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Volume 22 No. 2

Opinion

Lisa Baird speaks her mind. I thought of that as she finished up her role as CMO of the USOC last week, leaving after more than nine years to join National Public Radio. Baird, with stints also at the NFL and IBM, hasn’t been shy about saying how the sports industry doesn’t measure up when it comes to diversity hiring.

I vividly remember sitting in the audience during our Game Changers conference in September 2016, and Baird was on a panel discussing women in leadership positions. At one point, she talked about looking up at an organization’s leadership, adding, “I used to always look up.” But she noted a change in her approach and publicly took exception with the lack of women on SBJ’s annual list of the 50 Most Influential People In Sports Business.

“Abe, I get so depressed when I see your top-50 list. I mean, come on!” she said, looking at me. “So I stopped looking up, and I started looking down. I can do a lot to develop the women below me, to get them the attention they deserve, so they can move up. Start looking down. How many lives are you affecting, and how many roles are you impacting? Who can I help and enable by helping her do her job better? That is satisfying.”

 

I appreciated Baird’s candor that day, and so before she left last week, I asked her about some of the areas in which she’s seeing progress in hiring  and her thoughts about the state of sports:

 

Status of gender hiring in the sports business: “It’s not where it needs to be and the pyramid narrows dramatically at the senior leadership level. Boards, like the USOC, are appointing women in the crucial decision-making roles like CEO, but there is still more work to be done. Public companies are making progress more quickly — having shareholders and media holding them accountable seems be an effective catalyst of change. Where will that directly impact sports? The majority of CMOs in the U.S. today are women and they are unafraid to use their position and pulpit to make the change they need to see in sports.”

 

What more can be done? “I could always effect more change with people who report to me — men and women — than effect change above me. The next generation of sports marketing talent demands a different leadership and a very flexible management style. That is what is essential to creating a real culture of inclusion. I don’t believe in hiring anyone just because they are a woman or a diversity candidate — always hire the best candidate for the job. I will be interested to see if the U.S. sports industry adopts some of the practices emanating from Europe, where public companies have a requirement for gender representation at the board level. California is now looking at adopting that principle.”

 

State of the business: “I worry about the live sports experience and whether enough is being done to keep it the pinnacle experience for any sports fan. … I am pretty excited about esports and the potential to merge technology and the live experience in really interesting ways. They are experimenting equally with the fan experience at live events and streaming events; they are even changing the very language of sports.”

 

Lisa handled herself with dignity throughout her sports career and, even though she’s leaving sports, I’ll continue to use her as a sounding board on key issues.

 

This week marks our eighth year of highlighting Game Changers, women excelling in sports business. Including this year’s class, 302 women have been honored throughout the eight years. Special thanks to SBJ Assistant Managing Editor Betty Gomes for leading this week’s extensive section, which is annually one of the most talked about packages we do.

 

We welcome a new voice as a regular columnist to SBJ. Shira Springer makes her debut this week (see Page 24) and will be a frequent contributor writing on women’s sports and women as sports fans. I’ve been familiar with her work for years, as she was a longtime sports reporter at the Boston Globe. She currently covers stories at the intersection of sports and society for NPR and WBUR. She also writes a regular column for the Boston Globe on women’s sports and teaches “Sports Storytelling” at Boston University. After graduating from Harvard, she covered all four major Boston professional teams and was the Celtics beat writer for seven years. On the personal side, she’s an avid marathon runner — 20 and counting — and admits to growing up rooting for the New York Mets and the Hartford Whalers. 

 

The business of women’s sports has been under-covered in our pages, and Shira brings her sharp point of view to an important issue that speaks to equality and opportunity. Have an idea for Shira? Let her know at SBJ.springer@gmail.com.

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

When asked what the most interesting opportunities are for the NWHL, league founder and Commissioner Dani Rylan quickly answers, “It’s our team alignment with NHL clubs.” The most recent alignment involves the NWHL’s Minnesota Whitecaps and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. The two teams will share best practices for marketing, sponsorships, digital media strategies and community relations.

It’s a business relationship Rylan calls a “no-brainer.” It’s also more than that. Building alliances between men’s and women’s sports is necessary. And this kind of support has already taken many forms, from an official business partnership to NBA stars showing up at WNBA games to tennis champion Andy Murray correcting reporters when it comes to the accomplishments of female players.

Thanks to a healthy head start, men’s pro sports have a wealth of expertise and experience. That head start also translates to greater visibility and popularity. So when women’s pro teams are devising marketing plans or looking for sponsorship leads, why should they start from scratch? That makes no sense, especially when women’s teams must make the most of much smaller budgets and much smaller staffs.

