Sports

WNBA commissioner says a successful coronavirus shortened season is 'existential' for the league

Key Points
  • WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told CNBC on Friday she sees this year's season as critical for the league and female professional athletes everywhere.
  • "This could move the numerator for women's sports," she told "Squawk Box." "It's existential for us to have a season, economically."
  • WNBA action begins Saturday, with all games played at the IMG Academy sports complex in Bradenton, Florida with no fans.
VIDEO3:2003:20
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert on restarting plan

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told CNBC on Friday she sees this year's coronavirus shortened season as critical for the league and female professional athletes everywhere.

"This could move the numerator for women's sports," she told "Squawk Box," one day before Saturday's season opening games. "It's existential for us to have a season, economically."

With many sports leagues being curtailed for coronavirus safety reasons and television networks starving for live sports, about half of the WNBA's games will be televised this year, according to The New York Times. That's a change from previous years when men's sports took priority.

Engelbert, former CEO of Deloitte and a standout Lehigh University basketball and lacrosse player, said she hopes the Women's National Basketball Association can capitalize on the opportunity for additional TV coverage.

"Part of this was to get more exposure for these elite women athletes," she said. "Less than 5% of all sports covered is women's sports."

WNBA action begins Saturday, with three games, tipping off a shortened season of 22 regular games, with playoffs.

Given the risks associated with playing basketball during a pandemic, the 12 teams and their support staff members are quarantining at the IMG Academy sports complex in Bradenton, Florida, where all games will be played with no fans. Putting players and staffers in a "bubble" is a strategy also adopted by the men's National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer in Orlando, and the National Women's Soccer League in Utah.

"There's been a lot of scenario planning, so a lot of my business experience is coming in handy," Engelbert said, noting that since the initial quarantine at the beginning of July no WNBA player has tested positive for the coronavirus.

"We've been fortunate, because we know this virus is complicated," she said. "We started with individual quarantining, as players came into Florida. We then went to just team activities four days later."

"It's been a herculean effort, and a big sacrifice from the players and the coaches," she added. "So far, so good, but I don't want to jinx it."

Engelbert, who is also a board member on the nonprofit Partnership for New York City advocacy group, said that lessons learned in WNBA "bubble" could be expanded to other offices, as companies navigate a return to work.

"I do think there are lessons here to learn, but they're not different from the public service announcements of wearing masks, and washing hands," Engelbert said. 

"I realize not everyone can do the testing we're doing here," she continued. "But one thing I've learned over the three weeks here is, if you follow the science, it works."