Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 23 No. 13

Game Changers

We honor the women setting the standard and leading the next generation in sports business.

Naz Aletaha, Riot Games
Megan Hughes Allison, Genesco Sports Enterprises
Michelle Andres, Baltimore Ravens
Molly Arbogast, POV Sports Marketing
Christine Burke, New York Road Runners
Shelly Cayette, Cleveland Cavaliers
Kim Damron, Paciolan
Kim Davis, National Hockey League
Jill Driban, The Montag Group
Wendy Fallen, Big Ten Conference
Julie Giese, ISM Raceway
Melissa Heiter, CAA ICON
Krista Hiner, ESG Law
Terri Carmichael Jackson, Women’s National Basketball Players Association
Michele Kajiwara, AEG/Staples Center
Meredith Kinsman, Octagon
Thayer Lavielle, Wasserman
Melanie LeGrande, Major League Baseball
Michelle McGoldrick, The Madison Square Garden Company
Lucinda McRoberts, USA Swimming
Jamie Morningstar, Milwaukee Bucks and Fiserv Forum
Sianneh Mulbah, Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx
Pamela Murrin, WWE
Laura Neal, PGA Tour
Gloria Nevarez, West Coast Conference
Moira O’Connor, SMG - Soldier Field
Nicolina O’Rorke, NBC Sports Group
Djenaba Parker, New York Red Bulls
Ana Shapiro Queenan, GMR Marketing
Caroline Rebello, Evolution Media Capital
Tracie Rodburg, National Football League
Carla Rosenberg, Lagardère Plus
Tara Gutkowski Schwartz, National Basketball Association
Carrie Skillman, Scout Sports and Entertainment
Maureen Smith, Minnesota United FC
Amy Sprangers, Seattle Seahawks
Neda Tabatabaie, San Jose Sharks
Tina Thornton, ESPN
Alisha Valavanis, Seattle Storm and Force 10 Sports Management
Whitney Wagoner, University of Oregon

More about the Game Changers

Best career advice
Stories to watch
CSM Mentoring Challenge
Most memorable events
People influential in their careers
Networking tips
Addressing the challenges women face in sports
I wish I’d known at my career’s start …
Fun and games

Photo: Riot Games
Photo: Riot Games
Photo: Riot Games

Naz Aletaha doesn’t hesitate to call Mastercard the biggest sponsor she has ever landed for Riot Games’ League of Legends esports league, and for good reason — the company just expanded its global multiyear deal even further.

Aletaha, who has been with Riot Games for about eight years, helped secure Mastercard in 2018 as the first global partner across all 13 regions for League of Legends esports. She also was involved in the recently announced expansion of the deal. Mastercard will expand its presence by adding financial services category exclusivity in the North American League Championship Series.

Naz Aletaha

Head of Global Esports Partnerships and Business Development, Riot Games

Born: Newport Beach, Calif.
Education: University of Southern California, B.S., business

“[The original deal in 2018] was two years in the making — it was the first global deal for League of Legends and it was a landmark deal not just for Riot but for the industry as a whole,” she said. 

Other partners she has helped land include Honda, Red Bull, Jersey Mike’s and Paramount Pictures. She also has led the league’s media rights talks, which has included deals with Twitch, YouTube and ESPN+.

Aletaha also helps work on brands’ activation and fulfillment after they sign on as partners.

“I love both sides for different reasons,” said Aletaha. “[Planning activation] is a part I really do love, because we get to roll up our sleeves and dream with our partners on how we can continue to elevate the sport and our fans’ experience.” — Adam Stern

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Running, boxing, hiking, high-intensity interval training, pilates … I like to mix it up.

Guilty pleasure: McDonald’s 2 cheeseburger meal (with the fries and soda, of course). And a side of Chicken McNuggets if I really want to treat myself. 

Attributes I look for in hiring: Authenticity, grit, and curiosity.

Misperception of working in sports business: That esports isn’t a “real” sport. The passion of hundreds of millions of fans; the dedication and skill of the athletes; the high stakes of the competitions; our robust ecosystem. Not only is League of Legends a sport, but it’s one of the few truly global professional sports in the world.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Megan Rapinoe. What she has done on and off the field is nothing short of heroic. She is the embodiment of a champion.

Photo: #CapturedByKevin
Photo: #CapturedByKevin
Photo: #CapturedByKevin

Megan Hughes Allison

Senior Vice President, Corporate Consulting / GSE Live Hospitality, Genesco Sports Enterprises

Born: Kansas City, Kansas
Education: Hampton University, B.S., exercise science and sports medicine

After starting her career building Pepsi’s iconic motorsports deals with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Megan Hughes Allison has now graduated to working on a range of different sports for Genesco Sports Enterprises.

Early in her career, Allison worked for Electric Red, which was involved with licensing marks from NASCAR to use on its hardware products like MP3 players. That helped vault Allison to Genesco in 2006, where she worked with longtime client Pepsi as it built up its motorsports presence with Gordon before eventually signing Earnhardt in 2007.

Now, she leads the GSE Live Hospitality unit, which includes business development, in addition to working with companies such as Bojangles’, Johnson & Johnson, Advance Auto Parts and Atrium Health.

“Being part of the Jeff Gordon years, seeing how he grew in the sport and being part of his retirement was just amazing. He and Hendrick Motorsports were just very good partners to work with,” said Allison, who grew up in Kansas City.

She also is enjoying working on other deals now, noting the Advance Auto Parts program. 

“It’s been fun to sit down with Advance and develop their sports strategy to help them differentiate themselves in their industry and kind of identify who their brand is through sports,” Allison said. “Helping Advance build a sports strategy has really been fun, and going from Mountain Dew and the soda world to aftermarket auto retail parts is really interesting.” — Adam Stern

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Hanging with my family! My 3-year-old daughter keeps us highly entertained (and exhausted).

Guilty pleasure: Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons.

Something your friends would consider “so you”: Way too nice. I always want everyone to be happy. 

Proudest professional achievement: Bringing together the two amazing brands of Mountain Dew and Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been one of my proudest achievements.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: I would like to meet and visit with Condoleezza Rice. I imagine she brings a very unique perspective to the business of sports given her background and experiences.

Role of sports in social issues: Sports provide a platform to amplify a single or collective voice and as an industry, we shouldn’t shy away from that truth. It may not always feel comfortable, but some of the greatest names in sports have taken risks to address social issues. Imagine the impact of the weight of the industry behind them.

Photo: Baltimore Ravens / Shawn Hubbard
Photo: Baltimore Ravens / Shawn Hubbard
Photo: Baltimore Ravens / Shawn Hubbard

Michelle Andres

Senior Vice President, Ravens Media, Baltimore Ravens

Born: Madison, Wis.
Education: Furman University, B.A., political science; University of Florida, M.A., political campaign management

In Michelle Andres’ career, team-created digital content has gone from a whim to big business. She’s been there all along, having created the Orlando Magic’s first website in the 1990s, and she now oversees a staff of nearly 30 people at the Baltimore Ravens.

In that time, she’s tackled all the hard issues, setting precedents for digital media across the NFL and rapidly growing the Ravens’ fan engagement. Back when people were still learning what it meant for a team to run a news site, Andres’ team figured out how to balance credibility with the concerns of coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome.

“Our line was always, ‘It has to be believable.’ It can’t just always be positive. If our team is performing terribly, you’ve got to be able to call a spade a spade,” Andres said.

Today, she sits on the NFL Club Digital Advisory Board, advising the entire league on digital strategy. She’s the highest-ranking female employee of the Ravens, and continues to add new responsibilities. She now oversees the growing world of business intelligence.

“More than anything else, what I take pride in is the staff I hire around me, and making sure they are high quality, highly productive, motivated contributing members of the organization, and tomorrow they could leave us and go somewhere else and do the exact same thing.” — Ben Fischer

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Writing a new blog post for my blog, sleeping, traveling, reading.

Guilty pleasure: Donuts. I feel guilty. I feel pleasure.

Something your friends would consider “so you”: Attending a Maroon 5 concert or complaining about bad drivers!

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Condoleezza Rice because she and I share a background in both sports and government/politics and because I think she is incredibly impressive.

Role of sports in social issues: Obviously, sport has a unique platform from which to reach vast numbers of people and effect change. Social issues like education, hunger, health and the environment afford sports organizations numerous opportunities to make a difference in the community without wading into the political fray.

Photo: Pictures by Todd
Photo: Pictures by Todd
Photo: Pictures by Todd

Molly Arbogast

President and CEO, POV Sports Marketing

Born: Lake Forest, Ill.
Education: St. Lawrence University, B.A., government, and B.A., Spanish

Long before Molly Arbogast started her own agency in 2016, she was the first female sponsorship sales executive hired by Palace Sports & Entertainment (1996) and the Philadelphia Eagles (2000).

But Arbogast, who grew up with four brothers, never thought of herself as a trailblazer.

“When you grow up in the business as a woman, you’re kind of taught not to draw a lot of attention to your gender. You’re told to do the job, be amazing at it and the work will speak for itself,” she said. “I never set out to be a pioneer, but I have been the first woman in the role at a lot of my jobs.”

Arbogast left the Eagles three years ago to found the 100% woman-owned POV Sports Marketing.

“It was a risk,” she conceded. “A lot of people reach the pinnacle of sponsorship sales, and they have to make a decision. I had the ability to start an agency that I can grow for the next 20 years. It was the perfect opportunity to step out and it’s been a blast.”

Arbogast also has advice for young women looking to follow her path in the sports industry: “Be a hand-raiser. Don’t be afraid to speak up. And take risks. Women tend to say, ‘I can’t be the CEO until I’ve done every job at the company.’ Men don’t look at it that way. Young women need to share their perspective to show that they have the talent, the perseverance and the grit to be successful in this business.” — Thomas Leary

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Spending time with my husband and sons. We love to travel and plan adventures near and far. St. John USVI is our happy place.

Guilty pleasure: Watching “Law & Order” … and pizza. Together? #Bliss

Something your friends would consider “so you”: My friends are never surprised when I ask them “what’s next?” after they have just achieved something amazing. Aim high and keep reaching. Life is a marathon. Get after it, people.

Attributes I look for when hiring: Integrity and grit.

Proudest professional achievement: Starting an agency from the ground up and bringing together an amazing team of people to serve our rockstar clients.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: I would love to meet Condoleezza Rice. She is remarkable on so many levels. We could get acquainted over a round at Augusta National (she was one of their first female members).

Photo: New York Road Runners
Photo: New York Road Runners
Photo: New York Road Runners

Christine Burke

Senior Vice President, Strategic Partnerships and Runner Products, New York Road Runners

Born: Long Branch, N.J.
Education: Williams College, B.A., political science; Fordham University, MBA, marketing

Running may be a simple task, but Christine Burke’s role at New York Road Runners is certainly not. She oversees all business development and strategic partnerships, membership, charity programs and licensing and merchandising, among other responsibilities.

A major point of focus for Burke, who joined NYRR in early 2015, has been finding a way to engage runners when they weren’t in New York or were unable to get into a sold-out race. She partnered with leading runner tracking social network Strava in 2018 to create and implement NYRR’s rollout of its virtual products and launch the NYRR Virtual Racing platform, which has been instrumental in extending the organization’s audience beyond the New York area.

“The launch of virtual racing is probably what we’ve put a lot of effort and focus on,” Burke said. “It is important from a tech integration standpoint and from an alignment with our mission standpoint. This was a great way to do both of those things, so the creation of a new community that’s really engaged in running with us has been very beneficial.”

Under Burke’s leadership, a record $40 million was raised and donated through 10,000 charity runners participating in the 2018 TCS New York City Marathon and United Airlines NYC Half Marathon official charity partner programs.

“We’ve been really fortunate in that our different programs that we’ve launched have been really quite successful,” Burke said. — Lucas Smith

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: A long run and the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle.

Something your friends would consider “so you”: A Coca-Cola for breakfast.

Attribute I look for when hiring: The desire to learn and collaborate.

Misperception of working in sports business: That the work is done when the race or game is over.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: I wish I could have met Grete Waitz, the nine-time winner of the New York City Marathon. Grete was deeply involved in starting the NYRR youth programs in the late ‘90s and founded AKTIV Against Cancer, which encourages cancer patients to exercise through their treatments.

Role of sports in social issues: Whenever sports can be leveraged to start important conversations, I’m supportive. As the mother of three young kids, I see how they look to their sports heroes as role models, and if sports can educate and entertain simultaneously, the world will be better for it.

Photo: Cleveland Cavaliers
Photo: Cleveland Cavaliers
Photo: Cleveland Cavaliers

As the Cleveland Cavaliers put the finishing touches on their $200 million arena renovation, Shelly Cayette has been leading the team’s related massive sponsorship sales efforts.

Among the big deals negotiated by Cayette in the past 12 months is a renegotiated arena naming-rights extension with Quicken Loans that rebrands the arena into the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse from the previous Quicken Loans Arena and more than a dozen other arena title sponsorship areas.

Shelly Cayette

Senior Vice President, Global Partnerships, Cleveland Cavaliers

Born: Baton Rouge, La.
Education: Tulane University, A.B., Freeman School of Business

Other major sponsorship deals signed under her watch are the team’s Cleveland Clinic Courts practice facility and the massive jersey patch rights deal with Goodyear.

Cayette, who played on the women’s basketball team at Tulane University, began her career with the then New Orleans Hornets and joined the Cavs in 2012. 

Over her seven-year tenure, the Cavs have seen a 150% boost in partnership revenue and last season ranked third in the NBA in sponsorship revenue.

“This past year, the biggest piece has been the transformation of our building,” she said. “Over the last 12 months, we had to renew all our major partners, sell three main arena entrances and over 12 entitlements within the space. We are talking significant multiyear deals and leading within the time frame has been a major accomplishment.” — John Lombardo

Getting to know...

Guilty pleasure: Wine … I would say innocent pleasure.

Something that your friends would consider “so you”: Traveling.

Attributes I look for when hiring: Proactive mentality, confidence, proven ability to figure things out (in challenging environments).

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Serena Williams. Being a dominant force on the tennis court and excelling at the highest level at her game on the court, Serena has found a way to capitalize that talent in the business world with endorsement deals with top brands … [and] defining how she wants to be associated with these brands and where to activate. On top of that she has been able to launch a venture firm to invest in women, minorities and young entrepreneurs all the while having a baby later in her career, which I can align with. 

Photo: Brystan Studios
Photo: Brystan Studios
Photo: Brystan Studios

During her nearly 14-year tenure at Paciolan, Kim Damron has focused on building a strong culture at the dominant player in collegiate athletics ticketing. From work-life balance to accountability, she places a priority on providing the company’s staff an environment where talent can rise regardless of gender.

“I am an advocate for work-life balance, especially for working moms,” Damron said. “As a mother of four, I know the challenges of balancing the responsibilities of being both a CEO and a mom. It’s not easy!” 

Kim Damron

President and CEO, Paciolan

Born: Van Nuys, Calif.
Education: University of Southern California, B.A., communications and sports studies

Providing equal opportunities and elevating strong female leaders within the company is a part of Paciolan’s culture, she said. “We are a company founded by a woman, with a woman CEO and CFO, with several strong female leaders in senior roles throughout the organization,” she said.

Damron started her sports and entertainment career in 1993 at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, rising to the director level at the studio and managing a $500 million national advertising budget. After holding leadership positions at and, she joined Paciolan in 2005.

She took over as CEO in 2017 as the company was being acquired by Learfield, which later merged with IMG College. She has overseen the company’s integration of fundraising, marketing and analytical services into its technology platform, and now also oversees sister companies Sidearm Sports and Learfield IMG College Ticket & Seat Solutions. — Karn Dhingra

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Going to the beach and surfing with my kids.

Guilty pleasure: A long-standing forbidden love for (West Coast fast food chain) Del Taco.

Something your friends would consider “so you”: I have a tendency to know everyone and know everyone’s life story. People seem to come to me often for life advice, sort of like a big sister. I just really like people and I’m interested in what is going on in their lives.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Cynthia Marshall, CEO of the Dallas Mavericks. I love her focus on inclusion and how she is transforming her organization’s culture.

Role of sports in social issues: Sports is a form of free speech and should stay that way, and it’s important to remember how sports can also be a great unifier that brings together people from all backgrounds and cultures.

Photo: Michael Benabib / National Hockey League
Photo: Michael Benabib / National Hockey League
Photo: Michael Benabib / National Hockey League

Coming to the NHL after a successful career in the financial sector, Kim Davis sees a parallel between the shift she believes the league must make and one she nudged forward at Chase Manhattan Bank while working to build an affluent segment business 25 years ago.

“We were marketing to and talking to the same customers, and you tend to build those networks in the communities you’re most familiar with,” said Davis, hired by the NHL late in 2017. “What we did differently was to reimagine how you want to think about what your growth prospects are for the future, and who those growth prospects are.

Kim Davis

Executive Vice President, Social Impact, Growth Initiatives and Legislative Affairs, National Hockey League

Born: Chicago
Education: Spelman College, B.S., economics

“We know that the cultural makeup of communities in our sport is evolving. We know the facts and the data. So for our sport and our business to remain relevant in this ever-changing world, we have to think about new audiences and new spaces. To me, that’s what culture and inclusion is about.”

