2018 SBJ Game Changers Conference
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This Year's Highlights
By Abe Madkour and Ross Nethery
Enthusiasm. Networking. Great storytelling and plenty of information about business, hiring and personal growth. If you weren’t there last Wednesday, that was the vibe at the sixth edition of our Game Changers conference. More than 350 people crowded the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Times Square in New York City for the event, starting the day with a breakfast focused on career development, leading to a noon ceremony where we brought members of the 2018 class on stage for an award presentation, and ending with the traditional cocktail and networking reception.
One thing about this conference – it’s consistent. Our honorees and attendees gave us what we’ve come to expect from this group. They start early, stay late and are never shy about telling panel members (and event organizers!) what they think. And, unfortunately, not enough men are in attendance to learn from the speakers and guests.
Game Changers came one day after SBJ hosted its 2nd annual Diversity and Inclusion Seminar. This featured 13 leaders in the D&I space meeting for more than two hours, where conversation touched on areas of progress and challenges in D&I, and ways the group could work collaboratively to play a leadership role. This came after SBJ published its first-ever issue focused on diversity and inclusion in sports. If you would like to learn more about this initiative, let us know.
THIS YEAR’S CLASS: One of the highlights of the conference each year is the recognition of the newly named class of Game Changers. We had 29 of the 35 members of the class of 2018 at the ceremony to accept their awards. If you haven’t already, check out the stories of these amazing leaders.
AN AMAZING JOURNEY: We’ve rarely seen a speaker more popular than Cathy Lanier, who had everyone buzzing with her candid story of dropping out of high school, then eventually becoming the chief of police in Washington, D.C., and, now, the NFL’s chief of security. As she said: “Poverty is a motivator.” And here’s another of our favorite Lanier quotes: “Every time you get promoted, there are less idiots to tell you what to do.” Finally, the number of interviews she sat through to get the NFL job: 16. Lanier followed her appearance at Game Changers by testifying on Thursday in front of the U.S. Senate about the greatest threats to the league’s safety. Two of the items on her agenda were drones and autonomous vehicles. “Because of technology, things change so much faster now,” said Lanier. “Things are so difficult to predict. People ask what keeps me up at night -- it’s the speed of change.” Honest, funny and with a lack of pretense, Lanier is someone you want to hear speak.
CREATING A PEOPLE-FIRST CULTURE: VaynerMedia’s chief heart officer, Claude Silver, offered a strong tale of creating culture and an open, empathy-driven workplace environment. The turning point that took her from being a bratty kid to a caring leader came after a 93-day Outward Bound trip during which, she fully admitted, she needed to “get her ass kicked.” It changed her life. “It’s where I learned to put others first,” she said. Silver gives a calm, cool presentation of being an “emotional optimist” who sees the ROI of productive and positive cultures. “We have forgotten to be human at work and forgotten how to treat each other well,” she said. “We treat each other like robots. The soil of strong teams begins with a connection, which leads to trust, which leads to empathy.”
FACING THE ISSUE HEAD ON: Jo Ann Ross, CBS’ top ad sales exec, kicked off the conference on the main stage knowing that she would be asked about the sexual harassment charges against former network CEO Les Moonves, someone she publicly has supported and described as a mentor. Ross didn’t shy away from the topic, and said she is “grappling with how a person could be one way with someone and be totally different with someone else.” Ross said she never went through the kind of harassment that was described by six women and led Moonves to step down. “That’s not what I experienced,” she said. “It doesn’t lessen what’s going on or the pain of these women. They are very, very brave and their voices need to be heard.” Ross has worked at CBS for 26 years.
JUST GET THEM IN THE DOOR: WNBA COO Ann Rodriguez told the crowd that her league is leading the charge in shifting the way fans perceive women’s sports. Rodriguez raved about the atmosphere at the first two WNBA Finals games in Seattle and said she met “first-time fans there who lost their mind and can’t wait to go back." Rodriguez: "When people actually get in the building and experience the product, they become really impassioned and excited by it.”
READY FOR BROADWAY?: Ten of the most entertaining minutes of the day came when Connecticut Sun F and WNBPA VP Chiney Ogwumike appeared onstage with WNBPA Exec Dir Terri Jackson and, amazingly, made the league’s upcoming CBA negotiations, dare we say, entertaining? In a well-rehearsed, well-timed and funny presentation, the pair described life in the WNBA and talked about how players will have the opportunity to improve their lives and careers, and how they are willing to go to great lengths to do that. Jackson: “We’re going to come prepared to do war if necessary.” The current CBA is set to expire in ’21, but includes an opt-out for the WNBPA after the ’19 season.
THE MEDIA CHALLENGE: Boston-based WBUR-FM & NPR Sports & Society reporter Shira Springer was a guest moderator and opened her panel by talking about why she believes women’s sports faces obstacles in getting media coverage. One issue, she said, is the “systemic part of things, the logistical part that is who’s deciding what coverage is out there, how the newsrooms are structured.” She cited a survey done a couple of years ago in which AP sports editors found that 90% of sports editors across the nation were white males who were less likely to cover women’s sports as extensively as men’s sports. The other issue is cultural. Springer, “What we value and how we value women’s sports is not where it should be, which is causing a lot of bad decision-making about that coverage.” Springer is a new columnist for Sports Business Journal. Check out her SBJ debut.
