Spree Of Female Executive Hires A Hopeful Harbinger For A More Diverse Future

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Photo Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The WNBA’s appointment of Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert as its first commissioner in May was just one of the many wins during the summer of 2019 for gender diversity in the executive ranks of sports.

From Jessica Berman’s hire as the new deputy commissioner of the NLL to Red Sox executive Raquel Ferriera’s promotion to co-interim president of baseball operations, the hiring of female executives in high-profile positions appears to be gaining momentum across all sports.

“There’s a movement that’s happening,” said Caiti Donovan, co-founder and CMO of SheIS, an organization centered around promoting female empowerment through women’s sports. “It’s not just a moment anymore – this is a continuous effort. We saw it with the Women’s World Cup this year, and the momentum that those incredible athletes have given to this movement has been felt across all of the sports. We’re seeing it in every single sport and seeing fans stand up and take notice of the female athletes that exist in their communities.”

When analyzing leagues that have embraced gender diversity in their female hires, look no further than the WNBA’s brother league. Compared to its contemporaries, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has long been praised for his progressive thinking regarding female league executives.

As commissioner, Silver has overseen the promotions of many female leaders. Outside of Engelbert, Kathy Behrens and Amy Brooks have seen their status elevated during their NBA tenure. For Behrens, she got her start in sports as the league’s vice president of community relations in 2000. In January 2015, she became its first president of social responsibility and player programs where she oversees the popular NBA Cares initiative that addresses social issues such as education and youth and family development.

Unlike Behrens, who didn’t envision a career in sports, Brooks’ fixation with it dates back to her childhood. Growing up in Sacramento, Calif., her first basketball memories were made attending Kings games with her father after the team relocated from Kansas City. 

From there, Brooks’ playing career took her to one of college basketball’s most decorated women’s programs: Stanford University. During her time as a Cardinal, Brooks was a part of three conference championships and even reached the NCAA Final Four. After college, she worked at companies such as Sun Microsystems and Bain & Company before joining the NBA in 2005 as its senior director of marketing partnerships.

Since then, Brooks has worked her way up to her current roles as president of team marketing and business operations and chief innovation officer. Thanks to her efforts, the league’s 2018-19 season set an all-time sellout record and numerous attendance records, and she was the catalyst behind the league’s push into jersey sponsorship logos.

According to the 2019 NBA Racial and Gender Report Card, an annual report published by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, Behrens and Brooks are two of the seven women in the NBA that serve in team CEO and president positions – more than all other professional sports leagues combined. Coupled with the fact that 39% of people in the NBA league office are female – second behind Major League Soccer’s 40.9% – the NBA received a B for its gender hiring practices by TIDES, tops among the NFL, MLB, and MLS. 

“There’s been continual improvement in both the programs that we have focused on this – the percentages and the conversation around it being top of mind is very important,” Brooks said. “I think we’ve certainly reached a point where it is top of mind – certainly at the league and in our teams, we’re seeing it more top of mind in the industry because having a diverse workforce leads to better outcomes.”

READ MORE: Behrens, Brooks At Forefront Of NBA’s Push For Gender Diversity

Outside of the NBA, other major sports leagues have found success with its gender diversity practices. After growing up a sports fan, Lara Pitaro Wisch ventured into law. Following numerous stints at law firms, she joined MLB in 2004 as its senior vice president and general counsel of MLB Advanced Media. 

Then on July 3rd, Pitaro Wisch was chosen by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred to become the league’s executive vice president and general counsel. As general counsel, she is at the helm of the league’s legal department, which oversees all of its attorneys in its business groups and the league office. This appointment makes her the first female general counsel in MLB history. 

On a team level, more MLB clubs are hiring women in leadership positions. Recently, the Boston Red Sox promoted Raquel Ferriera to the co-interim president of baseball operations – making her MLB’s highest-ranking female executive. In 2018, MLB employed 32 women in on-field operations roles – an 88% increase year-over-year. The number of women in senior executive-level positions in the league office rose from 24.6% in 2017 to 26.8% in 2018. Of MLB’s 30 teams, 29 have at least one woman serving in a senior vice president or vice president role.  

“I feel incredibly lucky to be in baseball – and particularly to be in baseball – at a time that it is right now under Commissioner Manfred and to be able to call [Deputy Commissioner, Baseball Administration and Chief Legal Officer] Dan Halem my boss because they’ve shown a commitment to organizational [changes] for the better,” Pitaro Wisch said. “They are two people that value diversity – I’m evidence of that. They’ve given me every opportunity to succeed and I’ve always felt here particularly that I have advanced based on my merit and my work product alone. I think that’s telling and frankly makes me feel optimistic about the things ahead.”