Though diversity and inclusion sometimes is layered into the role of those who work in social responsibility or social impact, Davis is quick to point out that it isn’t her background.

“I am not a D&I expert. I am a growth and business expert,” Davis said. “And that’s what I bring to the sport. And the ability to be an integrator. To use influence and the ability to inspire and rally people around a vision is what will be the game changer for us.” — Bill King

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Having a four-hour massage, which I do every single Saturday at 6 a.m. if I’m not on the road. 

Guilty pleasure: (See above) That, and a really, really delicious caramel hot fudge sundae with whipped cream and nuts.

Something your friends would consider “so you”: Anything to do with interior design and entertaining. When I have time I am always entertaining and having people over. I love to do things that are fancy.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: I wish I had met Althea Gibson. I grew up playing tennis and she was my hero. I think she’s an amazing sports figure that didn’t necessarily get all the recognition that she deserved.

Role of sports in social issues: It is really no different than business in general. It’s not only leading on the field of play but leading across social and cultural and environmental issues and making sure they play that role in communities.

Photo: The Montag Group
Photo: The Montag Group
Photo: The Montag Group

When The Montag Group merged with IF Management and Vision Sports Group in 2017, the agencies turned to Jill Driban to help them integrate into one company. That work involved instituting best practices in all areas of the combined companies, including contract administration, recruitment, marketing and social media.

Driban recently was promoted to vice president of talent from chief of staff at TMG, which represents more than 200 broadcasters, coaches and sports and entertainment executives. She is involved in the management of all of the agency’s clients, including Scott Van Pelt, LaDainian Tomlinson, Mary Carillo and James Brown.

Jill Driban

Vice President, Talent and Events, The Montag Group

Born: Philadelphia
Education: University of Wisconsin-Madison, B.A.

“Jill oversees the client management business for our company and there is nothing that happens in that area that she is not involved with,” TMG CEO Sandy Montag said. “The service that she provides for our clients and the logistical support is of utmost importance to us and what makes our company special.”

Driban is involved in every conversation regarding clients TMG may sign. She is often the person who is called if there is a problem that needs fixing. “I do a lot of troubleshooting,” she said. She also is involved in the “onboarding” process when clients join the agency, including ensuring that contracts are signed.

Driban is a details person. “The most satisfying thing in the world to me is being able to cross something off a list,” she said. — Liz Mullen

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Listening to live music.

Guilty pleasure: Hallmark Channel.

Misperception of working in sports business: The fact that people think you can just get tickets to everything, like they are growing on trees.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Megan Rapinoe. She’s just a badass.

Role of sports in social issues: This is a tough question for me because I am really torn. Sports and athletes in general who are front and center have such an amazing platform to express their thoughts, opinions and causes they support. However, I do think there is a slippery slope when someone wants to just watch their favorite team or player and that gets overshadowed by the conversation.

Photo: Organic Headshots
Photo: Organic Headshots
Photo: Organic Headshots

Wendy Fallen

Associate Commissioner, Sports Administration, Big Ten Conference

Born: Montreal
Education: University of Michigan, B.S., kinesiology; Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management, MBA

Wendy Fallen was the first Michigan gymnast to win the Big Ten’s all-around title when she was a freshman with the Wolverines. She didn’t know it at the time, but that conference championship was just the start of a career spent in Big Ten athletics.

An associate commissioner and member of Commissioner Jim Delany’s senior staff, Fallen has touched all aspects of competition, both inside the conference and outside it.

She schedules it, plans it and executes it. One of her colleagues in the Big Ten office said Fallen’s influence can be felt across all aspects of the 28 sports sponsored by the conference, ranging from awards and honors, championship formats, scheduling, player gifts and television. String that across 10,000 competing student athletes and it’s not hard to see what keeps her busy.

“This, for many of them, is going to be the biggest stage they compete on, and I want it to feel like that for them,” Fallen said. “First and foremost, we want them to have a first-class experience.”

Fallen also has played a pivotal role in reshaping the NCAA gymnastics championships with a new format and revolutionizing the scheduling process for the Big Ten’s Olympic sports to create a more sophisticated online method than the old spreadsheets.

“When you think about our ability to accomplish things like keeping the student athletes off the road during exams, we’ve come a long way,” she said. — Michael Smith

Getting to know...

Guilty pleasure: Watching “Madam Secretary.”

Something your friends would consider “so you”:Getting excited talking about gymnastics.

Attribute I look for when hiring: Grit.

Misperception of working in sports business: Winning is all that matters.

Proudest professional achievement: Helping to facilitate tremendous exposure for Olympic sports’ student athletes in conjunction with the Big Ten Network and our television partners. Additionally, chairing the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Committee in 2017-18.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet:Sarah Hirshland, U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee CEO. There are opportunities for enhanced communication and collaboration between leaders within intercollegiate athletics, the USOPC and national governing bodies.

Photo: ISM Raceway
Photo: ISM Raceway
Photo: ISM Raceway

Julie Giese

President, ISM Raceway

Born: Marshfield, Wis.
Education: University of Wisconsin-River Falls, B.S.

After helping lead ISM Raceway’s massive renovation project as an executive with track owner International Speedway Corp., Julie Giese  is now focused on monetizing the $178 million investment.

Giese, installed as track president last year just around the time that the multiyear renovation project was being completed, is charged with turning that nine-figure project into a worthwhile return on investment. 

She’s overseen two NASCAR race weekends since taking over, including the sold-out fall race last November. She already is planning for a race more than a year away — the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series finale, which will be hosted at a track other than Homestead-Miami for the first time since 2001.

“There’s a lot of big opportunities on the horizon for ISM Raceway, so we’ve been working really hard to take advantage of as many as possible,” said Giese, who worked in several roles for ISC since 2004 before taking on this one.

On top of planning for several races at once, Giese — currently the only female president of a major NASCAR track — also has been tasked with adding new types of events for ISM Raceway in addition to races. She credited Auto Club Speedway’s current president, Dave Allen, who runs ISC’s other West Coast venue, with helping her quickly get acquainted with the president role.

“Honestly, I didn’t really know what to expect,” Giese said of becoming a track president. “It’s been a whirlwind, but a really fun one.” — Adam Stern

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Attending any and all sporting events.

Guilty pleasure:Chocolate peanut butter cup ice cream.

Something your friends would consider “so you”:Jumping in to help with anything and everything; I don’t sit on the sidelines very well.

Attribute I look for when hiring: Work ethic.

Misperception of working in sports business:In racing, I still get questions about what we do when we aren’t hosting a race at the track. Our business is 24/7 and we are just as busy (if not busier) planning for an event as we are executing it.

Proudest professional achievement: Being part of the team that opened ISM Raceway last November to a sold-out crowd immediately after completion of the $178 million modernization project.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Serena Williams. She’s an incredibly strong female role model and the best in her field.

Photo: Andrea Flanagan Photography
Photo: Andrea Flanagan Photography
Photo: Andrea Flanagan Photography

In the early 2000s, Melissa Heiter reinvented her career and in the process helped create a new niche within the sports industry.

After leaving a career in project management and technical communication, Heiter moved her way through a series of marketing positions with an array of companies in different sectors. In 2004, she connected with Tim Romani, who was looking to hire a full-time marketing employee for his new company, ICON Venue Group, which would be purchased by CAA in 2016. 

Melissa Heiter

Senior Vice President, CAA ICON

Born: Denver
Education: Colorado State University, B.A., technical journalism

Heiter has been credited with helping Romani create a business that really didn’t exist — owners’ representation companies, which advise sports teams and venue owners in large business deals that run the gamut from sponsorships to real estate transactions. 

“Back then there were no companies that really specialized in this, as it is now,” Heiter said. “Tim had an extraordinary vision that I believed in, that I helped publicize, and 12 years in, it led to CAA, one of the largest sports and entertainment agencies, wanting a piece of this business.”

As the company’s first female senior-level executive, Heiter has excelled in a field that is heavily male dominated. She helped CAA ICON amass a portfolio of clients worth more than $20 billion during her time at the company.

Since the CAA acquisition, Heiter has helped secure project management deals for stadiums and arenas, including with the Las Vegas Raiders, Golden State Warriors, Oak View Group, Nashville SC, Austin FC and Colorado State University. — Karn Dhingra

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: During the winter, I am an avid skier. During the summer, we usually do two sports in one day: mountain biking and fly fishing.

Guilty pleasure: Old school hip-hop and rap — preferably from the ’90s.

Attribute I look for when hiring: Curiosity. When someone genuinely wants to know “why,” it’s usually for all the right reasons. Plus, it challenges me to think about the answer and gives us both an opportunity to evaluate the “why.”

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: I admire Amy Van Dyken and how she has handled adversity. Through her social media accounts, we have gotten to live through her recovery with her and become more sensitive and understanding of people with spinal cord injuries or who use a wheelchair for mobility. 

Photo: ESG Law
Photo: ESG Law
Photo: ESG Law

Krista Hiner

Senior Counsel, ESG Law

Born: Northfield, Minn.
Education: Gustavus Adolphus College, B.A.; William Mitchell College of Law, J.D.

In the esports world that is rapidly developing, Krista Hiner is helping keep burgeoning leagues and dynamic teams on track legally.

Hiner is an attorney for the Los Angeles-based ESG Law, one of the most prominent esports-focused law firms in the country. Originally from Minnesota, Hiner joined the firm and moved to L.A. in 2017 to pursue her passion at the nexus of law and competitive gaming after previously practicing employment law in her home state.

Between the number of deals in the esports space and the newness of franchised leagues, Hiner stays busy working with ESG’s dozen-plus clients, which include several of the biggest teams in the competitive gaming world.

“It feels like the Wild Wild West in regard to the law a lot of the time right now, because we have to juggle the uniqueness of an industry that operates across many jurisdictions,” said Hiner, who is a gamer and grew up playing Halo. “If a team is based in California, they are going to be competing all over the country or even world, so that creates lot of challenges there.”

Hiner helped found the Esports Bar Association to help esports law professionals network, discuss industry issues and bring about more diversity and inclusion in the industry. 

“Our clients are constantly doing deals that are in other countries, so I really have to do a lot of creative schedule maneuvering to get all the work done,” she said. “Esports operates on such short timelines, so the deadlines are a lot more demanding; it can be easy to get discouraged, but I try to remind myself how great it is to work in such a dynamic industry.” — Adam Stern

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Scuba diving or sailing.

Guilty pleasure: “Big Brother.” I’ve watched it religiously since Season 6.

Something your friends would consider “so you”: Talking way too fast.

Attribute I look for when hiring: Coachability. 

Misperception of working in sports business: That it’s always fun and easy. During work hours, I’m behind the scenes looking for answers to novel, complex legal questions.

Proudest professional achievement: Working on Team Liquid’s partnership with Marvel earlier this year is definitely a career highlight.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Serena Williams. She’s strong, determined, resilient and 100 other things I aspire to be.

Role of sports in social issues: Prominent members of the sports community are often role models. They can (and should) use their position to inspire positive change with respect to social issues.

Photo: Isaac Thesatus / Redhouse Visuals
Photo: Isaac Thesatus / Redhouse Visuals
Photo: Isaac Thesatus / Redhouse Visuals

Terri Carmichael Jackson is the first executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association and is leading the union after it opted out of the collective-bargaining agreement with the WNBA for the first time in history in hopes of securing a better deal.

Players and league officials have been negotiating for a new agreement since November 2018. The deal will expire this Oct. 31 or the day after the last playoff game, whichever is later.

Terri Carmichael Jackson

Executive Director, Women’s National Basketball Players Association

Born: New Brunswick, N.J.
Education: Georgetown University, B.A., government; Georgetown University Law Center, J.D.

“It took a lot of courage” for the players to opt out, Jackson said. Although she would not go into specifics, she said the women are seeking changes in compensation, health and safety, and the overall player experience.

Jackson is married to Jaren Jackson Sr., who played for 13 seasons in the NBA despite being undrafted. Their son, Jaren Jackson Jr., was the No. 4 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft.

“My personal life — understanding basketball and the business side of basketball from the players’ perspective way back when with my husband and currently now with my son — gives me an opportunity to be one of the only people in the room when we are negotiating a collective-bargaining agreement to have that kind of vantage point and that kind of perspective,” Jackson said. “It gives me the best opportunity to see what’s possible for the women of my membership.” — Liz Mullen

Getting to know...

Guilty pleasure: Beignets, preferably from Café du Monde.

Something your friends would consider “so you”: Shopping for sneakers like they were Louboutins. 

Misperception of working in sports business: You are able to attend ALL of the games.

Proudest professional achievement: Ask me again when we have negotiated a new CBA.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Cynthia Marshall, Dallas Mavericks CEO. When she was hired, she talked about the opportunity to make real change in our industry “for the sisterhood.”

Role of sports in social issues: Follow the lead of an entire league of players who understand how to listen, build consensus and mobilize. The women of the WNBA know what time it is.

Photo: Capra Photography
Photo: Capra Photography
Photo: Capra Photography

After working in New York as Chelsea Piers’ catering and sales manager from 1998 to 2000, Michele Kajiwara was on the hunt for an interesting and dynamic job when she moved back to Los Angeles.

“The Staples Center had been open for a few years and some of my friends suggested that I apply because it could be an interesting place to work, and that has been the case,” Kajiwara said. 

Michele Kajiwara

Senior Vice President, Premium Seating at Staples Center, AEG/Staples Center

Born: Honolulu
Education: USC, B.A., communication

She started out as a service manager in 2003, and a year later she moved into sales, where she quickly became AEG’s top revenue generator. Since 2011, when Kajiwara took over Staples Center and Microsoft Theater’s premium division, sales have risen by over 25%.  

Kajiwara and her sales team also sold out all of the arena’s premium seating inventory for the first time in its 20-year history last season.

As a senior executive, Kajiwara believes in mentoring up-and-coming colleagues, especially women. She also believes hiring managers should consider job candidates with interesting life and work experiences and cast a wider net when hiring, so more women will have an opportunity to apply and be considered for positions, she said. 

“I like to try and find talent that didn’t take a traditional path to get into sports,” Kajiwara said. “For example, I think taking time off to travel can serve as a great way to explore the world. Get out of your comfort zone, be resourceful, gain more respect and appreciation for other cultures, be able to talk to anyone, and get perspective.” — Karn Dhingra

Getting to know...

Guilty pleasure: Hunkering down at a blackjack table way past my bedtime.

Something your friends would consider “so you”: Swimming in the ocean an hour before my wedding.

Attribute I look for when hiring: Someone who is either interesting or curious. If you’re not one or the other, then don’t bother showing up.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Michele Roberts. I had the opportunity to hear her speak and accept the WISE Woman of the Year award. She had such incredible command of the room and I found myself hanging on her every word. What she has accomplished is amazing and I love everything about who she is and how she shows up. She also happens to be the only other person I know of that spells her name with one “L”!

Photo: Octagon
Photo: Octagon
Photo: Octagon

Meredith Kinsman

Senior Vice President, Digital, Octagon

Born: Tulsa, Okla.
Education: University of Connecticut, B.A., marketing

Since joining Octagon in 2015, Meredith Kinsman has utilized two personal tools to help her transform the company’s digital strategy: a productivity planner and a focus timer.

What’s the need? For Kinsman, it’s a way to stay ahead in an always-changing marketplace.

“What we do is some of the most logistically complicated things that any agency could pull off. We’re at the World Cup, we’re at the Olympics, we’re at MLB All-Star,” she said. “Our organization has really adapted to the capabilities that are required to execute digital marketing in this day and age.”

Kinsman in the last two years developed a global social activation plan for Anheuser-Busch InBev around the FIFA World Cup, collaborated on a safe water play campaign with Huggies and Michael Phelps and designed Octagon’s influencer marketing tools to help clients test engagement programs.

In 2018, she led Octagon’s influencer program for the launch of PlayStation’s Spider-Man video game, a campaign that delivered more than 20 million impressions and 1.2 million engagements. Throughout her career, she also has built digital campaigns for brands such as Marriott International and Mastercard.

Kinsman, the mother of a child with special needs, works closely with Autism Speaks by volunteering with fundraising and World Autism Awareness Month and providing sensory-friendly experiences for children at local businesses. — Thomas Leary

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Hanging out in the backyard with my “boys”: my husband Matt, my son Colton and dog Dale.

Attributes I look for when hiring: Hard skills in digital media, analytics, web and app development, or creative production.

Misperception of working in sports business: It’s all about sports! We spend most of our time focusing on analytics, business outcomes, marketing technologies and creative branding executions.

Proudest professional achievement: Helping Octagon grow its digital capabilities across media buying, influencer marketing and digital sponsorship activation.

Role of sports in social issues: Sports have long been a training ground for core values such as leadership, teamwork, practice and self-discipline. I think sports can have the same role in addressing social issues by instilling values that help our society become better together.

