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Heavy Hitters
Melanie Medina | Pink 12.15.06, 2:25 PM ET

Carolyn Bivens never considered herself a pioneer. In corporate America, including a 17-year stint at USA Today, she was simply a businessperson, judged by her results, not by her gender.

But when she crossed over into the sports industry as the commissioner of the Ladies Professional Golf Association a year ago, she began to realize what a different world it is. Not long after she was hired, a male acquaintance asked her, “So who’s running the LPGA, you or your husband?”

The man’s question points to the dichotomy of women in the sports business. On one hand, women are advancing to places where, up until a few years ago, only men had been. On the other hand, there are plenty of folks who think that the sports world was just fine as it was: a good ol’ boys’ club.

Frankly, when you look at the numbers, it still is a boys’ club. Men hold about two-thirds of key management positions--those at the senior administrative and team vice president levels--in professional leagues. That’s according to the Racial and Gender Report Card, a measuring stick for gender and minority equity in professional and collegiate sports produced by the University of Central Florida’s Richard E. Lapchick.

But women today are making significant inroads when it comes to business positions, in some cases ascending to the highest ranks. Take Bivens: She’s the first woman to hold the title of LPGA commissioner in the organization’s 56-year history. Then there’s Kim Ng, the first woman to interview for the general manager position of a MLB franchise, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Though Ned Colletti got the job, he kept her on as assistant general manager. In hockey, Bernadette Mansur heads the NHL’s media relations, public relations, corporate communications and community relations department.

You’ll also find women in the boardrooms of major corporate sponsors. Bea Perez, for example, is the vice president of sports marketing at Coca-Cola (nyse: KO - news - people ), and Cindy Alston, vice president of communications and equity development at Gatorade, oversees ad campaign development and public relations for Propel and Gatorade Energy Bars brands. At sports Mecca ESPN, Rosa Gatti has headed up the communications department since 1980. “There have always been women in sports, but they were more in the administrative roles,” Mansur says, adding that because women are advancing in leagues and in corporate marketing, communications and branding positions, they’re responsible for affecting growth and popularity in sports.

Delivering Results

Since Mansur came onboard in 1993, sales of NHL merchandise have grown 700%, to $1 billion, in large part because of her marketing efforts with sports, business and entertainment media. She was also the mastermind behind the crisis communication plan during the cancelled 2004-'05 NHL season. By making the collective bargaining negotiations transparent--primarily through a Web site where fans and players could see what was happening--she helped maintain an open dialog with different constituencies.

“Hockey fans are the most passionate and loyal in sports,” Mansur notes. During the cancelled season, fans had an open-door invitation to post their opinions at the special Web site. The approach paid off. Average attendance during the NHL’s 2005-'06 regular season increased 2.4% from the 2003-'04 season, according to league figures.

The NBA also had a woman to thank when its 2004 playoff ratings significantly improved. At the time, Lee Ann Daly was the executive vice president of marketing at ESPN. She and her team worked closely with ESPN’s corporate partner, ABC, to pick up the pace. “It was difficult because ABC and ESPN have two very different audiences. ESPN’s is younger and more likely to be interested in the players. ABC’s audience is older, and they tend to think of the glory days when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were still playing.”

To bridge the gap, Daly helped develop a campaign for the 2004 NBA playoffs that resonated with both audiences. They created promotional spots with old-school players such as Dr. J jamming to up-tempo beats from hip-hop group The Black Eyed Peas. Not only did the promotions contribute to the highest NBA Finals ratings since 2001, but they also put The Black Eyed Peas’ song “Let’s Get It Started” on the charts. The NBA still uses the tune during games.

Amy Trask, chief executive of the Oakland Raiders since 1997, sees her biggest challenge as winning the Super Bowl. “Every year 32 clubs have the same goal. That’s why we wake up every day,” she says.

She’s proud of the Raiders’ multicultural and youth initiatives. “We have Web sites in English, Spanish, German and Chinese. We’re very involved with international youth flag football.” She says the two initiatives boosted revenue and aided expansion. Published reports estimate the club’s revenue at $169 million, ranking the team 27th among 32.

