The Most Powerful Women in Sports: 35 Executives and Influencers Winning Over the Next Generation of Fans

Our second-annual list of the MVPs of the sports marketing world

Photograph: Sasha Maslov; Styling: Stephanie Flor
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

Adweek went far afield for our second annual list of Powerful Women in Sports, selecting leaders from the burgeoning world of esports, the ascendant women’s soccer arena and a brand-new basketball league—plus the mar-tech and artificial-intelligence innovators serving the sports marketing ecosystem. Here, Adweek honors the 35 female executives and influencers who are winning over the next generation of fans and scoring new partnerships with brands.

Katrina Adams
Chairman, president, CEO, United States Tennis Association;
chairman, U.S. Open

The firsts keep stacking up for Adams, the first pro player, the first African American and the youngest person to serve as the top executive of the U.S. Tennis Association. In January, she started a second two-year term, becoming the first person to do so in the organization’s history. The former pro singles and doubles player, who hit her first tennis ball when she was 6 years old, has made inclusiveness and access a priority during her tenure, aiming to further diversify the game. Her outreach effort to Hispanics grew that audience of tennis players by double digits in its first year.

Christina Alejandre
General manager, ELeague; vp, esports

Where others failed to make compelling television out of esports, Alejandre succeeded with the launch early last year of ELeague. The property, nominated for a Sports Emmy this spring and airing on TBS, recently broke Twitch records (1 million-plus views), attracting new sponsors Geico, Arby’s and Buffalo Wild Wings. Its event coverage, including partnerships with Blizzard and Capcom, keeps growing. Next: another round of red-hot Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in September. Alejandre, a 15-year industry vet whose gamer bona fides stretch from Atari to Nintendo Switch, knows her crowd, making esports “more digestible to a casual audience,” she says, while staying “authentic to the space and without dumbing down the experience for the passionate community.”

Erin Andrews
Broadcaster, Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1

Television viewers may think of Andrews as indefatigable, seeing her diligent and ever-present reporting from major events like the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Daytona 500, along with her co-hosting gig on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. Her dedication became even more obvious when she was back on the sidelines covering a Packers-Cowboys game last October five days after surgery for cervical cancer, having told her doctor, “I’m not watching any football games at home,” she said to Sports Illustrated early this year when she revealed her illness. Andrews, an ESPN vet, has renewed her multi-year contract with Fox Sports to focus solely on the NFL.

Lisa Borders
President, WNBA

A former Coca-Cola executive and longtime WNBA fan, Borders shook up the 20-year-old league in 2016, allowing the two top teams from the same conference (Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx) to go toe-to-toe for what became a heart-pounding, five-game championship series. TV audiences for the season jumped double digits on ESPN, social media followers and video views soared, merchandise sales bumped up 30 percent and attendance hit a five-year high. The league added Exxon and signed Verizon as its marquee sponsor. Up next: more livestreaming on Twitter and daily fantasy games that will, Borders says, “reflect our commitment to building on last season’s momentum and continuing to broaden our reach.”

Karen Brodkin
Evp, content strategy and partnerships, WME | IMG

The idea of airing video game tournaments on television might’ve seemed like a head-scratcher not long ago. Now, less than two years into the launch of ELeague, an IMG and Turner collaboration, it’s an unqualified hit and a fast-growing sports entertainment property, having spread to 80 countries. But Brodkin, one of its architects, sees bigger numbers ahead, aiming to add to the 1 trillion-plus total minutes of consumption ELeague has already racked up across digital and linear platforms to date. A veteran of Fox Sports, Brodkin also works with the firm’s college sports clients, global brand partnership group and media rights division, where she’s guiding Fightball, sometimes described as a gladiator version of one-on-one basketball.

