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Volume 22 No. 44
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The key business issues facing women’s sports

Our Game Changers conference last week featured plenty of discussion on diversity hiring and career and personal growth, but there also was plenty of frank talk about the business side of women’s sports.


WNBA COO Ann Rodriguez started the day off with a clear, direct point to the audience — women’s sports must generate revenue and focus on growing top- and bottom-line revenue to grow the business. She called out the audience to help, saying, “We need everyone in this room. We need your support. We need your corporate support. We are not a cause.”


ESPN’s Carol Stiff stressed that the media company is involved in women’s sports because it’s good for its business, adding, “We are in the game and we’re going to stay in the game.”


Finally, WTA Tour President Micky Lawler said the global tennis organization is a revenue driver in the emerging economies around the world that want to invest in sports. She cited cultural change through sports in parts of the world like Qatar, where the WTA brought its Qatar Total Open. “Now, there are countless girls playing tennis. You didn’t see that,” she said. “China is a massive opportunity. The Chinese consumer is hungry for sports content, and there is major sponsorship revenue in China. So we are seeing these economies open up and accept women’s sports.”


MLS Commissioner Don Garber noted how diversity and inclusion have improved the soccer league’s business model. “We have more women on the MLS board than ever before, and it’s clearly changed the way people think, the way people talk and interact, and even the way people behave is different.” He believes such diversity of thought can help all sports “have a better bottom line.”


These were serious business leaders all talking about the key business issues facing women’s sports — and they offered a clear, yet familiar roadmap. Women’s sports can’t be positioned as a cause. They have to drive significant value for fans and stakeholders, and when the properties can prove that consistently through data and results, the revenue mix will be far different.


Two first-time speakers who really impressed:


CATHY LANIER: Her story, from dropping out of high school to becoming the chief of police in Washington, D.C., and now the NFL’s chief of security, had everyone buzzing. As she said, “Poverty is a motivator.” Asked about the track of her promotions, she said simply, “Every time you get promoted, there are less idiots to tell you what to do.” Finally, the number of interviews she sat through to get the NFL job: 16.


CLAUDE SILVER: VaynerMedia’s chief heart officer offered a strong tale of creating culture and an open, empathy-driven workplace environment. The turning point from a bratty kid to a caring leader came after a 93-day Outward Bound trip where she fully admitted she needed to “get her ass kicked.” It changed her life: “It’s where I learned to put others first.” Silver gives a calm, cool presentation of being an “emotional optimist” who sees the ROI of productive and positive cultures. “We have forgotten to be human at work and forgotten how to treat each other well,” she said. “We treat each other like robots.”


John Henry is greatly respected in sports circles, but the Red Sox owner remains a mystery to many and few in the business know what he’s truly like. In January, our frequent contributor Bruce Schoenfeld and I first started discussing a profile of one of the most influential and powerful figures in sports, yet one of the least known. After eight months, Bruce’s profile of Henry appears in this week’s issue. I asked Bruce what he took out of it.


“I started talking to people and there quickly became this disconnect between what people thought of him and those that knew him, because the people close to him told me he’s a warm, funny and interesting guy.”


After months of talking to sources close to Henry, the Red Sox owner agreed to have Bruce sit with him during a game at Fenway. “He is really a fascinating guy. Yes, there is the analytical side, but he is warm, anecdotal, funny and very much a real person,” Bruce said.


But one has to talk baseball to crack the code. “The way in is baseball,” Bruce said. “You engage with him on baseball like the way you would do so with people at a bar. He’s a math genius, but he is the same baseball fan we are.”


At the end of the process, Henry stood out from the number of owners Bruce has profiled for SBJ over the years. “He is not your typical owner. He may be more multifaceted than most people who own sports teams.”

Abraham Madkour can be reached at