WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert led the way in helping to produce a historic, new collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) with the league’s athletes on Jan. 14.
In an interview with Fox News, she described the eight-year long-term labor deal as a “call to action to invest in the WNBA, in women, and in diversity.”
The new CBA increases players’ salaries, improves travel conditions, and guarantees players fully paid maternity leave. No other women’s professional sports league explicitly guarantees this for its players.
When it comes to landmark policies, however, Englebert was no rookie and understood what it meant to build trust to meet at the negotiating table. Before her role at the top of the WNBA, she had been advocating for workplace equity as the first female CEO of Deloitte or any Big Four professional services firm. At Deloitte, she created a “culture of courage” to inspire and implement change.
“The first thing I figured out as a new leader was that you have to do some small things of symbolic value to build trust,” Engelbert explained. “Because whenever you’re trying to effect culture change or transformation, those small things of symbolic value that that help you build that trust, helps you get the harder things done, and culture change is a really hard thing.”
Her approach led to an industry-leading family leave policy at Deloitte. Male and female employees alike were eligible for 16 weeks of fully paid family leave for a broad range of caregiving needs. The idea of a “culture of courage” transferred to her role as WNBA commissioner.
“Leading into a successful CBA negotiation included the same kind of lessons of leadership and same courage,” said Engelbert. “You needed some courage to do some of the things we committed to in the CBA, and it’s not all that different here—sports are big business, and business is about relationships.”
Under the CBA, players will now receive a 53 percent increase in total cash compensation, consisting of base salary, additional performance bonuses, prize pools for newly created in-season competitions, and league and team marketing deals.
Engelbert told Fox News that the holistic player experience was critical in negotiating the CBA. That meant running a player-first agenda, a focus on health and well-being, and player compensation.
“So as we thought about those three pillars, we looked at the types of things besides player compensation that we really need to focus on,” Engelbert said. “One of them is that we have moms in our league.”
The new CBA takes steps to show that motherhood and maintaining a career as a professional athlete do not have to be mutually exclusive. The CBA enables players to receive a full salary while on maternity leave and offers a new annual childcare stipend of $5,000. The agreement also includes family planning benefits of up to a $60,000 reimbursement for veteran players for costs directly related to adoption, surrogacy, oocyte cryopreservation or fertility/infertility treatment.
Engelbert said that the changes in travel arrangements represented the idea of small changes of symbolic value that she fostered at Deloitte.
“People may think that some of the changes we’re making around travel, for instance, are small, but again, small things have symbolic value,” said Engelbert. “And those things mean a lot in building trust with the players, and them feeling like they’re being treated like professional athletes, especially as women.”
The travel arrangements in the CBA include better air travel class status for regular-season air travel, individual hotel room accommodations for every player and a collaborative effort to address travel concerns through the Player Advisory Panel.
Engelbert said that she hopes the long-term labor peace of the CBA is only the beginning.
“I hope to actually change the narrative for all women’s sports, not just women’s basketball,” Engelbert said. “I want this to also be a role model for young girls who are playing, who are looking up to our players. I want to create a platform for girls to stay in sports and feel that they can stay in sports and really build those leadership skills because they are our future generation leaders.”
The 2020 WNBA season, the league’s 24th regular season, begins on Friday, May 15, 2020. The players will also compete for Team USA and fight for their seventh-straight gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
Watch the video above for WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert’s full interview.
Emily DeCiccio is a reporter and video producer for Fox News Digital Originals. Tweet her @EmilyDeCiccio