How Cathy Engelbert capitalized on the Caitlin Clark moment

May 30, 2024

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has spent four years preparing for the Caitlin Clark moment — a high-profile player bringing new attention to a league that has long been in the NBA’s shadow.

And when media criticism of Clark’s $76,000 annual salary threatened to send the moment into a tailspin, she took back control without alienating existing stakeholders or targeting future stakeholders.

Preparing for the big moment

When Engelbert became the league’s first commissioner in 2019, the league hadn’t had a new team in 11 years. In 2016, two decades after its inception, half the teams were losing money, television viewership was under 200,000, and games averaged well under 10,000 in attendance. By the end of 2023, the league had nearly doubled revenue, saw record-setting season viewership, and added one new team with plans for several more additions in prominent cities.

So far, so good — and deserving of the CNBC-bestowed title of “Changemaker,” even without much fanfare outside of the basketball world.

Then Caitlin Clark became the biggest name in college basketball, leading the Iowa to the NCAA championship game for the second consecutive year while shattering records and generating an upswell of interest in the women’s game along the way. Viewership of the 2024 Women’s Final Four increased by 299% compared to 2022, and over 14 million people tuned in for Iowa’s semifinal game against UConn. It was the first time a women’s semifinal has ever outdrawn the men’s.

And when Clark skipped her senior year to enter the professional ranks, Engelbert had a golden opportunity to accelerate four years of success to the next level. The WNBA’s 2024 draft earned a record 2.4 million viewers, a 307% increase over the previous year.

Observing the moment

But the new attention that created a cresting wave of WNBA brand acceleration also threatened to crash it. Everyone from new fans to social media trolls to the president of the United States jumped on the criticism bandwagon about Clark’s salary. The woman who had generated so much new buzz for women’s basketball was only going to receive a base salary of $76,000 a year while the NBA’s worst player will make $1 million a year.

This put Engelbert in a tight spot. She needed to keep support from enthusiastic fans who were disappointed after getting emotionally invested in the WNBA brand for the first time, but she also couldn’t alienate traditional stakeholders like team owners and sponsors. Joining the outrage risked alienating the latter, who understand the league’s relatively sparse audience, revenue, and budget compared to the NBA. But she couldn’t give players and outside observers the impression that she didn’t care, because you can’t have a basketball league without people paying to watch other people dribble and shoot a ball.

Controlling the narrative

And her response was pitch-perfect. She didn’t lecture the general public on the intricate business considerations faced by the league. She didn’t jump on X with a response that could be taken out of context by trolls before it reached the right audiences. Instead, she let Clark have her moment and gave a concise response at the CNBC Changemakers Summit a few days later that corrected the record and framed all of the WNBA’s stakeholders as winners today and tomorrow.

Her first correction noted what was left out of reports about Clark’s pay and compared the missing information to a CEO’s pay — something she knows a lot about, having been Deloitte’s chief executive. “It’s proxy season; for a CEO, do you just put the base pay in there? No, you put their bonus, you put their stock options, you put everything.”

Second, she gave a technical correction that was simple enough for everyone to grasp and technical enough to come across as credible. “Caitlin has the ability to make up to a half of a million dollars just in WNBA wages this year, so they’re just looking at a base, which is collectively bargained and actually is low, because she’s the No. 1 pick.”

Third, she framed Clark’s financial future in only positive terms. “But she also has millions and millions of dollars in endorsements, and actually because she’s declared to become pro, her endorsements are higher in dollar value — she has a global platform now, not just a U.S. platform, so she’s going to do just fine as well.” (A few days after Engelbert’s statement, Clark reportedly was expected to sign a $28 million contract with Nike that includes a signature shoe.)

Capitalizing on the moment

Engelbert is clearly a competent leader and an effective communicator. She deserves every accolade that comes her way, including the Changemaker title. But I’d go a step further — she’s a visionary who spent four years preparing the WNBA to capitalize on the biggest moment in its history.

Dustin Siggins originally published this piece with Sports Business Journal. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *