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Volume 23 No. 13


Earlier this summer, it was debated just how much the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s World Cup win would amplify coverage and interest around women’s sports. Unequivocally, it had a profound impact, as the storylines of women’s sports were a significant and consistent thread through the summer of sports business. There was an increase at the gate, in sponsorship, in media coverage and in social discussions — and it felt notable.

The NWSL clearly benefited. In the 38 games played since the World Cup, the league averaged 9,168 fans per game, a sizable increase of 51% over the 6,069 before the World Cup. At the local level, the Portland Thorns continued to raise the bar for women’s sports and set a single-game record by drawing more than 25,000 to Providence Park in August. That figure broke the previous club record of more than 22,000, which the team drew just weeks earlier. The Thorns are the most inspiring team business story in women’s sports.

But other markets saw lifts as well: The Washington Spirit drew nearly 20,000 for a Saturday night game at Audi Field in August, which The Washington Post called a “remarkable sign of growth for an organization without a winning tradition.” This came as team owner Steve Baldwin vowed to make major investments to improve the team’s travel while expanding staff. 

The women’s national team were pop culture stars, and attendance for their Victory Tour ranged from a sellout of nearly 20,000 at Allianz Field to 37,000 at the Rose Bowl to nearly 50,000 at Heinz Field. But it wasn’t just in the United States where women’s soccer benefited. The Women’s Super League in the U.K. saw more than 30,000 attend a Man City-ManU WSL match at Etihad Stadium, a new high for the league. More than 60,000 attended the six WSL games over opening weekend in England, a twelvefold increase from the 2018-19 season. The London Times wrote the “landmark weekend” offered a “glimpse of just how big” women’s soccer could become. 

The numbers were smaller for the Women’s International Champions Cup, which drew more than 8,000 for its title match in Cary, N.C. But that was better than the event’s inaugural year in 2018 at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, and founder Relevent Sports also landed Budweiser as the Cup’s first presenting partner. 

Let’s not limit the attention to soccer. Women dominated the tennis headlines this summer, led by the emergence of 15-year-old Coco Gauff. London’s The Guardian noted that Gauff’s matches at Wimbledon “attracted the largest TV audiences and the most boisterous roars on Henman Hill.” She later became the youngest player to reach the U.S. Open’s third round in more than two decades, and her postmatch interview with Naomi Osaka was one of the most talked about moments of the event. In addition to Gauff, 19-year-old Canadian Bianca Andreescu was another new name on the scene, winning the U.S. Open, and The New York Times wrote that the new generation of female tennis players “represent various races and nationalities.”

The WNBA introduced new Commissioner Cathy Engelbert in July, and she has received strong early reviews. The league also took its All-Star Game to Las Vegas for the first time, drawing more than 9,000 fans, with Kobe Bryant, Megan Rapinoe and Chris Paul taking in the action.

Finally, one can’t overlook the impact and influence of Simone Biles, who had a historic performance at the USA Gymnastics Championships in Kansas City in August. The embattled sport proved it could still be a draw, as the four-day total of 33,894 was a record for the event. Even Biles was surprised by the publicity around it, saying, “Not too many people pay attention to gymnastics, especially in a non-Olympic year.” 

There were other signs of a shift — the Jerry Solomon-backed, all-women Aurora Games debuted, and while it drew sparse crowds, Solomon vowed to bring it back. There was also the powerful ad campaign from the U.S. Tennis Association and SheIS, #WomenWorthWatching, which ran throughout the U.S. Open and had Billie Jean King lead with the pointed narration, “Today, only 4% of sports coverage features female athletes.” All positive signs over a nine-week period.

For me, what truly stands out is the letter I received from a young man named Seth Rubinroit at NBC Sports, who said all the debate about the appeal of women’s sports inspired him to attend a WNBA game with a group of 30-plus work colleagues. Afterward he told me, “I am encouraged that so many of my colleagues, after being exposed to professional women’s basketball for the first time, said they wanted to go again.” 

That’s what you can build on. It’s what women’s sports needs more and more of — and what it got this summer.


First Look podcast, with issues Abe is watching this week, at the 25:40 mark:

Abraham Madkour can be reached at

I have long had an appreciation for the role of group sales in establishing a comprehensive attendance plan. From my time at the NBA through my current consulting activities, having a solid group sales plan is key to the overall attendance health of an organization.

Murray Cohn, a former student who ran group sales for the Orlando Magic and now has his own consulting practice, said it best: “While the industry direction is that full-season-ticket sales and individual game tickets are trending down, there have been significant increases in group sales.”

Poor-performing teams are often more dependent upon group sales than successful teams, and the available inventory provides them the opportunity to be more creative in terms of price and incentives. A successful group sales program can make a building seem and look fuller. I have previously written about the importance of promotional themes and used the example of MiLB and the Copa de la Diversion series (SBJ September 17-23, 2018). 

This year I’ve been particularly impressed by two thematic promotions that drive group (and individual) sales with the use of a quality premium item that can also be enhanced through food and beverage, music, contests and other assets related to game entertainment. Both of these examples come from baseball — because of inventory availability — but are adaptable to other sports as well.

The first of these thematic group sales activities comes from the San Diego Padres and their Heritage and Community Night Theme Game program. The Padres finished second in MLB group sales last year with 443,000 for an average of 5,687 per game over 78 home games (three games were played in Mexico). This season, Heritage nights have accounted for 23,000 in ticket sales with seven of the 17 scheduled heritage night games remaining. This number has already eclipsed last year’s total. According to Curt Waugh, senior director of ticket sales and membership services for the Padres: “A successful heritage night is one where we can combine our marketing and experiential efforts on a game night with the reach and communication of a group leader.”

The San Diego Padres have seen group sales surge with the implementation of Heritage and Community Night Theme Game events.
Photo: san diego padres
The San Diego Padres have seen group sales surge with the implementation of Heritage and Community Night Theme Game events.
Photo: san diego padres
The San Diego Padres have seen group sales surge with the implementation of Heritage and Community Night Theme Game events.
Photo: san diego padres

Success is defined as nights that sell more than 750 tickets. The most successful nights have been Pride Night (5,118 tickets), and ones for Irish Heritage (1,835) Filipino Heritage (1,585) and Portuguese Heritage (1,340). I had the opportunity to attend Japanese Heritage night in 2018 for Angels star Shohei Ohtani’s first trip to San Diego, and because he is primarily a designated hitter and thus wasn’t in the starting lineup at a National League park, the attendees arrived early to watch batting practice. The caps included in the ticket package featured the Padres’ logo in the colors of Japan’s flag. Food, beverage, music, on-field activities and the scoreboard were used to make the evening memorable. (Seems like it might have also provided an amazing sponsorship opportunity for an entity such as Waugh mentioned that they’re working on opportunities for fantasy football leagues to use suites for “war rooms” for their draft prior to that night’s game.

My second group theme night also involved a baseball cap as a premium item. A gray Pittsburgh Pirates cap, which is easily customized with a school’s logo and colors on the side and the Pirate “P,” costs about $8 and is incorporated into the $21-$28 ticket price at PNC Park. Astute group planners often select Friday as the night for their group to attend, combining the cap with Free Shirt Friday and $1 hot dogs — an enticing incentive for group leaders to offer to their groups. This bargain hunting is a type of peak-on-peak promotion: great day of the week and a value proposition. That is different from the traditional peak-on-peak — great opponent and great day of the week.  

The Pittsburgh Pirates use customized caps for their University Nights program.
Photo: bill sutton
The Pittsburgh Pirates use customized caps for their University Nights program.
Photo: bill sutton
The Pittsburgh Pirates use customized caps for their University Nights program.
Photo: bill sutton

According to Jim Popovich, Pirates vice president of sales and service: “Our University Nights program, which began in 2015 with seven schools like Pitt, Penn State, WVU, Robert Morris and Duquesne, has now grown to 12 schools that now include Edinboro University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) and Slippery Rock. The Pirates are currently averaging almost 800 tickets per game, with 2019 pacing to be our most successful year to date.”

I am always astonished that when team performance goes up, group sales inventory is often cut dramatically or even eliminated. When team performance erodes, the first thing the organization attempts to do is to court the former groups that came and supported them when they weren’t performing well. Group sales has to remain part of the mix that makes up the pipeline of potential buyers if for no other reason than it creates a flow of samplers who become the season-ticket buyers and suite owners of the future.

Cohn has reinforced my thoughts and shared that the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL set the league’s all-time group sales record this past season and sold out 31 of their 36 home games, including the postseason. According to Cohn, this demand on the group sales side was instrumental in helping them increase both their season-ticket sales and their single-game sales buy, not only bringing in samplers who enjoyed themselves and wanted to repeat their experiences either with family or friends, but also by consuming available inventory, creating demand for other ticket options.

