The Most Powerful Women in Sports
December 2, 2015 | Forbes
By Jason Belzer
Who are the most powerful women in sports? Managing over 1,000 employees and helping drive an estimated $700 million in annual revenues, racing heiress Lesa France Kennedy has established herself as the most influential female in the business of sports.
As CEO of International Speedway Corporation (ISC), Kennedy manages thirteen of America’s biggest race tracks, while also playing a key role in steering the multibillion-dollar juggernaut that is NASCAR as a member of its board of directors. The granddaughter of Bill France Sr., a 1930s-era stockcar racer who founded NASCAR in 1948, and the daughter of Bill France Jr., who ran the organization from 1972 to 2000, the 54-year-old Kennedy has spent more than three decades leading ISC’s expansion out of the South with the construction and acquisition of tracks in Illinois, New York, California and several other states.
More significantly, Kennedy has served as a mentor and inspiration for hundreds of aspiring female sports executives, which is why a panel of sports insiders ranked her first on this list of The 25 Most Powerful Women In Sports. (See the methodology for the list at the bottom of this article.)
Coming in second is Michele Roberts, the recently appointed executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. Roberts, 59, becomes the first women to head a major professional sports union in North America, and joins NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith as the highest-ranking African-American executive in sports. A celebrated trial lawyer, Roberts began her career as a public defender in Washington, D.C., before eventually pursuing a career in private practice at some of the country’s most prestigious law firms.
In third is Christine Driessen, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of ESPN . The 59-year-old Driessen has played a key role in steering the world’s most valuable media property, and has been responsible for overseeing the network’s recent multibillion-dollar negotiation of programming rights deals with the Southeastern Conference (SEC), Major League Baseball, Monday Night Football, as well as the College Football Playoff. Driessen was also instrumental in the launches of ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPNU, ESPN Deportes and espnW as well as negotiating agreements for ESPN’s foreign investments.
Because the sports industry is composed of literally dozens of different verticals, those who made the list span the gamut, including executives of leagues (No. 5: Kim Ng), teams (No. 12: Gillian Zucker), collegiate athletics (No. 16: Deborah Yow), holding companies (No. 23: Sarah Robb O’Hagan), media companies (No. 25: Deirdre Lester), politics (No. 13: Condoleezza Rice), as well a number of professional athletes (No 4: Venus and Serena Williams, No. 20: Danica Patrick). There is a 44 year age difference between the oldest member of the list (72-year-old Billie Jean King, No. 8) and the youngest (In 17th place, 28-year-old Maria Sharapova). It should also come as no surprise that the list is well educated, many having obtained a Master’s (No. 11: Sandy Barbour), MBA (No. 9: Amy Brooks) or JD (No. 10: Val Ackerman) degree from top institutions.
Lineage plays a role for several women on the list, including the aforementioned Kennedy, as well as No. 6 Jeanie Buss and No. 21 Katie Blackburn. And while some may argue that nepotism played a part in their rise to power, through their outstanding business acumen, the three have proven time and again that they are more than deserving of their positions. Buss spent decades honing her front office skills under the tutelage of her father Jerry, helping the Los Angeles Lakers win five NBA Championships since 2000. Blackburn still works hand-in-hand with her father and Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown, and has helped the club capture three AFC North divisional titles and make six playoff appearances in the last decade.
The women on the list represent a true minority in a business dominated by men. While some progress has been made over the last two decades, the glass ceiling for women may be lower in sports than any other industry. In fact, of the combined 467 NCAA Division I athletic departments and “Big Four” professional sports clubs, less than 40 (~8.5%) have a female at the head of their organization. The numbers across other areas of the industry are equally low. Which is all the more reason why the female executives, athletes and influencers on the list should be celebrated for their ability to overcome any number of obstacles to break barriers and rise to positions of power, all the while becoming role models for the millions of women aspiring to reach great heights not just in sports, but all aspects of life.
According to Deborah Slaner Larkin, CEO of The Women’s Sports Foundation, “Women have made measurable progress. I think the existence of this very list is just one example of that. However, there is more work to be done. As more women play college sports and learn the leadership skills that are necessary to succeed in business, we will continue to see momentum build year after year. Organizations are beginning to learn that the best business model includes maximizing one’s greatest resources. Research shows better business decisions are made when there is a diverse group of women and men involved in the process. That being said, we don’t just want a seat at the table, we want to sit at the head of the table!”
Voting Panel and Methodology:
In compiling the ranking, we enlisted the help of eight individuals who have firsthand insight and knowledge of sport’s top female movers and shakers. All panelists are themselves influencers in the business, and are highly respected for their work and advocacy in helping move women up the corporate ladder in the sports industry. Our voting panel included:
- Kathleen Francis – Chairman and President of Women In Sports and Events (WISE)
- Richard Lapchick – Director of The Institute For Diversity and Ethics in Sports
- Deborah Slaner Larkin – CEO of The Women’s Sports Foundation
- Patti Phillips - CEO of the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators (NACWAA)
- Chris Plonsky - Women’s Athletics Director at the University of Texas
- Sue Rodin – President of Stars & Strategies, Inc., Founder of Women In Sports and Events (WISE)
- Gregory Santore - Principal and Practice Leader, Sports Leadership at Witt/Kieffer
- Glenn Sugiyama - Managing Partner and Global Sports Practice Leader at DHR International
The voting process was spread over two parts. First, our panelists each submitted 25 unranked names to create a pool of well over 100 possible candidates for the list. Then, the pool was winnowed to the finalists who appeared most often on voter ballots. The nominations panel was then asked to rank each candidate, in order from 1-25 based on the below outlined criteria. A first-place vote was worth 25 points, a second- place vote was worth 24 points, and so on to determine the final rankings.
Panelists were asked to consider the following when nominating candidates for the list: (1) Quantitative Metrics, (2) Sphere of Influence, and (3) Impact. Quantitative Metrics related to specific measurable criteria such as organizational revenues the candidate is in charge of, as well as measurable career accomplishments (sales figures, employees managed, etc.). Sphere of Influence asked panelists to take into consideration whether the candidate has influence outside their specific company or vertical, and whether they touch multiple areas of the sports industry. Finally, Impact relates to how actively and successfully the individual wield their power within their organization or brand, sector and the global stage. Of course, both influence and impact are in the eye of the beholder. This is a similar methodology to the one used to compile Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Powerful Women.
Click here to view the Forbes article.