Jeanie Buss, executive vice president of business affairs for the Los Angeles Lakers, the second most profitable NBA team, says, “The current revenue streams are pretty much maxed out, so the challenge is to try new streams.” She’s addressing this with Lakers TV, which runs pre-, post- and in-game, and the Fox TV show Lakers Living Room, which features her, WNBA player Lisa Leslie and the wives of players “watching the game the way a bunch of women would watch it.” Ad sales, sponsorships and product placement are expected to generate additional dollars.

Relating To Female Audiences

While Buss and Trask can be credited, at least in part, with keeping fans in the stadium and viewers tuned in, Wendy Lewis, vice president of strategic planning for recruitment and diversity for MLB, is responsible for diversifying the league’s staff and vendor rosters. Commissioner Alan H. “Bud” Selig had long challenged MLB employees to brainstorm ways to increase diversity, not just in its workforce but outside as well. In 1998, Lewis suggested starting a program to bump up the amount of minority- and women-owned companies with whom the league conducts business.

That initiative, now called the Diverse Business Partners Program, has become one of MLB’s primary business strategies. Everything from the paper towels and pencil sharpeners in the commissioner’s front office to the tiles in league stadiums is procured from a vendor, and Lewis’s program ensures that business is going to a fair share of women- and minority-owned companies. Since 1998, MLB has spent more than $300 million with such businesses.

“We’ve had a tremendous influence in communities and in the stadiums,” Lewis says. “Many businesses have done very well with contracts from the MLB, and some of the women [to whom we’ve given contracts] have become season ticket holders.”

As these female sports executives slowly and steadily make behind-the-scenes changes on the business side, a more visible trend unfolds: Sports managers and marketers are realizing that women hold powerful sway when it comes to buying game tickets, watching games on TV and buying sports-related merchandise. In fact, close to 40% of men’s professional sports fans are women, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.

What does that mean to franchise owners looking to fill the stands, corporate sponsors trying to reach consumers and marketing directors selling licensed merchandise? Big bucks, in the form of a major target market. Each year the U.S. sports industry rakes in about $213 billion, according to the SportsBusiness Journal (taking into account gate revenue, sponsorships, sporting goods, player payroll and medical expenses, among other things). More than two-thirds of all corporate sponsorships in 2005 went to the sports industry.

Savvy sports organizations know that reaching this increasingly diverse audience requires an equally diverse leadership at the helm. For instance, a male leader might presuppose things about all markets--not just female customers--that are just plain wrong, says Shaz Kahng, global general manager of Nike (nyse: NKE - news - people ) Cycling. “Women tend to be more inquisitive, always questioning assumptions and digging deeper to get to the true insights about consumer behavior,” she says.

Facing Challenges

Women with VIP sports industry titles have found that it’s not such an easy field to navigate--although they’re undaunted by the challenges. Even though 34 years have passed since Title IX, the landmark Congressional act designed to ensure equal opportunities for male and female athletes, it’s still clear that change doesn’t come easily.

Adrian Bracy, vice president of finance for the St. Louis Rams, has been with the NFL for 15 seasons, yet sometimes she still isn’t invited to meetings because of her gender. “It’s frustrating, but I realize that’s part of the culture of sports. Being a woman means being excluded from certain meetings,” says Bracy, who manages about $200 million in day-to-day financial operations and prepares and implements the Rams’ annual budget.

Nike’s Kahng finds creating a strong cross-gender network can be challenging. While Nike works to actively recruit women, there aren’t many at the senior executive level, she says. Because many decisions are made in casual interactions--at the golf course, during a workout or in the locker room--strong mixed networks help. Women like Kahng and Bracy deal with gender issues at work by taking advantage of the time they do have the floor. “People form an opinion of you about 20 seconds after you start speaking,” Kahng says. “You have to know what your message is and what kind of leadership, vision and teamwork you want to demonstrate. Forget about your gender, ethnicity or where you came from, and have a clarity of purpose. Focusing on ideas and content is how you make an impact.”

Trask, the only female CEO in the NFL, remembers walking into her first NFL meeting in 1987, “and the room went silent.” Today she, too, says if women do not want gender to be an issue, then the last thing that they should do is make an issue of gender. “It takes the same qualities of hard work and distinguishing yourself, whether you are a man or a woman, to excel in this business,” she says.

The NHL’s Mansur says she’s past any sports industry gender challenges. She and the other top women focus on impact. “I steamroll. I have a seat at the table--and I use it.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Pink Magazine.

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