Photo: Wasserman
Photo: Wasserman
Photo: Wasserman

Be fearless. That’s the mindset Thayer Lavielle has applied to her 20-plus years of experience in sports, which has allowed her to effect positive change at Wasserman and the broader sports business industry.

Thayer Lavielle

Executive Vice President, Talent Marketing and Operations, The Collective, Wasserman

Born: Boston
Education: Colgate University, B.A.

“My career in sports took a very circuitous route and was never planned,” Lavielle said. “I’ve gotten to where I am because I was fearless about the choices I was making in my career and often went with what was most interesting around what I wanted to learn versus what felt like the next right thing.”

The latest example of that mindset in action was the launch of The Collective, Wasserman’s newly formed women’s division. Wasserman hopes to connect major companies, consumers and fans with some of the country’s best-known female athletes to create an opportunity for them to attract more marketing engagement and awareness.

“It’s been an incredible experience to be able to work across the company and to bring out really the best of some of our work in a space that I’m passionate about,” Lavielle said.

Over the past year, she has led Wasserman’s strategic partnership network around the agency’s 2019 NBA draft preparation program called Wasserman Connect, helping to address clients’ evolving representation needs. She also was responsible for Wasserman’s market expansion into China, setting the company’s strategy and assisting in reaching new business goals. — Lucas Smith

Getting to know... 

Guilty pleasure: Just one? Binge-watching whatever series I am into, going to concerts and listening to music. 

Something your friends would consider “so you”: That I get up at 4:30 a.m. every day. I can’t help it, it just happens.

Proudest professional achievement: Launching The Collective, our women’s division, is not only rewarding but energizing. Let it be known, you can do good while doing good business.

Role of sports in social issues: Athletes have an incredible platform and if they choose to utilize their voices and influence to bring social issues that are important to them to light, I think that’s a great thing. What matters most is authenticity, so as long as athletes and brands in sports are being true to themselves in their support or criticism of social issues, I’m all for it.

Photo: @angiemcphersonphotography
Photo: @angiemcphersonphotography
Photo: @angiemcphersonphotography

Through eight years with the Baltimore Ravens and her first year at Major League Baseball, Melanie LeGrande didn’t have the words “social responsibility” in her job title. The only time that term appeared on her business card was during the three years between those two career stops, when she worked at the nonprofit Silicon Valley Community Foundation as senior director of corporate responsibility.

With the Ravens, LeGrande was director of community relations. With MLB, she joined as director of community affairs.

Melanie LeGrande

Vice President, Social Responsibility, Major League Baseball

Born: Berlin
Education: Morgan State University, B.S., marketing; Georgia State University, M.S., sports administration

It was during a restructuring of MLB at the start of 2017 that LeGrande assumed her current position, which previously did not exist at the league and wasn’t often found in sports. 

“Corporate responsibility is running your business in a way that considers the triple bottom line: your people, your planet and your profits,” said LeGrande. “So for me, I’ve been doing this work for 15 years.

“The pivot happened when I left sports for a few years. But the work was still the same. Instead of working with athletes and coaches and saying how do you want to impact this community and what can we work on together that will be a rewarding experience that has great reach — instead, I was doing that with companies. … The work was still the same. It’s still the theme of how can we be a responsible corporation.” — Bill King

Getting to know...

Guilty pleasure: Hummingbird cake from Magnolia Bakery.

Something your friends would consider “so you”: Bingeing on “Murder, She Wrote” before bed.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Becky Hammon, San Antonio Spurs assistant coach. 

Role of sports in social issues: The power of sports to bring about change is immeasurable. The platform is massive and spans audiences in our ballparks, arenas and stadiums to millions more around the globe through digital and broadcast channels. And above all, our talent. … We are in a unique position and should use our platform and our financial investments to be a reflection of our values and our own strategy to strengthen communities around the globe.

Photo: MSG Photo Services
Photo: MSG Photo Services
Photo: MSG Photo Services

Michelle McGoldrick

Vice President, Marketing Partnerships, The Madison Square Garden Company

Born: New Britain, Conn.
Education: Boston College, B.S., business

Michelle McGoldrick leads one of the biggest sponsorship teams in sports at the Madison Square Garden Company.

She is vital to the company’s growth and showed her aptitude by heading last year’s signature partnership deal that made PepsiCo the exclusive non-alcoholic beverage and snack partner at MSG. But to find out where it all started, one must go back to McGoldrick’s days working for the Arena Football League in the mid-2000s.

McGoldrick moved to New York in 2005, one year after graduating from Boston College. She spent almost four years at the AFL before leaving her role as manager of marketing and fan development at the end of 2008 to become an administrative assistant at MSG — a tough decision, but ultimately the right one.

“Sometimes in your career it’s OK to go backwards a step to then leap forward two steps,” McGoldrick said. She was promoted in under a year and stayed until March 2011, laying the groundwork for MSG to recruit her back in 2015 after she’d spent four years wtih Raptor Group and A.S. Roma. 

The key to her success? Putting a priority on understanding all perspectives. “My relationships have a healthy balance of respect and empathy,” she said. “So often connections with people can turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes.’”

McGoldrick is intrigued by international rights possibilities and new sponsor categories. — David Rumsey

Getting to know...

Guilty pleasure: Designing fantasy dream houses (that I don’t own!) on Pinterest.

Something your friends would consider “so you”: A binder organized by color and cross referenced by category.

Misperception of working in sports business: The availability of tickets (literally any and ALL tickets … not just sports tickets) for friends but mostly family. I don’t know how many more conversations can start with, “No, sorry Dad, I actually can’t get you tickets to FILL IN THE BLANK RANDOM SPORTING/ENTERTAINMENT EVENT” that does not, in fact, involve the Knicks or Rangers at all!!!

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Bozoma “Boz” Saint John, CMO, Endeavor. She has had an incredible career spanning entertainment and sports, and she approaches her life with passion, personality and a wardrobe I’d kill for! She is unabashedly herself and owns her power and her brand — #girlboss.

Photo: Mike Lewis
Photo: Mike Lewis
Photo: Mike Lewis

Lucinda McRoberts

Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel, USA Swimming

Born: Columbia, Missouri
Education: Yale University, B.A.; University of Michigan Law School, J.D.

A lawyer’s work can be routine and transactional, but it can also be at the center of an entire organization.

Lucinda McRoberts does the latter at USA Swimming, where she handles hot-button legal issues like sexual abuse prevention and liability, but also acts as chief administrative officer in a rapidly evolving work environment.

At just 34 years old, she’s at the center of one most challenging issues facing Olympic sports: How to allow national governing bodies to meet an ever-growing list of obligations — including protecting athletes in pools and gyms across the country — within the limited budgets of niche sport nonprofits.

USA Swimming has thrived in the pool, but McRoberts says she’s energized by the chance to make the back office work better for the good of athletes and Team USA. “I’m amazed at what we’re able to accomplish on the technical side, but I have next to nothing to add,” she said. “But I’m passionate about legal, the HR and the risk management side, and [CEO] Tim [Hinchey] has really let me take the ball and run with it.”

She has to play the political game, too. “I’ve worked here seven years, but compared to the lifers I’m comparatively new,” she said, “so I think I’ve been able to sort of thread the needle between bringing in new ideas and innovation while maintaining the integrity of who USA Swimming is.” — Ben Fischer

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Skiing or hiking in Steamboat Springs.

Something your friends would consider “so you”: Going to a sporting event and being more excited about the food than the game.

Misperception of working in sports business: You must be a successful athlete or sophisticated fan. While I have developed an appreciation for swimming since joining the organization, some of the greatest value I add is from an outside perspective.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Condoleezza Rice. I have a lot of questions.

Role of sports in social issues: When done right, sport promotes respect, responsibility, community and common purpose — all of which are precursors to addressing social issues effectively. Sport also has the potential to elevate social issues that demand immediate attention. It should be embraced as a platform to encourage positive social change and development. 

Photo: Gary Dineen / Milwaukee Bucks
Photo: Gary Dineen / Milwaukee Bucks
Photo: Gary Dineen / Milwaukee Bucks

Jamie Morningstar

Senior Vice President, Ticket Sales and Service, Milwaukee Bucks and Fiserv Forum

Born: Englewood, Colo.
Education: University of Kansas, B.S., business; J.D., Ave Maria School of Law

Thirteen years after earning her law degree, Jamie Morningstar this year finally opted not to renew her attorney’s license that wasn’t needed in her current job as the Milwaukee Bucks’ top executive in ticket sales.

After leading the Bucks to unprecedented ticket sales levels and playing a key role in the opening of the new Fiserv Forum, it’s safe to say that Morningstar’s professional future in sports, not law, is cemented.

Under Morningstar, who leads a sales staff of 70, the Bucks have seen ticket revenue skyrocket by 171% over the past five years.

When she joined the Bucks in 2013, the team ranked last in season-ticket sales in the NBA with just 2,500 accounts. Last year, the small-market Bucks sold the most season tickets in their history, surpassing 10,000 and becoming one of just 12 NBA teams to eclipse the 10,000 mark. As the team moved to the new facility, it also sold out of its premium spaces, including 34 suites and 33 lofts.

Morningstar also has led a new sales strategy that focuses on multiyear season-ticket plans, varying pricing and flexible membership as she looks to drive the team’s ticket sales even further.

“There was a time when people were saying it wasn’t going to happen,” she said of the team reaching rarefied sales levels. “Opening a new building is a massive task no matter what your role is.” — John Lombardo

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Spending time outdoors with my family. We have a dog, a 3-year-old, a 2-year-old and a new baby that arrived at the end of August so we have our hands full. 

Guilty pleasure: Cold Brew popsicles and Death by Chocolate cake.

Attribute I look for when hiring: The ability to successfully manage through adversity and be solution oriented. 

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Serena Williams continues to amaze me by dominating her profession for two decades and taking responsibility for creating opportunity for the next generation of young women.

Role of sports in social issues: Sports represent a universal language that unifies so many people from so many different backgrounds. There are very few outlets that have the same reach, which to me means that organizations and athletes have the obligation to address social issues.

Photo: David Sherman Photography
Photo: David Sherman Photography
Photo: David Sherman Photography

Every team in every league in every country has one major thing in common: people. It’s why another commonality is that all teams, sports or otherwise, have human resources departments.


Sianneh Mulbah

Chief People OfficerMinnesota Timberwolves and Lynx

Born: St. Paul, Minn.

Education: Bemidji State University, B.S., applied psychology; Concordia University, St. Paul, M.S., organizational development-HR, and MBA

With Sianneh Mulbah overseeing all aspects of people and culture, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx have seen firsthand what a difference HR can make.

Mulbah, who joined the Timberwolves and Lynx in 2011, has taken the teams’ HR department to new heights. “We’ve really evolved from pushing paperwork to now being a strategic partner at the executive table,” she said. 

One of the biggest changes Mulbah has brought is as simple as a more inclusive, open and enjoyable work environment. She has led a culture shift, bringing a more flexible organization from top to bottom, and helping raise employee satisfaction from 13% to 92%, according to a pair of surveys, each by a different vendor.

“People need to feel like they can bring their whole self to work, and if you’re not, then you’re not being fulfilled,” she said.

From being a part of the decision to hire Gersson Rosas, Timberwolves president of basketball operations, as the first Latino to lead an NBA front office, to establishing more transparent and equitable pay, to better facilitating and integrating the people in the organization with the business goals, Mulbah is leading the HR revolution in Minneapolis. — John Aceti

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Spending time with my kids and scrolling through Pinterest for my next DIY project.

Something your friends would consider “so you”: I always have a plan, even when we aren’t supposed to have one.

Misperception of working in sports business: You can’t be a parent and be successful in the industry. The key is finding a blend that works for you and communicating it to those around you!

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Cathy Engelbert, WNBA commissioner. She recently visited our market and I was blown away by her background and vision for the future, her desire for palpable change for the better and her candor of bettering the lives of our players. Her goals align closely with the goals I have for our staff. 


Photo: Courtesy of WWE
Photo: Courtesy of WWE
Photo: Courtesy of WWE

No, Pamela Murrin doesn’t think that WWE will give her a title belt to wear around the office in honor of her Game Changers award. “Those are reserved for the real superstars,” she said, laughing.


Pamela Murrin

Senior Vice President, Data Strategy, WWE

Born: Troy, N.Y.
Education: Northeastern University, B.S., marketing/stats 

Maybe WWE should consider having one made. Murrin wrangles an unrelenting firehose of data into smart decision-making tools that elevate her company’s already substantial business.

After productive years at American Express, Time Warner and HBO, Murrin in 2016 joined WWE, where leadership was primed to oversee a data revolution. Fan360, a database containing millions of data points about fans, is one of Murrin’s premier contributions during her three years with the company. Fan360 can potentially contain thousands of data points about each fan, including demographic information, which social media posts they’re engaging with and what they’re viewing and how.

“I think it’s evolved into something that’s just so powerful,” Murrin said. “It helps us understand what to give them more of, but also how to personalize their experience and our communication with them.”

Murrin and her team of 60 data scientists touch every aspect of WWE, even the creative writing department. WWE has more than a billion total followers on 18 social media platforms, giving Murrin and company a huge amount of information from which to glean insights. The feedback helps WWE writers track reaction to storylines and match outcomes, information they can use as they plot their stars’ next moves. — Bret McCormick

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Boating.

Guilty pleasure: French fries.

Something your friends would consider "so you": Big impulse purchases.

Attribute I look for when hiring:A passion for the work. In my world, that involves a love of data, appreciation for problem solving and inherent curiosity.

Proudest professional achievement: My team. We built up a 60-person team of talented data experts in under four years starting from a much smaller, more narrow department.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Dee Caffari, skipper of Turn the Tide on Plastic for Volvo Ocean Race. The event takes guts!



The PGA Tour has 150 players, all with a story to tell. It’s up to Laura Neal to find the most compelling content and spread the word to fans around the world.


Laura Neal

Senior Vice President, Communications and Media ContentPGA Tour

Born: Ocala, Fla.

Education: Flagler College, B.A.

Neal leads a team of more than 40 employees to drive awareness of players, tournaments and tour initiatives with a concerted focus to reach international markets and fans. She also serves as chief spokeswoman for the tour and is responsible for internal communications and messaging of its ever-growing initiatives.

Neal began oversight of the tour’s media content last November and consolidated the content efforts that previously were spread across a variety of departments.

“The collective effort shows the power you can bring,” Neal said. “As we want to bring in new, more diverse and younger fans to the tour, we need to give them more on-ramps.”

Proof of the power of content under Neal came in February at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, when she and her team arranged for PGA Tour pro Gary Woodland to play a hole with Special Olympics golfer Amy Bockerstette. In front of thousands of fans, Bockerstette, who has Down syndrome, made par on one of the most famous par-3 holes in golf, and and her priceless reaction made the tour’s Facebook post the No. 1 most engaging video in its history.

“That was a big home run,” Neal said. “We are doing that sort of thing on a week-in and week-out basis. We are fortunate to tell all the amazing stories on how golf impacts people.” — John Lombardo

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Being near the water — either at the beach or on our sailboat — with my husband and little girl. And cooking — I love everything about it. 

Guilty pleasure: The fact that I don’t even want to type this proves that it’s a guilty pleasure. I wait until my husband is traveling and then binge watch several shows on Bravo.

Misperception of working in sports business: After 20-plus years in golf, people assume I’m an excellent player. Unfortunately, that’s not true. 

Woman in sports business I’d like to meet: I’ve always wanted to meet Babe Zaharias, perhaps the original Game Changer. … Anyone who responds to critics of her swashbuckling golf style with, “You’ve just got to loosen your girdle and let it rip,” is my kind of hero.


Photo: West Coast Conference
Photo: West Coast Conference
Photo: West Coast Conference

Gloria Nevarez

Commissioner, West Coast Conference

Born: San Jose
Education: University of Massachusetts Amherst, B.S., sport management; University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, J.D.

Gloria Nevarez moves at a quick pace. It’s a good thing because there was no time for her to sit back and take a deep breath in her first year as commissioner of the West Coast Conference.


Nevarez, a longtime administrator in the Pac-12, found her problem-solving skills challenged from her first week on the job when Gonzaga, the conference’s premier brand, decided to explore other league options. What the WCC quickly learned was that Nevarez won’t flinch in the face of pressure. She worked with the Zags on new revenue distribution and scheduling terms for them to stay in the conference.

Nevarez, the first Latin American woman to be commissioner of a Division I conference, went on to extend the WCC’s television deal with ESPN, launch a new brand campaign and close a deal for University Credit Union to title sponsor the league’s basketball tournaments, all in her first year in the commissioner’s chair.

“We want to move forward with developing more of a national brand,” Nevarez said. “I think we’re recognized regionally, but we’re still mostly known” as the conference Gonzaga is in. She hopes the new brand initiative will help the conference better establish its own identity.

“Last year was such a great story for the conference and now we’ve got to build on that,” she said. — Michael Smith 

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Scuba diving, travel, being outdoors, road/mountain biking.

Guilty pleasure: Binge-watching mindless shows.

Something your friends would consider “so you”: Getting lost … I have the WORST sense of direction.

