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SXSW Panel Discusses Path To Better, More Diverse Sports World

From the playing field to the front office, increasing diversity within sports is more than just the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do.

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Photo Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Together with food and music, sports is one of three topics that brings people of all walks of life together, according to NBA Chief Diversity Officer Oris Stuart at the SXSW panel “Leveling the Playing Field for Minorities in Sports.” They are a gathering point and a community-builder. It only follows, then, that the industry should be as inclusive as the wider world that follows it — not just for virtue’s sake, but because it more perspectives make everyone better.

“More diversity creates more ideas, more insights,” he said. “It creates more options and when you have more options to consider the possibilities are extended. It’s a simple, but very powerful equation.”

Or, as Los Angeles Sparks President and COO Danita Johnson puts it,  “Doing the right thing is the right business decision,” Johnson said.

READ MORE: Minor League Baseball Connects Women to Help ‘Lift’ Careers

To that end, hiring for the sake of checking a box just doesn’t cut it, said Andrew Ference, NHL director of social impact, growth and legislative affairs, and a 17-year NHL veteran.

“It’s important to authentically put people in their positions because they’re the best candidates,” Ference said.

The challenge is how to best enable that. According to Johnson, one hidden barrier to better diversity is the language in job descriptions, which can sometimes deter women, in particular, from applying.

“How do we write those descriptions for more diverse backgrounds to apply?” Johnson said. “These are the types of things we have to think about. A hiring manager needs to be open to that. Are people only taking warm entries? Be open to looking at more resumes. That’s on me if that’s happening.”

Stuart also noted looking at resumes can lead to unconscious biases and placement in the “no” pile.  Interview panels are another area for possible scrutiny, both for how they might impact a potential hire and how they feel or might be looked at by the candidate.

Strategies rooted in diversity and inclusion also aren’t enough, Stuart noted, but there needs to be a process to measure the progress as well. To that end, Johnson believes workplace diversity likely will accelerate if more people see themselves represented in the sport and business at a higher level. That’s especially true on the playing field.

“One of the keys in all this is, when you look at sports, any sport, diversity in the amount and type of people playing,” she said. “If we’re hiring people who don’t look like fans, how do we know them?”

The NHL is one league working to take those tenets to heart. Hockey executives are well aware of hockey’s long-standing traditions and how it is often viewed as a sport for affluent white populations. Hockey barriers-to-entry are high, with significant equipment costs and participation fees along with complex infrastructure needs with ice rinks. That poses a massive barrier of entry to aspiring players from low socioeconomic backgrounds, many of whom are the lifeblood of the game at the grassroots level.

“Our big question is, ‘Do we represent the communities we play in?’ For the most part, it’s ‘no,’” Ference said. “That’s a massive issue if we don’t properly represent.”

READ MORE: How the Atlanta Hawks Are Growing a Winning Fanbase Through Love

Ference said the NHL doesn’t directly charge its clubs with diversity-related directives in the league’s objectives, but some clubs stand out more positively than others. He believes those that do have increased their efforts in business development and are more aggressive to engage their communities.

“The big cultural question of, ‘Do I belong?’ That’s a big hurdle for people,” Ference said. “We need to show people are a part of and embraced in the sport. It’s not good enough to have a good and fun product.

“If you don’t feel welcomed, you won’t stick around.”

Pat Evans is a writer based in Las Vegas, focusing on sports business, food, and beverage. He graduated from Michigan State University in 2012. He's written two books: Grand Rapids Beer and Nevada Beer. Evans can be reached at pat@frntofficesport.com.

Diversity

Documentary Tells Icelandic Gender Equality Story Through Snowboarding

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Photo credit: Anne-Flore Marxer

Following years of fighting for gender equality in Europe’s snowboarding, Anne-Flore Marxer has channeled her efforts into an award-winning film.

Marxer has been traveling the globe screening “A Land Shaped by Women,” a documentary following her and her friend and fellow world champion snowboarder Aline Bock as they explore Iceland, a place ranked first in gender equality by the United Nations nine years in a row.

Her battles in gender equality in snowboarding ultimately resulted in equal prize money in freestyle competitions and brought women back on the Freeride World Tour, but the constant struggles took their toll.

“I was so tired; I had no more joy,” Marxer said about her feelings following her last competition win in 2017. “I decided to go to Iceland for a week. I heard it was on the forefront of gender equality and I needed a break and to find empowerment and inspiration.”

What she found in Iceland was exactly what she needed, but discovered a deeper desire to tell the story of Iceland’s women, as well as a more empowering snowboarding movie than the historic male triumph story.

Marxer and Bock ended up spending an entire winter in Iceland, tracing the history of the island nation’s women’s equality movements from the 1915 right to vote to Oct. 24, 1975, when 90 percent of Icelandic women brought the country to a standstill by no working or fulfilling their daily duties, demonstrating their importance.

