WNBA raises $75 million in first-ever funding round, valuing league at $1 billion

The WNBA announced on Thursday that it was completing its first ever capital raising, bringing in a host of major investors, including Nike and former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as the league looks set to accelerate growth.

The Women’s National Basketball Association raised $ 75 million from investors, which also includes Dell Technologies CEO Michael Dell and Laurene Powell Jobs, philanthropist and widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Following the funding, the valuation of the WNBA and its teams is $ 1 billion, according to a source familiar with the deal.

“We’ve all seen reports that less than 5% of all sports media coverage and less than 1% of all sponsorship money goes to women’s sports, so access to this capital … when trying to grow a business is really going to help us move the needle, “said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert in an interview Thursday on CNBC’s” Squawk Box. “

The league called it in a press release “the largest capital raising ever for a sports property for women.”

The WNBA’s fundraising round is the latest indication of momentum and investors’ attention to women’s sports at both professional and collegial level. It also comes about three months before the 12-team league is due to begin its 26th season in May. Free agency is running now.

The league’s milestone of the 25th season, which ended in October, saw a big jump in TV viewership, according to Disney-owned ESPN, which broadcasts some regular season games and the entire off-season.

The number of viewers in the regular season increased 49% compared to the 2020 season and 24% compared to 2019 before the Covid pandemic, according to ESPN. The postseason and WNBA Finals both saw their highest ratings in years.

LAS VEGAS, NV – JULY 27: WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert speaks to the media ahead of the AT&T WNBA All-Star Game 2019 on July 27, 2019 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Brian Babineau | National Basketball Association | Getty Images

Engelbert, former CEO of consulting giant Deloitte, said the WNBA plans to use its money in a variety of ways to help the league establish an economic model that is “sustainable for the future.”

“We have so many opportunities to globalize the game, the expansion,” said Engelbert, who has led the WNBA since July 2019. “We have the opportunity to burst our digital footprint and think about what directly means to the consumer.”

“There are really a lot of growth initiatives,” Engelbert added, including sports betting, as more states around the United States legalize it and “marketing our stars to well-known names both here in the United States and globally.”

Nike, which has sponsored the WNBA’s jerseys since 2018, made “a significant equity investment” in the league, the press release said.

Other notable investors include Carnival Chairman Micky Arison, who also owns the NBA’s Miami Heat; Clara Wu Tsai and Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai, owners of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets and WNBA’s New York Liberty; and triple WNBA champion Swin Cash, who is now vice president of basketball operations for the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans.

Cash, who played in the WNBA from 2002 to 2016, said her participation as an investor also signals support for current players as they further establish the league.

“External investors are amazing and that’s important, but the women who have also helped build this league, it’s important for us to stand with this next generation,” said Cash, who appeared on “Squawk Box” together with Engelbert.

Metropolitan Capital Advisors co-founder and CEO Karen Finerman, a regular retailer on CNBC’s “Fast Money,” also participated in the WNBA’s investment round.

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