LAS VEGAS — Settling in at the podium at the Aria Hotel, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert spoke to an in-person and Zoom press contingent about the future.
It was simple to mention, but significant considering the circumstances.
In a wide-ranging media availability prior to Wednesday’s WNBA All-Star Game, Engelbert discussed topics as heavy as league expansion, travel issues and player exposure, and as light as WNBA merchandise.
Engelbert spoke for nearly 40 minutes, and began mentioning the growing momentum the league has had over the course of a two-year span.
This includes a season affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which displaced league-wide plans along with placing the league in Florida for the entire 2020 season.
“We’re looking to the future,” she said.
Where the league stands
When the WNBA relocated to IMG Academy in Florida for its own bubble last year, it forced the league to change its approach.
The league took on some of the expenses of the “Wubble” and had to account for the lack of revenue without any fans. That’s still a pain the league is feeling at the All-Star and Olympic break in 2021.
“Last year, we flipped the business model around,” Engelbert said. “We’re still in recovery from that.”
Now that all markets have fans in attendance, that pain is beginning to alleviate. However, teams still need to comply with directives from local health departments.
Engelbert said she’s proud of where player safety is currently, especially with 99 percent of WNBA players vaccinated against the coronavirus. Teams were preparing to reach that rate across the last month, and to reopen for more fans.
The commissioner said there’s still more transformations to come as the back end of the pandemic continues.
“The fan experience is so enhanced the closer you are to the court,” Engelbert said.
Addressing league issues
Two years ago at the 2019 All-Star Game, Engelbert announced how Team USA and the WNBA expanded player training and pay so WNBA players could train with the national team as opposed to having them play overseas and risk injury.
Present day, the league is still eying to address travel, which is one of the biggest issues the league faces. Players face delays flying to different markets commercially as opposed to flying charter.
Engelbert said she understands how difficult traveling can be, but reassured the league understands the issues.
“Summer travel is very, very tough,” Engelbert said. “We’re monitoring every flight of every team.”
Engelbert said there were discussions in 2019 and 2020 with stakeholders and union representatives about the next step forward within the current collective bargaining agreement about travel with where the league is with travel.
It’s something the league is still monitoring, and it’s why the league approved charter travel during the playoffs in order to put the best product on the court possible.
“I wish we had an economic model that supported what I know we all want here,” Engelbert said. “We don’t have that today.”
Engelbert also tackled the topic of expansion,