It doesn’t have to be a one-sided relationship with assistance flowing only from the men’s side to the women’s side. Women’s teams, tours and leagues pride themselves on being innovative and prioritizing accessibility. There are opportunities there to help men’s sports improve their product and reach new fans.

When Rylan pitches NHL teams on the benefits of partnering with an NWHL team, she tells them, “We all have the same goals: building forever fans and advancing the game. With an NWHL team in the family, you know you’re hitting every audience.” Out of five NWHL clubs, three are aligned with NHL teams. Beyond Minnesota, the Buffalo Beauts and Buffalo Sabres share an ownership group, while the Metropolitan Riveters and the New Jersey Devils signed a three-year partnership in 2017 that’s designed to assist the Riveters with financial and marketing support.

On a practical level, NHL facilities get more use. This season, the Whitecaps, Beauts and Riveters will play their home games at the practice rinks used by their NHL partners. The same is true for the Boston Pride, though they don’t have a formal partnership with the Boston Bruins. (The league’s fifth team is the Connecticut Whale.)

Three NWHL teams, including the Buffalo Beauts, have marketing alliances with NHL teams.
Photo: getty images

Need more convincing? There’s a range of strong alliances between men’s and women’s teams that are working well in different sports, success stories such as the Portland Timbers and Thorns in soccer and the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx in basketball. Of course, after 22 years, the NBA and WNBA offer the most visible, complex and successful example of how men’s pro sports can support women’s pro sports, and an illustration of how relationships between established sports entities and relative newcomers are inevitably tricky to navigate.

Right now, there’s also another selling point for these alignments, big and small: the cultural moment. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements empowered women and prompted serious conversations about gender inequality. They’ve also encouraged more women to use their voices and exercise their influence. And it appears the sports world is taking note.

Discussing the potential for more investment in women’s sports and what he sees in golf, LPGA Chief Commercial Officer Jon Podany said, “There is more openness to it these days. Whether it’s because of a stronger push toward equality or the ‘Me Too’ movement or ‘Times Up,’ I don’t know. But there does seem to be more companies putting more focus on diversity and inclusion and equality; and there’s a heightened awareness of it. So, hopefully, that helps stimulate all of this.”

In part inspired by how the Olympics and Grand Slam tennis tournaments draw attention to women’s sports, the LPGA has formed a strategic alliance with the PGA Tour. One of the objectives of that alliance? “We want to have a joint tournament with the men and the women on the same course,” Podany said. He believes there’s a good chance that will happen in 2020 with some potential concepts already well developed.

Meanwhile, the WTA wants to increase the number of events outside the Grand Slams that feature both men and women. Currently, there are 12 non-Grand Slam tournaments with men and women at the same location at the same time. WTA President Micky Lawler hopes to see an even closer relationship between the two tours in the future.

“A unified front always leads to a much more productive and healthy future,” said Lawler. “The combined product in tennis is the best. In fact, I dream about the day that both tours have governance under one roof, that both sports work hand in hand to reach the same fans and to do the best thing for tennis.”

The more alliances between men’s and women’s sports prove beneficial to both sides, the more momentum they gather. But to make these alliances work it’s going to take courage, commitment and an ability to see not only what the market is, but what it could be. It’s also going to take trial and error and patience.

No two markets are the same, no one partnership plan works for everyone. But regardless of location and concept, for the alliances to work — really work — there has to be buy-in on the men’s side, buy-in for reasons that go beyond the cultural moment. Men’s sports have to believe, as Rylan pitches, that their goals are fundamentally the same as women’s sports, namely growing the game they love.

It looks like that’s the case with the Whitecaps and the Wild. They have a “doubleheader” to celebrate both teams’ home openers on Oct. 6. The Whitecaps will play at 4 p.m. at the Wild’s new practice rink, then the Wild will play at 7 p.m. at Xcel Energy Center. Additionally, the Wild’s promotions at the Minnesota State Fair included the Whitecaps. Because in Minnesota the combination of cheese curds and hockey is another no-brainer.

The evidence that these business partnerships can work is there. And the more owners and executives see them for the no-brainers they are, the more likely they’ll transform the sports landscape for the good of everyone invested.

Shira Springer covers stories at the intersection of sports and society for programs on NPR and WBUR, writes a column on women’s sports for the Boston Globe and teaches journalism at Boston University. She can be reached at sbj.springer@gmail.com.