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WNBA completes its first-ever investment round with backers including Nike and Condoleezza Rice

The WNBA on Thursday announced it completed its first-ever capital raise, bringing in a host of big-name investors including Nike and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as the league looks to accelerate growth.

The Women’s National Basketball Association did not disclose how much money it raised from investors, which also include Dell Technologies CEO Michael Dell and Laurene Powell Jobs, philanthropist and the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. However, the league in a press release called it “the largest-ever capital raise for a women’s sports property.”

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

The WNBA’s fund-raising round is the latest indication of the momentum and investor attention toward women’s sports at both the professional and collegiate level. It also comes roughly three months before the 12-team league is set to begin its 26th season, in May. Free agency is underway now.

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

Regular-season viewership increased 49% compared with the 2020 season and 24% compared with 2019 before the Covid pandemic, according to ESPN. The postseason and WNBA Finals both saw their highest viewership figures in years.

LAS VEGAS, NV – JULY 27: WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert addresses the media before 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 cash in a variety of ways to help the league establish an economic model that’s “sustainable for the future.”

“We have so much opportunity to globalize the game, expansion,” said Engelbert, who has led the WNBA since July 2019. “We have opportunity to blow up our digital footprint and think about what direct to consumer means.”

“It’s really a lot of growth initiatives,” Engelbert added, including sports betting as more states around the U.S. legalize it and “marketing our stars into household names both here in the U.S. and globally.”

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

Other noteworthy 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 three-time WNBA champion Swin Cash, who now is 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.

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

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

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