If you can be a facilitator of good times regardless of how the team is playing, you will have an audience that can be cultivated and developed.


Bill Sutton ( is director emeritus of the VinikGraduate Sport Business Program at USF, dean of Elevate Academy and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.

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

As we celebrate the 2019 class of Game Changers, we look for the future classes the same way we often look for future athletes in sports: through their coaches. The readers of SBJ are the coaches of future stars of the industry.  We need you to mentor the next generation of leaders, whether by starting a formal mentoring program at your company, through an industry program, or something as simple as inviting a junior employee to coffee.

The Game Changers issue focuses on both women in the business of sports and the business of women’s sports. We know that their success, as well as the success of our business, is dependent on mentoring. We know both from personal experience and literature on research that having mentors and champions is a key to professional success for all groups, and it can be particularly critical for women who may not otherwise have access to the same social networks as their male counterparts. Research has also shown that peer mentoring is a significant resource for leveraging opportunity in women’s career success. As Harvard Business Review has detailed, mentors and champions can significantly affect career trajectory for women through helping strategize, connect and give opportunities.   

Unfortunately, statistics around mentorship of women are getting worse. In a recent study by and Survey Monkey, 60% of male managers are uncomfortable mentoring or otherwise working with women. We believe there is an opportunity to reverse that trend and improve mentoring by both men and women of younger employees, male or female. Otherwise, significant lost opportunity will have negative long-term effects. Having been matched at the 2018 Game Changers conference in the CSM Mentoring Challenge, we wanted to share a few pieces of advice for companies, mentors, and mentees that apply for men and women. 

Create Mentoring Programs and a Mentoring Culture 

If your company has a mentoring program, participate. If it does not, look for industry mentoring programs, start a program at your company, or start informal mentoring relationships. From the mentee’s perspective, this may look like asking those you admire in the company if you could take them to lunch or coffee to ask them about their career path and what their daily work looks like. For potential mentors, creating a culture of mentorship means having a coaching focus in the way you lead your employees, saying yes when junior employees ask you for time, being cognizant of whether there are imbalances in who is asking you or who you are giving time to, and halting gossip when you hear it. 

On this last point, this means when you hear someone infer that men supporting women must have ulterior motives, you create an open dialogue on why the person is making that statement and help them explore the impact of their statement, while remaining firm that gossip is counter to your office culture.

Set Expectations 

Setting expectations along two spectrums leads to the most productive mentoring relationships. If you are setting up a program at your company, take the time to formalize this process. First, set expectations regarding goals. Mentees need to understand that a mentor is not a therapist and is not there to intervene or solve problems on their behalf.  Second, set expectations regarding time commitment (when and where meetings will take place, duration of the meeting and the program) and who will conduct the scheduling.

Mentees, Not Mini-Me’s

Sometimes we seek a mentor who does exactly what we think we want to do. One of the most fun parts of our mentoring relationship was working in different geographic areas, sports and business areas. In fact, what mentoring expert and author David Clutterbuck refers to as “diversity mentoring” (mentoring relationships in which each party is different from the other) has a positive impact not only on the mentor and mentee, but also on the company.  

Prepare and Question

For mentees: Understand what you are looking to accomplish, do your research and be prepared with questions prior to a conversation with your mentor that do not have simple yes or no answers. Enable your mentor to tell you a story of how she/he navigated an issue; it will be beneficial in the immediate sense of how you handle that situation and reassuring that someone you admire has been there and not only done that, but succeeded too.

Mentors need to focus even more than mentees on asking questions. The easiest trap to fall into as a mentor is to start giving advice instead of asking your mentee questions to help them find answers on their own. 

There is nothing more rewarding than watching your mentee succeed, so enjoy the process.

At last year’s Sports Business Journal Game Changers conference, San Francisco 49ers Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel Hannah Gordon and New York Racing Associating Digital Marketing Manager Emily Miller were paired for the CSM Mentoring Challenge in partnership with SBJ.

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

I just got my copy of your [NFL100] issue. It’s fabulous. What a great job you did. The pieces on my father and the other greats of the game were enlightening and well done. I am going to put your magazine in the collection of mine that will be unveiled at UMass Amherst later this year. It will include artifacts of football from the early 1900s to today. It will have many of my father’s artifacts and my 1970 Super Bowl ring. Congratulations!

Upton Bell

Cambridge, Mass.

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