Female Sports Executives See Growth Ahead, As Well As Challenges

    • Front Office Sports reached out to numerous high-ranking female executives on their thoughts from last year and a look into what lies ahead.

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2019 was a year of many firsts for women in sports.

The WNBA made former Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert its first-ever commissioner and has since negotiated a new, historic CBA.

Former NHL executive Jessica Berman was named deputy commissioner of the National Lacrosse League in June – the first time a woman has held this title in a men’s sport.

Last summer also saw the United States women’s national soccer team both reclaim the FIFA Women’s World Cup title and take the U.S. Soccer Federation to court over an equal pay lawsuit.

However, challenges remain when it comes to gender diversity in sports. While the WNBA and NBA have long been the leading pro sports in this category, MLB, MLS, and the NFL suffered setbacks in female representation across their respective leagues in 2019.

With International Women’s Day on March 8, Emily Caron, Eddie Moran, and Ian Thomas of Front Office Sports reached out to numerous high-ranking female executives throughout sports to get their thoughts on how the industry is embracing women – and what they hope to see going forward.

The following responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Val Ackerman, Big East commissioner

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year? 

I hope the 2020 Olympic Games will bring a renewed focus on the accomplishments of female athletes and the need to align the growth of high-level female sports participation with leadership in the ranks of domestic and international sports organizations. The IOC and the major international federations have much room for improvement in the number of women on their governance boards and commissions and their management structures. Future changes will likely require a combination of enlightened internal leadership and continuing external pressure by advocacy groups.

I also hope fans and corporate sponsors will support the elite women’s pro leagues, especially the WNBA and NWSL, in a bigger way this year and beyond, as increased audience support will lead to revenue gains that will benefit players and league owners alike.

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

Hiring gains for women at the intercollegiate and professional levels will require solid pipelines of female candidates and progressive decision-making by hiring managers. Organizations like ESPNW, the Women’s Sports Foundation, and Women Leaders in College Sports will also need to keep up their advocacy as to why diverse workplaces make for better outcomes in the sports world.

I also hope other countries will consider implementation of federal laws, like Title IX in the U.S., which mandate funding and resources to girls and women seeking sports participation opportunities, particularly at the youth and high school levels.  

Brenda Andress, SheIS president and co-founder

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year? 

I think the main momentum to continue in 2020 are fans taking action to drive attendance and viewership of women’s sports at all levels. It is imperative that we ensure that fans have the knowledge that is needed to become mobilized fans and to build sports fans on a global, multi-sport stage, not just in singular communities. We also need to increase the opportunities for powerful storytelling, so we can connect young girls and women with possibility models in sport. 

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

The biggest challenge is to tackle the chicken and egg conversation that often takes center stage in a conversation around the business of women’s sports – do we need more investment from brands and media first or more butts in seats and fan engagement?

We believe it is both – we must get the fan/sponsor/media to take action to support women’s sports simultaneously – but we know that the fan can truly help drive this. We currently have a society that is intensely into social media, which allows for more powerful (and fast) options for sharing information. However, it has become easy for us to state we believe in something while not actually affecting tangible change for it. What action do we take that backs up our beliefs? This is a global issue, with so many different opportunities for us to change our world, and yet, we are seeing this kind of vacuum of “yes, we believe and support,” but we don’t take the next step into creating action.

Alex Baldwin, Korn Ferry Tour president

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year? 

We have to stay engaged and connected with other women in the industry; we need to champion great talent; we must support each other and maintain a strong voice for ensuring diversity is reflected in our industry. Stay committed and focused and always feel as though our foot is on the gas. Know that it doesn’t matter where you sit in an organization; you have the ability to set the tone for an inclusive and diverse organization. We have an amazing opportunity to create a culture we want to be a part of, but more importantly, to ensure that culture is the norm for every generation that follows.

