Top 10 Women Executives in Sports

As shocking as it may be, it is entirely possible that there could be a woman running the entire United States from the White House before a woman becomes a head coach or a general manager of one of the teams in the MLB, NBA, NFL or NHL. These positions do not have the same taxing physical requirements as on-field participation, and yet in some ways seem to have limited women even more. As of December 13th, there were 23 Fortune 500 companies with female CEOs (a woefully low number out of 500, but still progress), including GM, Hewlett-Packard, Pepsi, Lockheed Martin, DuPont and Yahoo. Several major countries, including Germany, Brazil and Argentina, are currently ruled by female presidents or prime ministers, and dozens of others have in the past, including Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, Indira Gandhi in India and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. Women have continued to break through glass ceilings in all walks of life, and use their intelligence, talents, powers and abilities to advocate for complete gender equality in the workplace. Nevertheless, there are no female head coaches or general managers on teams in any of the four major North American professional sports leagues, nor have there ever been.

In future decades or centuries, when women have taken an equal place in the coaching and management hierarchies, these ten women will be seen as pioneers who were able to use their knowledge and experience to rise to positions of prominence to set an example for other women to follow their example and surpass them. Until then, however, we can only celebrate the women who have made the first inroads into sports coaching and management in male-dominated worlds and hope they are but the tip of the iceberg, foreshadowing a much larger group to come.

10 Virginia Halas McCaskey, Owner of the Chicago Bears

The daughter of iconic Bears coach and owner George Halas, McCaskey became his heir when her younger brother, George Jr., died of a heart attack in 1979. Inheriting the team in 1983, McCaskey won Super Bowl XX as Bears owner in 1985. Though she has taken more of a hands-off role since 1999, on account of her advanced age (she is currently 91, the oldest living owner in the NFL), she nevertheless maintains 80% ownership of the team, along with her children and grandchildren, as well as a status as one of the league’s most respected owners. She is not the only woman to own a major sports franchise (Georgia Frontiere, for example, owned the Rams from 1979 until her passing in 2008 and moved them from Los Angeles to St. Louis in 1995) but is arguably the highest profile and the longest tenured majority female owner today.

9 Rita Benson LeBlanc, Vice Chairman of the Board, New Orleans Saints

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While her position as the granddaughter of Saints owner Tom Benson has not hurt her standing in the team’s hierarchy, Benson has undoubtedly worked her way up to the position and proven her ability, despite some reported missteps. She interned with the team and NFL offices while in high school and college, and returned to the team after graduating in 2001. After Hurricane Katrina, Leblanc's profile with the team began to grow as she took on the increasingly public vice-president role with the team. Now Vice Chairman of the Board, LeBlanc represents the team at ownership meetings and manages the team’s branding efforts. She was also instrumental in helping secure the right to host Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans in 2013. While several reports claimed Tom Benson, her grandfather, had placed LeBlanc on administrative leave in 2012, they seem to have mended any potential rifts. LeBlanc also stands in line to become the team’s owner upon Benson’s death.

8 Jean Afterman, Senior VP and Assistant GM, New York Yankees

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After pursuing an acting career, Afterman attended law school and moved into the private sector before meeting Don Nomura, an agent specializing in helping Japanese players move to play in the Majors. Earning respect as a negotiator, George Steinbrenner then hired her to be the team’s new assistant general manager in 2001. Her greatest accomplishment in the role to date was serving as the principal negotiator in luring Hideki Matsui to the team in 2003, but her influence was likely also important in signing new pitcher Masahiro Tanaka in an intense bidding competition with several different teams. Afterman has remained with the team for over a decade now, and should be able to play a major role in building the Yankees’ roster for years to come.

7 Barbara Underhill, Toronto Maple Leafs Skating Coach

As a World Champion pairs figure skater in 1984 and five-time Canadian champion from 1979-1983, Underhill did not originally consider professional team sports as a career. In 2006, however, the coach of the OHL’s Guelph Storm, a junior hockey team co-owned by her husband Rick Gaetz, asked her to work with the team on their skating abilities, commencing a career that has only grown since. Underhill then went on to work for the Anaheim Ducks, New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning on a contract basis, and in 2011 was named by The Hockey News as one of the 100 most influential people in hockey, demonstrating the respect she had gained around the league for her efforts.

In 2012, the Toronto Maple Leafs hired Underhill as the team’s skating coach, a position that she still holds. Underhill is not the first former figure skater to instruct hockey players on their skating, but is the first one hired by an NHL team. Her example will hopefully prove women are deserving of consideration for any future coaching jobs and normalize the presence of women amongst the coaching hierarchies of the major professional sports leagues.

