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.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Abraham Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.