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

I see this as a two-fold answer. First, we need a strong pipeline of talent with an interest and desire to enter the sports business, whereby this industry is a viable career option for women. Historically, sports have presented a number of barriers due to the sheer nature of the industry; however, I believe that trend is evolving, and now is the time for us to capitalize on that momentum. Second, we must continue to pursue an open and inclusive culture. We are making great strides but it is vital to make sure that sports organizations are committed to building strong inclusive cultures in their respective organizations. And don’t just build it – be vocal about it and take pride in it. Welcome opinions, celebrate successes and keep moving forward on this front. Let’s get to a place where the sports industry is known for the best workforce culture in business.

Photo Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Jessica Berman, NLL deputy commissioner

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year?

Continued storytelling about women influencing the future of the industry with a focus on how their diverse perspective is impacting their business. This is not intuitive for most people. There is no shame in acknowledging that we all have a tendency to want to surround ourselves with people who validate our point of view, and that is most likely to occur when someone comes from a similar background and perspective. Since most decision-makers ultimately want to be successful, I believe that the best way to shift thinking around hiring and promotion of women and other under-indexed communities is to primarily focus on the business case. This will also influence the way that women show up in their careers, with permission to bring their authentic and unique perspectives and contributions.

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

The biggest challenge is balancing patience with pushing for change. You look at the Fortune 500 list and see that there are only 29 female CEOs in 2019, or that women earn 79 cents for every dollar earned by men. Those statistics can be demoralizing about how much progress still needs to be made. We need to remember that it takes time, and the change is going to be evolutionary, not revolutionary. We have to keep at it, but also understand that culture change doesn’t happen overnight.

Kristin Bernert, The Madison Square Garden Company executive vice president of sports operations

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year?

I believe there are two different ways of answering this question. One is momentum in the sports workplace, and the other is momentum for women in the field of play. Regarding the former, I would encourage people in positions of power to continue to advocate for talented women who may not have been considered for roles traditionally held by men. The NBA has made tremendous strides in this area over the past year, and the NFL had a barrier-breaker in the Super Bowl, but we still have a ways to go across sports from college to the pros. Regarding momentum for women on the field of play, everyone can take an active role. I just bought my New York Liberty season tickets last week. Stop “wishing them well” and do something. If you’re a media person, cover them. If you’re a marketing person, consider sponsoring them. Just because it isn’t the norm doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?   

How we, as a society, value women. Lack of comfort with change and progress.

Heidi Browning, NHL chief marketing officer

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year?

Momentum comes from raising consciousness and making a commitment to change. This requires collaboration across the entire sports ecosystem: leagues, teams, media, and marketers, to ensure we’re using our platforms to elevate the profile of women in sport. Media creates culture, and culture creates change, so it is our collective responsibility to commit to more coverage, storytelling, and sponsorship of women. Money shifts momentum, and marketers have the ability to flip the investment model. Rather than waiting for the audience to scale, marketers can invest in audiences and stories to build demand and then scale. Finally, the entire sports industry should focus from the inside out, ensuring that diversity and inclusion is a business imperative through recruitment, retention, growth, and development.

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

The biggest challenge is education and measurement. It is important for the sports industry to socialize the stats about gaps in coverage, sponsorship, and hiring and make a commitment to measure our progress. Just look at how much attention is being focused on Gender Equality Month and International Women’s Day. Now imagine if this were not isolated to one month or one day a year, but is an “always on” strategy across the entire sports ecosystem. That’s when real progress will be made!

Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Kathy Carter, LA28 chief revenue officer

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year?

Undeniably, women’s sports are becoming more popular globally. One of the biggest stories continues to be the success of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, having won its fourth World Cup title last summer, coupled with the team’s impact off the field. Additionally, the recent news about the WNBA and their new CBA bodes well for the future of women’s sport. And of course, individuals like Allyson Felix and Megan Rapinoe, with their record-making athletic accomplishments and impact on society, can’t be understated. We have an incredible platform to build on this energy as we move into the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer.