READ MORE: Minor League Baseball Connects Women to Help ‘Lift’ Careers

“What struck me was how women created and brought the change,” Marxer said. “They didn’t play by the rules. They brought about change to the political landscape by bringing the issues to the center of the social debate and changed how the politics worked.”

Through the movie, interviews with Icelandic women and footage of snowboarding and surfing — Marxer is also an avid surfer — are shown. The focus was to alter the path of snowboarding videos.

“The storytelling is most often telling about the extreme and dangerous conditions and how one guy can survive and reach the top,” she said. “That narrative is very reductive because in snowboarding and skiing, 40 percent of participants are women. I was seeking female inspiration and setting a different narrative.

“All these moments we spend on the mountain or the sea, it’s magical. You don’t need to be a man to experience the joy of these beautiful sports.”

As she’s screened the movie across the globe, “A Land Shaped by Women” has won 13 awards at film festivals and she’s seen inspiration and sparked discussions in the women and girls in attendance —  but also the men, an aspect Marxer said she never imagined.

“A Land Shaped by Women” is now available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Xbox, PlayStation, Vimeo on Demand, VUDU and FandangoNow.

“For me, it’s beautiful the film is getting me to places around the world and I’m just hopeful that the most amount of women [possible] have a chance to watch it,” she said. “It has nothing to do with me, but I know this film is bringing quite a bit of beautiful empowerment and inspiration I wish for the younger generations.”

Marxer said she has several ideas rattling around in her head for her next project, but she’s not going to rush into anything as she hopes another project will present itself in a similar fashion.

READ MORE: Overtime Capitalizes on Women’s Basketball Buzz With OvertimeWBB

“I would like to leave the door open to magic again,” she said. “I want to be able to finish this and let it grow on its own and have its own life. What happened was magical to have the inspiration that led to this.”

It’s likely the next project will be in a similar theme to “A Land Shaped by Women,” as she wants to tell the stories of women across the globe. She also knows sports can play an important role in empowering women and building self-confidence.

“It was never a plan for me to become a world champion,” Marxer said. “There are very few places you can grow your self-esteem, but in sports, it’s easy to grow. When you understand you have to put effort in gaining ability, you have to build skills and over time, you become better and it makes you smile.

“You don’t need someone to tell you you did a good job. You can feel it. Sports are the best way to get empowered, and once you have it in sports, you can use it in all other aspects of life.”

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How the Atlanta Hawks Are Growing a Winning Fanbase Through Love

The Atlanta Hawks hosted the organization’s first Love Wins event to promote diversity and inclusion on Valentine’s Day, continuing drive to social change.

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Photo credit: Lauren Kania Photography

The Atlanta Hawks were the latest NBA team to celebrate the many shades of love with its Love Wins event on Valentine’s Day with a focus on the LGBTQ community.

While the team faced some challenges on social media, the Hawks’ Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Nzinga Shaw said the event was successful and the community has been generally positive with its reception.

Shaw believes sports organizations are primed to be drivers of social change, and events such as Love Wins helps continue the mission.

“We are uniquely positioned as a sports organization to create unifying moments,” she said. “We have a product that attracts different demographics of people to come to our building and celebrate with us. Our role as a sports organization is to be a bridge-builder, finding that connective tissue and bring it all together.”

Love Wins helped show Shaw the acceptance from many Hawks fans, and the organization’s potential paths to go in “new and unexpected places” to help unify the fanbase.

The execution of the game wasn’t difficult, Shaw said, explaining how the general programming is easy to implement in a normal night.

READ MORE: Minor League Baseball Connects Women to Help ‘Lift’ Careers

In terms of scheduling, Shaw said Valentine’s Day just made the most sense for hosting a night all about the many ways love shows its colors.

“Overall, Valentine’s Day represents love,” she said. “Love shows up in all sorts of forms, and Valentine’s Day commemorates people giving positive vibes and energy to one another in however it appears.”

The night started with the national anthem sung by the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus, and featured halftime performances by Robin S and Crystal Waters, as well as Atlanta drag entertainers.

Former President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter attended the Love Wins event to celebrate the team’s 50th anniversary.

“Hawks Games at State Farm Arena embody an inclusive environment that welcomes everyone in the name of love,” Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin said.

Shaw began her role with the Hawks in 2014 and has since led a variety of endeavors to promote inclusion.

In October, the Hawks partnered with the apparel brand Boy Meets Girl for a PRIDE line, with several clothing pieces, including rainbow-numbered jerseys.

Shaw has also hosted the MOSAIC (Model of Shaping Atlanta through Inclusive Conversations) Diversity & Inclusion Symposium over the past four years. Also, each of the past four years, the team has participated in the Atlanta Pride Festival and Parade. This year, the NBA awarded the franchise the Inclusion Leadership Award among all of its 30-member teams.

READ MORE: How Inclusion, Jen Welter and Quavo Propelled Adidas’ Super Bowl Activations

Shaw is excited other NBA teams are also pushing inclusiveness, with five other teams employing people in similar roles as her. Other teams hosted Love Win-type events prior to the Hawks as well, including the Brooklyn Nets.

