Pioneering sports journalist Lesley Visser, who became the first woman to cover an NFL beat, in 1976, often tells the story of waiting in a parking lot for Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. (She wasn’t allowed in the locker room.) Seeing her notebook and pen, he grabbed them, signed an autograph, handed them back and walked away. Suffice to say that in the intervening years women have entered an entirely different realm in terms of their influence in the sports world. They run leagues, marketing campaigns, production units and distribution divisions. They represent athletes and brands, steering the strategies that create billions in value, at a time when the stakes keep getting higher and higher. Since 2011, Multichannel News and B&C have offered this annual salute to the most accomplished next class of these women. Our fourth lineup is so strong it invites the use of way too many sports clichés. But clichés, of course, are rooted in truth. These honorees have gone the extra mile, done great blocking and tackling and hit the cover off the ball. We look forward to watching them continue to lap the field in the years to come.
Commissioner, Big East Conference
KEY STATS: Ackerman counts some 25 years in the sports business as both an att orney and executive, most notably as the fi rst president of the WNBA, a post she held from 1996-2005. She also spent time as the president of USA Basketball, overseeing the U.S. men’s and women’s Olympic basketball program. She still maintains a presence with the international game, serving as the U.S. representative on the central board of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). She began her legal career as a corporate and banking associate at the New York law firm of Simpson Thacher and Bartlett and later joined the NBA as a staff attorney in 1988.
VARSITY STATUS: Ackerman, who was named the commissioner of the “new” Big East last summer, is finishing up her first school year leading the conference, which was forged last spring when the seven catholic schools of the original Big East left the conference to go out on their own. Her role with FIBA — she also serves on the governing body’s competition commission — will include the first-ever “Basketball World Cup” this summer, a rebrand of the former World Championships.
IN HER WORDS: “The Big East Conference has a proud heritage, and our recent reconfiguration as a basketball-centric league based in New York City represents a new chapter in our history. With the support of our 10 member schools, Fox Sports, New York Life and our other business partners, we look forward to building an exciting competitive environment for our student-athletes, coaches and fans.”
Basketball analyst and reporter, ESPN
KEY STATS: Burke has covered basketball, both on the collegiate and professional levels, for ESPN since 1991. She is a regular on the network’s NBA coverage as well as the NCAA women’s basketball regular season and championship. Burke also handles the NCAA men’s basketball regular season and Championship Week. She has been an NBA sideline reporter for more than a decade, including playoff games and the NBA Finals on ABC, and has done select game analysis. Burke is also the host of the network’s Kia NBA Countdown on Wednesdays.
VARSITY STATUS: Burke began her career right after playing for Providence College by calling Providence games on local radio, a move that paved the way for much bigger assignments. In addition to her duties at ESPN, Burke has served as the analyst on the MSG Network telecasts for the WNBA’s New York Liberty, been the women’s college basketball analyst for CBS Sports and was the first woman to call a New York Knicks radio/television broadcast, in 2000. She was also the first woman to call a Big East men’s basketball game on television. Burke was inducted into the New England College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006 and a year later was presented with the Women of Excellence Trailblazer Award from the Rhode Island Women’s Center. Burke signed a five-year deal with ESPN last year.
IN HER WORDS: “If you could have seen me as a college student, I never had the idea that I would be working the NBA Finals in front of millions of people. The place I was most comfortable was between the lines on the basketball court. There never was a grand career plan. I don’t know if I ever put it in that line of thinking. I’m just focused on the assignment in front of me. There really is no [what’s left to do] end plan.”
— Kevin Czerwinski
VP, Production, College Networks, ESPN
KEY STATS: Druley has been with ESPN since 1990, where she started as a production assistant and rose up the ranks through numerous titles including associate producer (1996-99), highlights supervisor (1999-2000), producer (2000-02) and coordinating producer (2002-05). In 2006, Druley developed the annual “My Wish” series on SportsCenter, a collaboration with the Make-A-Wish Foundation featuring unique sports-related wishes for children with life-threatening medical conditions.