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

Gender parity, representation in media, and equal pay are the areas in which we’re making progress, but still have work to be done. This is not just an issue for women, but for all minorities. And, while it’s certainly not contained to sports, sports is a globally understood and beloved institution that can not only influence our industry, but the world. We’re mindful of the responsibility we have as an organization and with our partners, who join us in celebrating and advancing the Olympic and Paralympic Movement.

Susan Cohig, NHL executive vice president, club business affairs

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year?

Continued active and open commitment to gender equality by people in leadership positions who directly influence access, hiring, training, and development.

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

Keeping talented and experienced women in our industry by enabling them to see a legitimate career path for themselves, combined with essential support for their advancement into leadership positions. You can’t be what you can’t see.

Amy Huchthausen, America East Conference commissioner

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year?

We must continue to support and champion those teams, athletes, and leaders who have earned and gained widespread attention through their success. With 2020 being an Olympic year, we need to keep watching and promoting women athletes, especially those who earn medals. We need to keep watching and attending the Women’s Final Four, WNBA, and NWSL games. I also hope women athletes continue to use their voice and platform. They are terrific ambassadors for women – not just women in sports – and I hope those outside of traditional sports fans or media continue to take notice.

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

An immediate and timely challenge is the current uncertainty around coronavirus and its impact on major sporting events over the next month or two and potentially beyond. Any disruption to events like the Women’s Final Four, Olympic Trials, and so forth would obviously have a negative impact on athletes and fans. Additionally, with this being an important election year, a lot of media attention will shift to the presidential and other key races, so there will just be more competition for headlines and stories.

Matina Kolokotronis, Sacramento Kings chief operating officer

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year? 

It is very encouraging to be part of a league that is dedicated to improving gender and diversity hiring and retention. I strongly believe in the power of mentoring and the results it drives for individuals. Mentorship helps empower women, gives them an opportunity to learn from more experienced women in their field, and gives them extra confidence that they can be successful. Working in a male-dominated field has its challenges, and sports are no different. Organizations need to invest in mentorship and make it a priority to recruit, retain, and promote women in the industry.

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

Our industry has come a long way in promoting women, but we can always do more. Women must know they are part of an organization that is dedicated to their success. Being a mother and an executive in male-dominated environments can be challenging, and the industry needs to continue to focus on workforce policies that ease the demands of parenthood on working families and affords them the opportunity and flexibility to thrive in the sports business.

Alberta Lee, Cleveland Cavaliers and Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse vice president of human resources

 What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year? 

It starts with a commitment by women that currently hold positions in the sports world to continue to be diligent champions for other women to choose sports as a career path. There has certainly been an increase in the number of women that work in sports, but there is still much work to be done, and we have to continue to work hard to ensure women are represented across ALL areas and levels throughout the industry. We also need to continue to tell stories about all the extraordinary women in sports as ongoing inspiration and a testimonial for what is possible.

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

Unfortunately, there is still a misconception that a job in sports is either unattainable or unrealistic. Another challenge is the lack of open conversations regarding the challenges women still encounter that are dissimilar than what our male counterparts encounter. 

Kim Miale, NFL agent and Roc Nation Sports general counsel

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year? 

We have to pay it forward. Having a female mentor is one of the things that encouraged me to stay persistent and focused on the career that I wanted in this business. I hope to be that same inspiration for young women who have their eye on the sports industry. Not only do we have to reach out a hand to lift others up, but we have to be vocal about having allies who are proactive about doing the same. 

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

Representation, representation, representation. Yes, strides have been made, but there is still a long way to go. I want to push the conversation from what does it take to break into this business into what does it take to thrive in it. Because it’s not only about having the numbers in the boardroom, but it’s about having the representation across levels- from the C-suite to the interns. I’m lucky enough to work for a trailblazing female CEO [Roc Nation CEO, Desiree Perez], and I am inspired by her work ethic day-in and day-out. She sets the tone. 

Photo Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Alycen McAuley, Monumental Sports & Entertainment senior vice president

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year?

