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Volume 22 No. 32
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Factors that shape rise of women in sports business leadership

When you think of women in leadership roles in sports business, who are the first few ladies that come to mind? Does it take you more than 10 seconds to think of, say, five women? Hopefully not.

Seeing more women in leadership positions in our industry (presidents, CEOs, etc.) is an issue near and dear to my heart. And, though I believe a day will come within the next 15 years when anyone off the street who can name Roger Goodell as commissioner of the NFL will also be able to name a woman in sports business of equal (or greater) prominence and power, I’d rather not wait that long.

True, women make up a comparatively small portion of our nation’s executives in general (according to the Center for American Progress, fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives are women), but what has contributed to the lack of women in leadership roles in sports business specifically? Based on numerous conversations I’ve had with both hiring decision-makers and leaders/rising leaders over the years, I’ve identified a few potential contributing factors.

Big pond, few fish

As each year passes, more women enter the sports industry in entry-level and midlevel roles. More opportunities are available to women at these levels than ever before. However, many of these women aren’t moving up the ladder high enough to be considered for executive roles. Why?

“I’ve found personally that if I’m nice, it’s often mistaken for weakness.”
Irina Pavlova
Onexim Sports & Entertainment

In my peer group, many leave the workforce after getting pregnant and starting families. As a soon-to-be mom myself, this issue has become personal for my husband and me in recent months (for the record: we’ve made the decision to nanny-share).

I am certainly not going to criticize any woman’s choice on this front — whether she elects to take six weeks, three months or two years off from the workforce to raise her family is a deeply personal decision that each woman and her family must make independently, taking both finances and ideology into account. However, it’s a simple fact that presidents and CEOs tend to ascend into their roles beginning in their mid-to-late 30s. Stepping away from the business right before or during that period often means women are playing catch-up if and when they re-enter the workforce. Partially due to this reality, we have very few women from which to choose when filling leadership positions today.

The trouble with paying dues

I once had a conversation with a former Division I athlete who went to law school after graduating from college. Passionate about sports and eager to break in to our industry, she hit a crossroads after graduating from law school. Upon completing the bar exam, she had two opportunities available: a position at a big law firm, complete with a six-figure salary, and an $18,000-a-year internship at the NCAA.

My friend chose the NCAA, sacrificing financial solvency for her dedication to sports business. For her, the internship paid off: It introduced her to the industry, and gave her hands-on opportunities to which she would not have otherwise been exposed. However, now that women are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American households with children, not as many women may have the ability to spend years in a low salary position, thus making it more difficult for them to pay their dues in the traditional manner and take a traditional path to the C-suite.

Taking the long way up

Many high-level sports executives begin their careers in sales. By contrast, many women in sports business get their foot in the door in marketing, service or media-related roles, meaning they then may need to either acquire sales experience later in their careers or take an unorthodox (read: longer and more challenging) path to a leadership role with growth potential. To further compound the issue, women are less likely than men to negotiate for raises and promotions, further slowing their progress up the ladder.

The perceptions and realities of leadership

Great leaders are both born and bred, and not all share the same qualities and traits. However, in the sports industry, successful leaders often excel in a team-based environment: They surround themselves with great people, empower those people to do their jobs, inspire loyalty and are decisive.

In general, women are perceived as being better at the “soft” aspects of leadership — honesty, fairness, mentorship, etc. By contrast, men are perceived to excel in areas like negotiation and risk-taking, skills that have more of an obvious impact on a company’s bottom line. This perception may unconsciously affect sports companies’ willingness to put women in leadership positions.

Another issue: Women who demonstrate more stereotypically male leadership traits are often perceived less positively than males exhibiting the same traits. As Irina Pavlova, president of Onexim Sports & Entertainment, noted at SportsBusiness Journal’s 2014 Game Changers conference, “I’ve found personally that if I’m nice, it’s often mistaken for weakness. … When you become a little more firm, you’re branded … bossy” (after first using a different “b” word).

To the women (and men who support women) reading this article: Encourage younger women to plan their careers strategically and pay their dues. Women, build business relationships up, not just laterally and downward. Support women who decide to step away for some time to raise their families, and help them identify ways to stay engaged part-time while they do so until they are eventually able to re-enter the workforce at full throttle. Give autonomy to all employees, regardless of gender. Look at leadership traits honestly, and — when possible — gender blindly.

Carolyne Savini ( leads the executive search division of Turnkey Search. Follow her on Twitter @CarolyneSavini.