She’s also noticed the broader efforts of teams and leagues across the country making similar pushes.

For the slight pushback the team sees for its efforts of inclusion, Shaw said she doesn’t let the negativity win or let it cloud the vision for the future. If she witnesses coworkers upset by the negativity, she reminds them of the struggles of integration.

“Fifty years ago, people were outwardly upset about the idea of black and white children going to school and playing together,” she said. “Sometimes implementing change feels hard for the broad community to accept, but over time through education and communication, things dissipate.”

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NASCAR Diversity Program and Rev Racing Team Up to Shape Next Generation

Since 2006, the NASCAR Diversity Program has held a popular combine to give the next generation of drivers a shot to race.

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Since 2006, the NASCAR Diversity Program has held a combine to give the next generation of drivers a shot to race. The 2018 combine was held at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida in October. (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images via NASCAR).

From helping develop the talent of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series stars Kyle Larson, Daniel Suarez, and Bubba Wallace Jr., the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Driver Development Program, alongside Rev Racing and owner Max Siegel, is one of the most successful driver combines in the country.

“When the combine began in 2006, there were 14 different organizations across the country that were given a stipend from NASCAR to develop drivers,” said Siegel. “Car owners came from all over the country. I was the president of Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the time, and we participated. Fast forward to now, and I’m in my 11th year managing the program.”

Since Siegel took over managing the program, he’s been able to limit inconsistencies with equipment and improve the process for helping drivers grow.

“We wanted to standardize everything and house it within a race team so that the industry could come and look at the progress of the program and the drivers as well,” said Siegel. “When we began to manage it there were no pit crew members or drivers that had participated on a national level. Every year we’ve seen the competition grow and seen interest in the pit crew program skyrocket.”

READ MORE: How NASCAR Stays Up to Speed in the Ever-Changing Digital Space

Among the drivers that have come through the program are Larson, Suarez and Wallace Jr. Wallace Jr., an African-American, Suarez, a Mexican-born driver, and Larson, who is of Asian descent, all show that NASCAR is committed to the diversity initiative.

Today, the combine has a very refined selection process. Rev Racing promotes the combine heavily at local tracks and via social media, and has even gotten the NASCAR analytics group and iRacing involved.

“We reach out across the entire sport at the local tracks to take recommendations,” said Siegel. “We want to pique the interest of a young demographic through iRacing and get them into our legend cars and weekly late models and then to the K&N Series. There’s a callout and application process, and we’ve had as many as 100 drivers apply. Applicants are evaluated by 20 industry and team executives and that recommendation yielded 12 competing at the combine this past season.”

From October 22-23, the 12 drivers went through intense on-track sessions (at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida) and off-track training, before six are given an opportunity to compete with Rev Racing’s backing – two in K&N Series and four in the Whelen All-American Series.

“We teach our drivers the importance and what it takes to be a great brand ambassador,” said Siegel. “We try to get them involved with a community so that they can have an impact. Our marketing director plays a huge role in helping them develop their own brand identity. We do a lot of content production and messaging, and they also get a lot of media training. We are constantly evaluating their progress.”

Teaching young drivers the importance of being an ambassador for a brand has caught the eye of corporate America, and sponsors now have a chance to be involved with the next generation of up-and-coming drivers.

“Corporate America has understood for many years that as the demographics of the country change and sponsors want to reach different consumers that they’ll use a number of different platforms to do that,” said Siegel. “When the diversity initiative was launched, it was to reach multiple types of people across the country. The sponsors see a chance to engage drivers, especially young ones.”

In addition to the off-track training, the six drivers that are selected to race for the team have to meet certain on-track goals.

Once the season begins, Rev Racing’s leadership is constantly looking at on-track performances and finishes, but they also dive deeper and analyze how well the drivers are communicating with their crew chief, how they are promoting the team and program and how much they’re in the shop working on the car.

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“Mark Green serves as our head of driver development, while coach Phil Horton works on the human performance side of things,” said Siegel. “Our general manager, Jefferson Hodges, reports to me on the drivers’ progress. Based on the progress, we meet with the drivers weekly and monthly and allow them to set goals. With the drivers that have been here for a while, we want them to improve their finishes and have a higher points finish.”

While Siegel wants to see the drivers improve in a variety of areas, he knows that it is also important to set goals for the combine as well. He’s taken into account everything from the team goals, to goals for the combine and the racing industry.

“Rev Racing is focused on growing into Xfinity Series and hopefully Cup Series racing,” said Siegel. “We want to provide as many opportunities as possible for our drivers. Seat time is scarce. Our organization wants to grow, and we want to get young people interested. We want drivers and crew chiefs to have a lifelong connection to the sport. If they’re not driving, we want to see passionate people get involved with the business side of racing, become an executive in the sport or be in the shop working on the car. For me, I want to continue to see the number of participants grow, and I also want the racing fan base to grow and diversify.”

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