Heidi Browning
CMO, evp, National Hockey League

Going from scrappy startup Pandora to the 100-year-old NHL was “surprisingly easy,” Browning says, because both companies “share a common cultural value: a fan-first mentality.” Browning’s mandate when she arrived at the league late last year was clear: ramp up digital and social media, use technology to enhance the fan experience, dive further into mobile and location-based services, custom-target the die-hards, and reach out to more women, millennials and casual fans. Browning, a 25-year marketing vet, will borrow from her Silicon Valley roots, where she still has a foothold and a home base, to embed virtual reality into hockey and drive engagement with the NHL app. Her momentum has already started, with Stanley Cup Final ratings jumping 23 percent year over year.

Kenyatta Bynoe
Vp, global brand marketing and partnerships, Spalding

There’s no worse fate in marketing than being left out of the conversation, and Spalding was in such a spot when Bynoe joined the iconic sporting goods brand. In only two years, she changed everything, jump-starting its consumer advertising, hiring an agency, building an internal marketing team, redesigning the brand ID and launching ecommerce, along with overhauling and exploding social engagement. The global ad campaign, “True Believers,” celebrating athletes’ hard work, went hand in hand with her revamped NBA endorsement roster. Bynoe, a 20-year marketing vet, delivered on her goal of taking the brand “from a position of passive respect in the minds of consumers” to “active love in their hearts.”

Amanda Duffy
Managing director of operations, National Women’s Soccer League

In a few short years, Duffy took Louisville, Ky.’s nascent professional soccer team from local newcomer to stadium filler. Under her guidance as the only female president in the United Soccer League’s history, Louisville City FC climbed to the top 25 in attendance across all pro soccer leagues in North America, including Major League Soccer. She’s had an even larger playing field since January, when she jumped to the National Women’s Soccer League for the newly created operations job, just as the 5-year-old league inked a groundbreaking partnership and TV deal with Lifetime. A former pro soccer star herself, Duffy is helping launch NWSL Media, the league’s marketing, broadcast and commercial arm.

Nancy Dubuc
President, CEO, A+E Networks

Lifetime, home of Project Runway and Dance Moms, may not be known as a sports destination, but Dubuc saw an opportunity to make it one, leading a groundbreaking deal this spring between the channel’s parent company, A+E Networks, and the National Women’s Soccer League, taking an equity stake in the 5-year-old league, airing weekly games for the next three years and creating a joint venture to handle digital assets like livestreaming, mobile apps and social media. It fits because, as Dubuc said during the news conference to announce the alliance, Lifetime isn’t “just a television brand,” reaching 96 million U.S. homes, “it’s a female media brand.”

Pamela El
CMO, National Basketball Association, WNBA, NBA Gatorade League

Crunching numbers can’t possibly be as exciting as watching professional basketball, but El knows the two are inseparable. With a rallying cry to bring on the data geeks, El relies on research and analytics for her digital-dominant marketing strategy. “Less than 1 percent of NBA fans experience a game inside an arena,” she said during a recent Adobe Summit. “It is through technology that we engage with our fans.” Her approach for the men’s league, on the heels of the successful “This Is Why We Play” campaign, boosted audiences to 1 billion viewers and 1.3 billion social media followers last year. The recent NBA Finals had the highest ratings in nearly 20 years. She also launched the WNBA’s award-winning 20th anniversary marketing effort, “Watch Me Work,” which increased attendance, viewership and social media presence.

Monica Fee
Property sales executive, CAA Sports

Having recently matched ExxonMobil with Formula One’s Red Bull Racing for the season’s spring launch, Fee is now searching for blue-chippers for F1 itself, aiming to take the global sports property from sponsorship underachiever to partnership powerhouse. As the senior female member of CAA Sports, Fee has been pivotal in landing more than $3.5 billion in sponsorships and naming rights, including Chase Center, the under-construction home of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, and Levi’s Stadium, the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers arena, a deal that centered on a 20-year, $220 million agreement with Levi Strauss & Co. and nearly $500 million from two dozen additional brand partners.

