away any opportunity for them to go overseas. We just want them to come back in time for our season.
So everybody knows, next year they will have to come back in time for the first game, and the following year in time for training camp. We understand players are going to make their decisions and we recognize -- and by the way, it doesn't apply to players in their first three seasons.
So for the younger players, they can still go overseas and if their Cup play requires them not to be back on time, that's okay. But for the veterans we want them to come back and be with the team and build the chemistry needed for a championship culture. That's something the owners really stepped up and it was really important to them, and I support them wholeheartedly in that.
But we understand the players are going to make the best decision for them and their families. We see that time and time again. As I mentioned, we are chipping away at, again, we closed to double -- the winner of these WNBA Finals, we closed to double -- our total pool is now -- matches the Commissioner Cup Pool the half a million dollars with playoff bonuses, and there's a variety of other things, probably spend close to $1.5 million on player marketing agreements with players this year. Trying to chip away at giving players a reason to stay home and a reason to prioritize the WNBA.
But I understand and we're eyes wide open that some players may not choose to do that.
Q. Building off of Kevin's question, curious if you can explain what your discussions have been with FIBA and the international leagues in the past many months. Emma [Meesseman] recently said that her overseas Turkish team is going to end a little bit earlier to tighten their schedule amid WNBA prioritization. Curious what those discussions have been like?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Obviously every league has their footprint and our footprint this year, by the way, why we are playing Game 1 almost a month earlier than last year is the FIBA World Cup on the back end of the season here. I think it starts next Wednesday in Australia.
So we tried to coordinate with FIBA this year and we fit our footprint in so we could honor the national team commitments of our players. So we are constantly coordinating around scheduling around things like that. Certain of the FIBA tournaments and Cup play and Championships do run into beginning of our training camp and our season. I think we will work through that and see what, again, how we can both adjust our footprints.
But we made a big accommodation this year to adjust it for the FIBA World Cup on the back end of our season. So we will continue to, like Emma said if the Turkish league is looking at seeing when we start, we'll look at coordinating on having the best schedule. It won't be perfect -- as you saw, we are expanding to 40 games next year. This is something important to the owners and longer term to the players, because the more games you play, the more markets you're and the more that you lift the game and the more people have opportunity to come see you. It's all part of the economic model and evolution, and again yes, coordinating with FIBA is an important part of that.
Q. You talk about just building fan engagement, obviously building player engagement as well. Where is the league as far as being ingratiated as far as building rivalries, we saw the impact that A'ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart had in the recent playoff series. Where is the league as far as building those parities, much like the NBA did with Magic and Bird or Kobe and LeBron?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Some of you who have been around since the beginning of my tenure as commissioner here, building rivalries and household names has been an important part of where I studied prior leagues and their rise into really valuable sports media and entertainment properties.
I think what we have going on right now is kind of a change of the guard with Sue and Sylvia and Breanna others retiring this year. But handing off to, and there was no better series to show that rivalry building than Seattle and Vegas with the changing of the guard to an Sylvia, a Kelsey and Stewy. You're going to see some great athletes out there today on the Connecticut Sun side, so building that rivalry, and I think, you know, you saw a little edginess coming off of that series ending with comments from Candace and Coach Miller, etc.
That is part what we want to happen obviously organically but also we are doubling our marketing budget to market more around these rivalries and make sure we are putting front and center with our partners like ESPN and Google and others that we are putting front and center these athletes that Americans are seeing them more and globally they are more recognized. And once you build those rivalries, like you talked about on the men's side and you build them and there's compelling content; and there's, again, the quality of the game and the level these players are playing at is amazing. Look what Chelsea Gray is doing out there in that deciding Game 4 the other day.
We are getting there, and that's certainly a big part of the strategy.
Q. We're here in Vegas where Nikki is team president, we know expansion is coming down the road on the horizon. How important is it to have more women in leadership positions, particularly in the in front of and is there anything that the league can or is doing to facilitate that?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, great question. One of the things we do at every Board of Governors meeting that we have with our WNBA ownership groups is talk about the diversity of our front office and our back office because we are extremely diverse in the player ranks, and again, I am really proud that now we have six our of 12 of our head coaches are coaches of color and seven out of 12 of our coaches are women. I think there are only a few when I came into the league.
So just that constant focus, and this is the owners. The owners are stepping up and making sure that their focus is on diversity. Bethany Donovan is here, our head of league basketball operations, and she's had a big focus of building pipeline in some cases former WNBA players who have now stepped up to become assistant coaches and head coaches and GMs. Really important when you say Jen Azzi as well. Jen and Nikki being here as team presidents representing these two teams is a great reflection on the league and the ownership and the diversity of our front office. You'll see the Lapchick report, we had an A+ last year, I think you'll see that continue to see the diversity of our coaching staff be really, really an important focus for us.
