The days of women being on the sidelines as it pertains to big-time professional and collegiate sports ended long ago. While there is some truth in the perception that the sports world is one that is largely dominated by men, more and more opportunities arise for women in organizations and leagues seemingly every year. It is now, at the close of 2015, barely a blip on the radar when news breaks that a woman has landed a gig as a National Football League referee or position coach. While we still have a long way to go in this process, there is no question that significant progress has been made.
Forbes released in early December its list of the most powerful women in sports for 2015. Some of the women who made the top-20 are members of a family that has had control of a franchise or an organization for decades. Others, however, are athletes who have had to make their names in competitions. That includes the woman who takes up the first spot of the list. Some cynics may want to point out that this athlete has not lived up to what were probably some unrealistic expectations. That woman has, regardless of opinions, undeniably cemented her place in sports history.
20. Danica Patrick – NASCAR
Danica Patrick is not the offspring of one of the greatest NASCAR personalities in the history of the industry. Patrick is a woman who has merely wanted opportunities to prove that she can hang in the “good ol’ boys” world of racing. It would be an understatement to say that Patrick has achieved that goal. Along with breaking through barriers that now no longer exist, Patrick and her team have done well to build a successful business brand. Patrick may never win a NASCAR championship, but that does not take away from all that she has achieved during her historic career.
19. Katrina Adams – Tennis
Those who are familiar with the game of tennis know of Katrina Adams. Adams was a collegiate and professional tennis player who participated in singles and doubles competitions. She has, in the past, worked as a commentator for the Tennis Channel, and Adams has also served as Executive Director of the Harlem Junior Tennis League. A veteran of 12 years on the WTA Tour, Adams is now the CEO and President of the United States Tennis Association. Perhaps her newest mission in that job should be to try and locate the next great American male tennis player. The country could sure use one.
18. Laura Gentile – ESPNW
Laura C. Gentile earned a promotion in November of 2015, as she is now listed by ESPN as “senior vice president, espnW and Women’s Initiatives.” Gentile is the founder of espnW, which has evolved from an ESPN blog to a venture that has included everything from weekly fantasy football advice to summits featuring female ESPN personalities and other women in sports. It would be false to say that espnW only deals with women’s sports. That portion of the “worldwide leader” has also provided commentaries on serious matters, such as domestic violence cases involving famous athletes.
17. Maria Sharapova – Tennis
Maria Sharapova has been one of the most successful tennis players, male or female, of the past decade. Sharapova may be closer to the twilight of her career than to her physical prime, but there is little doubt that she is going to be just fine once she does enter retirement. Routinely listed among of the most marketable athletes in the world, Sharapova has done well to branch out to various other business endeavors. Along with her many endorsement deals that feature her in international advertising campaigns, Sharapova is also involved in her own Sugarpova company.
16. Deborah Yow – NC State
Deborah Yow is certainly no stranger to the world of college basketball and collegiate sports. Yow was an accomplished women’s college basketball coach during that portion of her career. She then moved on and earned athletic director jobs at Saint Louis University, the University of Maryland and finally North Carolina State University. It is at North Carolina State where Yow currently holds the role of athletic director. Yow has obviously impressed those at the university with her work, as NC State extended her contract earlier in 2015. She is now set to be at NC State through July 2019.
15. Lydia Murphy-Stephans – PAC-12
It is, with every year that passes by, more and more difficult to remember a time when the “power conferences” in college sports did not have their own television networks. Lydia Murphy-Stephans was, per her profile page on the Pac-12 website, awarded with the role of Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Pac-12 Networks in December 2011. It is easy to understand how Murphy-Stephans was able to acquire such a job. Murphy-Stephans has, during her career, won a total of 24 Emmy Awards and other honors for her work in regional and national sports media.
14. Sheila Johnson – Washington Wizards
Sheila Johnson could match her resume up against that had by any other woman mentioned in this piece. Johnson is co-founder of television channel Black Entertainment Television (BET). It is Johnson and not Oprah Winfrey who is credited with being the first black female billionaire. Johnson is the CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts. As it pertains to the sports world, Johnson is the Co-Owner of the Washington Wizards of the National Basketball Association, WNBA team the Washington Mystics, and National Hockey League franchise the Washington Capitals.
13. Condoleezza Rice – College Football
It was no secret when Condoleezza Rice was serving as the United States Secretary of State that she was a humongous sports fan. Now that Rice is out politics, she is a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee. Rice has publicly stated on multiple occasions that she is a proud fan of NFL franchise the Cleveland Browns. Jimmy Haslam, owner of the Browns, should bring Rice in to interview for the general manager position. Let’s be honest about the situation: Rice could not possibly do worse than the men who have held that role since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999.
12. Gillian Zucker – LA Clippers
Things change quickly in the world of sports. It was not all that long ago when the Los Angeles Lakers were the undisputed kings of pro basketball in LA, while the Los Angeles Clippers were merely the little brothers in the market. That is no longer the case. The Clippers are on the upswing, and the team is seemingly headed in the right direction after Steve Ballmer took over as owner. One of the first big moves that Ballmer made was to hire Gillian Zucker as the president of business operations for the Clippers. Before joining the Clippers, Zucker was president of the Auto Club Speedway racetrack.