VARSITY STATUS: Druley, who was also VP of production for the Longhorn Network, will lead the second production launch of an ESPN network in less than three years with the debut of the SEC Network on Aug. 14, overseeing all production elements. Druley helped to rope in talent that should be familiar to SEC fans, including a certain well-known former Gator named Tim Tebow. All 14 SEC football teams will have a game on the network within the first four weeks of the season.
IN HER WORDS: “It’s going to be an exciting year, and football is going to be a big thing for us, and Saturdays are going to be very exciting. … We want people at home to feel like, ‘I’ve been there even though I haven’t.’ Because there is nothing like it: The sights, the sounds, the feeling of family. So we want to go where these traditions already exist and be part of it, be a part of the atmosphere.”
Senior VP, CBS Sports Marketing
KEY STATS: A 20-year veteran of the sports marketing and creative services sector, Dunne leads all marketing for CBS Sports, including branding and on-air promotions. She has recently overseen the promo campaigns, on-air look and set design for the launch of five new shows and helped launch the on-air graphics look for CBS Sports and CBS Sports Network. She had previously worked for the Diecks Group, a broadcast design and marketing company, and also at ESPN, where she played a role in the launches of ESPN2, ESPNews and ESPN.com.
VARSITY STATUS: There is no off-season for Dunne, who handles marketing for a top-shelf portfolio, including the NFL, the Masters and PGA golf championships, SEC football, the NCAA basketball tournament and U.S. Open tennis. In executing strategies, Dunne works with divisions across all of CBS Corp., including interactive, outdoor, radio and entertainment. One model for collaborations likely to take shape in the future happened last fall. Tying in with both the college football season opener, featuring the University of Hawaii and the return of primetime drama series Hawaii Five-0, she created a cross-promotion that aired on both CBS Sports Network and the flagship network.
IN HER WORDS: “The inaugural season of Thursday Night Football is a huge priority for CBS and that focus certainly extends to CBS marketing. We are working closely with our partners at the NFL to use the power of CBS to promote the 16 weeks of Thursday Night Football, which features the most marquee match-ups ever on Thursday night.”
— Dade Hayes
VP, Content, DirecTV
KEY STATS: Feeney has been part of the programming-acquisitions team at the 22 million-subscriber satellite-TV provider since 1997 and became VP in 2007. She is responsible for developing strategies and negotiating general entertainment and sports programming acquisitions, as well as maintaining external business relationships for linear cable channels, out-of-market sports subscription packages, regional sports networks and on-demand sports content.
VARSITY STATUS: Feeney, working with DirecTV’s internal products teams, has helped create and launch several exclusive interactive services for sports programming, including multiscreen “mosaic” services and 3DTV telecasts. She has also played key roles in leading DirecTV through complex negotiations to launch and renew service agreements with several regional sports networks, general entertainment services and out-of-market sports subscriptions, as well as authenticated content for TV Everywhere offerings and, earlier in her career, managing the pay-per-view business. Feeney is also a die-hard fan of Boston sports teams and an avid golf viewer.
IN HER WORDS: “DirecTV’s commitments to HD and innovation and the content deals I executed to support those initiatives are big highlights for me,” she said. “Recently, I worked tirelessly with MLB to bring MLB.TV to DirecTV customers and it was a big moment to see that change. … I like the intersection of content with technology and how new devices and technology have shaped the way customers consume their content, and the deals we negotiate. I remember starting at DirecTV and the buzz was in a few years we’d be able to do VOD. Now we’re delivering authenticated content across multiple devices. I also enjoy the challenge of trying to reach agreements for the content we deliver, but it has grown increasingly difficult with the rising tide of content costs, particularly sports. I want every fan to have his game, but this climate of unreasonable content cost demands often results in customers being shut out from their favorite team, and that is not ideal for the consumer.”
