How commissioner Cathy Engelbert saved the 2020 WNBA season

As WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert left the league's COVID-19 testing center and walked into the adjacent hotel lobby, a situation that had seemed under control began to spiral. The WNBA's medical director intercepted Engelbert with the news that tests for two more Seattle Storm players had come back inconclusive.

Tipoff for the Storm's opening semifinal game with Minnesota was three hours away, and the Lynx team bus had just pulled away from the hotel curb.

The day had started with an early-morning text informing Engelbert of an inconclusive test for a Storm player. Alarming, yes, but after 2½ months in the bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, Engelbert and the medical team on-site already had faced this scenario a few times. They followed their established protocols, informing the Storm, putting the player in isolation and starting contact tracing.

There had been no previous disruption of play because of COVID-19. Today would be different.

Upon word of the additional inconclusive tests, Engelbert -- who had just been swabbed for her own daily COVID-19 test -- immediately called Seattle team officials to notify them. Minutes later, she boarded the Storm's team bus to explain to the anxious players what was going on with three of their teammates.

At that point, the game was still on. But over the next 20 minutes, as she followed behind the Storm bus, consulting with her medical team and other stakeholders by phone throughout the drive, Engelbert was sure of the decision she needed to make: postpone the game.

Once everyone arrived at the playing facility, Engelbert again boarded the Storm bus to deliver the news, then walked inside -- where the afternoon's first semifinal between the Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun was in the second half -- to inform Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve that the day's scheduled second game would not be played. Another long night of contingency plans awaited the commissioner.

Welcome to Engelbert's "post-retirement" job. After more than 30 years at Deloitte, Engelbert was hired in May 2019 as the WNBA's fifth leader -- and the first to get the commissioner title -- and officially took over two months later. She might have stayed for another four-year term as Deloitte CEO starting in 2019, but the company maintained its lengthy trend of one-term CEOs.

So she retired and returned to basketball, one of her earliest loves, leaving the shark tank of the financial world for a position that has had plenty of its own stressful situations in her first full year.

Chief among them, of course, was combating a pandemic that shut down all sports for months. Safety was the priority, but a key part of getting players to buy into the bubble was reassuring them of the league's support for social justice issues they are passionately committed to and affected by.

The season is now near the finish line, with top seeds Las Vegas and Seattle tipping off in the best-of-five WNBA Finals on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App). Engelbert is quick to deflect credit to players, coaches, referees, support staff, medical workers and team owners for making the bubble work.

"She was very determined," said Terri Jackson, WNBA players' union executive director. "Without Cathy's resolve, I really don't know if we would have had a season."

Months of planning, millions of dollars and thousands of COVID-19 tests built a WNBA bubble that has held so far. The inconclusive tests on Sept. 20 -- which were all followed by two negative results, putting the semifinals back on track two days later -- were a reminder of how potentially fragile it is.

"Usually in the business world, you tackle a problem, you handle it, you get past it, you learn from it," Engelbert said. "With the coronavirus, every day is the start of a new day with the virus and its potential impact on us.

"I've been involved with a lot of crises, mostly on the financial side, not a global health crisis that now obviously is creating financial strain on many people. We will evolve out of this, but it's the challenge of a lifetime for live sports."

"Without Cathy's resolve, I really don't know if we would have had a season." Terri Jackson, WNBA players' union executive director, on commissioner Cathy Engelbert

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who oversaw the hiring of Engelbert, has had to face the same things with that league's bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

"Cathy has done a remarkable job since joining the WNBA as its first commissioner, and particularly this year with creating the WNBA campus in Bradenton," Silver said in an e-mailed statement when asked for comment on Engelbert. "Over the past several months, she's demonstrated many of the traits that made her such a successful leader at Deloitte, including her resilience, creativity and ability to adapt."

The job also has required diplomacy, compassion and nonstop vigilance regarding COVID-19.

"When I see the greatest women's players in the world on the court competing at the highest level, that warms my heart," Engelbert said. "But there is not a day when I say, 'We did it.' Until we're done with our season, I won't rest about our safety protocols."

'We can do this'

Engelbert's pre-WNBA career was in the financial industry, but through high school and college she worked in the office of her uncle, a pediatrician. Her tasks included taking various growth measurements of infants and toddlers, recording data and the concerns of parents.

"That job actually taught me a lot that I still think about today," said Engelbert, who in 2015 became the first woman to hold a CEO position at one of the Big Four professional services firms. "So I guess I always had an outside interest in medicine."

Then for many years, Engelbert's work in the financial sector involved pharmaceutical companies. All her experience helped when it was time to "follow the science" -- Engelbert's mantra for setting up a safe WNBA bubble.