Lesa France Kennedy
CEO, International Speedway Corp.; vice chair, ISC’s board of directors

There’s no resting on laurels for France Kennedy, even when a recent win includes a $400 million renovation of the Daytona International Speedway, making it what she calls “the world’s only motor sports stadium.” The executive, third-generation racing royalty whose grandfather founded Nascar in 1948, is now developing One Daytona, a 300,000-square-foot mixed-use complex near the reimagined Daytona Rising track. “We compete with stick-and-ball sports properties and entertainment venues,” she says, making it imperative to keep “the crown jewel of our sport polished.” Managing an additional dozen of the country’s biggest racetracks, she’s also overseeing the $178 million modernization of the Phoenix Raceway.

Stacy Fuller
Evp, creative, Havas Sports & Entertainment

To stretch a brand’s marketing dollars and snag earned media, “sponsored by” just won’t do for Fuller. Instead, the Havas executive intertwined TracFone’s Straight Talk Wireless with TNT’s Area 21 and Kevin Garnett for custom segments that had the ex-basketball pro chatting with celebrity guests. Straight talk only, of course. Instrumental in launching Havas Sports & Entertainment, Fuller highlighted Tag Heuer’s 2016 sponsorship of the TCS New York City Marathon via branded content across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and other platforms. The five-month program, following eight runner-influencers, pulled in 113 million impressions and 8.6 million consumer engagements.

Esther Garcia
Vp, Heineken’s Tecate and Tecate Light

Garcia treats marketing like a full-contact sport, and she intends to throw her share of body blows, literally. The Tecate exec has immersed herself in boxing classes to prep for her brand’s partnership with Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions for the much-anticipated Sept. 16 match in Las Vegas between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady “GGG” Golovkin. Garcia is now busy brainstorming with De La Hoya and boxing promoter Bob Arum. Drawing from her father’s insight as a former welterweight fighter, Garcia wants to make Tecate synonymous with the sweet science in the U.S. The Unilever and Kimberly-Clark vet did the same for Heineken and soccer in Spain, pairing the beer with the Champions League, which counts more than 4.2 billion fans globally.

Virginia Halas McCaskey
Owner, Chicago Bears

Though she’s known for being hands-off in the day-to-day operations of her team, Halas McCaskey gets involved, and makes news, when the Chicago Bears aren’t performing. She forced out the coach and general manager in 2014, with headlines saying the nonagenarian businesswoman and mother of 11 was “pissed off” at the club’s losing streak. McCaskey, often called the First Lady of the NFL, inherited the team from her father, George Halas, renowned coach and one of the founders of the American Football Association, the forerunner of the NFL. Forbes estimates her net worth at $1.3 billion, due largely to her 80 percent stake in the Bears, which she has promised to keep in the family.

Dawn Hudson
Chief marketing officer, National Football League

There may have been a softer side of the NFL before Hudson arrived, but the testosterone-charged league hadn’t shown it much. Enter Hudson, who in the last few years has introduced an NFL-sponsored conference for women and young girls as part of Super Bowl week activities (encouraging hundreds of attendees to play sports and learn about the business side of the games), partnered with The Ad Council on the inclusive public service campaign, “Love Has No Labels,” and worked on programs to draw more women into the league’s coaching, scouting and management ranks. Hudson also shepherds advertising, including the Super Bowl LI viral hit, “Baby Legends,” featuring pint-size versions of icons like Joe Namath, Mike Ditka and Marshawn Lynch.

Bilai Joa Silar
Svp, programming and production, Universo

Silar has turned Universo into the fastest-growing Spanish-language cable entertainment network by banking on shows like the blockbuster zombie hit The Walking Dead en Español, celeb reality series The Riveras and original scripted dramedy El Vato, along with the Mexican soccer league’s Liga MX Final, which became the top-rated sporting event in the channel’s history. Silar, a veteran of Discovery Channel’s U.S. Hispanic networks who’s been in programming and production for two decades, has created “what viewers told us they were missing,” she says. “We continue to challenge the status quo and provide content that reflects the experience of being Hispanic in the U.S.”