LESA FRANCE KENNEDY
CEO, Vice Chairperson of the Board, International Speedway Corp.; Vice Chairperson, NASCAR
KEY STATS: Kennedy joined ISC in 1983, advancing in her path while helping motorsports overall to keep growing. ISC now has about $615 million in annual revenue, controlling 13 facilities where about 100 racing events are held each year, and runs a range of commercial businesses, including broadcasting, based at those sites. ISC, based in Daytona Beach, Fla., was founded in 1953 as Daytona International Speedway Corp. As vice chair at NASCAR, she has helped optimize the corporation’s television status. While the frenzy around stock cars has subsided slightly over the past few years, a new deal with NBC Sports will keep NASCAR in the spotlight for the foreseeable future.
VARSITY STATUS: A Duke grad, Kennedy is from one of U.S. auto racing’s royal families. Her father, Bill France Jr., headed NASCAR for nearly 30 years; her grandfather founded the league in 1947. Her son, Ben, is a NASCAR driver.
IN HER WORDS: “NASCAR remains very strong and we’ve seen recent developments that point to further positive momentum in the future. Nearly one in four Fortune 500 companies participate in the sport, and the recently signed 10-year broadcast rights agreements with Fox and NBC start in 2015. From an ISC perspective, our mission is to provide memorable and positive experiences for our fans at the track so they return year aft er year. For 2014, my personal goal is to continue executing on “Daytona Rising” — the $400 million renovation of our premier property Daytona International Speedway. We plan to achieve a number of major milestones this year that will help us meet our deadline for debut in January 2016.”
— Dade Hayes
Senior VP and CIO, National Football League
KEY STATS: Prior to joining the NFL in 2012, McKenna-Doyle served in the same capacity with Constellation Energy Group. Before joining Constellation Energy, she worked in various senior management and information technology positions at several Fortune 500 corporations, including as senior VP and CIO for Universal Studios and Centex Homes, as well as VP of information technology for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.
VARSITY STATUS: With advancements in home theater technology, McKenna-Doyle’s main goal has been to improve the in-stadium experience, highlighted by the agreement in January with Extreme Networks, a network services company, as the league’s official WiFi analytics provider. The New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles were the early adopters, deploying WiFi in their stadiums last season. The league recently released minimum standards that all teams have to meet in regard to digital access service (DAS) and WiFi connectivity, which helped drive the Extreme Networks agreement. The San Francisco 49ers’ deal with Comcast to help outfit the team’s Levi’s Stadium, set to open this fall, was driven partly by mobile connectivity needs.
IN HER WORDS: At an NFL Fan Experience panel held with Extreme Networks in January, McKenna-Doyle said, “The cool devices and cool applications always outpace the underlying infrastructure’s ability to keep up with it, and that’s exactly where we find ourselves at the NFL, and that is playing a litt le bit of catch-up in our stadiums.”
Chief Brand Officer, WWE
KEY STATS: Stephanie McMahon has been involved in the WWE since middle school, when she modeled Rockers T-shirts in the WWE Shop catalog. She’s now fully entrenched within the WWE’s business operations, whether it’s effectively selling the pro wrestling outfi t’s brand behind the scenes or dishing out orders to WWE Superstars in the ring on the its various cable and broadcast shows. In December 2013, she was named chief brand officer, responsible for leading WWE’s efforts to further enhance the company’s successful brand among advertisers, media, business partners and investors. Prior to her new role, McMahon, the daughter of WWE president Vince McMahon, was executive VP of creative, and was responsible for overseeing the creative development of all WWE television, PPV programming, print, digital and social media content. That often meant taking a hands-on approach by including herself in the company’s dramatic on-air story lines, most recently as the bad girl head of WWE’s power-hungry group “The Authority” with her real-life husband, WWE Superstar Triple H. When she’s not bullying WWE Superstars in the ring, she serves as primary spokesperson for the company’s CSR initiatives, including “Be a STAR,” WWE’s anti-bullying program.