Attribute I look for when hiring: Understanding our mission. Being a “fan” isn’t enough, one needs to understand and want to provide the best student-athlete experience possible.

Misperception of working in sports business: That you will become best friends with star athletes.

Proudest professional achievement: Developing league-wide consensus on rebranding the conference in less than a year.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Megan Rapinoe (former Portland Pilot). I greatly admire the way she is her authentic self and using her platform to be heard on issues important to her.


Photo: Anna Zorn
Photo: Anna Zorn
Photo: Anna Zorn

At 29, Moira O’Connor is not only the youngest director of operations of Chicago’s Soldier Field, she’s also the first female manager of the iconic stadium.


Moira O’Connor

Director of Operations, SMG - Soldier Field

Born: Chicago
Education: Minnesota State University Mankato, B.S., psychology; John Marshall Law School, J.D.

“With being young and a woman, in a field dominated by a lot of middle-aged men, you’re always trying to prove your worth,” O’Connor said about the challenges of managing a high-profile venue like Solider Field. “But it helps that I am a lawyer, so they know I am prepared when I enter the room.”

O’Connor is in charge of the venue’s $16 million operating budget, 36 full-time staffers and hundreds of workers during events. She also ensures that the stadium’s $3 million in capital improvements, which include new video boards and club suites, are completed on time and under budget.

O’Connor joined the Soldier Field staff a little over three years ago after turning the McFetridge Sports Center, a multiuse facility owned by the Windy City’s park district, from a money-loser into a moneymaker. She helped turn the center’s finances around by starting the Chicago River Dogs, a youth hockey team that has around 300 players.

O’Connor credits her success in part to the mentorship she’s received from Soldier Field’s general manager Tim LeFevour, who has included her in various meetings that have little to do with her day-to-day job duties managing the stadium, but that offer her a better understanding of the sports business. — Karn Dhingra

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Sunday morning matinee movies.

Guilty pleasure: Terrible reality television, specifically MTV’s “The Challenge” and “Teen Mom."

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Lisa Friel, special counsel for investigations for the NFL. As a lawyer that doesn’t practice, I find the role of lawyers in the sports field fascinating, specifically [her] role in overseeing investigations within the NFL. 

Role of sports in social issues: As a former athlete, athletics — and team sports in particular — can play an enormous role in addressing social issues. When you are part of a team, you are bringing together diverse groups of people working toward a common goal.


Photo: NBC Sports Group
Photo: NBC Sports Group
Photo: NBC Sports Group

Nicolina O’Rorke’s title at NBC Sports Regional Networks is chief financial officer.


Nicolina O’Rorke

Chief Financial Officer, NBC Sports Regional Networks, NBC Sports Group

Born: Bryan, Texas

Education: Georgetown University, BSBA; Columbia Business School, MBA

But her job responsibilities go far beyond a traditional CFO role. O’Rorke, who joined NBC Sports Group from NBC News in 2015, has taken a strategic role that has put her at the forefront of the biggest deals that have come out of the group, which operates nine regional sports networks.

O’Rorke has been involved in every big decision that has happened at NBC Sports’ RSNs. Over the past year, that has included renewing rights deals with local teams (she’s been in just about every meeting with the White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks for NBC Sports Chicago). It also has included finding the money and resources to help her group launch an app, dubbed MyTeams.

Her role has become more akin to a business development or corporate strategy executive.

“Nicolina is involved in every major aspect of our RSN business,” said David Preschlack, president of NBC Sports Regional Networks. “This speaks volumes of her expertise and range as an executive. During her tenure with the RSNs, she has proven to be a major contributor to our successes.” — John Ourand 

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Carpet golf with the family.

Something your friends would consider "so you": Always having a plan.

Misperception of working in sports business: That it’s all glamorous events, big-hitter meetings and dealmaking. There is also a lot of day-to-day tactical execution.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Kim Pegula, one of a few active female owners and the first female president in the NFL and NHL.

Role of sports in social issues: Sports is aspirational and inspirational. Sports is about bringing people together to celebrate individual and collective success — success in the form of beating your personal best and being your best self no matter your gender, race or socioeconomic background.


Photo: Mark Krajnak
Photo: Mark Krajnak
Photo: Mark Krajnak

Djenaba Parker

General Counsel and Chief Talent Officer, New York Red Bulls

Born: Kinston, N.C.

Education: Georgetown University, BSBA, accounting; University of Southern California, Gould School of Law, J.D.

Djenaba Parker’s first name has West African roots and translates to “the loving, affectionate one.” Don’t expect either of those qualities to emerge when she is at the negotiating table. 


Parker has her hands in almost every legal facet of the New York Red Bulls’ operations, whether hammering out broadcast or mobile app agreements or deals with ticketing partners and European soccer powerhouses. 

“What’s exciting to me is that I don’t know what my day is going to look like,” Parker said. 

She oversees 160 employees as the club’s head of HR and instituted a performance management system called Amplify. The program reduces the formality of boss-employee relations and increases the frequency of interactions, which fosters learning and professional development.

Parker’s father was a first-generation college student and both of her parents have advanced degrees. They impressed upon her the power of education. She is doing the same through her work with the Fulfillment Fund, which helps underprivileged kids access educational opportunities, and the mentoring relationships she has established with young men and women she has met over the years.

It was never lost upon me that I was privileged to be able to learn and that education was potentially the gateway out of a lot of the hardships that African Americans still face in certain communities,” Parker said. “For me, it’s really important to keep relaying that message.” — Bret McCormick

Getting to know...

Guilty pleasure: Flowers. I get fresh flowers weekly for my apartment.

Attributes I look for when hiring: I have two, which apply no matter what department I’m interviewing for — passionate and someone who is an active listener.

Proudest professional achievement: Getting to lead what I would consider the most selfless team in sports. Both the legal and HR departments are small, but we touch and concern almost all aspects of our business. The team genuinely cares about every win, every contract, every employee, every deadline. 

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Kim Fields (NFL senior vice president and chief operating officer). She is a problem solver and strategic thinker — and one of very few African American women who are top executives at a major sports league. 


Photo: Kenichi Ooki
Photo: Kenichi Ooki
Photo: Kenichi Ooki

Ana Shapiro Queenan

Vice President, Global Event Operations, GMR Marketing

Born: Dallas
Education: McGill University, B.Ed; University of Massachusetts Amherst, M.S., sport management

Ana Shapiro Queenan’s job would be daunting even without gender stereotypes.


At GMR Marketing, her job is to start and lead the company’s in-market operations for years leading up to the Olympics and World Cup. She’s built local operations from nothing in Brazil, Russia, China, South Korea and now Japan — all places where women still aren’t seen very often in boardrooms.

“It motivates me just to continue to do it, and set an example, and to be present and show that there is a place for women in these types of situations, even if it’s not something very prominent in the culture and the country,” said Queenan from her Tokyo office. 

In 2017, her life changed. While six months pregnant on a trip to GMR headquarters in Milwaukee, she went into early labor. Her daughter lived for two weeks. GMR rallied behind her and her husband, she said, and she returned to work a few months later.

At first, Queenan didn’t want to talk about it, fearing pity. Now, it’s a part of who she is, and she sees professional improvement as a way to honor her daughter’s memory.

“I think I became a more compassionate person,” she said. “I used to get caught up with the drama and the politics, now I’m able to step away from that because I have more perspective.” — Ben Fischer

Getting to know... 

Guilty pleasure: Japanese Reality TV (Terrace House) … and dumplings.

Attributes I look for when hiring: Accountability. Someone that can talk about mistakes that they have made and what they learned from them, and a sense of humor.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet:Marisol Casado, president of the ITU and an IOC member. She has been a strong defender of gender parity and a strong voice for female leadership in the Olympic Movement.

Role of sports in social issues: The true power of sport is at its most grassroots level. Sport and play are powerful tools in helping children build resilience and self-confidence and teamwork and communication skills. People learn to effectively communicate, even in times of stress or when time and resources are limited. They can bring those skills with them into the rest of their lives and we can build societies that are strong and resilient.


Photo: CAA
Photo: CAA
Photo: CAA

From a television perspective, teams in new markets typically need eight or nine months to set up shop with a new network. In 2017, the Vegas Golden Knights started operating seven months before the season started.


Caroline Rebello

Managing Director, Evolution Media Capital

Born: Los Angeles
Education: University of Pennsylvania, The Wharton School, B.S., economics

Enter Evolution Media Capital’s Caroline Rebello.

Rebello approached every company that could be interested in buying the rights: AT&T, Cox, Fox, Sinclair. She looked into building an over-the-air distribution system that would allow the NHL team to bypass cable distribution.

“We turn over every stone to find right partner,” she said. Root Sports, now known as AT&T, ended up being the right partner.

“Caroline is a rising star in our industry,” said Alan Gold, head of sports media advisory at EMC. “She is smart, strategic, and incredibly well respected by our clients and media companies.”

The Golden Knights deal is hardly unique for Rebello. Since joining EMC in 2010, she has helped grow the group from a team client roster of one to 38, representing more than $40 billion in sports transactions. In the past year alone, Rebello negotiated more than $4 billion in media and M&A deals.

Her client list includes the Cubs, which signed a deal with the Sinclair Broadcast Group to launch Marquee Sports Network. It also includes the Charlotte Hornets, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Pistons and Minnesota Wild, all of which renewed their local TV deals recently. — John Ourand

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: A long bike ride — usually ending at an ice cream shop.

Something your friends would consider "so you": Going to Europe for the weekend.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Indra Nooyi was at the helm of one of the most important sports advertisers for over a decade. She was also one of the few Fortune 500 CEOs to be a woman and a person of color, to experience success on every measurable metric and be open about her work-life balance.

Role of sports in social issues: The sports industry is an incredible platform and should be used as a catalyst to unite people and push for positive change. … Every league, team, brand and individual is multidimensional, so any one of them shouldn’t be expected to stand silent.


Photo: Eric Espino
Photo: Eric Espino
Photo: Eric Espino

Despite having been at the NFL since 2005, Tracie Rodburg says it was working for the New York Yankees early on that made her career. After three rejection letters, she landed a fan development post with the Yanks in 1997.


Tracie Rodburg

Senior Vice President, Sponsorship Management, National Football League

Born: Livingston, N.J.

Education: George Washington University, BBA, marketing, and MBA

Recalled Rodburg, “If you can work there, you can work anywhere. There’s a goldfish bowl and a lot of pressure.” That pressure included getting fired twice by George Steinbrenner, a rite of passage for Yankees employees of that era. “You’d just go back to your desk, lay low and it would blow over,” she said.

“Tracie could always distinguish between real issues and the noise,” said Joe Perello, who hired Rodburg at the Yankees when he was the team’s vice president of marketing and business development. “She just doesn’t get distracted, so she’s able to focus and accomplish what’s really important.” 

At the NFL, Rodburg has coordinated vital relationships with some of the NFL’s biggest sponsors, including Pepsi and Anheuser-Busch InBev; worked on global platforms, like the Super Bowl Halftime Show; and helped implement policy changes, like the ones that allow league and team beer sponsors to use current NFL players in promotions, and permitting sponsorship agreements in the spirits category.

There’s a common thread connecting Rodburg’s early work with her years at the NFL. “The original reason I wanted to work for a big sports brand, like the Yankees or the NFL, is that sports unites people,” she said. “I love using that power to solve business problems.” — Terry Lefton

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Yoga.

Guilty pleasure: Binge-watching the original “Law and Order.”

Something your friends would consider “so you”: Traveling to exotic places, like Egypt, Vietnam and Thailand. I am on my third passport.

Attribute I look for when hiring: The ability to solve problems.

Misperception of working in sports business: People think it’s all fun games and that when the season ends, we have that time off. It is a 365-day job.

Proudest professional achievement: For the NFL, I am very proud of our recent Roc Nation alliance.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: NBPA head Michele Roberts, and Condoleezza Rice.


Photo: White Unicorn Agency
Photo: White Unicorn Agency
Photo: White Unicorn Agency

Carla Rosenberg is a pioneer in the business of creating nonprofit foundations and charity events for star athletes.

Carla Rosenberg

Senior Vice President, Charity Events and Management, Lagardère Plus

Born: Cape Town, South Africa

Education: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, B.S., kinesiology; University of Dallas, MBA, marketing/sports and entertainment management

A former NCAA Division I tennis player, Rosenberg started her career at the Texas Rangers in 2004. As the 2004-05 NHL lockout was ending, the Dallas Stars, who had common ownership through Tom Hicks, needed help to get the community excited about hockey again.

Rosenberg worked for the Stars in community marketing and as executive director of the Dallas Stars Foundation. Athletes started coming to her for help with their charities and foundations. She launched her own company, The Matchpoint Agency, in 2012.

“There were a lot of skilled people putting on great events with the best design and production,” Rosenberg said. “And there were a lot of people who were really good with the nonprofit management and nuances, but to kind of match the two, I didn’t see anyone who was really doing it, at least when I started up.”

In 2018, Rosenberg sold Matchpoint to Lagardère Sports and Entertainment’s global partnership marketing division, Lagardère Plus, where she works with the agency’s more than 250 athlete and celebrity clients, while continuing to serve her own longtime clients and their events. — Liz Mullen

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Enjoy spending time with my friends! It feeds my soul.

Something your friends would consider "so you": Oysters and rosé.

Proudest professional achievement: Working with one of sports’ true female trailblazers, Nancy Lieberman, and taking Nancy Lieberman Charities from inception to an entity that has established mission-driven programming and raises millions of dollars. 

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Charlotte Jones Anderson. I’m impressed with how she manages it all with such grace. I admire her attention to detail and design, and the way in which she leads the business and works with her family. 


Photo: Courtesy of NBA Entertainment
Photo: Courtesy of NBA Entertainment
Photo: Courtesy of NBA Entertainment

Tara Gutkowski Schwartz

Vice President, Social Responsibility, National Basketball Association

Born: Huntington, N.Y.
Education: Cornell University, B.S., industrial and labor relations

Tara Gutkowski Schwartz is nearing the two-decade mark at the NBA, and her work with the league’s social responsibility efforts has never been more prevalent.


Starting with the inception of NBA Cares in 2005, Schwartz has helped the league stay socially conscious of issues not just in the U.S., but across the globe. In the past two years alone stateside, she has led more than 65 leaguewide community event efforts in Los Angeles and Charlotte, respectively, for All-Star Weekend. Those include physical and mental wellness initiatives, basketball clinics and community forums with league executives and former players. 

But it is her work with NBA Cares, specifically Basketball Without Borders, that Schwartz is most proud of during her time with the league. She visits Africa every summer as part of the initiative, and players and league executives have bought into her mission to grow the NBA’s global footprint through philanthropy.

“The challenge in the work that we do is always making sure that we’re being mindful of what’s going on around us,” Schwartz said. “Our programs are reflective to what’s happening in the U.S. and the world. It’s a challenge, and it’s something that we don’t take lightly.” — Thomas Leary

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: A day spent in Brooklyn with absolutely no plans and the ability to just be with my husband, Eric, and our kids, Blake and Tyson, is just about the best day I could ask for.

Something your friends would consider “so you”: That I have never once skipped dressing up on Halloween. Last year I was a very convincing Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Serena Williams. I have always loved watching her play tennis, but I have so much more admiration for her since she became a mom. Her honesty and openness about what it’s like to be a working mother and the attention she has since received has been so important for anyone in the position. 

Role of sports in social issues: Sports has an incredibly important role in social issues. Through sports we understand that the strongest teams are comprised of individuals with diverse backgrounds, experiences and ideas, united by a shared goal to lift each other up to achieve greatness.


Photo: Shahryar Shahamat
Photo: Shahryar Shahamat
Photo: Shahryar Shahamat

Carrie Skillman

Vice President, Scout Sports and Entertainment

Born: Trenton, Mich.
Education: Central Michigan University, B.S., business administration

When Carrie Skillman was entering the professional workforce in 2005, diving into the sports industry was never on the top of her mind, much less eventually becoming a leader at a high-profile sports marketing agency.


Skillman, now with Scout Sports and Entertainment, began her career working on an auto dealer account at a Detroit marketing firm. She was a sports fan but didn’t think of it as a professional pathway until she saw an opening with the Chicago Fire. Her agency experience intrigued the MLS team enough to hire her in 2007, and Skillman immediately knew sports was her calling.

“I loved it from the get-go and realized that I never wanted to leave,” she said.

Skillman’s eventual journey to Scout came after a stint with Momentum Worldwide, which helped strengthen her brand-building power. Scout was only about 2 years old in 2012 when Skillman joined, affording her a great opportunity to make her mark.

“I found Scout at the perfect point,” she said. “And we’ve been able to grow together.”

Skillman has been instrumental in many of Geico’s league-level official partnerships while guiding Scout’s sponsorship teams. She is monitoring how brands change philosophy in the sports betting space and how that affects her team at Scout. — David Rumsey

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: When I take time away from the office I like to travel. Nothing is more rewarding than to experience new places, from the history to the culture and, of course, the food.

Guilty pleasure: Still love listening to boy bands from the ’90s.

Something your friends would consider "so you": Making to-do lists.