Kate Johnson
Vp, global sponsorship marketing, Visa

Johnson, a world champion rower, has the ultimate insider’s view of elite international sports. She was part of the U.S. rowing team that won silver medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens after fighting her way back to peak condition from a serious rib fracture. Her mantra then, as now: Be relentless. The three-time all-American oversees long-term deals between Visa and the NFL, FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, most recently for the Rio Games, after a stint at WME/IMG forging global marketing partnerships for Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Beijing, Vancouver and Sochi Olympics. “I go into every meeting or presentation,” she says, “with a quiet confidence that I’ve survived far tougher days.”

Sue Lee
Partnerships associate, Twitch

Being fluent in gamer-speak has been as crucial to Lee’s career as being bilingual. The South Korea native, who grew up in New York, broke into esports during college in 2009 by translating pro matches for online fan forums in the U.S. (competitors were often Korean), focusing on her favorite title, StarCraft. She moved on to translating live games and hosting tournaments like BlizzCon, TBS’s ELeague Major, which had record-setting 1-million-plus concurrent views on the 100-million-global-viewer-strong Twitch, and 30 global DreamHack events. Lee, known as Smix to her fellow gamers, now scouts for partners at Twitch, the 45-million-viewer-strong livestreaming video platform and gamer community.

Adrienne Lofton
Svp, global brand management, Under Armour

It’s tough to top yourself when your brand has been consistently lauded for its indelible advertising, but Lofton, honored by Adweek as a Brand Genius in 2015, has done just that. Last summer’s “Rule Yourself,” which centered on Michael Phelps’ final Olympics appearance, was the second-most viewed campaign across all advertisers during the Games, without the benefit of an official Under Armour event sponsorship. The spot spurred the highest engagement in the sportswear brand’s history. And in basketball, “Game Changer” tapped into a fan frenzy when real-life Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry started outperforming his NBA2K video game avatar. The groundbreaking program generated 200 million earned impressions in about just over 24 hours, snagging a recent Effie award.

Amy Lupo
Senior director, content and marketing, ESPN’s X Games

At this past winter’s X Games in Aspen, Colo., Chainsmokers and G-Eazy co-headlined a five-show sold-out music program. That’s a far cry from the quick single-song live performance by No Doubt at the inaugural 1999 event, and it’s just one way that Lupo has kept evolving the 22-year-old action sports franchise. The upcoming X Games in Minneapolis will feature its first virtual reality coverage. Having worked on the event since its launch, Lupo says she’s “constantly learning” by keeping up with its young target demo: “Unless every seat is sold and every person in the world is watching on television, there is always more that can be done.”

Stephanie McMahon
Chief brand officer, WWE

“Divas” are dead, and “superstars” are born, thanks to McMahon, who retired the old-school name for WWE’s women grapplers and replaced it with the same title superstars given to the sport’s male competitors. McMahon, daughter of CEO Vince McMahon, has spent two decades in nearly every facet of the WWE, both on-air and in its business operations, helping make WrestleMania 33 a $14.5 million-grossing, attendance-breaking event at the Orlando Citrus Bowl this spring (besting a 2015 concert by the Rolling Stones).

Laura Miele
Evp, global publishing, Electronic Arts

It’s not enough to have mega-selling franchises like FIFA, NFL, Need for Speed and Battlefield at a time when gamers are less tethered to their PlayStations and Xboxes. That’s where Miele comes in, driving 20 percent growth in EA’s digital business in fiscal year 2017, pushing titles like Battlefield 1 to 19 million players and FIFA 17 to upwards of 21 million players. Digital now accounts for more than 61 percent of the company’s total gaming (consoles make up the rest), and Miele, a 20-year-plus marketing and analytics veteran at the top-ranked publisher, plans to continue expanding into subscription services, live content and new platforms to connect gamers to entertainment.