Q. I thought you said the All-Star weekend, it was $650,000 maximum for players what they could earn. Curious where that other 50K is coming from and where do we stand on expansion?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Thank you for calling that out. So I did throw out the $650 because I wasn't including the ability under the CBA to earn an additional $50,000 called a time off bonus. For the players that earn that time off bonus up to $50,000 that, would take you to the $700.
In expansion, we continue to do very hard work on expansion as I probably mentioned over the past six months or so, we took those hundred cities we were looking at on the psychographics, the demographics, the current WNBA fan base, the merch buys, NCAA viewership, arena availability, committed ownership groups and we have narrowed that probably to about ten, and we're going to continue to work on that hard and hopefully can announce expansion over the next couple years.
So we're not in any rush as I say, coming off two kind of tough COVID years for ownership. We want to make sure the new ownership group is set up for success. So we will announce it when it's right, when we have reached agreements with different ownership groups. But we continue to work hard on it but it's been a pretty intense season and we'll work even harder in the off-season.
Q. You said you'll announce when the time is right. When we spoke earlier this summer, you had said maybe that announcement would come as early as the playoffs but hopefully within 2022. Is that still the timeline? Are you hoping to announce by the end of this calendar year?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, I would say I would love to announce by the end of the year. These are complex situations to build expansion in cities. Again, you need to find the right owners with the right capital. We have to run an expansion draft, we have to let our GMs know in advance and head coaches what that's going to look like. We are working on all of that. We have work streams around all of that. We have a process and a lot of interest. The great thing is we have more than ten cities interested and we continue to do calls in those cities with potential ownership groups and take potential bid situations seriously.
So I have a feeling for what I think the best markets would be, but again we'll announce something when we're ready. Thank you.
Q. Question about the FanDuel partnership extension with the gaming operator becoming the Official Sports Book of the League. What are thoughts on teams providing their own sports books, such as Monumental and Phoenix working with Bally's, and your thoughts on sports wagering in general and how it will affect the league in concrete terms?
CATHY ENGELBERT: I think it's interesting that both the teams in the finals are in casino markets. We had a 270 percent jump in WNBA bet counts this year. So that's more people betting on the WNBA. We did announce our renewal. I know there's a lot of background noise here -- we did announce our renewal with FanDuel as a key league partner.
If you've seen the data, more women are betting and our fan base skews more women, younger, more digital native. So we are excited for that as an opportunity, certainly in the markets in which we operate right now in the 12 states. It's not legal everywhere where we operate yet but it's provided opportunities. Phoenix last year announced a large betting deal with the Phoenix Mercury. As states legalize that, that will be opportunities for our teams in states where it's not yet legal.
We are excited for it because again, if you are trying to be a sports, media and entertainment property that has compelling content, I think what you are seeing on the court is no more compelling, and that's driving part of the betting increase and certainly we would love to have more betting partners and we have a whole focus on this in the WNBA League office.
Q. Force 10 started a 3X3 team a few years ago and you had allowed that to be a pilot program. What are the league's plans with those teams and is that a viable route for expansion for the league?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, good question. I don't know viable expansion as far as expansion teams but certainly viable from the format. It's exciting. It's outdoors. It's quick, ten minutes with a very short shot clock. I know for those that studied it in the Olympics last year in Tokyo and the U.S. winning the first Gold Medal in that sport ever, it's the No. 1 most popular urban sport in the word.
I used to walk around during COVID on walks in my neighborhood and see kids out there playing three-on-three, two-on-two. That format can have some real interest. Whether it becomes longer term some way of developing future WNBAers. But the more opportunities girls and youth get to play basketball and women's basketball here in the U.S. I'm in favor of. Force 10 has been a leader and you've seen other teams step up to sponsor teams on the 3X3 circuit. I'm really interested in the format and I could see us piloting it as part of WNBA live in the future as part of All-Star. Certainly something to look at and as we improve the economics of our league and have more to invest, that would be something I would certainly be looking at.
Q. As we look to increase our games to 40 games next year, there's a possibility that we'll run into a situation similar to today where there's a WNBA Finals game will be competing with the NFL, a very large market and audience. Have you had conversations with partners about scheduling and how exactly we can not conflict with other sports this time of year?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Again, this year is very unusual to be having a Playoff Finals Game 1 the same as opening day of the NFL but we always compete with the NFL, MLB, we compete in the front end of our season with the NHL and NBA and college basketball. Everyone is like just move it earlier. That's complicated, also. Arena availability is complicated.
