July 16, 2021 

‘The next 25 years is going to be really interesting’

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Cathy Engelbert shares what's next for the WNBA

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Cathy Engelbert. (WNBA Media Central)

LAS VEGAS — When Cathy Engelbert first took office as WNBA commissioner about two years ago, she never imagined that some of the league’s biggest stars would be cast in a new version of the classic basketball movie, Space Jam.

As the movie is set to be released to the general public this week, the Los Angeles Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike and the Phoenix Mercury’s Diana Taurasi will be featured as digitized characters.

Speaking to members of the media before the WNBA All-Star game in Las Vegas, Engelbert explained how the inclusion of the two stars, among other forms of off court media, signifies continued growth and awareness of women’s basketball.

“We used to say you can’t be what you can’t see. And now with these athletes, young girls and boys, young youth basketball players, youth sports, can see Space Jam, the cover of SLAM magazine, in 2K,” Engelbert said. “Put all that together and think about the exposure that gives these WNBA players as role models in their communities, in society. It gets other corporates and other media companies thinking, yes we need to get that athlete exposure.”

Space Jam is but one of a recent slew of WNBA players appearing in other forms of mass media off the court. Sue Bird recently appeared in a commercial for CarMax, a company for purchasing vehicles. Chiney Ogwumike was in a commercial for DoorDash, a food delivery service. Sabrina Ionescu has starred alongside the NBA’s Chris Paul in State Farm car insurance commercials. And in what was one of the biggest announcements yet, Candace Parker became the first woman to grace the cover of the popular NBA 2K video game.

As the WNBA celebrates its 25th anniversary this season, all of these appearances have made Engelbert excited about what’s yet to come. Sports Illustrated ran a special cover issue with Parker, A’ja Wilson and Sue Bird, highlighting the league’s 25th year. And in addition to Parker being on the NBA 2K cover, she also appeared on the cover of SLAM magazine.

Seeing Sports Illustrated feature the WNBA on the cover was one of the first things that made Engelbert feel like momentum and popularity for women’s basketball was truly growing in the right direction.

“I walked into an airport and saw that and I said, ‘you know how many young girls and boys will see that and see these role models,’” Engelbert said. “I think it’s a signal, I think it’s a sign, I think it’s the ability to capitalize on the momentum that Candace and some of our other household name players bring… Just think about everything that’s happened over the last few months from that perspective, I think it’s a signal that the WNBA is here to stay and the next 25 years is going to be really interesting.”

But it’s not just the marketing of the well-known, already established superstars that makes Engelbert optimistic about where the league is headed. It’s the rise of a new generation of stars, many of whom took the court for the All-Star game.

There were eight first-time All-Stars this season: Ariel Atkins, Kahleah Copper, Dearica Hamby, Brionna Jones, Betnijah Laney, Arike Ogunbowale, Satou Sabally, and Courtney Williams. Ogunbowale is the league’s leading scorer and she took home the All-Star MVP honors.

“Think about that as the next generation of talent in this league,” Engelbert said. “I think you would agree that the state of the league is strong from a talent perspective with those players being first time All-Stars.”

With the growth of the league and the rise of a new crop of star players, that brings the focus on one thing, possible expansion. With only 12 teams and 144 roster spots, the WNBA has become the most difficult professional sports league to break into for aspiring players. There are players who were drafted in the first round who sometimes don’t even make their team’s opening night roster.

Team expansion is something that Engelbert has definitely looked into and while she says there are no immediate plans for adding new teams, it’s something she’s deeply committed to in helping facilitate growth of the WNBA.

“The topic of expansion is always something we’re thinking about, especially as we see the depth and breadth of the league, we see the globalization of our league and more global players coming into our game,” Engelbert said. “I would say that this time next year, we’ll be talking more seriously about what that path looks like, how many teams, and where with cities. We have to do very thoughtful analysis about that, and that’s what we’re working on now, we’re starting that analysis.”

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