USTA’s Sherr takes LEAD on diversity
The head of the U.S. Tennis Association’s moneymaking division describes attracting diverse employees as a “business challenge.”
As the U.S. changes demographically, professional tennis’ workforce must look like its fan base, USTA Chief Revenue Officer Lew Sherr said. “Our mission is to grow the game and to make sure that the game looks like America from a demographic standpoint,” he said.
That’s why four years ago, Sherr, who oversees the commercial and business development activities for the U.S. Open’s broadcast, sponsorship, ticketing and hospitality businesses that generated nearly $350 million in 2018, started the Leadership, Empowerment & Accelerated Development associate program.
Through an extensive interviewing process that involves prior program participants and executives, the USTA identifies high-potential women and minority candidates with limited sports business experience and pairs them to work alongside senior managers, including Sherr, for two years.
The USTA looks to select LEAD participants who are proactive and invested in their professional development, Sherr added.
Program participants shadow Sherr and senior management and are exposed to all facets of the USTA’s business operations, including ticketing, corporate sponsorships and broadcast and digital operations. At the end of two years, it’s expected that participants will transition into a position within one of the USTA’s business lines, Sherr said.
Buy-in is critical
Sports-oriented organizations or businesses that are developing a program to promote diverse women candidates through their ranks should have a component that gives the candidates the opportunity to see how business deals get done, Sherr said.
The success of the program can be attributed to being created out of a business need to attract, develop and retain talent, rather than being imposed by the USTA’s human resources program, he added.
“The program sounded great in theory but my big fear was that either I wouldn’t be able to give them enough access, or enough opportunity,” Sherr said. “Or that my colleagues, our business partners, our clients might push back on having somebody else be a part of all of those interactions. Thankfully the opposite has been true.”
Female Executives in USTA Senior Management
Andrea Hirsch, CAO
Stacey Allaster, CEO, professional tennis
Amy Choyne, CMO
Kirsten Corio, managing director, ticket sales and digital strategy
Deanne Pownall, managing director, corporate partnerships
Patti Fallick, managing director, broadcast
Nicole Kankam, managing director, pro tennis marketing
Ginny Levine, managing director, community tennis marketing
Sloane Kelley, managing director, digital content
LEAD Program Participants
Jasmine Polite, first participant: manager, U.S. Open corporate hospitality and premium services
Ciera Rojas, referred by Tony Ponturo: USTA senior account executive, partnership marketing
Samantha Timmons, referred by Renée Tirado: USTA business operations associate
Renée Tirado, who is the chief diversity and inclusion officer for Major League Baseball and previously held a similar role at the USTA, said LEAD is not a run-of-the-mill corporate social responsibility program the association put in place to check off an administrative box.
The USTA looks at diversity and inclusion as a leadership competency and believes that in order for its executives to be effective and high performing, they need to have the tools to navigate a diverse workforce and workplace to get the best out of their talent, Tirado said.
“The uniqueness of this particular program is you have high-level executive buy-in, and not only buy-in, they’re actually leading it themselves,” Tirado said. “The opportunity to work with senior executives at that level, every day, day in, day out, and being exposed to the entire inner workings of those business lines is rare.”
But most importantly, Sherr is committed to offering young minority women meaningful opportunities in professional sports, Tirado said.
“Lew’s got skin in the game, he’s actually the one saying, ‘I’m taking this person under my wing,’” she added. “I think his approach is the model, quite frankly, for other leaders in sports to look to when you talk about being able to hit your bottom line and doing it in a way that develops the next generation of leaders.”
The LEAD program has evolved during the four years of its existence.
Initially, the program began informally. With the second iteration of the program, USTA introduced formal mentoring programs and included the program participant in all of the association’s learning and management training programs.
The program added an external mentor program to help with industry networking and offer different points of view from other sports, and the USTA has given participants more project work with different lines of the association’s business, Sherr said.
As the U.S. continues to evolve demographically, other professional sports leagues have noticed the initiatives that the USTA and NBA have undertaken to make their executive ranks more reflective of the country’s racial and gender makeup, said Tony Ponturo, a Columbia career coach and lecturer and executive vice president for strategy and consulting at Turnkey Intelligence, a sports market research firm.
Ciera Rojas, who was referred to Sherr by Ponturo, said her participation in LEAD was a challenging experience that gave her a chance to help manage USTA’s partnership with Rolex.
“If it wasn’t for LEAD, I wouldn’t have learned how to sell and operate in that kind of high-level environment,” Rojas said.
Professional sports leagues will have to hire more diverse employees who will be able to sell their respective game to the country’s growing minority populations, added Ponturo, who was a longtime sports marketing chief for Anheuser-Busch.
“You really want to be smart and make sure you’re talking to your full base of consumers,” Ponturo said. “One way to understand the consumer is also to do the right thing and have people in your organization that represent those consumers’ faces.”