2019 was an extraordinary year for the Washington Mystics, earning our first WNBA Championship in franchise history in a historic season that saw our leading player, Elena Delle Donne become the first female ever to join the elite 50/40/90 club [50% from the field, 40% from beyond the arc, and 90% from the free-throw line], a feat accomplished by only eight other [male] NBA players. The new WNBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, signed at the start of 2020, adds significant tailwind to our continued efforts to elevate women’s sports. Investments by the League and each of the teams around player salaries and progressive-minded benefits signal a major shift in how female athletes are compensated and, I hope, will have implications beyond basketball into other women’s sports. Beyond the improvements in player experience, we are – and need to continue – making investments in the marketing and fan experience. According to Nielsen, 84% of general sports fans are interested in women’s sports. So our challenge is to give them the opportunity to see it – whether that be finding more media outlets (traditional and emerging) for our games, ensuring that fans know how and when to watch our games live, or providing extensions to our core product that opens the doors to fans who may be looking for an enhanced experience around women’s basketball. We know both statistically and anecdotally that when people experience the WNBA, they love the ‘pure basketball’ they see and quickly become fans. So we need to keep driving awareness and expanding access.

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

Attracting a greater share of the corporate sponsorship investments in the marketplace. Women drive the majority of consumer purchases -80% –either with their buying power or their influence, yet corporations have failed to recognize women’s sports as ‘prime real estate’ to meet, engage and dialog with these valuable consumers. And at a time when consumers are looking for authentic relationships with brands that respect their diversity and values, women’s sports – and specifically the WNBA – offers an unmatched opportunity. We have 144 of the world’s elite basketball players on our rosters who not only play at the highest level of the sport but are also socially-conscious, community-engaged individuals who are leveraging their voices and their platform for change. There is simply no better ambassador for brands seeking genuine connections with their consumers and customers, employees, and their communities than the WNBA and our players.

Paula Miller, NASCAR senior vice president and chief human resources officer

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year?

Leaders across the sports industry must continue to be intentional. Growing gender diversity and equality in sports will result from, among other things, organizational values that prioritize change, top leadership committed to progress, strong female leaders pulling up qualified female talent, and celebrating wins in a way that inspires.

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

Trusting the process can be challenging, but laying a strong foundation and making gains over time is critical to achieving lasting change. When healthy impatience leads to action, we pave the way for impactful work to be done.

Erika Nardini, Barstool Sports chief executive officer

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year? 

Was last year a great year for Women in Sports? 

The WNBA is obviously a standout. There have been great additions of female coaches in a male-dominated league like the NFL. I think there’s been some progress there, but when you think about really gravitational change or momentum, I don’t think we’re anywhere near a tipping point. 

I feel like I’m fairly close to sports media and sports, and when I can’t think of more than five examples [of gender diversity progress in sports] in 12 months, I don’t think that’s crazy momentum.

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

The biggest challenge is people at the highest level are not taking enough risk to remodel, reimagine, and rethink how things are done in order to create more opportunities for women in sports.  

Lara Pitaro Wisch, Major League Baseball executive vice president & general counsel

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year? 

I think the key is in continued prioritization of our diversity efforts and a sustained commitment to impact change. Major League Baseball is continuing to take steps to increase the diversity of our workforce, specifically the complexion of our senior leadership team. Every year, Commissioner Manfred identifies a set of organizational objectives, and on the top of the list for 2020 is the goal to expand diversity in senior positions across central baseball. The commissioner has made this priority known at every opportunity when addressing employees as well as team ownership, and since we all know that workplace culture starts at the top, I’m certain that Major League Baseball is messaging the value of workforce diversity where it counts. 

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

I think the single biggest challenge to progress here boils down to uncertainty about what we can and should be doing to impact change, as well as retaining, developing, and presenting advancement opportunities to each person in our workforce. This requires investment from every single MLB employee to ensure that we are each demonstrating behavior aligned with what we stand for as an organization.

Stefanie Rapp, Bleacher Report chief revenue officer

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year? 

