BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - With major sports leagues on hold because of the Coronavirus since mid March, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, of Berkeley Heights, worked hard to keep the April 17th Draft date, although their originally scheduled May 15 tip-off has been postponed indefinitely. -- It was important to Engelbert and the teams to have a "live" sporting event and keep the momentum around the WNBA.
"I am proud of my team at the WNBA/NBA and of ESPN, our broadcast partner. This was a Herculean effort between our teams in a short period of time," Engelbert said of the first American sports league to hold a virtual draft on live television. "We felt it was really important to move forward with this as a virtual draft because prospects who had worked so hard, they didn’t get their NCAA Tournament. The virtual draft allowed prospects who have worked so hard over the years to have their dreams realized when they hear their names called. It also provides our teams the opportunity to build their rosters and strategize. -- We’re excited about it. The teams are excited about it, and the prospects are, too."
Engelbert, who took over as the WNBA's new commissioner May 2019, said, "The one thing I know from being in prior economic crises, the decisions you make in the crises, when you come out you’ll be talking about them for five to 10 years, whether they worked or didn’t work. That’s why it’s important to keep going, keep executing the strategy and keep all the scenario plans on the table, especially in this fluid time when things are changing literally daily."
The virtual draft was filmed in Engelbert's Berkeley Heights home with a skeleton production crew of her daughter Julia on camera and her son Tommy on set detail. "I had some fun (and challenges) transforming a room in my house into a makeshift studio – jerseys hanging up on sweatshirt drying racks, upside down trash cans to elevate objects, so they can be seen in the camera shot and a few other aspects of the room redecorated, including old sheets to cover up any light coming in from a bay window. And there were tons of other logistics to work through," she said.
In the backdrop, it was important to have the Draft sponsors represented and visible on the shelves ---- but, there were a few photographs of her kids in view and the Gov. Livingston and Columbia Middle School diplomas on the lower shelves. She also had an antique table with a plant on it that had been in her grandparents Northeast Philadelphia house where her mother grew up -- and a picture showing from 1956 of her dad in his playing uniform from St. Joseph's University (Philadelphia).
To prepare, "swag" gift boxes were sent to the expected top prospects. "A firm based out west called Victory assisted us," she said. "I recorded multiple separate tailored messages to the top prospects [Julia, GL Class of 2015, was the camera woman] and Victory worked with Snapchat to include an augmented reality message from the recordings that I did." She explained the prospect received the box of swag, and on the box was a Snapchat icon -- the player would be directed to scan the Snapchat icon, and a message popped up from Engelbert welcoming them to the Draft and then rolled into footage from their college career.
Not knowing the selections in advance, they sent each top prospect 12 hats representing each WNBA team. "We had WNBA jerseys for each team on my end to hold up for each of the top picks," she said. Engelbert's son Tommy [GL Class of 2019] was on hand to help with the jerseys.
"We had a few glitches, but nothing major which was amazing as so much could have gone wrong and thankfully, overall it went off well," she said. Engelbert did have a technical issue when "Ryan Ruocco and Rebecca Lobo did the opening segment, then passed it to me, and my iPad was not working," she said. Her daughter Julia fixed it while “live” on ESPN. "Julia became my hero, thinking quickly on her feet – a true ‘digital native’," she said.
Originally, Engelbert wanted to keep it quiet as to where they were holding the Draft so that no one tried to come by to disrupt it. She said, she gave her neighbor the heads up there would be some activity in the neighborhood for a live draft. "I was proud to hold it in Berkeley Heights – it’s been a great place to raise my two kids."
Something that makes her extremely proud was the charitable element of the Draft. The WNBA donated $20,000 for each first round draft pick to benefit frontline healthcare workers in the fight against COVID-19. "My sister, also a NJ resident, is a nurse and another sister that is a nurse in PA, and I have multiple other relatives who are nurses -- my cousin is a respiratory therapist – they are heroes," said Engelbert. "So I am proud that our very generous presenting partner of the Draft, State Farm, stepped up and matched our contribution, so we could get to a quarter million dollars to donate and $20,000 per pick! We’ve had players impacted by COVID-19. So this was important to the players and to us at the league to support front line healthcare workers in this challenge."
Another highlight of the evening was the announcement of the Kobe and Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award, which will be granted for the first time in early 2021. "The Award is a call to action to others to put real action around advocacy to carry on Kobe and Gigi's legacy, as it is so important to support girls and women in our sport, and more broadly in society," said Engelbert. "Kobe had a huge impact on many of our current players, and the entire WNBA. I met Kobe last fall as he asked NBA Commissioner Adam Silver if he could broker a meeting with the new WNBA Commissioner. Kobe came to my NY office a week later, and the first thing he said when I walked in the room after a warm greeting, was, 'Cathy, I spend four hours a day on girls basketball…and I love it.' And as I said on the broadcast, after he left our office that day, I remember thinking that his passion for the WNBA and girls’ basketball was unparalleled from anyone else I had ever met. We are proud to carry on their legacy through the Kobe and Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award."
Visit the ESPN WNBA Draft Results.