Attribute I look for when hiring: Culture fit.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Billie Jean King. She’s an icon in our industry for her determination and passion to demand equal rights and inclusion, paving the way for female athletes everywhere.

Role of sports in social issues: Adidas says it best: “Through sports, we have the power to change lives.” Sports has the ability to unite people and communities, transcending all social, political and ethnic barriers. Whether you’re a league, team, athlete or brand, sports offers a platform to promote positive social responsibility and change in our world.


Photo: Jordan Johnson
Photo: Jordan Johnson
Photo: Jordan Johnson

Sometimes when Allianz Field is empty, Maureen Smith will hike to the top of the stadium’s supporters section and look out. Several St. Paul, Minn., church steeples rise in the background. It’s a fulfilling sight for Smith, who oversaw the privately funded stadium’s $250 million construction project, which she kept on budget.


Maureen Smith

Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Minnesota United FC

Born: Pontiac, Mich.

Education: University of Michigan, B.A.

“I had never consistently written $15 million checks a month for an extended period of time,” she said.

Throughout her career, Smith has reinvented herself, and the organizations in which she works. As a single mother in her 20s, she switched careers, leaving behind social work to become an accountant and better support her family. When the opportunity to help steer Minnesota United FC’s transition from the NASL to MLS appeared, she left behind another career as a health care administrator. 

MNUFC handles its own stadium operations at Allianz Field, which Smith oversees. She developed a program called “Loonatic” that set high expectations for customer service, something the club thinks will set its game experience apart in a crowded Twin Cities sports market. For training, Smith asked a data analytics company and an improv comedy theater to combine their training, which proved more effective than either would have been on its own.

“We’re doing everything for the first time,” Smith said, “and I’ve gotten to be part of something that we’re building from scratch. That excites me.” — Bret McCormick

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Playing hockey with my team the “Loonachicks.”

Something your friends would consider “so you”: I don’t eat at buffets or potlucks, and I don’t like my children to be barefoot in hotel rooms.

Misperception of working in sports business: That sports is big business. We have big business visibility with small business-sized staff. 

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Jessica Diggins. She won the United States’ first-ever cross-country skiing gold medal. She’s from Minnesota, competes in a sport that I think requires the most discipline of any sport, and is an ambassador for Fast and Female, an organization committed to inspiring the next generation of female athletes.


Photo: Saskia Potter Photography
Photo: Saskia Potter Photography
Photo: Saskia Potter Photography

Soccer legend Abby Wambach said something earlier this year that reminded Amy Sprangers of her career’s big leap forward: “Winners are grateful for what they have, but they often don’t demand what they deserve.”


Amy Sprangers

Senior Vice President of Revenue, Seattle Seahawks

Born: Seattle
Education: University of Washington, B.A., speech communication

Sprangers was heading into her 14th season with the Seattle Seahawks in 2014 and thought she was ready for a promotion. She delivered a tight 20-minute presentation on her qualifications and vision to then-President Peter McLoughlin. It worked. He made her vice president of corporate partnerships.

“I came so prepared, I came so ready, I knew I had seen so many different things here over my career that I could execute and be the best leader for the team,” said Sprangers, who was promoted last year to senior vice president of revenue.

Under her leadership, the Seahawks have consistently delivered revenue growth and creativity in sponsorships. They’ve boosted the number of sponsorships worth $1 million or more to 15, sold out every suite in her tenure while adding 15 units, and consistently rank in the top quarter of the NFL in revenue.

On the field, the Seahawks made the playoffs in six of the last seven years and won a Super Bowl. But Sprangers’ job is to sell the future, not the win-loss record, as she successfully did when she re-signed CenturyLink to a stadium naming-rights deal through 2033 at a big increase. “I don’t think successful sales teams are successful if they just ride on what they’ve done in the past, so we’re always looking for what’s next.” — Ben Fischer

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: I have four kiddos, so any TV show other than what’s on Nickelodeon or Disney. My favorites right now are “Million Dollar Listing” and “Chopped.”

Attributes I look for when hiring is: Dynamic, positive, genuine, confident, analytical and a great communicator!

Misperception of working in sports business: Offseason … there is no offseason!

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet:Shelley Zalis [CEO, The Female Quotient]. I admire her ability to champion diversity, inclusion and equality. Individually we have power … together we have impact!


Photo: Brandon Magnus-Ledesma
Photo: Brandon Magnus-Ledesma
Photo: Brandon Magnus-Ledesma

Neda Tabatabaie

Vice President, Business Analytics and Technology, San Jose Sharks

Born: Tehran, Iran

Education: University of Toronto, B.A., economics

Only recently during a Habitat For Humanity outing did San Jose Sharks executive Neda Tabatabaie discover that she has a knack for carpentry. She has an idea for a possible first project: a doghouse for her French bulldog, Bob Dylan.


Tabatabaie already has at least one significant build on her résumé. She left Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment in 2015 and joined the Sharks, where she assumed a specifically created role and commenced the creation of a data analytics program from scratch. The Sharks’ “data journey,” to use Tabatabaie’s term, resulted in an increasingly data-receptive culture and better data-backed decision-making, specifically a successful dynamic ticket pricing undertaking that’s expanded the team’s fan base.

“Data is great,” Tabatabaie said, “but you always need a person to provide context and make a decision that is right for the organization, and our fans. So you have to become more mature in it.”

Tabatabaie helped launch the Sharks Women’s Network, a candid, monthly networking and professional development luncheon for the organization’s female employees. 

Growing beyond the NHL club and into the community, the Women’s Network held a businesswear clothing drive for women with upcoming job interviews. Tabatabaie also began the Women of Teal program, an extension of the Women’s Network for the wider Bay Area. — Bret McCormick

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: Hanging out with my Frenchie Bob Dylan. I also love traveling and do my best to travel outside of North America once a year. I’m filling out this questionnaire while on a beach in Cefalu (Sicily).

Guilty pleasure: I love watching the reruns of “M*A*S*H.” Although I never feel guilty about my pleasures!

Attributes I look for when hiring: Attitude and energy.

Misperception of working in sports business: That you see the players all the time! We are each doing our jobs and, at least in my case, there’s no overlap. They are doing their job on the ice and I’m doing my job in the office.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet:I’d love to meet Bozoma Saint John (current CMO of Endeavor and former CMO of Uber). I think she is a force of nature, so authentic to who she is and has broken a lot of “rules” that were traditionally dictated to women about how they should look, dress and be.


Photo: ESPN Images
Photo: ESPN Images
Photo: ESPN Images

Last season, when the NFL decided the field at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca was not good enough to host an NFL game and moved the Chiefs-Rams game to Los Angeles, ESPN had only seven days to figure out how to make a move.


That’s when Tina Thornton went to work.

Tina Thornton

Senior Vice President, Production and Office of the President, ESPN

Born: Galion, Ohio

Education: Wake Forest University, B.A., communications; Mercy College, Honorary Doctor of Letters

She immediately pulled a team of people together and figured out how to make the move as flawless as possible. She identified three initiatives where ESPN could help: jump-starting ticket sales, targeting a Hispanic audience that was prepared to watch the game in Mexico and honoring the first responders who were battling fires in the L.A. area. Thornton started talking to the Rams about coming up with a halftime act and other ways to make the game special.

“Tina was instrumental and one of our primary point people on that project, helping to manage relationships internally and externally,” said ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro. “She is smart, creative, collaborative and able to handle many important responsibilities at the same time.”

Appointed as Pitaro’s chief of staff in July 2018, Thornton has had a seat at the table for all of ESPN’s business decisions over the past year. 

“Her 25 years of experience at ESPN were immediately valuable to me and the entire ESPN leadership team in every aspect of our business,” Pitaro said. — John Ourand

Getting to know...

Guilty pleasure: Raw cookie dough. Way better than cookies!

Something your friends would consider “so you”: Hosting 20 youth lacrosse players for a practice at my house when the town fields were closed, all after a long week of work.

Attribute I look for when hiring: A problem solver who radiates positive energy.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Serena Williams. As a mother of a 13-year-old, I remember what it was like to jump back into work soon after having my daughter. To focus on multiple passions (work and family) and be successful at both is doable, but can be daunting. I admire her tenacity, her authenticity and her vulnerability as she approaches being a mother and an athlete.


Photo: NBAE / Getty Images
Photo: NBAE / Getty Images
Photo: NBAE / Getty Images

Alisha Valavanis

CEO and General Manager, Seattle Storm and Force 10 Sports Management

Born: Valparaiso, Ind.

Education: Chico State, B.A., communications, public relations; M.A., athletic administration

Alisha Valavanis is all about the power of team. Having been around basketball her entire life, and after helping build the 2018 WNBA champion Seattle Storm team, she knows how much can be accomplished when people work together toward a common goal.


“I believe in that so deeply, that we are stronger together and that you’ve got to play to your strengths and pass the ball when it’s someone else’s,” Valavanis said. 

Since joining Force 10 Sports Management in 2014, Valavanis has helped expand the entity’s portfolio, even helping start the first women’s professional 3-on-3 basketball team in the U.S. ahead of the sport’s Olympic debut in Tokyo next year.

Drawing on her basketball experience from her playing and coaching days at Chico State, as well as her understanding of the sports business from stints with the Golden State Warriors and the University of California, Berkeley, athletics department, Valavanis helped take the Storm from last in the Western Conference to WNBA champions in just five seasons.

She also has helped sign major new sponsorship deals for the team, including a 10-year jersey patch deal with Symetra Life Insurance and expanding an existing partnership with Subaru to include court naming rights, a first for the team. — John Aceti

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: An evening at home and cooking for friends is the way I recharge. A day off may typically start at Pike Place Market for fresh ingredients and inspiration for dinner. Then head home for a night with friends, good wine and local eats.

Something your friends would consider “so you”: I love connections, so one of my favorite things to do is meet new people. Whether I’m in an airplane, at a restaurant or out for a walk with my dog, I like the serendipity of meeting someone and learning a little bit of their story. 

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Billie Jean King. She has spent a lifetime championing for social justice and equality. I would like to express my gratitude for her courage and her work.

Role of sports in social issues:Looking at sports as solely entertainment is archaic. Sports teams and athletes have incredible platforms to influence our world for the better. At the Seattle Storm we welcome and support our athletes taking on social action to make their communities and world better. 


Photo: Jon Sharpy
Photo: Jon Sharpy
Photo: Jon Sharpy

Whitney Wagoner remembers the double-take that often came when she arrived to pitch sponsor prospects while managing corporate sales at the NFL.

“I could see them process it when I walked in,” said Wagoner, who worked at the NFL from 1996 to 2003 before leaving to teach sports business at the University of Oregon, where she now heads the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “They’re thinking: ‘That’s a woman. She doesn’t have a plate of bagels in her hand. OK, this is my person.’ It took a couple of ticks. It doesn’t change the outcome of anything. But let’s please acknowledge that it is different. That experience is still prevalent for women in this industry,”

Whitney Wagoner

Director, Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, University of Oregon

Born: Salem, Mass.
Education: University of Oregon, B.S., marketing and management; New York University, MBA, marketing and economics

Many female students in the highly regarded sports business MBA program will tell you that they chose the program in part because it offered the chance to learn from a woman who worked in corporate sales at the NFL.

“They certainly ask me very directly if I ever felt like I was held back or looked over or treated improperly or unfairly,” Wagoner said. “And I say categorically, absolutely not, never once. But women still battle an issue of perception.

“There’s still a straight up imbalance in the numbers. So there are still a lot of experiences women have where they are the only woman in a meeting or they are one of a few females in a room. Even though that experience is not necessarily abusive, it’s something we should talk about and prepare them for.” — Bill King

Getting to know...

Favorite day-off activity: I like to plan things. I like to do housework. I like to be organized.

Guilty pleasure: I love to read magazines that are not of the highly intellectual variety, like In Style, Oprah and People.

Something your friends would consider “so you”: Authenticity. Sass. Boldness. Taking control and making shit happen.

Woman in sports business you’d like to meet: Michele Roberts. That particular role — representing professional male athletes — was an important, new first. 

Role of sports in social issues: It should continue to play the leadership role that it has played for nearly 100 years. The arc of sport leading social change goes back to Jesse Owens. It is part of our DNA. We just have to keep doing what we’ve always done.

We asked this year’s Game Changers: What sports business story are you watching in the next 12 months?

Naz Aletaha: Blending of sports, entertainment and technology that will fuel esports’ evolution.

Megan Hughes Allison: The development of the NFL’s partnership with Roc Nation/Jay-Z and the “Inspire Change” initiative. How this story evolves will be critical in the discussion around sports’ role in addressing social issues.

Michelle Andres: The NFL/NFLPA working to reach a new collective-bargaining agreement.

Molly Arbogast: 1) evolution of sports betting and its impact on the game; 2) how esports continues to develop as a sponsorable platform on a local/regional/national level.

Christine Burke: How the Tokyo 2020 Olympics come together, particularly how technology is leveraged in the organization of the event, and how sustainability considerations come to life.

Shelly Cayette: Evolution of college sports and the ability to pay athletes while competing in college.

Kim Damron: Explosion of esports and what it means for ticketing and facilities.

Kim Davis: Growth of women’s sports across a number of leagues. We are at a tipping point and I’m really keen on watching how that is going to evolve, whether that’s our sport of hockey or  soccer or basketball.

Jill Driban: Gambling, not necessarily with the leagues/teams, but in the media space. Networks creating gambling shows, podcasts being launched. It’s an interesting time. I also want to see how it plays out on an endorsement side, especially with casinos, sports books, betting apps, etc.

Wendy Fallen: Impact of legalized sports wagering on college sports.

Julie Giese: Ours (ISM Raceway). With the NASCAR championship headed to Phoenix next year, I’m excited to see what’s ahead.

Melissa Heiter: Change that legalized gambling will have on sports in the U.S., particularly how that relates to the in-venue experience.

Krista Hiner: Implementation of region-based teams in franchise-style esports leagues, and how the impact of that model compares to region-based teams in traditional sports.

Terri Carmichael Jackson: Impact the women of soccer, hockey and basketball will have on the larger discussions of equity and equality.

Michele Kajiwara: Anything about the four teams that play in our building!

Meredith Kinsman: Stories, regulations and innovations around protecting consumers’ privacy online, as well as changes to social media platforms both in terms of consumer-facing functionality and changes in data access to marketers.  

Thayer Lavielle: How athlete-owned media companies will continue to grow and evolve over the next year. 

Melanie LeGrande: Sports betting legislation and its implications, from the economics to our corporate responsibility connected to involvement.

Michelle McGoldrick: I am paying close attention to what happens around CBD regulation. It’s a category that has significant spending power and many players that want a first-mover advantage. 

Lucinda McRoberts: Various legislative efforts impacting the Olympic Movement, including equal pay and governance reforms.

Jamie Morningstar: Evolution of ticketing technology has been very interesting over the last few years, and I anticipate it is going to continue to evolve.   

Sianneh Mulbah: How organizations champion D, E & I initiatives into their everyday culture and how they inspire their communities to take action. Another is mental health. Work affects mental health. 

Pamela Murrin: Next America’s Cup challenge.

Laura Neal: How our domestic media negotiations shake out over the next few months — with interest and competition from incumbents and new entrants. 

Gloria Nevarez: Media rights and how the market will play out for distribution of live sporting events (e.g. OTT, traditional media rights deals, new technologies and platforms).

Moira O’Connor: USWNT fight for equal pay. It will be interesting to see how that turns out in the next year and what precedent it sets going forward for women’s professional athletes.

Nicolina O’Rorke: Impending sale of the regional sports networks formerly known as Fox RSNs to Sinclair, and the current carriage dispute with Dish.

Djenaba Parker: Sports betting developments, including laws and policy interpretations at the state and federal level.

Ana Shapiro Queenan: Preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. But I am also closely following Caster Semenya and her ongoing legal battles that will continue to help define how international sport defines gender.

Caroline Rebello: The media industry as a whole, and collective bargaining across the NHL, MLB and NFL. Both have the power to materially alter sports economics.

Tracie Rodburg: Legalization of sports betting and how that will impact every team, league and fans. The other is our new partnership with Roc Nation, which should be a unique blend of sports and entertainment marketing. 

Carla Rosenberg: Legal sports betting in the U.S.

Tara Gutkowski Schwartz: Changing landscape of content and how it’s delivered and consumed. I think the next year, especially with the launch of Disney+, will be interesting for the industry and how it affects the current sports media landscape. 

Carrie Skillman: Sports gambling trends and how state legislation will shape the gaming category moving forward.

Maureen Smith: Future of USA Gymnastics. My husband and my brother were both Division I collegiate gymnasts so I am passionate about this sport, both men’s and women’s. Victims need to be supported and all athletes deserve to be protected. I want to see the new leadership at USA Gymnastics succeed at rebuilding the organization.

Amy Sprangers: To see more women in the C-Suite!

Neda Tabatabaie: Women’s sports and the developments both with USWNT and what will happen in the world of professional women’s hockey. In my own line of work, I’ll be working on bringing together more of the X and O data (experience and operations).  