Aces general manager Dan Padover said that when he got a call from Engelbert telling him he had been named WNBA executive of the year, his first thought was to thank her.

"This league and any of these awards wouldn't be possible if it weren't for Cathy and her team," Padover said. "They really plowed through, making sure that -- from a medical standpoint -- this was going to work. Teams pushed and pushed for different things, but the league made sure to hold their ground that anything we did was medically safe and the protocol was followed."

The 12-team WNBA played a 22-game regular season. Only two players tested positive for COVID-19 once they were inside the bubble, but that was right after they had arrived in early July. They quarantined and then returned to play. There have been no subsequent positive tests.

"The most important area was the medical protocol and the overall health of the players," said Minnesota's Reeve, the WNBA's Coach of the Year. "And I think Cathy and her team knocked it out of the park. She was adamant and laser-focused on what needed to happen."

Seattle forward Alysha Clark added, "Originally the plan was [testing] every day for the first two weeks, and kind of weaning off a little bit. But then they made the decision pretty early on that having these tests done every day was something that would help. I think they've done a really good job of making sure we feel secure and safe."

The 2020 season tipped with four games on ABC and ESPN on July 25-26. The opening weekend viewership was up 63% over the 2019 WNBA regular-season average on ESPN's networks, and the July 25 game between the Los Angeles Sparks and Phoenix Mercury on ABC was the WNBA's most-watched opener on ESPN networks since 2012.

"When you have a league that has a good relationship with a commissioner, it tends to go a long way. You can see it in the NBA, how the relationship has been really helpful. And maybe in a league like the NFL, how at times, it's been really detrimental." Sue Bird on Cathy Engelbert

But in the spring, Engelbert had faced a crossroads. Every report of the worsening pandemic made it seem that having a season would be extremely difficult, if not logistically impossible. Yet everything she knew about business told her that not having a season could be cataclysmic for the WNBA.

"If you were watching the news then and observing the trajectory of the virus, especially in the New York area where I was, you'd be pretty nervous and have a lot of doubts," Engelbert said. "But I actually stopped watching and said, 'We need to shift to the things we can control, not the things we can't.' For me that was understanding and focusing on the science of the virus.

"Once I learned enough about the virus to feel confident we could follow the extensive health and safety protocols we were being advised on, I thought, 'We can do this.'"

Engelbert, a New Jersey native, earned her degree in accounting while also playing basketball (for then-coach Muffet McGraw) and lacrosse at Lehigh in 1986. She joined Deloitte and worked through the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and '90s. In the early 2000s came the dot.com bust, followed by the colossal fraud of Enron and other companies. And there was the financial crisis of 2008-09 that affected so many businesses, including the WNBA, which lost championship franchises in Houston and in Sacramento during that time.

Through it all, Engelbert was always learning, and her profile grew at Deloitte, even as she navigated personal challenges. Her father died in 1987, just a year after she had finished college. In 1997, she considered leaving Deloitte, as she was expecting her first child and was worried about balancing it all. A pep talk from two supervisors convinced her she could do it.

Then in the aftermath of the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, landmark bipartisan legislation that more tightly regulated the accounting industry in the wake of scandals like Enron, Engelbert "worked harder than I ever worked in my life."

"I was an expert in derivative financial instruments, and I had done some complex valuation, and so everybody sought after my skills," she said. "There was a huge loss of trust in big corporate America, and in the accounting and auditing profession I was in. Congress was talking about, 'You know, maybe this profession shouldn't exist in the way it exists.'"

The experience showed Engelbert that sometimes, dire circumstances can open a door to strong leadership.

"Without that crisis," she said, "I'm not sure I would have ended up as a CEO."

Even before the pandemic, Engelbert faced difficult situations in the WNBA. Such as the firing of longtime Sparks general manager Penny Toler after her profanity-laced locker room tirade in September 2019 that the league investigated. The shocking death in January of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, whose enthusiastic support for the WNBA meant a lot to the league and its players. Dealing with a team owner, the Atlanta Dream's Kelly Loeffler, whose political views have put her at odds with WNBA players.

"I am a firm believer that decisions and investments you make while you're in the middle of a crisis will serve you well long term," Engelbert said. "Even if they turned out to be not great decisions, you would learn from them and wouldn't do them the next time."

When you've seen "too big to fail" actually fail in one industry, you know not to discount worst-case scenarios in another. That's why Engelbert was adamant about having a 2020 WNBA season if at all possible. She didn't think the WNBA would have ended without it, but the league's progress and all the plans surrounding that would have been damaged.

"For a women's league where we're trying to expand the fan base, if we would have been out of the sport's landscape for 20 months, the base would contract," Engelbert said. "I'm not sure it would have been recoverable.