READ MORE: NHL Announces Inclusion Initiatives, Billie Jean King Partnership

Similar to MLB, the National Hockey League is making inroads towards a more diverse workplace. Evidence of this is NHL Executive Vice President and CMO Heidi Browning. While Browning loves sports, her choice for a favorite is on the unconventional side. “I would say my favorite sport is marketing,” Browning said humorously. “I do say that in all seriousness – as a young marketer, I fell in love with digital marketing and do that with extraordinary passion and focus.”

At the NHL, Browning focuses much of her time on developing social and digital initiatives across the league. As CMO, she also creates and executive the league’s marketing campaigns – which include strategy, creative development, production, and distribution. 

After lengthy stints at media companies such as Pandora, Fox Interactive Media, and Universal McCann, Browning says the transition from media to sports was seamless. After spending much of her professional life working in digital marketing, social media, and music, she saw the same habits in sports. People love music and entertainment – and the average sports fan is no different. 

“I fell in love with that ability to bring a brand closer to consumers and fans,” Browning said. “I think that’s where the intersection with sports really happens – when you look at life through the lens of a fan and marketing through the lens of a fan. That passion that one might have for music or entertainment is the same passion that people share for sports – and that’s what attracted me to the [NHL].”

Even outside of North America’s biggest sports leagues, others have made strides in placing women in important leadership positions. In sports such as professional golf and lacrosse, two of their most-respected administrators are women. 

For Alex Baldwin, she knew as early as high school that she wanted to work in sports. Before college, she worked on the sales staff at the Pilot Pen International, a former Women’s Tennis Association event held in New Haven, Conn. From there, she leveraged that into an internship at IMG, which offered her a position after college to work in its golf division. 

From there, stints at Fenway Sports Management and Creative Artists Agency followed, before she would join the PGA Tour as its vice president of marketing partnerships in 2017. Within two years, she was named president of the Web.com Tour – now the Korn Ferry Tour – making her the first female president of one of the PGA Tour’s six global tours. 

“I’m just so humbled and so flattered to have the opportunity [of being president],” Baldwin said. “When I was asked, I was surprised. I was certainly curious and it is something I take very seriously. I’m very proud to work here at the PGA Tour. We have truly an exceptional team and I’m proud of each of every one of them and so grateful for the passion that they have. I want to just continue to deliver for those folks every single day and take this tour to the next-highest ground.”

In the case of Jessica Berman, she’s also getting used to being at the helm of a professional sports league. After careers at Proskauer Rose and the NHL – where she recently served as vice president of community development, culture and growth – she is now deputy commissioner of the National Lacrosse League. This not only makes her the highest-ranking woman at a professional men’s sports league but also the first woman to hold this role. 

Like Baldwin, Berman knows that being in this position comes with added responsibility. With upticks in attendance (28% year-over-year), streaming (27%) and sponsorship revenue (29%), the NLL is only becoming more popular. Berman knows this, but according to her, it’s a chance to show people that a different voice might be the key to success.

“I take the responsibility seriously and intend to demonstrate with what we accomplish here at the NLL – that having a diverse set of perspectives at the table in terms of how you’re building your leadership team will only make the end product better,” Berman said. “I’m excited to play that out and bring that to life in partnership with [NLL Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz], who I know is the kind of leader who wants to be challenged and be inclusive in the way that he operates this business.”

While these women are emblematic of a more progressive sports world, more can be done. Even in the NBA, which is frequently touted for its gender hires, only 12.5% of women on the team level are CEOs or presidents. In MLB, its league office has the lowest gender grade amongst the NFL, NBA, MLS, and WNBA, and is comprised of only 30.8% women. 

During 2018, the NFL league office was 35% women, and 29% of them served in vice president positions or above. On the team level, however, the 32 NFL teams combined was only 28% female – a 2% drop from its all-time high mark in 2017. These figures factored into the NFL earning a C for gender hiring practices in the 2018 NFL Racial and Gender Hiring Practices Report Card.

UCF hasn’t published report cards for the NHL since the late 1990s, but are in discussions now to restart the NHL Racial and Gender Report Card.

READ MORE: Women In Sports Roundtable: Big Sky Athletic Directors

Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, created the report card after using something similar in his 1984 book, Broken Promises: Racism In American Sports. Thirty-five years later, he’s happy about many things: Behrens’ ascension through the NBA, the WNBA’s A+ marks in overall, racial, and gender hiring, and the NBA’s leading gender and racial hiring practices across men’s professional sports. 

Still, though, he’s disappointed to know that these milestones aren’t happening enough. With NFL and MLB lagging, it’s hindering the chances of a woman being hired for an executive position across sports and it being looked as something normal – not a rarity.

“[It’s] disheartening in the sense that we still look at these positions in hirings are as breakthroughs,” Dr. Lapchick said. “My goal is that it will be so commonplace that women will get these senior executive positions that we won’t notice it as much in the future and we’ll just think that was a great hire.”