Tina Thornton: Ever-changing consumer habits around watching live sports, particularly the balance between traditional distribution and direct-to-consumer alongside social media. Digital innovation will continue to influence the new ways fans will watch a game.

Alisha Valavanis: United States women’s national soccer team.

Whitney Wagoner: Continuing development of legalized sports betting. 

Game Changers: The best advice I have received for career development.


Naz Aletaha: Leverage what you know, but, more importantly, know what you don’t know.

Megan Hughes Allison: Be prepared and be confident.

Michelle Andres: To not let my introversion be confused for shyness or aloofness.

Molly Arbogast: Be kind to everyone and pull someone else up with you.

Christine Burke: Every day, no matter how challenging or mundane, is an opportunity to learn and grow.

Shelly Cayette: Do the job you want in the job you are in.

Kim Damron: Have work-life balance. I learned this along the way and now I encourage it with my staff.  

Kim Davis: Pace yourself. Career is a journey, not an event.

Jill Driban: Listen, pay attention and think outside the box. 

Wendy Fallen: Don’t hesitate to listen twice as much as you speak.

Julie Giese: Have thick skin. Don’t take things so personal; rejection is going to happen and how you deal with it is most important.  

Melissa Heiter: Don’t settle. You know your worth and what you offer, so prove it daily and you will get to where you want to be.

Krista Hiner: Surround yourself with people you admire.

Terri Carmichael Jackson: Don’t be idea girl. Come prepared and ready to execute.

Michele Kajiwara: You’re not ready for that yet, but eventually you will be, so be patient.

Meredith Kinsman: Never say, “That’s not my job.”

Thayer Lavielle: Do good work, speak the truth even when it might not be popular, and be kind.

Melanie LeGrande: Closed mouths don’t get fed. Advocate for yourself every step of the way.

Michelle McGoldrick: You may have heard of the "Jar of Life: Rocks, Pebbles and Sand" story: The best way to fill a jar is to first put in the big rocks, then the pebbles, then the sand. I had a boss who consistently and emphatically shouted FOCUS ON THE BIG ROCKS! as a reminder to give your time to the things that mattered the most. 

Lucinda McRoberts: Trust your gut and come from a place of, “Yes.”

Jamie Morningstar: "Nothing is ever as good as it seems and nothing is ever as bad as it seems." My dad told me this a few years ago. It has changed the way I think about life.

Sianneh Mulbah: Listen more than you speak. We can learn so much from observing others and taking time to reflect on their narrative.

Pamela Murrin: Make a decision and don’t look back. Favorite quote: “The road to success is paved with flat squirrels.”

Laura Neal: From my parents, who built and ran a small restaurant for 35 years: “There’s no substitute for hard work.” You have to network and develop relationships and learn and grow, but there’s nothing more important than doing your job well.

Gloria Nevarez: Diversify my areas of expertise.

Moira O'Connor: Do not say no to new opportunities. If you do that too often, opportunities eventually stop coming.

Nicolina O'Rorke: Every relationship matters.

Djenaba Parker: Don’t be afraid of failure.

Ana Shapiro Queenan: “Make yourself replaceable.” Our responsibility is to teach and to give opportunity to others so that we can grow and then take on new responsibilities ourselves.

Caroline Rebello: Be confident in who you are and what you bring to the table, and when in doubt, out-work everyone.

Tracie Rodburg: “Fake it until you make it,” from Renie Anderson.

Carla Rosenberg: Be willing to adapt to new technologies in order to streamline processes.

Tara Gutkowski Schwartz: “Rise to the occasion.” Those four words have been my dad’s response whenever an obstacle or challenge occurred throughout my entire life. 

Carrie Skillman: Raise my hand for opportunities that make me uncomfortable, it’s the best way to learn and grow.

Maureen Smith: “It’s how you treat people, how you develop your strategy, how you execute against that, how you balance your top line and your bottom line and where you spend your capital. All of the issues are the same, no matter the organization.” — Jeannine Rivet, UnitedHealth Group

Amy Sprangers: A true champion is one who champions others.

Neda Tabatabaie: “What’s in your head is not in other people’s head!” Referring to the fact that ideas are great, but useless if you don’t bring people along with you.

Tina Thornton: Be authentic and present in meetings. If you are true to yourself with an open mind, you put others at ease. If you are present when speaking to someone, people know you care. So strive to listen in the moment, step away from the clutter and be an active participant in every conversation.

Alisha Valavanis: Be true to yourself.

Whitney Wagoner: Work hard and be patient.

Photo: Courtesy of CSM Sport & Entertainment
Photo: Courtesy of CSM Sport & Entertainment
Photo: Courtesy of CSM Sport & Entertainment

Participants in the CSM Mentoring Challenge program will sip drinks and exchange pleasantries during a reception at CSM’s Manhattan office the night before the 2019 Game Changers conference, some of them pushing through awkward moments as they meet for the first time.

The women’s ages and professional experience will differ greatly. Their importance in making the sports business industry a more inclusive and diverse environment won’t.

Dan Mannix launched the LeadDog Mentoring Challenge in 2016, in the months before CSM Sport & Entertainment acquired LeadDog Marketing Group. The idea grew out of LeadDog’s own commitment to maintaining a diverse staff and an inclusive environment. The Mentoring Challenge sought to give up-and-coming women opportunities and guidance so that they can make meaningful professional impacts. 

Photo: Courtesy of CSM Sport & Entertainment
Photo: Courtesy of CSM Sport & Entertainment
Photo: Courtesy of CSM Sport & Entertainment

Mannix partnered with Sports Business Journal on the Mentoring Challenge and in its first year paired 10 seasoned female sports business executives with 10 mentees early in their professional careers (see pairings lists below). The program grew to 15 pairs the following year. Now, Mannix regularly fields calls from folks pitching their up-and-comers for increasingly coveted mentee positions.

“So, you know when something has turned the corner,” said Mannix, CEO of CSM North America. But, he added, “even though it’s going in the right direction, we’re just scratching the surface.” 

The number of mentors showing interest in participating also is increasing. Mentors must have previously been named Game Changers.

“To have women who have already demonstrated their success and commitment to the industry by being recognized as Game Changers to then put themselves out there and say, ‘You know, there is a reason I’ve been recognized as a Game Changer, I need to spread the wealth here and give the opportunity to that next generation,’ is so meaningful,” said Caroline Ponsi, the Mentoring Challenge program director.

Photo: Courtesy of CSM Sport & Entertainment
Photo: Courtesy of CSM Sport & Entertainment
Photo: Courtesy of CSM Sport & Entertainment

The organizers try to pair women based on their geography (not always easy to do), the property they work for (brand, league, team or organization), and what field they work in (sponsorships, marketing or communications, for example). Mentees’ answers to one of the three questions on their application (where they see themselves in 10 years) is another criterion. The point of the program is to make it easier for women to climb the sports business ranks; to turn those 10-year dreams into realities.

“I never had a female mentor at work,” said mentor Jody Bennett, the vice president of marketing at LiveSafe. “I thought it’d be great to provide that opportunity. I had my struggles and trials and tribulations, and I didn’t want someone else to have to go through that.” 

Jody Bennett and Gabrielle Gray

When Bennett had an office at FedEx Field 20 years ago, there was one other woman who worked there, and she answered the phones. Roughly 120 people were employed at Redskins Park at that time. 

Bennett, who was named to the 2016 Game Changers class when she was with the Charge agency, participated in the CSM Mentoring Challenge program’s second edition in 2017. She was paired with Gabrielle Gray, an account manager at Genesco Sports Enterprises.

Gray (left) and Bennett
Photo: Courtesy of Gabrielle Gray
Gray (left) and Bennett
Photo: Courtesy of Gabrielle Gray
Gray (left) and Bennett
Photo: Courtesy of Gabrielle Gray

“When you can find someone that is in a place where you see yourself, especially a woman in a male-dominated industry, it’s just important to see, first, that it’s possible for someone like you,” Gray said. “And the second thing is to be able to learn. So, the yearlong program, or if you can extend that even longer, it’s so important.” 

Gray and Bennett’s relationship easily transcended the initial one-year duration. Two years after meeting, they still speak every other Monday at 1 p.m. Early on, “I challenged her a ton,” Bennett said. 

“Yes,” Gray confirmed with a laugh. 

“I wish I had that when I was her age,” Bennett said. 

Like all of the mentors, Bennett wouldn’t have continued beyond the first year had it not been worth her time. Gray was always prepared with a list of questions and discussion topics for each phone call. 

“I love the fact that she respects my time,” Bennett said. “And because she respects me, I show her the same respect. I feel like I owe it to her because of the time and effort she’s put into this program.” 

Mentor-mentee relationships that grow organically are precious, but also less common. Bennett and Gray are both grateful that they were paired together by the program.

“It’s crazy,” Bennett said. “If we sat next to each other on a plane we probably wouldn’t even talk, and now we’re so close. I see a lot of her in me.” 

Sharon Byers and Arin Segal

Arranged mentor relationships can be awkward if they’re set up too formally or there isn’t chemistry between the participants. Sharon Byers and Arin Segal didn’t have that problem.


“It was love at first sight,” joked Byers, and their conversations “just flowed,” according to Segal, who is a solutions consultant for Conviva. Almost three years after they were part of the initial class in 2016, Segal and Byers, who is the American Cancer Society’s chief marketing, communications and development/sales officer, still speak regularly on the phone. 


“The chemistry is really, really important, because that’s the only way it’s really going to evolve into what Arin and I have, which has kind of morphed into a peer-to-peer friendship, discussion, career, personal life, which is great, right?” said Byers, a member of the 2012 class of Game Changers when she was with Coca-Cola. “She knew where she wanted to take her career. So, she and I became fast friends.”   

Fresh out of college in 2016, Segal knew she wanted a mentor, but didn’t know where to look. Her mother was a career woman, but Segal wanted more objective advice.  

“I could say whatever to appease my mom. I’m not going to tell Sharon a lie just to make her feel happy, I’m going to tell her the truth,” Segal said. “That was invaluable to me.”  

After their initial meeting at the Mentoring Challenge reception, the duo spoke almost weekly during the first year. That was especially helpful for Segal, who was at Prodigy Sports and wasn’t sure she was committed to the career she had chosen. She kept Byers’ different bits of advice in the back of her mind as she evaluated her next step, which eventually led her to Conviva.

It’s been a valuable, symbiotic relationship for both, including the mentor. Byers has gleaned new insights on hiring from Segal, who was a recruiter in a previous job. And Segal gives Byers one more friend to whom she can send photos of her beloved 72-pound bulldog, Bruce. 

“It is really a partnership,” Byers said. “Forget about the mentor-mentee, because every conversation both parties are going to walk out either learning more about themselves, or learning something new that they hadn’t thought about in their career. It’s just a wonderful way to build relationships, and I adore Arin and have a lot of respect for her.”

Molly Mazzolini and Leah Jenk

As Leah Jenk posed for a photo next to her Mentoring Challenge mentor, Molly Mazzolini, at the 2019 College Football Playoff championship game, she surely felt that her involvement in the program was already paying off. 

Not long after they were paired by the Mentoring Challenge, Mazzolini, who is partner and brand integration director at Infinite Scale in Salt Lake City, reached out to Jenk, a college partnerships specialist for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, to see if she was interested in coming to San Jose to meet up for the game.

Mazzolini (left) and Jenk
Photo: Courtesy of Molly Mazzolini
Mazzolini (left) and Jenk
Photo: Courtesy of Molly Mazzolini
Mazzolini (left) and Jenk
Photo: Courtesy of Molly Mazzolini

Heck yes, Jenk was interested. 

Mazzolini, a member of the 2016 class of Game Changers, arranged a Levi’s Stadium tour, the pair attended professional development events and a few networking opportunities, and Jenk met dozens of important people working in her field. 

“The amount of connections that Molly has in the industry and introduced me to is awesome, and it was so worth the trip,” Jenk said. “An awesome experience I never would have had without Molly.” 

Mazzolini and Jenk’s similarities — they live on either side of the Rocky Mountains and they both work with oversized events and college sports — helped them connect quickly. Mazzolini remembers attending conferences where fewer than 10% of the attendees were women, which motivated her to make the most of Jenk’s Mentoring Challenge experience.

“I think it would be amazing for all of us to continue this kind of very niche group of women in the sports industry that have gone through this program, and continue to know that we’re here for one another,” Mazzolini said. “That would be a fantastic legacy.” 

Susan Cohig and Katie Carew

Some of the mentor-mentee duos are geographically far flung, but Susan Cohig and Katie Carew are both based in New York. That’s made grabbing a cup of coffee to talk about their careers an achievable goal.

Those in-person chats are hugely beneficial for Carew, because Cohig, the NHL’s executive vice president of club business affairs, has participated all four years of the Mentoring Challenge program. She’s not only a savvy business executive, but a practiced mentor. 

Cohig (center) and Carew (center right)
Photo: Courtesy of Katie Carew
Cohig (center) and Carew (center right)
Photo: Courtesy of Katie Carew
Cohig (center) and Carew (center right)
Photo: Courtesy of Katie Carew

“In terms of Game Changers, it was a natural extension to really make the program and the conference more meaningful for participants,” said Cohig, who was a member of the 2013 Game Changers class. “Game Changers as a conference is kind of a one-and-done. It’s one time a year but being able to have the Mentoring Challenge provide a more extended involvement, to have more engagement, is just really important.”

Fostering relationships between mentees is another way to grow the network of women that the Mentoring Challenge ultimately seeks to build. Carew, who is sales director at GumGum, said that connecting with women of similar age and experience has been invaluable as they try to learn, grow and advance together.

To that end, Mentoring Challenge organizers put together a visit to an escape room for mentees. After drinks and food at a pub, eight mentees were locked in a faux bomb shelter and given an hour to solve the puzzle and escape the room. They were so close to finishing when the hour lapsed that the group was given another minute to escape, which they did.

“Hopefully these will be connections that continue to grow,” Carew said. 

Cohig didn’t break out of the escape room with the mentees. But her continued involvement with the Mentoring Challenge is evidence of the industry’s widespread belief in the program’s mission, one that’s gathering momentum.

“The more this program grows, the more the network grows for women, and that’s essential for making our industry better,” Cohig said.

2016-17 LeadDog Mentoring Challenge

Mentor Mentee

Michelle Berg, Team Epic Casey Inguagiato, Philadelphia 76ers
Sharon Byers, American Cancer Society Arin Segal, Prodigy Sports
Laura Chittick, JP Morgan Kelly Ann Higgins, New York Mets
Susan Cohig, NHL Claire Miller, Los Angeles Dodgers
Gail Hunter, Golden State Warriors Lana Ramirez, BBVA Compass
Ilana Kloss, Mylan World TeamTennis Ricki Dean, NBPA
Bernadette McGlade, Atlantic 10 Conference Armani Rice, College of the Holy Cross
Kimberly Meesters, Sprint Philicia Douglas, Miami Dolphins
Jaymee Messler, The Players’ Tribune Talia Retelny, Bleacher Report
Vicky Picca, Fanatics Sydney Schneider, NFL


2017-18 LeadDog Mentoring Challenge

Mentor Mentee

Ronnie Tucker, New York Road Runners Brielle Buckler, NBA
Susan Cohig, NHL Ashley Daniel, NFL
Dawn Aponte, NFL Bailey Weigel, Manhattan Sports Business Academy
Beth Paretta, Grace Autosport Belicia Montgomery, Minor League Baseball
Jody Bennett, Andretti Autosport Gabrielle Gray, IMG College
Karen Ashnault, LeadDog Marketing Group Grace Kaminer, The Madison Square Garden Co.
Diane Pelkey, Under Armour Jamie Grant, NFLPA
Pam Batalis, Learfield Katherine Brown, ESPN
Lucia McKelvey, Top Rank Boxing Rachel Steinberg, Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment
Mary Scott, United Entertainment Group Shira Averbuch, Major League Soccer
Sallie Sargent, Houston Super Bowl Host Committee Brittany Philip, GMR Marketing
Michele Carr, NFL Caroline Acosta, New York Mets
Xan Young, Populous Lauren Li, Scout Sports & Entertainment
Kathy Milthorpe, LPGA Melissa Lewis, PGA Tour
Shauna Griffiths, LeadDog Marketing Group Suzanne Grassel, Major League Soccer


2018-19 CSM LeadDog Mentoring Challenge

Mentor  Mentee

Heidi Pellerano, Wasserman Christine Kindt, Miami Hurricanes
Susan Cohig, NHL Katie Carew, GumGum Sports
Nzinga Shaw, Atlanta Hawks Maggie Valerio, Charlotte Hornets
Hannah Gordon, San Francisco 49ers Emily Miller, NYRA
Lisa Murray, Octagon Amanda Archer, Nielsen Sports
Michele Carr, NBA Kimberly Chinn, Up2Us Sports
Michelle Wilson, WWE Jackie Chang, NBC Sports Group
Molly Mazzolini, Infinite Scale Leah Jenk, U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee
Elizabeth D. Brown, Little League Int’l Marcarena A. Estalella, MAEducation/MAEsport
Jody Bennett, Bennett Advisors Giordanna Easley, Freelancer, Public Relations
Ashlee Huffman, CSM Sport & Entertainment Carly Strauss, NBA
Donna Providenti, CSM LeadDog Halle Wilf, NFL
Karen Ashnault, CSM LeadDog Alexandra Conte, New York Mets
Mimi Griffin, MSG Promotions Courtney Perdiue, NFL
JoAn Scott, NCAA Kathryn Kolb, Madison Square Garden

We asked this year’s Game Changers: Who has had the biggest impact or influence on your career in sports?


