The WNBA has closed on $75 million in funding that values the league and its teams at $1 billion, according to people familiar with the raise. The league said it is the largest-ever capital raise for a women’s sports property.
“I keep using this word, but it’s another historic moment for the WNBA,” league commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a phone interview. “Since day one, I’ve talked about the business transformation this league needed, and this capital raise is a huge step forward in that transformation.”
The $1 billion valuation is about equal to that of the Detroit Red Wings, the 10th most valuable team in the NHL. The least valuable NBA team, according to Sportico’s valuations, is the New Orleans Pelicans at $1.5 billion. Engelbert declined to comment on the valuation.
WNBA sponsorship partner Nike is making a “significant equity investment,” the league said.
The raise also includes an accomplished group of high-profile investors, including Laurene Powell Jobs, founder and president of Emerson Collective; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Columbus Crew and Cleveland Browns co-owner Dee Haslam and Whitney Haslam Johnson of the Haslam Sports Group; and Linda Henry, CEO of Boston Globe Media Partners and co-owner of the Boston Red Sox and the Liverpool FC.
NBA owners currently hold 50% of the WNBA’s equity, and the other 50% remains in the hands of the owners of the W’s 12 teams (five of whom also own NBA franchises). Both the WNBA and NBA Boards of Governors approved the transaction.
Among the investors with WNBA or NBA ties are Seattle Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder; Micky and Nick Arison (Carnival Corporation and the Miami Heat); Susan and Michael Dell (CEO of Dell Technologies and a minority investor in the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs); Mark Walter (chairman of the Los Angeles Dodgers and co-owner of the WNBA’s Sparks); Ted Leonsis (founder and CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which also counts Powell Jobs among its partners and owns both the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the WNBA’s Mystics); Herb and Steve Simon (owners of the Indiana Pacers and Fever); and Joe and Clara Tsai (owners of the New York Liberty and Brooklyn Nets).
“Susan and I are excited about the growth opportunity in women’s sports and specifically the WNBA,” Michael Dell said in a statement. “We also are proud to support a league that is committed to empowerment, and we look forward to supporting Cathy and all the accomplished and diverse women of the WNBA to make a positive impact in the world.”
Former NBA players Pau Gasol and Baron Davis and former WNBA star Swin Cash (now vice president of basketball operations for the New Orleans Pelicans) are also among the equity partners.
Engelbert said the existing equity holders’ shares will be diluted equally on a pro-rata basis to make room for the new investors. The equity stakes will be in the league itself, in a break with how some other leagues have approached raising capital in recent years.
Leagues such as Major League Soccer have raised cash by selling equity in a separate commercial arm to avoid giving investors actual shares in teams or the league, while still allowing them to share in commercial revenue.
This round of funding will largely support investments in marketing and digital, the WNBA said, and will also be put toward operational hires and infrastructure to address some of the league’s obstacles to growth.
The raise marks a new approach for the league as it heads into its 26th season, though Engelbert has been vocal about her desire to build out the business of her league since she took command midway through the 2019 season.
“The way to build a business is to have capital to invest in innovation, digital and fan-facing events, a global platform and all that,” Engelbert said. “We’re going to be off on our way of generating new revenue and bolstering player marketing and consumer touchpoints.”
Engelbert has also focused on sponsorship revenue, bringing in brands including AT&T, Deloitte (where Engelbert served as the company’s first female CEO until 2019), Nike and Google as top-tier partners through its Changemakers program, launched in 2020. Amazon Prime Video, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Coinbase are also recent partners of the W.
The WNBA—which didn’t make a dime for its TV rights during the first decade of its existence—has brought in around $25 million per year from its ESPN deal since the start of the 2016 season.
(This story was updated to include reporting on the league’s $1 billion valuation in the headline and the first and third paragraphs, and to correct the spelling of Micky Arison’s name.)