The W.N.B.A., which has been without a permanent leader since Lisa Borders resigned as president in October, has appointed Cathy Engelbert as its new commissioner. Ms. Engelbert will take over a league that is working to rebrand itself and is engaged in a labor negotiation with a fast-approaching deadline.
Ms. Engelbert was elected chief executive of the accounting organization Deloitte in 2015. At Deloitte, a private company, partners elect the chief executive to serve a four-year term. In March, Deloitte’s partners elected the new chief executive. Engelbert will join the W.N.B.A. on July 17 after her term ends.
“Cathy is a world-class business leader with a deep connection to women’s basketball, which makes her the ideal person to lead the W.N.B.A. into its next phase of growth,” Adam Silver, the commissioner of the N.B.A., said in a statement Wednesday.
Ms. Engelbert has been with Deloitte since 1986, after she graduated from Lehigh University, where she was captain of the basketball team. She averaged 14 points a game in her senior year as the Mountain Hawks won the East Coast Conference tournament. In the title game, Ms. Engelbert scored 20 points and was credited in The Morning Call of Allentown with keeping “the pieces glued together when the cracks started to show.”
In a statement Wednesday, Engelbert said it was an “absolute privilege to be joining the W.N.B.A. at such an exciting and important time in its history.”
“I see tremendous opportunity to bolster visibility for the sport of women’s basketball, empower the players and enhance fan engagement,” she said.
Ms. Engelbert has been an advocate of inclusion in the workplace. She has spoken about almost quitting Deloitte in the 1990s while pregnant with her first child, and under her leadership the firm announced a 16-week paid family leave policy.
The W.N.B.A.’s players’ union said it was “encouraged” that the league had chosen someone with Engelbert’s business experience and knowledge of the game.
“We look forward to working with Cathy, and seeing a redefined commitment to policies that value and support the working women and working mothers across the league,” the Women’s National Basketball Players Association said in a statement. “The progressive thinking and values Cathy has demonstrated throughout her career leave us optimistic about what the future could look like for W.N.B.A. players.”
At Lehigh, Engelbert played under the Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw, who has twice led Notre Dame to N.C.A.A. women’s championships. At the Final Four this year, Ms. McGraw made an impassioned case for hiring more women to coach women’s basketball.
The W.N.B.A.’s 23rd season begins on May 24, and will play an outsize role in its future at a time when other women’s professional sports leagues are struggling. Ms. Engelbert will have little time to get her feet wet.
The league has a new logo and color scheme, and last month announced an agreement with CBS Sports Network to get more of its games in front of a national audience. While the television audience was up last season, attendance was down 13 percent, in part because the Liberty’s home games moved from Madison Square Garden to the much smaller Westchester County Center.
The W.N.B.A. has been without a president since October, when Ms. Borders stepped down to run Time’s Up, an advocacy group for women in the workplace. Mark Tatum, the deputy N.B.A. commissioner, has been acting as interim president.
Ms. Engelbert will lead the league through labor negotiations with its players, which are continuing. Last fall, the players exercised their option to terminate the collective bargaining agreement after the 2019 season, unhappy about a wage structure negotiated before the league’s most recent deal with ESPN, which more than doubled annual television revenue, along with what the players view as substandard working conditions and other concerns.
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