Naz Aletaha: Dustin Beck for giving me my first shot at working in sports by bringing me on to the then small and scrappy LOL Esports team back in 2013. Riot’s Jarred Kennedy for allowing me the runway to try, fall, get back up and try again as we built our sport. … And my dad — my first coach — whose passion for the sports he loves was infectious from day one.

Megan Hughes Allison: I can’t think of one single person, but more importantly all of the people who have believed in me and given me an opportunity, including Donnie Nelson (Dallas Mavericks), my entire Genesco Sports Enterprises family, and the incredible clients I have worked with along the way.

Michelle Andres: It has not been one person, it has been a “committee” of people who have influenced my career in sports. From Alex Martins, Joel Glass and Chris D’Orso at the Orlando Magic, to Kevin Byrne and Dick Cass of the Ravens and Priya Narasimhan of YinzCam, all have supported me, propped me up, encouraged me, taught me and influenced me in their own way over the years.

Molly Arbogast: Len Komoroski and Dave Rowan from my early days at the Eagles (2000). They looked past my gender and saw my potential. I was the first woman hired to sell sponsorships for the Eagles. They challenged me every day and their impact on my professional development was immense.

Christine Burke: George Hirsch, the indefatigable chairman of New York Road Runners, who made the introduction that resulted in me working at NYRR. Every day, George is an inspiration and source of vast running and NYRR knowledge for me and the NYRR team.

Shelly Cayette: Every boss I’ve had to date. I’ve been very lucky to work for individuals who have taught me something along the way from their sports experience while allowing me the autonomy to create my own path in our ever-changing environment of sports (Jessica Richardson, Tom Ward, Brad Sims, Randy Domain, Nic Barlage).

Kim Damron: My predecessor, Dave Butler, was my mentor for 12 years and really showed me how to lead with excellence and heart.

Kim Davis: Billie Jean King. I had the opportunity to help Billie build the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, the nonprofit that bears her name. I learned so much about going above adversity and being an authentic leader. She’s amazing. 

Jill Driban: My father. He recently passed away and I didn’t realize the impact he had on my career. I fell in love with sports because of him. As a child, I danced with the Phanatic on the Phillies’ dugout because of him. I fell in love with hockey because he loved the Flyers. Sports was our own language. 

Wendy Fallen: Bev Plocki, University of Michigan head women’s gymnastics coach, gave me the opportunity to earn my degree from Michigan and compete as her very first recruit. Peg Bradley-Doppes, former University of Denver and UNCW athletic director, was the SWA at Michigan when I was a student-athlete. Her passion and commitment to student-athletes led to my desire to pursue a career in college athletics. Jim Delany has been a proactive, visionary leader and is forward thinking in his actions. He motivates me to always strive for excellence. 

Julie Giese: My parents. They are tremendous role models and being dairy farmers, they taught me the value of hard work early on.

Melissa Heiter: Unquestionably, my mentor and boss, Tim Romani. He put his trust in me and created opportunities for me to thrive. Even if I was completely new to something, he’d give me the end goal, some guidelines, and the faith that I would do everything in my power to get it right. 

Krista Hiner: My boss, Bryce Blum. He is extremely generous when providing me with the tools, guidance and feedback that I need to grow my career. He provides unwavering support and encourages me to be a leader.

Terri Carmichael Jackson: Without question my husband and NBA world champion (San Antonio Spurs, 1999) Jaren Jackson Sr. has had the biggest impact on my career. His love, support, advice and guidance are the reasons my personal life and my professional life are so abundant.

Michele Kajiwara: Todd Goldstein and Lee Zeidman, who I consider my professional parents (we’re a very “modern family”) — their support, guidance and wisdom have guided and shaped my career. 

Meredith Kinsman: Matt Malichio, our senior vice president of creative at Octagon, taught me how to engage consumers creatively through their passion in sport.

Thayer Lavielle: Casey Wasserman. His vision, support and leadership consistently make me think bigger and more strategically while championing the wins.

Melanie LeGrande: Kevin Byrne, executive vice president of public and community relations at the Baltimore Ravens, has been instrumental in my career as a champion, coach and manager for nearly 20 years. His support and encouragement permeated throughout my career.

Michelle McGoldrick: I couldn’t name just one person — it feels like there has been a small army of people supporting me along the way. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had amazing bosses and I’ve worked alongside some incredibly talented people that have truly cared for me and helped advocate for me throughout my career. 

Lucinda McRoberts: USA Swimming’s president and CEO, Tim Hinchey. He has provided both the opportunity and the mentorship to transition from lawyer to sports executive.

Jamie Morningstar: My dad, Roger Morningstar. He was an executive at Converse for a long time and we have been able to share our experiences in the industry over the years and his advice and guidance has been essential to my career growth.

Sianneh Mulbah: Timberwolves and Lynx CEO Ethan Casson has had an incredible impact on my career; not only did he recognize my strengths and talents, but put me in a position that allowed me to bring our vision to life, and gave me the autonomy to do what’s best for the people within our organization.

Pamela Murrin: WWE’s co-presidents, George Barrios and Michelle Wilson. They are great leaders, collaborators and strategists.

Laura Neal: My husband, who also works in sports, has created such a beautiful space for me to push myself to take on more responsibility than I ever thought I could handle, while also assuring me that who I am — right now — is enough. 

Gloria Nevarez: Charlie Whitcomb at San Jose State gave me my first opportunity to work in college athletics with a law degree and a one-year internship on my résumé.

Moira O’Connor: Tim LeFevour, general manager, SMG-Soldier Field, has grown up in this business, be it with a team or on the stadium side. The knowledge learned just from listening to conversations is invaluable. Tim allowing me to sit in meetings that didn’t pertain to my world, just to get a better understanding of each aspect of the business, has helped me tremendously in becoming better all-around.

Nicolina O’Rorke: Truly, the amazing senior team I work with — I have learned so much from them over the past four years under the leadership of David Preschlack — the industry and historical knowledge and collegial atmosphere.

Djenaba Parker: Definitely my dad. He didn’t work in sports (he’s an engineer, turned corporate executive, turned restaurant owner) but he taught me everything I know about hard work, perseverance and perspective — not to mention, he raised me to be a sports fan. 

Ana Shapiro Queenan: Johann Olav Koss. Watching him compete and win three gold medals in 1994 in Lillehammer was impressive and then seeing him take advantage of his moment of celebrity to donate his own winnings and his time to help those in need was inspiring. But then getting an opportunity to work for him at Right To Play years later had a real impact. 

Caroline Rebello: First, my family, who crowded around the TV every night to watch the Olympics, fostering my love of sport. Second, every woman who has ever shared her time with me to answer questions, share stories and offer advice — two that stand out are Pam Harris and Laurie Greenberg. Third, every man who hired me — David Finkelstein at Citi was the first. Lastly, the team at EMC and CAA Sports who are an absolute force and make it fun to go to work.

Tracie Rodburg: Former Yankees vice president of marketing and business development Joe Perello, who brought me into this business; and Renie Anderson, a great leader by teaching and by example.

Carla Rosenberg: Jeff Cogen gave me my first full-time job (at the Texas Rangers) and was an incredible mentor to me. He showed me the work ethic needed to execute at a high level and how to be an effective communicator. He was creative in implementing marketing strategies, and he was focused, passionate and tremendously caring. 

Tara Gutkowski Schwartz: My father, for setting an example on how to be an engaged and present working parent, and making me believe since day one that I can do anything I set out to. Kathy Behrens, for always having faith in me to get big things done, often before I believe I can do them myself. Todd Jacobson, for his unwavering support, and for letting me play out my ideas and put my unique stamp on everything I get the privilege to work on.

Carrie Skillman: My boss, Dan Parise, has had the biggest impact on my career. He brought me over to Scout seven years ago and provided me with every opportunity to grow and excel in my positions. He sees what I’m capable of before I do and encourages me to take on new challenges to further my development. 

Maureen Smith: Dr. Bill McGuire, owner of Minnesota United FC. He’s not afraid to do things differently and he values a variety of perspectives. I came to the sports industry later in my career, but he did not view that as a disadvantage. 

Amy Sprangers: Chuck Arnold (Seahawks president). He has been a friend, champion and has always had my back.

Neda Tabatabaie: Shannon Hosford, current CMO of MLSE, hired me into the sports industry and I reported to her for almost nine years. Shannon is a great leader, an excellent marketer who hired great people, created strong teams of high performers who innovated and executed at a high level, fostered a great culture and helped her team develop into leaders. 

Tina Thornton: Fred Gaudelli, executive producer of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” Fred gave me an opportunity to work on “Sunday Night Football” at ESPN early in my career when there were few women in production. He recognized the importance of diversity and inclusion way before this became a focus at companies. 

Alisha Valavanis: Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour leads with passion and purpose, she genuinely cares about the people she leads. Sandy demonstrates that a commitment to your values and purpose will create a space for positive impact. 

Whitney Wagoner: David Higdon, because he knows what my instinct is and he doesn’t let me shy away from it. 

Game Changers honorees filled in this sentence: Networking works best when I …


Naz Aletaha: Am not expecting an immediate gain from making the connection. Real networking is about actively listening and establishing a genuine relationship, not facilitating a transaction.


Megan Hughes Allison: Ask questions and learn what I can from the people I am meeting. Moving past the small talk is when networking is at its best!

Michelle Andres: Meet people who can relate to the experiences I have had as a woman working in professional sports yet offer unique insight into navigating that world and vice versa.

Molly Arbogast: Focus on thinking about how I can help the people I am networking with. Karma is real.

Christine Burke: Make the time to do it; sometimes it is hard to walk away from a scheduled meeting or a full inbox.

Shelly Cayette: Am personal and open with individuals I’m talking to and equally as interested in their interests.

Kim Damron: Have no agenda and I am just focused on people and relationships.

Kim Davis: Am in an authentic relationship with the person.

Jill Driban: Have a drink in my hand.

Wendy Fallen: Collaborate with colleagues and consider perspectives from others facing similar challenges.

Melissa Heiter: Listen with interest. Talking comes very naturally to me, so it’s an effort to really listen.

Krista Hiner: Focus on authentic interactions with people and prioritize relationships over transactions.

Terri Carmichael Jackson: Spend the time getting to know someone.

Michele Kajiwara: Have a (good) glass of wine in hand and some mutual connections in the room so we can share and expand our tribe.

Meredith Kinsman: Make connections for others.

Thayer Lavielle: Focus on the other person. This is a relationship business and people like to do business with people they like.

Melanie LeGrande: It’s authentic and intentional.

Michelle McGoldrick: Approach it as an opportunity to make new friends. I’ve just found that a real investment in relationships produces better results.

Lucinda McRoberts: Focus on what I can give rather than receive. I hated networking at the start of my career because it felt so one-sided. Now that I better understand what I have to offer, developing relationships is far more organic.

Jamie Morningstar: Don’t force it. I let it happen naturally and remember to listen.

Sianneh Mulbah: Make it a priority and go in with a plan of action.

Pamela Murrin: Establish a connection with other individuals – quid pro quo.

Laura Neal: Don’t have to do it (I know that sounds awful, but I am painfully shy by nature). But seriously, it works best when it’s authentic. The less (overtly) agenda-driven our interaction can be, the better.

Gloria Nevarez: Feel welcome.

Moira O’Connor: Can take myself out of my comfort zone.

Nicolina O’Rorke: Get my head out of the day-to-day grind and appreciate getting to spark a conversation with someone that could create an impactful connection.

Djenaba Parker: Have time to do it! It’s on my list of things to get better at prioritizing.

Ana Shapiro Queenan: Can find a personal and authentic way to connect with others, and a way to make them smile and laugh.

Caroline Rebello: The goal is not to network, but to meet new people and learn about who they are.

Tracie Rodburg: When I am invested in it.

Carla Rosenberg: Make an effort to get to know people. 

Tara Gutkowski Schwartz: Am at a sporting event. It’s the environment I am most comfortable in, and gives you an immediate conversation starter and shared connection with the people you’re with.

Carrie Skillman: I’m authentic and true to myself.

Maureen Smith: Listen.

Amy Sprangers: Am authentic and natural.

Neda Tabatabaie: Am/it is authentic.

Tina Thornton: Form pure bonds with people, usually starting on a personal level that eventually leads to business conversations.

Alisha Valavanis: Meet someone organically and connect on matters that have my attention right now.

Whitney Wagoner: Am authentic and natural.

Game Changers honorees answered this question: How should the industry address the challenges women face working in sports?


Naz Aletaha: Acknowledge the challenges. Encourage open dialogue to understand their root causes and create forums where meaningful solutions can be proposed and implemented. Establish career development opportunities at all levels, including early development and mentorship in high school and college. And empower more women to take on leadership roles and be stewards for positive change.


Megan Hughes Allison: If the industry didn’t look at challenges, but rather the opportunities women face working in sports, it would have a completely different perspective. The opportunity to have the intelligence, persistence, wisdom, patience and thoughtfulness that women can bring should be exciting to the industry. We should embrace this opportunity and continue to proactively pay it forward to young women coming up behind us.


Michelle Andres: Commit to developing internal women’s networks and making women a part of every aspect of the business; encourage men to think differently about the role of women in sports: just because women don’t play a sport doesn’t mean they can’t make significant contributions to its success.


Molly Arbogast: Women need to continue raising their hands and pursuing the big leadership positions.


Christine Burke: A suggestion that would be a small change with a big impact: As an industry, it is crucial that we are creating opportunities and providing access for young women to thrive in an equal field. Each of us have to take our part to champion gender equality to make true progress and empower future generations.


Shelly Cayette: Be more transparent, highlighting the challenge areas that exist without being defensive about them, while also continuing to highlight the great progress being made. Also, we should continue to highlight men in the workplace taking the initiative to close the gaps in pay, promotion opportunities, and ability and flexibility in the workplace to be a woman (i.e. pregnancy and raising a family).   


Kim Damron: We still don’t hire enough women in our industry, and too many women feel like they have to drop out of the workforce because it’s too hard to balance work and family. We need to be serious about enabling that balance.


Kim Davis: I believe in the Nike phrase “Just do it.” The challenges are only challenges if people in power don’t embrace them. We could fix any of the issues with women in sports with the wave of the magic wand that people in positions of power have. It’s just a matter of deciding to do it.


Jill Driban: There are some incredible women in our industry who are front and center, but there are just not enough. At times I struggled to find mentors and that should not be the case. As an industry, we need to find a way to continue to encourage and support women, especially the younger generation, to cultivate those next great leaders — Game Changers.


Wendy Fallen: Every challenge is an opportunity. Embrace them.


Julie Giese: I think this is already happening and we just need to keep a continued focus on it.


Melissa Heiter: With honesty and transparency. If we’re not talking about it, we can’t fix it. And that starts at the top from our leadership as they bring in women and people of color to make sure all voices are included in decision-making.


Krista Hiner: Increase visibility of women in the industry, give them a platform to share their stories, and take action based on that feedback. There is no single solution to these problems, but a consistent, ongoing effort to listen and act will help chip away at the problems.


Terri Carmichael Jackson: With a long-term plan, a steadfast and unrelenting commitment to success and with the understanding that by investing in girls and women, boys and men will win too.


Michele Kajiwara: Cast a wider net and take more chances when hiring so more women have an opportunity to apply and be considered. Also, try and use the same metrics to evaluate and compensate talent — seems like so much more work to have a double standard for men and women.


Meredith Kinsman: The industry should be a leader in setting up the workplace for all diverse populations to thrive. Consider being a leading industry in remote workforces, flexibility, and transparent compensation practices. 


Thayer Lavielle: By continuing to celebrate women and by continuing the conversation at every level, at every company. We all need to do better.


Melanie LeGrande: At its core, the industry must continue to acknowledge that there is room to improve. In many areas. And leadership should be intentional in ensuring there is significant representation and inclusion in high-level decision-making affecting the business.


Michelle McGoldrick: As a mom of young children working in the sports and entertainment business, I think it will become increasingly important for companies to embrace flexibility in the workplace. If we want to retain female talent at the top, work-life balance will continue to be paramount. 


Lucinda McRoberts: Facilitate an inclusive environment whereby women can participate fully.


Jamie Morningstar: The challenges: equal pay, gender bias and non-inclusive work environments. The only way any of these challenges are addressed is if everyone acknowledges them and attacks them with transparency, communication and accountability. 


Sianneh Mulbah: Organizations as a whole need to realize the value that women bring to the workplace, assess how an organization’s leaders support women and determine how to put policies in place that help women find equality and thrive. A huge step is seeing women in leadership roles that lead the next generation of female leaders.


