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Volume 22 No. 32
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Work remains for women to ascend to sports leadership roles

I n December of 2010, Richard Weiss, Abe Madkour and I began having conversations about the possibility of adding a conference about women and sports to SportsBusiness Journal’s already extensive conference portfolio. Myriad important details involving content, duration, cost and time of year needed to be sorted out, and perhaps the most pressing question — Would anyone come? — required an answer. (For the record, I said, yes, I thought the demand would be there.)

It took many emails, phone calls and meetings over the next few years, but in September of 2013, the first Game Changers conference became a reality, with 375 people, mostly women, in attendance. In 2014, 400 people signed up, and this year’s conference (scheduled for Thursday) is expected to draw the same. The crowds, I think, have demonstrated the interest within our industry in understanding what impact women will have as the business of sports continues to evolve.

Starting this week with Val Ackerman’s column, SportsBusiness Journal will feature outside contributors writing about the opportunities and challenges facing women and sports. We have reached out to a number of male and female executives who sit at the nexus where women engage with professional, amateur and youth sports. They will contribute to a regular column examining issues from participation levels, to funding, to equality/equity, to sponsorship and media coverage, to women as consumers of sports, to women in leadership positions, and promotion within the sports industry.

 The column will be a mix of first-person insight, opinion and interviews — and be specifically focused on women and sports. The hope is these influential voices will help push the discussion forward on this important topic. I want to thank Val for being such an advocate and adviser as we have developed this idea.

If you have any thoughts, questions or comments — or would like to contribute in the future — please let me know.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at

As Game Changers conference agendas past and present make clear, “women and sports” isn’t a monolithic category that lends itself to narrow treatment, especially in practice. Encouraging more females to play sports or ensuring that Title IX is enforced makes for a very different work day than marketing shoes, apparel and equipment to the many girls and women who are now active sports participants. For men’s sports teams and leagues looking to attract more female fans, another set of business strategies comes into play. And for those on the front lines of elite women’s teams who are trying to build audiences, generate revenue and shore up their niches in a crowded world, the action plan is perhaps the most complex of all.

There’s no shortage of angles, for sure, and the opportunity Game Changers affords to explore them is invaluable. One topic I hope will engender robust dialogue this year and beyond is the goal of getting more women into key leadership positions within the sports industry, both here in the U.S. and around the world.

When I joined the NBA as a staff attorney in 1988, the number of midlevel and senior women working in sports was very low, and I spent the formative years of my career with very few professional women to work with, let alone look up to or learn from. Fortunately, I had supportive male mentors who opened doors for me and gave me high-profile assignments (including the opportunities to lead the WNBA and USA Basketball), and ultimately I was able to advance in my career.

While the landscape over the past 27 years has changed dramatically for the better, with many more women now entering our business and assuming key posts, I’m at times surprised — and discouraged — that so much work seems to remain. In the world of intercollegiate athletics, roughly 46 percent of the student athletes competing at the Division I level are female, but only 31 of the 350 current D-I athletics directors (less than 9 percent) are women. The statistic for D-I commissioners (nine of 33, or 27 percent) is a better story, though to this day I still attend high-level meetings where I’m just one of a handful of women (or the only woman) in the room.

Conference attendance shows an interest in understanding the impact of women in sports business.
Globally, it’s anticipated that more than 45 percent of the athletes competing next year at the Rio Olympics will be female, but women are visibly underrepresented on the boards of the International Olympic Committee (around 22 percent), international federations, and many national Olympic committees. The International Basketball Federation, on whose central board I served for eight years, completed a restructuring in the past year and emerged with an executive committee without a single female representative. Despite its acclaimed Women’s World Cup, FIFA has only three. Given the tremendous reach of these sports, surely their governing bodies can do better.

The dichotomy between the number of women who play and watch sports at all levels and the number who serve as decision-makers in leagues, networks, sports marketing companies, intercollegiate athletic departments and Olympic sports organizations can be perplexing at times, especially at a point in history when the influence of women in so many other sectors of society — politics, business and entertainment, to name a few — continues to grow. In conversations I’ve had over the years on this subject with senior sports executives, I sometimes hear that companies don’t always know how to identify women for top jobs or their boards, or that the women they do find aren’t qualified. Others hypothesize about unconscious biases that keep sports organizations from pushing for a diverse workforce that reflects the broad reach of the sports world.

Women in our business have made much progress as leaders, without question, but it’s my hope that more can be done to add to their numbers. Potential solutions could include industrywide management and governance targets and timelines; more effective mentoring for rising stars; flexible maternity and child-care practices to keep top performers from dropping out; and the creation of a central data bank of candidates by sports search firms or other networks so that companies (domestic and global) have a quality pool of women to consider when jobs or board spots become available. Keeping up the dialogue about what women bring to the table and the qualities and skills they’ll need to be effective leaders will also be a must.

Hopefully the speakers at this year’s Game Changers conference can offer a new round of perspectives on this critical subject, and all of us in positions of influence can do our part to keep narrowing the gap.

Val Ackerman is commissioner of the Big East Conference and founding president of the WNBA and past president of USA Basketball.