11. Sandy Barbour – Penn State
The storm that hovered over Penn State University following the Jerry Sandusky scandal that rocked the school has largely subsided. That does not, however, mean that Sandy Barbour has a cushy job as the athletic director at Penn State. Now that sanctions against the football program have been lifted, PSU fans and alumni are not going to settle with the team being “average” or just “good enough.” There could be several noteworthy coaches looking for work in the college game after the current season. Barbour would do well to, at the very least, examine that name of candidates.
10. Val Ackerman – BIG EAST
Val Ackerman has had a long history working in the sports world. Ackerman was a pro basketball player in France, but destiny had other plans for her. Per VirginiaSports.com, Ackerman became a staff attorney for the NBA in 1988. Ackerman was then named the first ever president of the WNBA in 1996. Ackerman has since gone on to bigger and better things, and she is currently the Big East Conference Commissioner. The Big East may no longer be what it was even several years ago, but that does not erase the reality that Ackerman is widely respected throughout the world of collegiate athletics.
9. Amy Brooks – NBA
Amy Brooks is, per Forbes, the “highest ranking female executive” currently working for the NBA. Brooks is the Executive Vice President of the league’s Team Marketing & Business Operations. Among her many responsibilities in that role, Brooks has been credited with helping the NBA, the WNBA and the NBA Developmental League all grow in popularity at the local, national and international levels. The sky seems to be the limit for what Brooks will be able to achieve in her current role, as the NBA is an exciting product with a plethora of young superstars leading the way.
8. Billie Jean King – Tennis
There are all-time greats and legends of sports, and then there is the category that is reserved for icons such as Billie Jean King. King, the oldest figure (72 years old) to check in on the list of the most powerful women in sports for 2015, went from being one of the greatest tennis players in the history of the sport to a true revolutionary. King founded the Women’s Tennis Association, the Women’s Sports Foundation and also World TeamTennis. The National Tennis Center that is located in New York City is named after King (Billie Jean King National Tennis Center). One would need more than just a slide to list all of the honors that King has earned throughout her lifetime.
7. Dawn Hudson – NFL
The former PepsiCo CEO is now working as chief marketing officer for the NFL. Dawn Hudson, who once told Fortune that football was her favorite sport, has the right job for the right market. Despite the league facing criticism regarding issues such as players facing potential legal problems and also the overall health of the athletes who take the field on NFL Sundays, the numbers show that the NFL has never been more popular nationally or globally than it is as of the end of 2015. With the NFL continuing to branch out overseas, once has to wonder if it is only a matter of time before a European city – London, specifically – has a team to call its own.
6. Jeanie Buss – LA Lakers
The Forbes list refers to Jeanie Buss as “the most powerful woman in basketball.” Buss is the co-owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, and she has served as president of the club since her father passed away in 2013. There is little doubt that Buss holds plenty of power because of the team that she owns and because of her popularity. With that said, this is a down time for the Lakers. Kobe Bryant, who is a shadow of his former self, is calling it a career after the 2015-16 NBA season. The Clippers are the current kings of LA. Buss and her team have some work to do starting next summer if the Lakers are to turn things around.
5. Kim Ng – MLB
No woman in professional baseball is seen to be more powerful than Kim Ng. Ng is the Major League Baseball Senior Vice President for Baseball Operations. Ng has, in the past, been in headlines for receiving interviews for open general manager positions. She did not win any of those gigs, though, and Ng eventually took her current job that has her working underneath Joe Torre. Do not, however, think that Ng has given up her dream of one day being a GM in the Big Leagues. It will be a banner day when a club gives her the chance that she has earned.
4. Venus and Serena Williams – Tennis
Serena Williams is one of the greatest tennis players, male or female, that the world has ever seen. Venus is not all that far behind her sister. Combined, the two have made for a duo that was, when the players were at their best, just about unstoppable. Both women have been involved with business endeavors off of the court, and those projects have helped make them cultural icons known for far more than just winning Grand Slam titles. Anybody who believes that the world of tennis will not be worse off when these two women are no longer competing could not be more off.
3. Christine Driessen – ESPN
Christine Driessen is executive vice president and chief financial officer for sports media superpower ESPN. Driessen was honored as the Women in Cable Telecommunications Woman of the Year back in September 2014. That is, per her ESPN profile, just one of the many awards and honors that Driessen has earned over the years. The most powerful woman working for ESPN today has, in the past, been named as one of the “Most Powerful Women in Cable” and also referred to as one of the “Most Influential Women in Sports.” Driessen has been widely praised for the job that she has done while overseeing the financial operations for the “worldwide leader in sports.”
2. Michele Roberts – NBAPA
Michele Roberts made history in the summer of 2014 when she was named executive director for the NBA Players Association. Roberts will forever be known as the first woman to ever head a union in a major pro sports league. The NBAPA has, in recent times, done well to make sure that the players get what they deserve as it concerns the amount of money the NBA makes off of media rights deals. As explained in a Deadspin piece that was posted in February of 2015, players are, per updated salary caps, about to get paid and in a big way. Remember that those contracts contain guaranteed money.
1. Lesa France Kennedy – NASCAR
Long before Lesa France Kennedy became CEO of International Speedway Corporation and before she served on the NASCAR Board of Directors, her grandfather Bill France Sr. was a stock car racer who eventually founded NASCAR. It is thus only fitting that Kennedy has continued the family tradition of being a high-ranking executive in the sport. The Forbes list states that Kennedy is “in control of more money than any other female in the business.” As explained in a NASCAR.com piece, this is not the first time that Kennedy has been named the most powerful woman in sports by Forbes. Kennedy earned that honor back in 2009.