Pamela Murrin: Recruiting women early in their career and teaching/coaching as they develop so that they grow within the business. [It's] harder to join from the outside at senior levels.


Laura Neal: We each have to take responsibility in advocating for a diverse mix of voices in the room and within the decision-making process. Women in leadership positions can’t be the only ones advocating for other women. This has to be a shared goal with the understanding that parity and respect are not just good ideas, they’re good for business.


Gloria Nevarez: Articulate the issues and become part of the solution. It’s not just women who can drive change for women, anyone in positions of power can prioritize change.


Moira O’Connor: By allowing women in the industry to be part of the solution. Creating working groups for women in the business to connect on a bigger level to focus in on what those challenges are.


Nicolina O’Rorke: Men and women in sports need to work together in partnership to ensure women get enough exposure to the parts of the business that offer advancement and meaningful career-building opportunities. Through our Women’s Network @ NBCUniversal, we have created programs like “Office Hours,” which give women and junior professionals in our organization the chance to spend time with an NBC Sports executive to get to know their business, open their eyes to development and career opportunities, and give senior leaders an opportunity to hear good ideas from individuals they don’t have the chance to interact with on a regular basis.


Djenaba Parker: Focus not only on diversity but also on inclusion. How can we make women feel like a part of the team once they are hired? The same goes for other minority groups. And don’t be afraid to foster open conversations about how best to make that happen.


Ana Shapiro Queenan: We need to continue to promote women to senior positions so that other women can see themselves in those positions and set their goals knowing that there is a place for them at the table. More visibility will motivate and provide access.


Caroline Rebello: Phase out artificially exclusionary philosophies, policies and practices that prevent women from entering the business and staying in the business with longevity. Hiring practices, business practices, maternity/paternity policies and flexible work programs are within our control and changes to them can benefit everyone in sports.


Tracie Rodburg: It’s all about communication to achieve a work environment that supports everyone.


Carla Rosenberg: The key is providing equal opportunities and qualified women will continue to take on leadership roles. Men and women both need to be working together to advance everyone toward a supportive work environment.


Tara Gutkowski Schwartz: Flexibility! I’ve had the opportunity to work from home one day a week since my daughter was born eight years ago. I still do my job, I still travel, I still bring everything I have to the table, but I get to show my two children that being their mother is, and always will be, my No. 1 priority. Also, I get to show the young women I work with that with a lot of effort and good support, they can make it all work.


Carrie Skillman: Treat us as equals and afford us the same opportunities to advance our careers.


Maureen Smith: Leaders need to be intentional about expanding access and opportunities to work in sports to a broader audience. How we recruit, interview and hire for every position matters.


Amy Sprangers: I would love to continue to see strong, bold, accountable women inspired and emboldened to create change. Women who are not afraid to lead the conversation, women who have an inclusive mindset because understanding other points of view and having representation at every level is so important.


Neda Tabatabaie: We need to be intentional about diversity and inclusion, talking about it will create awareness but it will do little in actually making the change. It’s up to each of us to actually do something, in whatever position we have, instead of waiting for other people to do something for us. Women or men, inclusion is good for everybody. It can start with being cognizant of our own biases and addressing them. Pay attention to who and how you are hiring.


Tina Thornton: The industry must recognize that having diverse voices at the table is critical to their business success. Those diverse voices need to be included in the conversation. ESPN has a saying: “Diversity is who is on the team. Inclusion is who gets to play.” More women need the opportunity to get in the game. 


Alisha Valavanis: Head on. Although there has been progress over the years, there are still incredible inequities and challenges facing women working in sports. We need to continue to identify these gaps and acknowledge the unique and complex social backdrop that plays into them. We need to continue the work toward a path forward, without pause, until it is a more equitable space for women, on and off the playing fields. 


Whitney Wagoner: I’d like us to get to a point where we can make the statement that women’s experiences are different and we don’t have to imbue that with some sort of judgment. I just want us to start from (that) shared understanding.

We asked honorees: What one thing do you wish you had known at the start of your career?


Naz Aletaha: It’s OK to not know what you want to be when you grow up. Follow your passion and know that a career path is not always straight. Embrace the twists and turns.

Megan Hughes Allison: When I was young, getting started in my career, I honestly thought I already knew everything. I had to grow and mature to realize that I am constantly learning and that every new experience or interaction is teaching me something. 

Michelle Andres: Master the art of having difficult conversations; don’t be afraid to have them. Too much energy is wasted avoiding them.

Molly Arbogast: Silence the voice of doubt inside and go for it. You will learn more doing the job than questioning whether you have the skills. Create your own team of people who believe in you. You will know who they are when you need them most.

Christine Burke: In the hardest moments, you will be judged by how you respond to challenges and hard times, and not by the mistakes that created them.

Shelly Cayette: If you don’t have it figured out, pretend that you do (while you are figuring it out) and just make it happen.

Kim Damron: You really can be a working mom, and you can have it all — but it is not going to be perfect.

Kim Davis: I wish I had known how important it is to bring up the next generation of leaders. And that that is an important aspect to what leaders do in terms of building a legacy.

Jill Driban: Not to be intimidated. Our business is one of personal relationships. If you are afraid or intimidated to introduce yourself to someone, whomever they may be, whatever title they may hold, it won’t do you any good.  

Wendy Fallen: Surround yourself with great people and support them in their efforts.

Julie Giese: Be more patient. Everything will work out the way you want it to … but you have to be flexible with your timeline.

Melissa Heiter: I wish I would have known early on that there really is a place for everyone, so it’s OK to keep looking until you find a place where you can thrive.

Krista Hiner: That some men actually would treat me differently from my male counterparts because I’m a woman, whether they realized it or not. I would have been better prepared for it.

Terri Carmichael Jackson: There’s no such thing as “fair.” Oh wait! My mother taught me that at age 6.

Michele Kajiwara: There are plenty of people in this business that have no idea what they’re doing. To some degree everyone is faking it till they truly figure it out. No one starts out with all the answers.

Meredith Kinsman: To be intentional about staying in touch with your former colleagues throughout your entire career.

Thayer Lavielle: Don’t sweat the small stuff. It robs you of the fun of the job.

Melanie LeGrande: Understanding that it isn’t a ladder to success, it’s a (climbing) wall to success. Sometimes you scale to the right, sometimes you scale to the left, but you keep going up. 

Michelle McGoldrick: That executives were once in your shoes. Find the courage to approach them and make a meaningful impression.

Lucinda McRoberts: Your “dream job” grows with you. It is impossible to contemplate all of the opportunities that may exist over the course of a career, so focus more on the present and enjoy the journey.

Jamie Morningstar: You can have it all. You can achieve a work-life balance.

Sianneh Mulbah: When I was younger I wish I knew the power of a network. A person’s network can have significant impact at different times throughout a career.

Pamela Murrin: Importance of having advocates and how to successfully self-promote.

Laura Neal: It’s OK to ask questions. I tell our interns and my younger colleagues this all the time — you’re not supposed to know everything. Ask thoughtful questions that help you get your work done creatively and efficiently. 

Gloria Nevarez: There are authentic ways to let others know about or get recognition for your work without being a self-promoter or prioritizing style over substance. Raises and promotions don’t appear just because you work hard or are good at what you do. One needs to be professionally assertive.

Moira O’Connor: That I would be in this career. I would have saved a lot of money on law school. I say that in jest — I don’t believe I would be in the position I am without that education.

Nicolina O’Rorke: Performance excellence builds a strong foundation, while cultivating your image and gaining exposure can catalyze your career.

Djenaba Parker: That it is OK to bring my “whole self” to work and that will actually add value — i.e., diversity of perspective, experience, etc., that drives innovation and contributes to business strategy.

Ana Shapiro Queenan: Passion can drive you, but people don’t owe it to you to listen to your ideas. Analyze and understand the different perspectives in any situation, and then build a compelling business case that will resonate with your audience.

Caroline Rebello: The importance of female mentorship. No one knows what it is like to sprint a steeplechase in high heels like another woman who has done it before you. I didn’t know what I was missing until I met my first female mentor. 

Tracie Rodburg: The virtue and value of patience.

Carla Rosenberg: To have some proficiency in digital design software — so many times I want to be able to go into marketing materials or presentations and make small tweaks or put an event design or strategy together that communicates my vision in a graphically appealing way.

Tara Gutkowski Schwartz: Every backup plan needs a backup plan. Nothing is ever going to go the way you want it to go, but you can still get the results you’ve set out to achieve.

Carrie Skillman: Network — don’t be afraid to introduce yourself.

Maureen Smith: I wish I knew, and believed, that I could trust the process. Every personal and professional experience has value and success is finding a way to link them all together. I didn’t understand this perspective early in my career.

Amy Sprangers: Don’t just ask yourself, “What do I want to do?” Ask yourself, “Who do I want to be?” The most important thing I have learned is what you do will never define you for long. Who you are always will. — Abby Wambach

Tina Thornton: The ladder you take in your career doesn’t always have to be straight. I heard Willow Bay, dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, speak at an event last year. She reminded us that a successful career can be a lattice ladder, where you move from side to side or up and down as you explore new opportunities. 

Alisha Valavanis: Losing is an important part of winning.

Whitney Wagoner: That people don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about me. I spent so much time worrying and losing sleep about how people were perceiving me or my work, and now I know that unless I’m actively having a conversation with someone, they’re not thinking about me at all.

We asked this year’s honorees: What is the most memorable sporting event you’ve attended?


Naz Aletaha: The 2005 USC vs. Notre Dame football game with the “Bush Push.” And the 2019 Champions League final in Madrid — my first international soccer game. Never in my life have I seen fandom like that. It was electric, and what we aspire to with “League of Legends.”

Megan Hughes Allison: Every Finals game during the Chicago Bulls’ 1996-97 season! The United Center was electric … the fans were amazing … my heart beat out of my body! By far the most memorable time in sports I have ever experienced!

Michelle Andres: Super Bowl XLVII when the Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers!

Molly Arbogast: The final stage of the Tour de France in Paris. It’s the most amazing setting for an event and the end of a grueling competition for the riders.

Christine Burke: I ran the New York City Marathon in 2001, just a few months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. I’ll never forget how my sense of fear and devastation was replaced by a sense of overwhelming New Yorker pride over those 26.2 miles.

Shelly Cayette: 2016 NBA championship game in Oakland (Cavs vs. Golden State Warriors) and championship parade following for a city that had not won a championship in 50-plus years.

Kim Damron: I’m a huge Dodger fan, and I’m proud to say I was at the 1988 World Series game for Kirk Gibson’s home run.

Kim Davis: My first basketball game. I must have been 7 or 8 years old. My uncle had season tickets for the Bulls. … I became a basketball fan because of that early exposure. That’s why I know when kids are exposed early, it changes their whole view.

Jill Driban: Super Bowl LII. Watching the Eagles win their first Super Bowl. My team. My hometown. Seeing people around me, grown men, in tears, while the confetti fell. Hearing “Dreams and Nightmares” on the sound system while the team ran out of the tunnel. And the Philly Special. It was pure and simple magic. It almost makes you forget how cold Minneapolis was.

Wendy Fallen: Being a member of my alma mater’s first-ever Big Ten women’s gymnastics championship.

Julie Giese: The Open Championship 2013.

Melissa Heiter: Definitely watching the Chicago Cubs win the NLCS  during Game 6 at Wrigley Field in 2016. Given that it was the Cubs’ first pennant win since 1945, and that they had sealed their place in the World Series, there’s no doubt why the excitement level in Chicago will be something I’ll remember and cherish for the rest of my life. Go Cubs Go!

Krista Hiner: The 2018 Boston Major. Majors are top tier, international events. The 2018 Boston Major was the first time a North American team won a “Counter-Strike” major. Cloud9, the winner, is a client of mine, and they won in spectacular fashion. A close second is the American League Central tiebreaker game between the Twins and Tigers in 2009. It was a great game on its own, plus 1) the Twins won, and 2) it was the final year the Twins played in the Metrodome. 

Terri Carmichael Jackson: You never forget your first time: 2016 WNBA Finals — all five games.

Michele Kajiwara: The 2014 World Cup in Brazil. My husband is Brazilian so it was extra special to be there with him to see the opening ceremony and match between Brazil and Croatia in Sao Paulo. The energy from all the global fans made it the most electric sporting experience I’ve ever experienced.

Meredith Kinsman: My son’s first soccer game.

Thayer Lavielle: Super Bowl 2002, watching Tom Brady clinch his first Super Bowl as a rookie. It’s been quite a ride as a Patriots fan ever since.

Melanie LeGrande: The Major League Baseball game played at Fort Bragg was especially special. I’m a military child, and my parents met while my father was stationed at Fort Bragg, as my mother’s family hails from the Fayetteville area. To be there in the intimate setting with my parents was pretty cool.

Michelle McGoldrick: My junior year of college my friends and I drove a Winnebago from Chestnut Hill, Mass., to South Bend, Ind., and watched the upset of a lifetime when Boston College defeated the fourth-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish 14-7. GO EAGLES!

Lucinda McRoberts: The most memorable sporting event I’ve attended is Game 1 of the 2004 World Series at Fenway Park. It would be the best sporting event I’ve attended if the Cardinals had won.

Jamie Morningstar: 2008 men’s basketball NCAA championship game. I had the opportunity to watch the Kansas Jayhawks (my alma mater) win the national championship. Most importantly, watching my brother who was on the team be a part of such an exciting victory.

Sianneh Mulbah: The 2015 WNBA Finals was an incredibly memorable event. Our Minnesota Lynx won their third WNBA title, buzz at Target Center was incredible and our Lynx were able to celebrate with nearly 19,000 fans.

Pamela Murrin: America’s Cup.

Laura Neal: I will never forget my first golf tournament — The Players Championship in 1997 — where I served as a volunteer during my senior year of college. Walking through those gates (in my tour-issued golf shirt and khaki shorts that were four sizes too big), I felt like I was part of something huge … even though my “job” was simply to put wristbands on people coming into a hospitality chalet. I could never have imagined that 10 years later I’d be working for the tour. That initial experience not only gave me a sense of the bigness of the tour, but also an appreciation for the volunteer workforce that makes our tournaments possible.

Gloria Nevarez: Too many to choose one. 

Moira O’Connor: Working Super Bowl for the first time was by far the most memorable event I’ve ever been at. Working an event on that level with a team that is all working toward the same goal and leaving at the end of the night after a successful event on that scale, there isn’t anything else like it.

Nicolina O’Rorke: 2007 Georgetown vs. Vanderbilt Sweet Sixteen game at the Continental Airlines Arena. I was sitting with my now husband and his Vandy buddies when Jeff Green hit a game-winning buzzer beater. It was tough to celebrate graciously in a sea of despairing Vanderbilt alumni.

Djenaba Parker: I’m a huge tennis fan so probably Roland Garros (French Open) in 2015.

Ana Shapiro Queenan: It’s a tie: As a Canadian, watching men’s gold medal hockey at the Vancouver Games was unbelievable. Singing “O Canada” on the last day of the Games, surrounded by my family and friends, after being a part of the organizing committee in my home country, was emotional and such a proud moment. As a woman in sport, and a former hockey player

(who had to play on a boys team growing up), watching women’s gold medal hockey in Pyeongchang was inspiring. The level of hockey was amazing, and the women on both teams are such amazing competitors and role models for young girls, which is something that I didn’t really have in hockey growing up.

Caroline Rebello: Game 6 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final in St. Louis. The city was absolutely electric and the eventual outcome became one of the greatest stories in sports.

Tracie Rodburg: New York Giants Super Bowl victory in 2008. I had my sister with me and it was amazing.

Carla Rosenberg: Wimbledon.

Tara Gutkowski Schwartz: Being present at the inaugural NBA Africa Game in 2015, the first-ever basketball game featuring NBA players on the continent. It was a historic moment.

Carrie Skillman: 2010 World Cup — USA vs. Algeria. Landon Donovan scoring in extra time to advance the USMNT into the next round of the tournament still gives me chills til this day thinking about it.

Maureen Smith: Michigan vs. Ohio State, 1991, and getting to witness Desmond Howard’s Heisman pose after his 93-yard punt return. 

Amy Sprangers: Super Bowl XLVIII.

Neda Tabatabaie: I’ll give you two from last season. Toronto Raptors vs. Golden State Warriors, NBA Finals, where Oracle Arena turned into Canada after each win. And Sharks Game 7 win over the Vegas Golden Knights in Round 1. Still gives me chills.

Tina Thornton: I worked the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament in 1995, two years after graduating from Wake Forest. Wake beat UNC 82-80 in overtime in the championship game. Randolph Childress scored 37 points with the game-winner and had 107 points over three games. An amazing performance … I was in tears.

Alisha Valavanis: Last season, Game 3 of the Finals to secure the WNBA championship. It was a franchise third and my very first.

Whitney Wagoner: I love the finish line of the NYC marathon in Central Park. 

We asked the Game Changers to send us fun photos to highlight the people, places and events that are important to them. Here is a glimpse into their lives.


Game Changers 2019: Gallery of fun