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WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert Wants To Use The Ongoing Crisis To Improve The League

Cathy Engelbert was pretty blunt on Friday afternoon ahead of her first draft as WNBA commissioner about the fact that she did not expect to be in her current situation. In fact, she even went so far as to admit she expected the commissioner job to be easier when compared with her time as the CEO of Deloitte, where she oversaw more than 100,000 employees.

Rather than simply celebrating the moment when young players achieve their dream of becoming professionals, the WNBA Draft (Friday at 7 p.m. EST) brings more anxiety this time around. The league was determined to press on with the draft virtually — even getting the later rounds aired on ESPN for the first time — but that, of course, presents risk.

Engelbert called planning at a time when the country is shut down to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus “a bit of a Rubik’s Cube” during a media conference call on Friday. She will enlist the help of her children to make sure her in-home broadcast setup goes smoothly, and has propped up a makeshift podium to place jerseys on when she announces each pick.

“In every crisis, you find opportunities,” Engelbert said in hashing out all the ways that, despite the financial questions that loom, the WNBA might come out of the crisis better-prepared for the future.

That includes innovating with broadcasting and connecting with what Engelbert calls “digital natives,” or the youngest generation of fans who find news, highlights and even games online. Engelbert mentioned trying virtual reality, unique sponsorships, and new merchandise as a way to bridge the gap if fans cannot come to games.

The league has not taken any options off the table from a scheduling standpoint when it comes to having a 2020 season, Engelbert said. That includes playing games in places where there is less community spread of the virus or hosting double-headers in arenas that are shared between NBA and WNBA teams, such as Brooklyn or Phoenix.

“The decisions you make during a crisis are ones that can help you when you come out if it,” Engelbert said. Many of these initiatives were priorities when she took the job last June, and the importance of succeeding in each capacity has only grown.

If the WNBA is to have a season, Engelbert said quick and widespread testing, treatments, and eventually, a vaccine, will be the most important components in her feeling like it is safe enough to move forward. This is the same message coming from nearly every sports commissioner right now, which Engelbert said provides a sense of community among decision-makers.

“We’re all in the same boat,” she said. “There’s no doubt that everybody’s focus is the health and safety of everybody who would be involved.”

Engelbert was among those on a call with the White House earlier this month in which the president and vice president gave insight into how they believe sports might come back. The WNBA will be the first to hold a live event since the shutdown, a week before the NFL tries the same thing.

The hope is that the WNBA can grab ahold of the spotlight in a way it rarely has, while also working out some of the kinks in plans to broadcast content that may prove valuable when and if games return.