MLS’ ROAD TO LEADERSHIP IN DIVERSITY: MLS Commissioner Don Garber said there was a moment about 15 years ago when the league realized that it needed to make diversity within its own exec ranks a business priority. “We were a league that was about representing the hopes and dreams of diverse communities and players, and we had a bunch of white men making all the rules -- it didn’t make sense to me,” Garber said. While MLS has made strides in this department, Garber said the global soccer game "has a long way to go.” He referenced a quote from former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who said the women’s game would be more popular if the players wore shorter shorts. “We as an industry have done a better job,” Garber said, “but I think we’re in the third chapter of a 10-chapter book.”
SPEAK UP!: During our career breakfast, Minnesota Vikings COO Kevin Warren said he becomes frustrated sometimes when women on his staff fail to speak up during meetings. “I’d leave a meeting and there would be five text messages or emails asking, ‘What about this and what about that?’” he said. “I told them they had to speak up. Share your ideas and speak up.” NYRR SVP Ronnie Tucker encouraged women sitting in work meetings not to look for a small seat in the corner of the table, which she believes too many are prone to do. “Sit in the middle of the table,” she said, “because your voice is important.” Tucker also suggested every attendee of Game Changers make it a point to read Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends Report. “Yes, it’s over 200 pages,” said Tucker, “but download it and read it and you’ll be well-prepared because of it.”
QUOTES FROM THE DAY:
“We are not a cause. We are a mission-purpose business to inspire women.” — WNBA’s Rodriguez
“Women’s sports have never been better and it’s worthy of attention. Cracking through the old code is a difficult thing. You can’t tell me the story lines that are happening in women’s sports aren’t just as good as men’s sports.” — NBA/WNBA Exec VP/Communications Mike Bass
“We should be covering her.” — The AP’s Mike Giarrusso, who called swimmer Katie Ledecky one of the best stories in sports.
“I feel very good about the industry.” — LPGA Tour’s Jon Podany, on the state of women’s sports.
“When do we get to where we don’t have a conference like this? We don’t have a conference like this for men.” — Garber, on the progress of diversity and inclusion in sports.
PREGAME SHOW: CSM LeadDog and SBJ celebrated the third year of the Mentoring Challenge at a reception the night before the conference. The Mentoring Challenge pairs women who are early in their careers with women executives from the ranks of our Game Changers honorees for a yearlong mentorship program. Mentors and mentees from the first two years of the program, plus this year’s group (see below) were hosted at CSM LeadDog’s rooftop office on 9th Avenue. Speakers included CSM LeadDog’s Dan Mannix and Karen Ashnault, SBJ’s Abe Madkour and Mary Wittenberg, former head of the New York Road Runners and Virgin Sport. With a menu of hors d’oeuvres and a table spread, plus a selection of local beer and wine, attendees enjoyed live music throughout the evening. Wittenberg talked about her career path and the freedom she is now enjoying to figure out what comes next after her departure from Virgin. She encouraged attendees to “keep learning,” and to “never stop finding mentors.”
MENTORING CHALLENGE: Here are the mentees and mentors for 2018-19 Mentoring Challenge:
— Christine Kindt (Miami Hurricanes) and Heidi Pellerano (Wasserman)
— Katie Carew (GumGum Sports) and Susan Cohig (NHL)
— Maggie Valerio (Charlotte Hornets) and Nzinga Shaw (Atlanta Hawks & Phillips Arena)
— Emily Miller (NY Racing Association) and Hannah Gordon (San Francisco 49ers)
— Amanda Archer (Nielsen Sports) and Lisa Murray (Octagon)
— Kimberly Chinn (Up2Us Sports) and Michele Carr (NBA)
— Jackie Chang (NBC Sports Group) and Michelle Wilson (WWE)
— Leah Jenk (USOC) and Molly Mazzolini (Infinite Scale)
— Macarena Aguirre Estalella (MAEducation/MAEsport) and Elizabeth DiLullo Brown (Little League International)
— Giordanna Easley (Public Relations) and Jody Bennett (Bennett Advisors)
— Carly Strauss (NBA) and Ashlee Huffman (CSM Sport & Entertainment)
— Halle Wilf (NFL) and Donna Providenti (CSM LeadDog)
— Alexandra Conte (New York Mets) and Karen Ashnault (CSM LeadDog)
— Courtney Perdiue (NFL) and Mimi Griffin (MSG Promotions)
— Kathryn Kolb (Madison Square Garden) and JoAn Scott (NCAA)
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE 2017 GAME CHANGERS CONFERENCE
For PROGRAM and SPEAKING information, including ATTENDANCE, contact Lorianne Lamonica at 704-973-1523.
For information on SPONSORSHIP opportunities, contact the following:
- East Coast and Atlantic Seaboard office HQ contact, Allison Brush: 212-500-0710.
- Midwest, West Coast and Florida office HQ contact, Natalie Sharp: 212-500-0720.
- For NOMINATION information, contact Betty Gomes: 704-973-1439.