Lisa Murray
Evp, Global CMO, Octagon Sports and Entertainment Network

Landing an A-list client like Mastercard is a feat in itself, but keeping the financial services company in the fold for more than two decades, building its sponsorships and experiential marketing programs around the world, is next-level customer care—exactly the type that Murray specializes in at Octagon. An avid golfer and 28-year veteran of the IPG-owned firm, she also works with Johnson & Johnson, Allstate and Cisco on high-profile, big-tent sports events like the Olympics. When the next FIFA World Cup comes around in 2018, it will mark the seventh consecutive time she’s linked the agency’s brands with the global soccer behemoth.

Erika Nardini
CEO, Barstool Sports

Where critics describe the bro-centric Barstool Sports as crass and lewd, its first CEO sees it more as “raw and compelling,” and Nardini is staying true to the rabid 18- to 24-year-old male fans, dubbed “stoolies,” while expanding the sports, comedy and “girls”-loving publisher into new platforms and advertiser-friendly events. In only a year, the former AOL CMO has doubled the brand’s social media following, launched a new app and boosted monthly active users by 60 percent. Her deals put Barstool’s stars on Comedy Central and Facebook Live. A hit online pay-per-view amateur boxing match this spring may pave the way for more such experiments, while the company, majority owned by The Chernin Group, mulls festivals and college tours.

Kim Ng
Svp, baseball operations, Major League Baseball

There are only 30 general manager gigs in professional baseball, and every time one opens up, Ng’s name gets tossed around as a potential candidate. She’s been an assistant gm (New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers), and insiders think she may become the first woman to land the top job in a major pro sport. Meanwhile Ng, a former University of Chicago softball star who started her front-office career with the White Sox, oversees all aspects of the MLB’s international operations (including the World Baseball Classic and more than 800 baseball clinics around the globe) under commissioner Rob Manfred, and works with the league’s first official girls tournament and MLB Women, a resource group in chief baseball officer Joe Torre’s office.

Alison Overholt
Vp, editor in chief, ESPN The Magazine, espnW

Traditional sports photojournalism tends to portray women athletes in sexy, feminine, out-of-uniform poses, particularly on front pages. Overholt purposely changed that with last year’s ESPN The Magazine cover featuring a dozen WNBA stars in action, telling Forbes “how important it was to shoot them in a way that was authentic, strong and powerful.” It was also “the subversive thing to do,” said the magazine’s first female editor in chief, whose publication recently won a prestigious National Magazine Award (for general excellence) and draws an audience of 18.5 million across print and digital, up nearly 4 percent from spring 2016. She also expanded espnW, which set audience records in 2016, into South America and Australia.

Elizabeth O’Brien
Program director, worldwide sports and entertainment sponsorship marketing, IBM

IBM’s Watson won’t actually pick up a racquet, but the cognitive computing superstar could be as pivotal to the action this summer at the U.S. Open as the on-court talent. The tech’s first appearance, in 2016, fed fans real-time player stats via mobile app and generated 600 interviews, highlights and behind-the-scenes videos. O’Brien is devoted to this kind of experience-boosting data, overseeing IBM’s partnerships with the U.S. Open and other marquee tennis matches (Wimbledon, French Open), the Masters and Pebble Beach golf tournaments and the Tony Awards. “We power the technology that powers these events,” she says, noting that IBM’s Watson may soon revolutionize sports management and improve elite athletes’ training.

Alegra O’Hare
Vp of global communications, Adidas Originals

Winning its first four Cannes Lions for beautifully produced, buzzworthy advertising, Adidas Originals knocked entrenched competitor Nike off its pedestal last year to become the best-selling sneaker in the U.S., with O’Hare overseeing the brand’s creative campaigns, digital and social media, public relations and retail programs. O’Hare, a veteran of VF Corp. and a certified sommelier, wants to drive home Adidas Originals’ “distinctive point of view on creator culture” and become “post-digital.” She explains, “We need to move even quicker and stay focused on the fact that what we want to keep on doing is to not just sell a brand, but be part of a generational shift.”