6 Nancy Lieberman, NBA D-League Coach and Assistant GM

After a lengthy playing career that earned her induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996, Lieberman transitioned into management and coaching with the WNBA’s Detroit Shock before becoming an analyst for ESPN. In 2009, however, Lieberman returned to coaching to take over the Texas Legends of the NBA D-League, an affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks. Serving in the position from 2009-2011, Lieberman became the first female head coach of a men’s NBA-affiliated professional basketball team, earning the respect of her players and demonstrating her deep passion and knowledge of the game, teaching ability and leadership. Lieberman stepped down after one season (the team did not commence playing until 2010) due to family reasons, but continues to serve as an assistant general manager with the team. Only time will tell how long it takes another woman to reach the same level in the coaching hierarchy, in the NBA or another major sport.

5 Heidi Ueberroth, Former NBA President of Global Marketing Partnerships and International Business Operations

If there is one executive who bears sole responsibility for the growing popularity of the NBA on a global scale, particularly in the Chinese market, it is Heidi Ueberroth. Ueberroth’s father Peter Ueberroth was the MLB Commissioner from 1984-1989 and a prominent United States Olympic Committee member, but Ueberroth carved out her path in a different sport, as well as a crucial legacy for her chosen sport. Before resigning from the position at the end of 2013, she helped to increase the number of exhibition games in China, invested in growing Chinese media coverage of the league, increased NBA advertising in China and spent significant money to improve recruitment, operations and infrastructure, including new courts. China is now the second-largest market after the United States for the NBA because of her efforts, and will only continue to grow as a source of revenue, fans and future players for the league.

4 Kim Ng, Former MLB Assistant GM and Current MLB Senior Vice-President for Baseball Operations

Starting her career with the White Sox, Ng became the first woman to present a salary arbitration case in the league in 1995, before moving to the position of Director of Waivers and Transactions with the American League. In 1997, she became the first female assistant GM in the Major Leagues when the New York Yankees hired her for the role and was the youngest to hold the role in the league at that time, at the age of 29. Moving to the same role with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2001 (her vacated role with the Yankees was then filled by Afterman, the number 8 entry on this list), she then unsuccessfully interviewed for the team’s general manager role in 2005. She also interviewed for general manager positions in Seattle in 2008 and San Diego in 2009, but neither team selected her for the role. In 2011, she moved to the league’s head office to take the position of Senior Vice-President of Baseball Operations, one of the most important roles in the league. Ng has proven to be a talented baseball executive in several roles, and is the likely frontrunner to be the first female general manager of a major North American sports team.

3 Amy Trask, Former CEO of the Oakland Raiders

With a political science degree from Berkeley, Trask started at the USC Gould School of Law in 1982 and started her career with the Raiders as a legal intern in 1983. She re-joined the franchise in 1987, and moved up to become the CEO of the franchise, serving as Al Davis’ protégé and essentially running the entire team herself in his last years. Trask repeatedly spoke glowingly of Davis for his dedication to promoting equal rights and for the trust with which he had entrusted her.

After Davis’ passing in 2011, however, team ownership passed to his son Mark, who desired to re-organize the team and place Trask in a position of less power than she had enjoyed previously under his father. Unwilling to compromise, Trask resigned from the team in 2013, after over 25 years with the team. While it is likely that Trask remains with a private law firm, rather than seeking a return to the NFL, her legacy continues through the example of those who have followed her, like Jeanne Bonk, the executive vice-president and CFO of the San Diego Chargers, and Katie Blackburn, the executive vice-president of the Cincinnati Bengals.

2 Donna Goldsmith, Former WWE Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice-President

After spending ten years as the vice-president of licensing for the NBA from 1990-2000, Goldsmith transitioned to lead the consumer products division of the WWE, where she managed all WWE licensing, VHS and DVD sales, book and magazine publishing, and other merchandising, from 2000-2008. From 2008-2011, Goldsmith moved up to the COO role, where she operated over the organization’s business strategies at all levels and regularly met with media members and business partners, helping to expand the WWE’s revenue and global audience. After leaving the role, she served as the GM of Operations for the 2014 NY/NJ Super Bowl Host Committee, before moving into private consulting work. As one of sports’ most prominent businesspeople with experience in three different sports, however, Goldsmith has every opportunity to take a high-end position with any of the major leagues in the future.

1 Lesa France Kennedy, CEO of International Speedway Corporation, Member of NASCAR Board of Directors

Part of the powerful NASCAR France family (her grandfather co-founded NASCAR, her father was the head of the organization for almost 30 years, her brother is the current CEO and chairman and her son is a current driver), Kennedy wields tremendous power within the sport. A member of NASCAR’s Board of Directors, she is also the former president and current CEO of the International Speedway Corporation, which owns 13 tracks that hold a combined 19 of the 36 races on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Schedule, including Daytona, Darlington, Talladega and Watkins Glen. While much of her power originated from her family background, she is nevertheless an extraordinarily powerful businessperson and sports figure who fully deserves a high spot on this list.

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