VARSITY STATUS: Now serving as one of the company’s principal owners, McMahon is helping build a WWE brand that recently expanded its media wings. In February, it launched standalone OTT service the WWE Network, and earlier this month extended its carriage deal with NBCUniversal to televise its highly rated, live WWE Monday Night Raw and SmackDown series on NBCU-owned USA Network and Syfy, respectively. While the company’s stock has struggled of late due to the growing pains of the WWE Network, which has 667,000 subscribers — less than the 1 million mark expected by the organization — WWE continues to be one of the leading digital content providers in the entertainment industry.
IN HER WORDS: “Success in business is not about gender. It is about results. You need to be your own person, push forward and accept nothing less.”
— R. Thomas Umstead
President, Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic
KEY STATS: Before coming to Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic in 2007, Schulte was the general manager of Fox Sports Net Arizona from 2002-05. She also served in several other positions at Fox, including coordinating producer for Best Damn Sports Show Period, overseeing the promotional launch of NASCAR on Fox Sports and Fox Sports Net and developing branding, marketing and media campaigns for Fox’s coverage of marquee sporting events, including the NFL.
VARSITY STATUS: Schulte has overseen the growth and innovation that has marked the network’s expansion. Her tenure has also been marked by an increase in the amount of quality live event coverage, the expansion of game-day shows and the creation of compelling news and entertainment programs such as SportsTalk Live and Table Manners. CSN Mid-Atlantic has also seen growth among its digital media properties. Under her direction, the network has expanded its team and league partnerships, making it the top regional sports network in the Mid-Atlantic region. She was instrumental in the establishment and growth of CSNWashington.com and CSNBaltimore.com, which were launched in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Schulte envisions CSNMA having more interactive, tech and touchscreen programming. One of the objectives is the integration of social media with the programming in terms of games, as well as studio shows. Ideally, it would simply be more than putt ing comments on a screen. She would like to take the more insightful comments and make them a more meaningful part of the on-air product, rather than just simply posting tweets. There isn’t a great deal of this type of interaction with the fans on a regional network level and Schulte believes there is a way for it to be incorporated into real-time broadcasts.
IN HER WORDS: “Goals in life are the thing. But it’s also about enjoying the ride and I’m enjoying the ride. When I was younger it was about the end but I’m at a stage where I am enjoying the ride. I’m having a great time right now. It’s one of those things where I am working on a show that never gets canceled — the NFL, the NBA and the NHL. They are incredible products to work with.”
— Kevin Czerwinski
Chief Sales and Marketing Officer Florida Citrus Sports
KEY STATS: The former general manager of three Fox Sports Net regional sports networks, Weeden is now responsible for sponsorship and membership sales for the organization that oversees the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium. Her career veered in 2009 when, after 16 years of RSN management at Fox, she moved into a college-sports marketing role with IMG. That segued into her current position, which itself came aft er years of volunteer service on the not-for-profit Florida Citrus Sports board of directors.
VARSITY STATUS: At Fox, Weeden was responsible for all aspects of the ongoing operations at Fox Sports Arizona and then at both Sun Sports and Fox Sports Florida aft er Fox bought Sunshine Network. She negotiated and oversaw the network’s programming agreements and relationships with team partners including the Florida Marlins, Florida Panthers, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Bay Rays, Florida State University and University of Florida, as well as the SEC and ACC conferences. At IMG College, she oversaw IMG’s sales and marketing responsibilities at Florida, Florida State, UCF, USF and Miami while also working with Southern Miss, UAB, the University of South Alabama and Troy. The Citrus Bowl, where the Daytona Beach-born Weeden att ended Tangerine Bowl games with her dad and two brothers as a kid, is undergoing a $207 million ground-level reconstruction that she can see from her office window. The venue hosts the Capital One Bowl and Russell Athletic Bowl annually, but there are aspirations for it to one day host the college football playoff s’ championship game. Before then, there are naming rights, sponsorships and premium seats to sell.
IN HER WORDS: “Everything’s kind of looped around for me. I was really fortunate professionally to start where I started, at regional sports networks, and learn that business from the ground up. It’s all been a path that’s led me here, which has been just a good place for me both personally and professionally. You meet so many people at an RSN because you’re not tied to one team or one league or one sport, or even one sector within that sport.”
— Kent Gibbons