"We said, 'Here's the scenario if we're out of the sports landscape, and here it is if we stay in.' The owners, who have been really supportive, said, 'Stay in.' I'm sure there were many doubters out there as to whether we could pull this off. I felt an enormous responsibility to form a plan to keep the momentum going for the WNBA, specifically, but also for women's sports. But only if it was safe to do so."

Supporting the players

Engelbert didn't just bring crisis-management skills to the WNBA. She also brought people skills.

"Cathy has established strong relationships with the players in a short period of time," Silver wrote, "because she made that a priority from the very first day she stepped into her role."

Engelbert said she used to joke that for every 3,000 employees at Deloitte, there were 4,000 opinions to consider. Starting with her tour around WNBA cities in 2019, followed by negotiations first for the collective bargaining agreement reached in January and then for the season in the bubble, Engelbert was again reminded of the value of listening.

"She hit the ground running, and we were right there with her," said Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, president of the executive committee of the WNBA players' union. "It's been inspiring to work with Cathy, especially in times that have historically driven players and leagues apart."

Travel issues have long been a sticking point. One of Engelbert's first big moves was securing charter flights last September for the Sparks and Aces when they had one day to travel between playoff games in the Pacific and Eastern time zones. Charters are cost-prohibitive to have regularly in the WNBA. But Seattle guard Sue Bird -- whose career spans all five WNBA leaders -- said the fact that Engelbert got charters to prevent travel fatigue in the postseason impressed players.

"I think she's taken steps to gain players' trust," Bird said. "When you have a league that has a good relationship with a commissioner, it tends to go a long way. You can see it in the NBA, how the relationship has been really helpful. And maybe in a league like the NFL, how at times it's been really detrimental."

"For a women's league where we're trying to expand the fan base, if we would have been out of the sport's landscape for 20 months, the base would contract. I'm not sure it would have been recoverable." Cathy Engelbert, on the potential consequences of a 2020 WNBA season not being played

Still, it's not the same as being CEO of a private company.

"In that case, you control it all," Engelbert said. "With the league, it's 12 individual businesses you are commissioner of. I was used to having stakeholders. Here, there's an even broader list of stakeholders: the owners, the players -- they're unionized, and I hadn't dealt with a union before -- the officials, the team executives, even the media. It's just a different structure."

An early defining moment in Silver's tenure as NBA commissioner was the 2014 ouster of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling after recordings of his racist remarks were made public. But Silver had broad-based support for the ouster; it was obvious it needed to happen.

The situation with Loeffler is more complex. She took office as an appointed U.S. senator from Georgia in January. Her statements about the Black Lives Matter movement, along with some of her political positions, are seen by the WNBA players as being anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ.

Engelbert has not been in position to oust Loeffler the same way Sterling was. But Engelbert has strongly supported the players with their social justice platforms and clearly distanced the WNBA from Loeffler's views.

Social injustice was already heavily on the minds of players in 2020, but it became paramount during a summer in which the nation was confronted with many issues, especially the killings of Black citizens by police.

"She listened to players; she really listened, heard what they were saying," Bird said, "and wanted them to be the ones driving what the season was all about."

During her days in the financial world, Engelbert looked to basketball as a stress reliever. Sometimes that meant playing hoops in the driveway of her home in New Jersey with daughter Julia, 23, and son Tommy, 19. Her friend and former chief of staff at Deloitte, Heather McBride Leef, chuckles thinking about Engelbert -- in her high heels -- going out to shoot baskets on a court at Deloitte University, a training center in Texas.

McBride Leef wasn't surprised when Engelbert said she was becoming WNBA commissioner after retiring from Deloitte.

"I was thrilled for her," McBride Leef said. "She could combine her passion for sports with her long-term commitment to driving the advancement of women and increasing diversity."

Engelbert sees that as one of her biggest overall goals in working for the WNBA.

"I was already blessed with a great career," she said. "Now I want to help develop the next generation of leaders in sports, including the players."

If the WNBA successfully completes this season -- even this close to the end, Engelbert takes nothing for granted -- she will move forward with what the league has learned.

"Next year will be our 25th season; we've potentially got the Olympics; I'd like to do the Commissioner's Cup, which we were going to do this year," Engelbert said. "I'm hoping that we're in a different environment."

No one wants to think about the necessity of another bubble. But Engelbert is the consummate scenario planner, so she has thought about it. Best-case scenario is that a bubble won't be needed for 2021. But she was committed to making it work for 2020.

"Early on, there was a thought of, 'OK, there's a good chance that there won't be a season put on,'" the Storm's Clark said. "Now that we've been in it and done everything we've done, I can't imagine if there would not have been a season. I can't even picture it."