The most important thing to remember is that we don’t consider the job already done. We are committed to mentoring young talent, giving them opportunities to move up the career ladder, and sharing resources and benefits to help them get to the next level. 

One of the biggest efforts we have at B/R is the B/R Women’s Network, which serves to create a safe place for women to have open, honest dialogue. The affinity group hosts lunch and learns, financial literacy classes, speaker forums and much more. The group currently has more than 150 members and is celebrating International Women’s Day this Friday with an array of events and initiatives across our organization. 

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

We are starting with a small pool. The inequality of male to female goes back decades. This is something that won’t be solved overnight, but again, if we pledge to grow young talent, it’s something that can be fixed. 

Michele Roberts, NBPA executive director

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year?

Keep the conversation on the front page. Historically, there has been a tendency to take a/the win and allow the remainder of the battle to be fought behind closed doors. We need to hail our victories and make sure that they continue to be highlighted as the most recent step(s) on the path to achieving even more wins for women.

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

Sustained public attention. Athletes and those who support them have to fight to keep the issue from becoming “yesterday’s news.” When folks are made aware of the disparities, they almost always provide support. The 24-hour news cycle makes it tough to stay on the front page, but it’s critical that we remain on the radar screen.

Photo Credit: Michelle Jay

Dani Rylan, NWHL founder and commissioner

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year?

Everyone involved in women’s sports – and that includes all of us at the NWHL and in women’s hockey – have to keep the pedal down. This takes a lot of work, and our players, owners, partners, and staff are committed to doing that work to keep driving the momentum created not just in our sport, but for every sport.

What remains the biggest challenge(s)

Look around at all the companies celebrating International Women’s Day. Now, look at the portfolio of organizations they sponsor or support. Are they marketing to women? Are they investing in women’s sports? The next big leap is walking the walk alongside brands who do just that. For the NWHL, Dunkin and Twitch are awesome examples of companies genuinely supporting women’s hockey and working with our league as true partners.

Maribeth Towers, MLS senior vice president of consumer products

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year?

I’m honored to be part of a league that remains committed to hiring and retaining employees that reflect a multi-cultural workforce. While we know there is still more work to be done, we remain determined to recruit a diversity of thought across all aspects of our business to continue to build an inclusive workplace. Supporting women once they are in roles – from mentorships at all levels to helping them in their advancement in leadership positions – are all ways we can positively impact this generation, as well as setting a new standard moving forward.

What remains the biggest challenge(s)

While the sports industry is making progress, there is still work to be done – much like other industries. Numerous studies have shown that the most successful enterprises are those that have diversity of thought genuinely built into the organization and not just women, but all genders, ethnicities…  An inclusive environment creates confidence in employees, inspires them and gives the organization the broad perspective required to develop strategy and make decisions.  It is important to build these accepting corporate cultures that prioritize integrity, respect, diversity, and teamwork – ultimately they will help us all create incredible value across the industry. I am happy to work at a league office with more than 40% women and that features female executives in top positions such as our President and Chief Administrator, JoAnn Neale, and EVP and General Counsel, Anastasia Danias Schmidt.

Amy Trask, BIG3 Chairman and former Oakland Raiders CEO

What can be done to make sure the momentum continues from last year? 

I am often asked if I am excited by the growth in opportunities for women in sports, which has occurred since I began my career (about a billion years ago). The answer to that question is that I do find it exciting but what I will find even more exciting is when hiring people without regard to race, gender, ethnicity and other individualities which have no bearing whatsoever on whether one can do a job is no longer the aberration, but the rule.

What remains the biggest challenge(s)?

It strikes me that the biggest challenge in this regard is the biggest challenge in many regards: convincing people to do the right thing. Hiring without regard to race, gender, ethnicity, and other individualities, which have no bearing whatsoever on whether one can do a job is the right thing to do, and it is also the smart thing to do. If there is such a thing as business Darwinism, those businesses that don’t do this would fail as they are eliminating from consideration vast swaths of people who can make their businesses better.