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WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert: It’s more than just a weight room

WNBA All-Star Game 2019
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WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert published the following op-ed today on WNBA.com:

Beyond the Weight Room

A familiar narrative has reemerged over the past few weeks around disparities in women’s sports, but as a former CEO who spent three plus decades in corporate America and now leading the WNBA, I can confidently say this certainly is not about a weight room.  This is about what the weight room situation represents — the deeply rooted issues in society and business around the lack of equity for and devaluation of women.  I was blessed to work at a firm that early on in my career in the 1990’s, recognized the value of women in the workforce, not because it was trendy to do so, but because it was about leadership in the war for talent and it was a business imperative.

Now, in my second career act as Commissioner of the WNBA, I clearly see the disparities in sports – but why?  Is it a question of whether diversity, equity and inclusion really is a business imperative?  We continue to see study after study that validates that having gender-diverse leadership leads to higher productivity, is critical for innovation, and leads to being more profitable.  It’s why it is even more perplexing to me that the current media rights fee gaps and underinvestment in, and dearth of marketing for, women’s sports is just generally accepted by the sports ecosystem.  Moreover, this imbalance is based on circular logic.  Media companies and agencies that advise corporations on their sponsorship dollars say there are not enough “eyes” on the women’s game, yet if those companies don’t step up to give exposure to the game, how can we make progress?  One solution to narrow the disparities is to transform the valuation models that are spreadsheet driven, are based on decades-old quantitative metrics, and that rarely yield a favorable answer for women. 

It’s no secret that less than 5% of media coverage covers women’s sports and an even smaller percentage of corporate spending goes toward supporting women’s sports.  We have some great partners that support the WNBA such as ESPN and our inaugural WNBA Changemakers, AT&T, Deloitte and Nike.  These partners see the value in supporting these elite athletes who are working moms, entrepreneurs, broadcast personalities, social activists and important role models in their quest to become the next generation of diverse business, community and sports leaders.

And speaking of elite WNBA athletes, our 2020 season saw a 68% increase in average viewership with countless historic performances on the court— like Sue Bird forging record-setting playoff performances in her 17th year; and younger stars like League MVP A’ja Wilson and WNBA Finals MVP Breanna Stewart having huge seasons leading both their teams to the WNBA Finals in 2020.  Meanwhile, rookies like Chennedy Carter, Satou Sabally, Sabrina Ionescu, Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield, and others provided tantalizing previews of what’s to come.  If you don’t know some of those names, watch them when they’re on TV and digital, and follow them on social platforms.

Significantly, our viewership success last year demonstrates that when women’s sports are given the proper forum and promotion, they can be good for business and deliver Return on Investment (ROI).  But we need more mainstream sports media to show the competitions that feature these incredible athletes – and maybe more importantly, tell their stories.  And we also need more companies to partner with the players, the league, and our teams.  Along these lines, agencies and the rest of the sports ecosystem should change the way they value women’s sports assets because the players of the WNBA are worth the time, analysis, resources, coverage and respect.

Sports is only one of the vast number of industries, markets, and forums where we need to drive more equitable representation.  So, it’s fine to start by counting the weights, but we have to move quickly to weighing the things that really count – the number of female athletes sponsored by a company, the amount of money spent promoting the women’s game, and the breadth and depth of coverage dedicated to women’s sports.  Because at the end of the day? We’re counting on you.

Cathy Engelbert is the former CEO of Deloitte and the current Commissioner of the WNBA

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

WNBA draft shatters records with 2.45 million viewers

wide shot of BAM during the 2024 WNBA Draft
It wasn't just attendees that were glued to the on-stage action at the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Monday night’s WNBA draft added to the nationwide uptick in record-breaking women's sports viewership, pulling in 2.45 million viewers throughout the nearly two-hour broadcast and peaking at 3.09 million, according to an ESPN release. 

That number shatters the previous draft viewership record — 601,000 in 2004 — which was fueled primarily by then-No. 1 pick Diana Taurasi entering the league after UConn's historic three-peat March Madness performance.  

The 2023 WNBA draft drew 572,000 viewers, the most for any televised WNBA event since 2.74 million tuned in to NBC for a Memorial Day matchup between the New York Liberty and Houston Comets back in 2000.

While many came to watch Caitlin Clark get drafted No. 1 overall, it’s important to note that viewership didn’t take a massive dip after the superstar shooter left the stage. The numbers show that a bulk of the audience stuck around to watch the remainder of the show, making 2024's event not just the most-viewed WNBA draft in history, but also the most-viewed WNBA program to ever air on ESPN platforms.

Draft Day's popularity is yet another sign indicating an expected rise in WNBA regular season viewership. Clark and Iowa's NCAA tournament showdown with the Chicago Sky-bound Kamilla Cardoso's South Carolina side drew a record 18.7 million to ABC's Sunday afternoon broadcast. Banking on this trend, 36 of Indiana's upcoming 40 games are set to be shown on national television. In-person ticket sales are also soaring, leading the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to re-home their matchup with the Fever to a venue that can accommodate some 6,000 more fans.

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