Changing the game: U.S. women in sports management

Dramatic changes in U.S. sports leadership are occurring as more women are hired as top executives for U.S. men’s sports teams.

Consider the Miami Marlins professional baseball team. It is the first major U.S. sports franchise with women running the team’s day-to-day operations.

When the Marlins hired Kim Ng in 2020, she became the first female general manager in major league baseball. Two years later, Caroline O’Connor was named the Marlins’ president of business operations.

“When I talk to young girls, I really like them to see me in my role because I didn’t feel like I had that role model,” said O’Connor, who worked in the financial sector before the Marlins hired her in 2017 to work in the front office. “And I want people to see themselves when they see me and know that it is a possibility.”

Meet a few other women serving as role models in sports management.

Major league baseball

Smiling woman at microphone (© Jason Redmond/AP)
Before Catie Griggs became president of business operations for the Seattle Mariners, she had been named a Sports Business Journal “Game Changer” in 2017, an award that honors women leaders across all aspects of sports business. (© Jason Redmond/AP)

Catie Griggs became the highest-ranking woman in major league baseball in 2021 when the Seattle Mariners selected her as the team’s president.

A baseball fan, she had a batting cage in her backyard as a child. After obtaining a business degree, she later became chief business officer for the Atlanta United professional soccer team.

“When I look at diversity, equity, inclusion, I’m looking at it through the lens of business,” Griggs said. “It is good business to surround yourself with people who look and think differently than you do.”

Professional U.S. football

Woman in glasses looking up to her right and smiling (© Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)
Las Vegas Raiders President Sandra Douglass Morgan says she got her work ethic and appreciation for diversity from her parents — her father, Gilbert, a Black U.S. Air Force master sergeant; and her mother, Kil Cha, a woman of Korean descent who worked at Las Vegas casinos. (© Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Sandra Douglass Morgan has broken barriers in her career, as a city attorney, corporate leader and chief regulator for Nevada’s billion-dollar gaming industry. In 2022 she became the first woman of color named president of a National Football League team.

Douglass Morgan said she realizes her appointment as the Las Vegas Raiders’ team president “was bigger” than herself. She knows of young girls who now think of working for the Raiders after seeing her on the field.

“To me, the definition of success isn’t being the first — it’s to have many, many others follow behind you,” she told CNBC.

Smiling woman with arms folded (© Carolina Panthers)
Kristi Coleman started her career in accounting. Today she is the Carolina Panthers’ president. (© Carolina Panthers)

Kristi Coleman started working with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers in 2014 as a team controller, which meant she was in charge of monitoring the team’s cash flow and payroll. Eight years later she was put in charge overall as the team’s president.

In between those two positions, she was director of finance before becoming chief financial officer in 2019. Coleman led the legal process when the team was sold to the current owner in 2018.

“I always felt I could make an impact,” she said on a Panthers podcast.

Before joining the Panthers, Coleman worked for the Deloitte accounting firm and worked on the Panthers’ account, spending time at the stadium.

Professional and collegiate basketball

Man and woman seated behind microphones (© Ron Jenkins/AP)
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, left, hired Cynthia Marshall in 2018 to change the basketball team’s work culture. (© Ron Jenkins/AP)

Cynthia Marshall had retired after nearly 40 years at AT&T when she got the call in 2018 from the National Basketball Association’s Dallas Mavericks asking her to join the team and change its work culture. She became the first Black woman to serve as chief executive officer of an NBA team.

Marshall had a track record at AT&T and her own consulting firm for improving companies’ workplace inclusion and diversity. Forbes named her in 2021 as one of the world’s most inspiring female leaders.

“I have learned from my 36 years at AT&T about the value of diversity, and how it really equates to, you know, bottom line profitability, to have a diverse group of voices making decisions and looking at things,” she told PBS.

Woman speaking into microphone at lectern (© Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
Val Ackerman is a top U.S. women executive in both men’s and women’s sports, starting as a college basketball athlete. (© Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Val Ackerman had experience at at the collegiate, professional and Olympic levels before being named in 2013 to head the Big East Conference, a collegiate sports organization.

After working as an executive with the NBA, she became the Women’s National Basketball Association’s first president in 1996. In 2005, Ackerman became the first female president of USA Basketball, the agency that supervises the U.S. men’s and women’s Olympic teams.

Ackerman said she believed in the words of tennis legend Billie Jean King, who said, “you have to see it to be it.” Growing up, she admired King and ice skater Dorothy Hamill.

“It didn’t matter that I was a girl,” Ackerman said during a speech about growing up with a brother who was also interested in sports. “When it came to the pursuit of dreams, my mom and dad treated us exactly the same.”