I understand the frustration of some certainly around this topic but we are always going to compete. That's why we have our heads down at the league transforming our very first stakeholder success and fan engagement strategy. But yeah, it's unfortunate that there's not a day of the week where -- if we did it yesterday, college football and there were amazing games and upsets. So Monday Night Football, Thursday Night Football and MLB is going to get into their playoffs.
Again this year is a little unusual to do it on Game 1 of the Finals, usually that would be in October but it would be on an NFL Sunday, so that would be the same question. Our strategy is to find the best broadcast windows with our partners and get the most visibility and coverage we can get with Google and ESPN and why we have ramped that up, and CBS as well. The more windows we can get like on ABC we are going to do even though we are going to compete obviously against a popular league like the NFL.
There are not easy solutions to that one and it's not binary us or them. We have to do the best we can at marketing our game, players have to do their best with play on the court and hope that our fans are going to come out and come out in big ways and they have during all these playoffs. We competed with the Serena Williams match the other day and we still had half a million people watch us on ESPN 2 for the Connecticut Chicago game last week. And we are always competing with something, and we are cognizant of that. Arena availability is complex in this league and we did the best we could with the footprint we had with the FIBA World Cup this year.
Q. On the mention that BG wrote you a handwritten letter. Curious, was it the first time that you had communicated directly with her? Had you written her a letter firsthand to prompt her writing you and if you mind sharing, what did her letter to you specifically say?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, obviously Brittany has been wrongfully detained by the Russians for over 200 days now and unacceptable. It's a full-court press with the State Department. We have been working with them. I can't ask for more from this administration on working on this very complex situation to get her home. I have been writing her periodically throughout the season. That's something where send an e-mail to her lawyers, and they print it out and give it to her. She does not have access to technology.
She wrote a letter back to me. I was thrilled. It was heartfelt. She was very grateful. She knows the efforts that I personally and the League are doing to try to help get her home safely and as soon as possible and she ended with it, "I'm staying strong." I have chills right now just saying that, she ended it with, "You should know I'm saying strong, and thank you." It was short and handwritten and really inspiring to me given how adverse her situation is. But we need the Russians to step up here and get the deal that the President put on the table and get that deal done and get her home safely.
Q. What is the starting base pay for rookies?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Well, our super max is about 230, 228, something like that. Starting for a rookie, it depends where they are in the draft. It's between 70 and 80K. We'll give opportunities to rookies to do player marketing deals. Some players are coming in with deals that will hopefully carry over from the NCAA. And all the bonuses -- which is why with prioritization we are not boxing them out over three years while they are on a rookie scale contract.
Q. Going back to the date, this was the best date to pick for Game 1 was against the NFL on Sunday?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Again, we always play on Sundays Game 1. We had an ABC window; this was a year ago we were picking these windows. We had no ideas which teams were going to be in it. You know, if the Aces weren't owned by an NFL owner, maybe you wouldn't be asking that; but if they were owned by an NBA or independent owner.
But yeah, we set our schedule well in advance of when the NFL came up with their schedule this summer. To reiterate why it's so early this year is because of the FIBA World Cup that starts on Wednesday, and there's many, many WNBA players, not just on the U.S. Women's National Team but in Belgium and Canada and China and Australia and Germany. We have a lot of players now playing for national teams in that World Cup, so we wanted to respect that.
Q. I want to go back to the topic of expansion. You had mentioned that the league has narrowed it down to about ten possible cities. Is Oakland one of the possible cities for expansion?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, I think I made it no secret coming into the league coming off of a large career at Deloitte with a large Bay Area practice, not to have a team in the Bay Area I can't, whether it's Oakland, San Francisco or the Silicon Valley didn't seem right to me. Certainly Bay Area generally. Including Oakland or San Francisco, is certainly on our list, high on our list. If you think about if you're running a data analysis which informs, you can find the right ownership groups, the psychographics, the demographics, the NCAA you saw Nneka Ogwumike was inducted into the Stanford Hall of Fame yesterday, congrats to her, and the Naismith Hall of Famers, now Swin Cash and Lindsay Whalen who was hysterical and Swin was inspiring.
The W is everywhere right now. But such a great market out there given women's college basketball and very popular in the Bay Area. Yes, that's definitely on the list.
Q. Given back in 2020 the conversations about prioritization was pretty fairly explicit and understanding that there was an increase in salaries in exchange for this coming 2023, 2024. Are you surprised about the tenor of conversations and your internal conversations with the PA at this point about upcoming prioritization?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Thank you, and you're making me a little dizzy in the car there on Zoom if anybody can see that screen.