Michele Roberts
Executive director, National Basketball Players Association

If Roberts were a pro baller, she’d never flop. Too melodramatic for her taste. And as the top negotiator for NBA players, she brought her no-nonsense approach to representing its 450 union members in December’s collective bargaining talks. The result: a seven-year agreement that bumps up roster sizes, providing more jobs, eases the schedule crunch and offers tuition assistance to players returning to school. She also landed sweeter pensions and a retiree health program, a first of its kind in professional sports. “I have no interest in strikes or lockouts or stomping out of rooms,” she told recently, explaining her philosophy. “I want a deal.”

Jill Smoller
Partner, agent, WME’s commercials and sports department

Kevin Garnett may have retired from the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he’s still part of the game, recently joining TNT’s Inside the NBA and hosting his own show, Area 21. Same for former pro tennis player Andy Roddick, who worked as a commentator on Periscope, via a Chase partnership, during last summer’s U.S. Open. Deals like that are Smoller’s stock in trade at WME, where she finds entertainment, media and endorsement opportunities for a roster of sports stars that includes Allyson Felix, the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete, Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban and tennis legend Serena Williams.

Molly Solomon
Executive producer, svp, production and operations, Golf Channel

Taking full advantage of what she dubbed the “summer of golf,” Solomon made sure the Golf Channel covered every key moment of The Open, its first major men’s championship tournament, the Ryder Cup and the Rio Olympics (featuring golf for the first time in a century). It paid off for the NBC-owned channel and Solomon, a 10-time Sports Emmy winner, former NBC Olympics producer and first female executive producer of a national sports channel. The cable net scored five Sports Emmy nods (including one win), and some of the best ratings in its 22-year history. Continuing to snag the most affluent viewers of any ad-supported TV network, it also doubled its millennial fans.

Hannah Storm
Host, SportsCenter’s Face to Face on ESPN

If it’s a major moment in sports, chances are good that ESPN’s Storm will be there to cover it. The pioneering sports journalist tracked the MLB’s first visit to Cuba and reported on the Rio Olympics, Kobe Bryant’s retirement, Muhammad Ali’s funeral, the Super Bowl, the New York City Marathon and Wimbledon last year alone. She anchored SportsCenter from the U.S.S. Missouri in Pearl Harbor for Veterans Day and hosted ABC’s Tournament of Roses Parade. She scored her latest Emmy nod in 2016, bringing her total to three, while interviewing everyone from breakout high-school basketball stars to skier Lindsey Vonn and Olympian Katie Ledecky.

Jennifer Storms
Chief marketing officer, 
NBC Sports and Olympics

The Winter Olympics in South Korea are still a year away, but Storms already has the jump on promoting the marquee event. In February, she orchestrated a massive roadblock ad campaign across NBC and parent company Comcast’s myriad linear, digital and social channels. With stories focusing on favorite athletes like Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White as well as emerging stars such as Nathan Chen and Chloe Kim, the campaign also aired a 60-second spot set to a new Shania Twain song during the Kentucky Derby in May. Also on the former Turner Sports and PepsiCo exec’s plate: the NHL, Thursday Night Football, the Premiere League and Nascar.

Amy Trask
CEO, The Big3

After three decades in the business of pro football, with 16 years as CEO of the Oakland Raiders, Trask thought she’d traded her rough-and-tumble management gig for a relatively cushy commentating role on CBS Sports. Then Ice Cube and his partners in The Big3 came calling this spring, and Trask jumped into the startup basketball league that includes talent like Allen Iverson and Chauncey Billups. Trask, dubbed the “Princess of Darkness” by Raider fans, which she’s called “the coolest nickname ever,” and author of the just-published memoir, You Negotiate Like a Girl, will help guide a hot new property with global appeal. She recently said on The Big Podcast with Shaq: “How terrific if right now at this moment in the world we can use a sport like this to transcend some borders.”

This story first appeared in the June 26, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.
Publish date: June 25, 2017 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT