Inside the WNBA’s strategy to partner with companies like Deloitte and Google to propel the league — and how it’ll leverage that growth in its next rights negotiations

  • Cathy Engelbert, Commissioner of the WNBA, spoke with Business Insider about the league’s recent expansion.
  • She emphasized two key areas in which the league is experimenting: corporate and media partnerships.
  • Engelbert’s efforts to advance the WNBA may result in a larger media rights agreement beginning in 2026.

Cathy Engelbert flew to Las Vegas in 2019 during her early days as WNBA commissioner to attend a meeting for the players association’s upcoming collective bargaining agreement.

She listened to her players’ concerns about the league, including a higher salary cap, but she knew she couldn’t meet all of their demands.

“I want everything that they want, but we’ve got to find a way to fund it,” Engelbert realized, according to Business Insider.

Engelbert, who had recently retired as Deloitte’s CEO, considered two major revenue sources in sports: corporate partners and media. Because the WNBA was bound by a media-rights agreement until 2025, Engelbert took a different approach.

The WNBA launched its Changemakers program in 2020 to attract corporate partnerships that could help the league advance. Unlike other partners, these “changemakers,” as the league refers to them, provide financial support while also contributing assets and expertise to the league’s success. One partner, Deloitte, for example, redesigned the WNBA’s app. The program is one of Engelbert’s key strategies for increasing the WNBA’s visibility and reach, which could give the league more bargaining power in its upcoming media-rights negotiations. Sports rights are in high demand, and women’s leagues are benefiting; the NSWL recently inked a deal worth 40 times more than its previous one.

The current rights agreement for the WNBA, which is coming off its most watched regular season in more than two decades, runs through 2025.

The WNBA initially signed Nike, Deloitte, and AT&T to the Changemakers program. Nike has agreed to assist with marketing. Deloitte was instrumental in transforming the league’s digital business. And AT&T provided players with technology such as unlimited cell service.

Google, US Bank, and CarMax are also among the six participants in the program. According to Engelbert, the league hopes to announce more in the future.

The program has yielded results for the league, such as an increase in app downloads and marketing for the sport and its athletes.

“These are big companies, big brands, all contributing something,” Engelbert went on to say. “They’re putting significant money and support behind a women’s sports league.” It is unquestionably a first of its kind.”

Partnerships are bringing more visibility and business transformation

As more companies rush to include women’s sports in their marketing plans, the WNBA has added 42 new sponsorship partners, the most ever.

Companies such as Michelob Ultra, Peloton, Skims, and Coinbase have recently become NBA and WNBA sponsors, which Engelbert attributes to the Changemakers program’s influence.

“We’re just seeing more and more categories come to us and be interested because they’re seeing these changemakers with big platforms,” Engelbert went on to say.

In 2023, the league released a Changemakers impact report, which highlighted initiatives that helped the league set new viewership, attendance, and engagement records.

One of the most significant changes resulted from a collaboration with Engelbert’s former Deloitte colleagues. According to the report, the company created a new WNBA app that received 390% more downloads in the 2023 regular season than the previous one did in 2022. Deloitte also assisted in the redesign of the WNBA website and the development of plans to improve its production quality.

Google, another partner, has made several efforts to promote the league. It added game highlights from YouTube to search results in 2021, collaborated with Disney to sponsor some national broadcasts and a dedicated women’s sports segment on “SportsCenter,” and created ads for Google Lens and Pixel featuring prominent athletes.

The increased visibility of the league is also having an effect on teams. According to the report, team partnership revenue in 2023 was 21% higher than it was at the start of the 2022 season and nearly double what it was at the start of the 2019 season. According to the report, the Seattle Storm’s $151 million valuation is also a new high for the league.

Data shows that advertisers are seeing higher returns on their investments as the league grows. Ads that aired during the 2023 WNBA Finals generated 30% more online engagement from viewers than ads that aired during the 2022 WNBA Finals.

Expanding media opportunities and preparing for future rights deals

When the NBA tripled the value of its last media rights agreement, the extra cash pumped into the system boosted player salaries significantly. A larger media rights deal could be career-changing for the WNBA, where many players go overseas during the off-season to supplement their income.

The WNBA has a $25 million-per-year deal with broadcast partner Disney to air a portion of its games on ESPN and ABC, and has added more partners to air more of its games. The league reported that a record 205 of its 240 regular season games were broadcast or streamed live this season.

According to Engelbert, the league has been “ahead of the curve in putting together the hybrid package,” which includes over-the-air and other linear-TV broadcasts, a direct-to-consumer offering, and streaming.

“It’s actually kind of four-pronged today,” Engelbert observed. “I think longer term we’ll see some consolidation of all of that, but that’s why we’re closely watching and investing in a variety of ways.”

Last season, Thursday night games were streamed on Prime Video, Friday night games were broadcast on a new TV partner, Scripps Ion, and weekend games were broadcast on CBS, ESPN, and ABC. Viewership was also increased by deals with Meta and YouTube, as well as the streaming app WNBA League Pass.

According to Nielsen, the Scripps Ion deal increased the league’s total viewership by 24%. The commissioner stated that the venture attracted viewers who would not normally watch the WNBA, including more female viewers, while the league provided Ion with a younger and more diverse audience than the network typically attracts.

Engelbert identified seven key areas for growth in order to increase the league’s visibility, which could lead to a larger rights deal beginning with the 2026 season:

  • Team expansion: According to Engelbert, team expansion broadens the league’s fanbase and brings in new media markets. She recently announced the formation of a new team in the San Francisco Bay Area, the league’s first new franchise since 2008.
  • Increasing viewership: Getting more games on national platforms has been a priority for Engelbert during his tenure. The commissioner stated that when she first arrived at the league, about 80 games were available nationally, compared to 205 live broadcasts last season.
  • Attracting a lifestyle audience: The WNBA claims to have a diverse audience that is distinct from the typical sports fan. “We have a more lifestyle viewer,” explained Engelbert. “We sit at this intersection, I’d say, of culture and sports.”
  • Fan engagement: Redesigning the WNBA app isn’t the league’s only plan to increase fan interest. According to Engelbert, higher stakes games attract more ardent viewers. “We’ve got to build household names, rivalries, have games of consequence, make our fans care,” she went on to say.
  • “We benefit enormously because we are a global league,” Engelbert said, “but we’re trying to globalize more.” The NBA Academy Women’s Program has held camps in India, Mexico, and Senegal for players and coaches. A 2023 preseason game in Toronto was sold out.
  • Marketing: According to Engelbert, the WNBA brought on Changemakers partners with a specific focus on athlete storytelling, such as Nike, Google, AT&T, and CarMax, to promote the league and its players.
  • Creating year-round interest: According to Engelbert, the league is attempting to expand its WNBA League Pass offering in order to engage fans throughout the year. It has also added games from Athletes Unlimited, which operates several professional leagues and aired the majority of its basketball season on WNBA League Pass during February and March. She also hinted at more upcoming off-season platform efforts. “I think we can bring a year-round platform around women’s basketball, and maybe longer term, women’s sports,” Engelbert went on to say.

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