No, I am not surprised at all at the tenor of the conversations. I totally expected this. That's why we have been trying to do not only symbolic thing in the years leading up to the prioritization rules kicking in next year but also to really up player prize pools and to put up half a million dollars in that Commissioner's Cup pools and half a million dollars in playoff bonus pulse and 1.5 million in marketing money from the league, everything and the teams can do under the player marketing agreement. Not surprised at all that players are really starting to think about balancing what they want to do.
Again, many players who do not get a lot of playing time in the WNBA, we certainly want them to play in the off-season where it's right for them and so no, I'm not surprised at the tenor at all. This is a conversations we have been having since I joined the league and I think the Players Association have been good partners in educating players on what we are trying to do.
We did a lot of team meetings this year led by Bethany and Bonny Thurston and Taj McWilliams-Franklin's team, as well as I did a business of basketball with most of our teams this year. We are just trying to make sure the players know what all their opportunities are and choose the best thing for them and their families.
No, I'm not surprised at all about the tenor and this league has never been about one or two players. Again, players are going to do what they want, and they know their bodies are only going to hold up for so long. Average tenure is less than six years, so we want them to have opportunities in the first couple years to play overseas.
Again, we are not negative on playing overseas. We just want them to come back and prioritize the WNBA when our season starts.
Q. How much do you think a new media rights deal, obviously in the offing but still a couple years away, helps change this equation and solves these kinds of problems?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, I think it's probably the most important business issue I am focused on as the whole media landscape is shifting with streamers and live sports and people using TVs and not cutting the chord and YouTube TV who is our sponsor sheer at the WNBA Finals, the media landscape is changing so rapidly. We are watching all of those shifts and we are going to come up with the best media rights deal and combination of media rights that we can. We know as a younger fan comes into our game, too, they are very digital and that's why we worked hard to get the ROKU-enabled League Pass this year. We will continue to invest in digital to employ some of that capital in digital to build that fan and viewer base so we are in those need I can't negotiations the next few years so that we can maximize the value, and ultimately, everything we do accrues the players and absolutely will help the players. And I think if you look at our viewership this year compared to some of the men's leagues, we are doing quite well. We doubled one men's league who signed a very large media rights deal, so I am very optimistic we'll get something very favorable, and it should be because this valuation model has been broken for too long. I have been a staunch support of disrupting that valuation model. We are doing a lot of work around doing just that, and hopefully that will set the pace for other women's sports leagues, as we're the longest tenured here in the U.S. at 26 years, double any other, and it's really, really important that we get the value we deserve. So yes, that is going to be a huge uplift to these players.
Q. In the topic of the preseason game in Canada, what went into the decision to have the game there and why Canada and that timing? And then I have a quick clarification.
CATHY ENGELBERT: I think we have been looking at Canada for a while. In fact, pre-pandemic we were planning to play a preseason game in Canada and obviously literally in like the coming off the CBA in January of 2020, talking with Canada and made a visit up there. Women's sports are very, very popular up there and they have been very successful in basketball, soccer and hockey.
Obviously hockey is kind of their national sport but basketball is growing. We have players from Canada in our league, so that's helpful as well. I think the ease of the travel there during, again, an intense training camp time that we had made Canada attractive to us, and again, it's the demographics and youth and diversity of the country in some of those cities is the reason why we'll start there. But we would love to get over to Europe, Asia, do an EMEA, do an Asian tour at some point in the future as we build the economics of this league and the success of these players global brands.
Q. You mentioned there's a tripling of players who are able to access the league's marketing deals. Can you clarify how many players have the ability to access --
CATHY ENGELBERT: Right now we have ten who have signed deals with the league. We hope to maybe have a couple more but we have a little more money left over. But again, players when they sign the league deals, that precludes them from going overseas. We are thrilled and between there's some players that we have some of those agreements that would normally play overseas who are choose to go stay home in the U.S. with their families and they are going to do marketing for the league in the off-season.
The whole purpose of the league is to make these players more visible in the off-season and market them around tentpole events that happen in the WNBA and the NBA. Last year we had three players that came to All-Star and got great visibility and brand. In fact, I'll never forget two of them came up to me at halftime of the NBA All-Star Game and said, "Can we do that next year?" They are building their brands and seeing the attention they are getting.
I had a CEO of a broadcast company come up and talk about one of those players we had under agreement, how great she was and that doesn't happen without putting this money and commitment behind it. We are thrilled we are going to have ten or more this year under those agreements.
Now, the teams also have team marketing money they will spend with players, so you will probably have another 20 to 30. Last year total leagues and team we had 30, and you'll see us ramp that up at the league and team level as they build their brands.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much.
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