WNBA's Cathy Engelbert says 'pipeline is there' for more diversity in league

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said Thursday that her league, like the NBA, must continue to establish a better flow of diverse candidates into leadership roles.

On the eve of the WNBA Finals, which start Friday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) between Seattle and Las Vegas, Engelbert held a state-of-the-league teleconference. She talked about the big increase in WNBA TV ratings -- a 68% jump from last year in regular-season average viewership -- and praised the personnel who have made the WNBA's bubble work in Bradenton, Florida.

Engelbert also was asked about NBA commissioner Adam Silver's remarks Wednesday that the NBA could do better in diversity hiring of head coaches.

"I know, coupled with our brethren at the NBA, we have a whole initiative around this that will establish a pipeline of ready-now candidates to move into leadership positions," Engelbert said. "If you look at my team behind me, it's extremely diverse. And we need to work with the teams more on when there are openings, like a general manager or a head coach, that they're looking at all candidates, including diverse candidates, in a very constructive way."

The WNBA has 12 teams to the NBA's 30. The WNBA currently has four women head coaches, none of them Black. There are two Black men, Los Angeles' Derek Fisher and Chicago's James Wade, among the male head coaches in the WNBA.

The most recent Black woman to coach in the WNBA was Pokey Chatman, who was let go by Indiana after last season. She spent 2011-16 with Chicago and 2017-19 with Indiana. The Fever do have a Black woman as general manager in former WNBA star forward Tamika Catchings.

On the coaching staffs of the two teams in the WNBA Finals, three Black women who are former WNBA players serve as assistants: Noelle Quinn for Seattle and Vickie Johnson and Tanisha Wright for Las Vegas.

Black women who played in the WNBA and are now on NBA staffs include Sacramento's Lindsey Harding and New Orleans' Teresa Weatherspoon; Washington Wizards assistant Kristi Toliver is still an active WNBA player with the Los Angeles Sparks, although she didn't play this season.

"We know the pipeline is there in the coaching and GM ranks because it's a lot of our former players," Engelbert said. "We've got to make sure this is top of mind even before positions come open ... it's in the lead-up and experiences and development of individuals that, when an opening comes up, that's how you then place somebody in that position."

Engelbert said the league is already planning for different scenarios for next year, which will be the WNBA's 25th season. She said she hopes the COVID-19 pandemic will be under control enough to return to more of a normal season in the WNBA's cities. But the league isn't discounting the need for a bubble again if that's not the case.

"We need to be prepared for a variety of outcomes here," Engelbert said. "We'd revisit it because, again, I think it's so important to stay in the sports landscape. Obviously, it was a very trying financial year on our teams and our owners. They usually had over 1.3 million fans sit in their seats and pay for tickets and merch and food and beverage.

"Then all the expenses of putting on the season shifted to the league. I think, because of our strong momentum with our broadcast partners and our sponsors and partners, we did -- we hung in there, let's call it that. So, it was a tough year, but this is one year in a multiyear transformation.

"So, we're going to keep the course. Again, the option of not having a season and being out of the sports landscape for 20 months was going to be more devastating financially. I think this was 100 percent worth it in the end."