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Volume 23 No. 28
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We must evolve along with diversity definition

Our industry can improve by taking action. It starts with the human element of the business — from recruiters all the way to ownership.

Last summer, Sports Business Journal put out one of its best issues of the year (July 30-Aug. 5, 2018). The core focus of that week’s publication was diversity and inclusion and it included quotes, anecdotes and wisdom from many industry executives, including but not limited to top human resources executives, talent leaders, presidents and chief diversity officers. These individuals offered views on this complex and incredibly important subject while detailing how to move the industry forward in a positive, more inclusive direction.

Renee Tirado from Major League Baseball pointed out that the league is not interested in “just checking the boxes” and described the need for a “systematic change in creating a workplace that is not homogenous.” Allison Keller from the PGA Tour said “there is a need to stop the thinking that you have to have a sports background to contribute at a high level.” JoAnn Neale from Major League Soccer said it best: “When we look at diversity, it’s about diversity of thought and experience.”

Those issues especially resonated with our team at Prodigy Sports, seeing as we had begun collaborating on ideas to propose to the National Sports Forum’s (NSF) steering committee. Given our day-to-day focus on hiring, we wanted to take a closer look at a subject that is not only very important to us as recruiters, but is a hot topic among sports executives, and truly move the conversation forward. 

To that end, we proposed and ultimately led a session at the NSF in Las Vegas titled: “Hiring Outside the ‘Norm’: Getting Comfortable with Creating a Culture Change.” In moderating a panel, and inviting a fluid conversation with the session’s attendees, we simply wanted to present the topic and drive a dialogue — not claim expertise or influence the discussion with our own biases. The end goal of the room’s discussion was to hear senior industry leaders share their knowledge and insights of working for and with companies that are seeking to hire different backgrounds and personalities but with the same goals and values in mind to benefit their company culture. 

The premise behind our session, simply stated, is that when it comes to hiring, promoting and enhancing our corporate cultures, does the industry need to expand the traditional definition of diversity and inclusion? This should include, without prejudice, unique and different experiences, skill sets, educations and otherwise any and all non-demographic descriptors. There is still a tremendous gap in racial and gender hiring on the business operations side of our industry that needs to be filled. Therefore, our rhetorical question is this: How can our industry improve by hiring outside of the “norm,” regardless of one’s definition of the “norm”? 

At the conference, we welcomed three incredibly talented panelists to speak on these issues and offer their stories along with advice and suggestions. On the panel were Gina Rotolo from MGM Resorts International, Natasha Russ from Legends and Eric SanInocencio from the Houston Texans. These executives also had many moments of personal reflection regarding their own career path and their current organization — how they have intentionally made their respective workplace more unique and what they haven’t tried in terms of hiring. While the following may simply appear as quotes, the deeper meaning behind them cannot be understated or discounted: 

■ “Can’t just use the word (diversity) in a sentence correctly and hope it brings change.”

■ “Push to find opportunities — why do we want to be reactive when we can be proactive?”

— Gina Rotolo, executive director, entertainment marketing and booking, artist relations and business development with MGM Resorts International

■ “Hold people accountable — a lot of times, people just aren’t aware, so push them to know.”

■ “What can we do as an industry? Advocate for it, focus on next steps.”

— Eric SanInocencio, senior director of digital media and strategy, Houston Texans

■ “Have to get buy-in from the top — leaders must be accountable!”

■ “Have to keep in mind that not everyone will know if that hire is diverse — make it apparent and celebrate it.”

— Natasha Russ, regional director, human resources, Legends

The biggest takeaway from all of this is simple: Put these phrases, notions, ideas, abstract concepts and philosophies into practice. We, as an industry, need to improve by taking action and it starts with the people and human element of the sports business — from recruiters to team presidents up to ownership and everywhere in between; everyone is responsible. As one of our astute audience members said during our session, “Diversity is how you count people — inclusion is where it counts.” Don’t be afraid to take the risk on a non-traditional hire, regardless of your definition.

We conducted a survey in late 2018 with more than 100 vice presidents, presidents and C-level executives from a broad spectrum of business disciplines within the sports industry (see charts). While the focus was on hiring, recruiting and elements of talent acquisition, respondents shared their perspectives on other initiatives and efforts related to the topic. 

Mark Gress Jr. is senior vice president at executive search firm Prodigy Sports. Megan Meisse is senior recruiting associate at Prodigy Sports.

Questions about OPED submission guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at