Every once in a while, we hear about how women’s sports are growing faster than ever. But more important than the increase in the number of women participating in sports, or the number of people watching them on television, is the increase in the number of women with real influence in the sports world. I mean, sure, it’s cool that a niche group of American sports fans get excited about women’s soccer once every four years. But you know what’s cooler? The fact that one of the most powerful people behind the scenes at NASCAR is a woman. This sort of thing, more than anything else, is going to advance the stature of women in sports.
So let’s take a look at the aforementioned NASCAR mover-and-shaker and 14 other influential women from the sports world. Only a couple are actual athletes; the rest are all pulling strings behind the scenes. And we’re not looking solely at how much revenue these women bring in (though that is a factor), but also how much they affect sports culture in general.
Maybe you hadn't noticed, but Alpine skiing isn't the most popular sport in North America. Probably has something to do with the fact that only 5% of the population actually has the financial and/or geographical means to do it. Nevertheless, through shear dominance (and a pinch of natural beauty), Lindsey Vonn has managed to become a household name. 2011 wasn't even an Olympic year, yet she was the 6th most googled female athlete in the world. Oh, and she earned an estimated $6 million in endorsements. That's not nearly as much as the next person on the list, but Lindsey is still a very influential woman in the world of sports.
15. Lindsey Vonn
Maria Sharapova was the 2nd most googled female athlete of 2011, and she earned a $24.5 million in endorsements. She is more than just one of the most recognizable female athletes in the world. She's a brand—like MJ or LeBron—that draws television viewers to any event in which she competes, and that brings in advertising and broadcast rights revenues for women's tennis. So yeah, she's got some serious influence.
14. Maria Sharapova
Pretty much any female sports journalist who's experienced even a modicum of success in recent years is following in the footsteps of ESPN's Linda Cohn, who has made sports broadcast history at pretty much every step of her career. In 1987, she became the first full-time anchor of a national sports radio program when hired by WABC. Then, in 1992, she joined ESPN and quickly became a prominent anchor of SportsCenter. She's been there every since, becoming famous for her knowledgable and witty sports banter.
If Erin Andrews ever had anything interesting to say about sports, she'd probably be the most influential female broadcaster in the biz. But since she'd rather dance with the stars, that title goes to Cohn.
13. Linda Cohn
Women's tennis is the most popular professional women's sport in the world, and really the only one that holds its own against men's pro sports. So you'd have to consider the person running the Women's Tennis Association—CEO Stacey Allaster—pretty influential. The most amazing thing to happen under her leadership? All the major tournaments now give the same prize money to the women that they give to the men. Even Wimbledon. Considering that corporate America (or corporate Canada, or corporate Europe, or pretty much corporate anywhere) can't achieve equal pay rates for men and women, that's pretty damned impressive.
12. Stacey Allaster
Have you noticed an increase in the amount of coverage soccer receives on ESPN, or how much it's televised on various cable outlets (especially the various Fox Sports channels)? That's no accident.
Soccer is more popular than it has ever been in North America. That's because all the parties involved—like the United States Soccer Federation, the MLS, and its marketing wing, Soccer United Marketing—have done what other soccer promoters who came before them were too impatient to do: build the game from the ground up. Slowly but surely, they've made soccer a profitable sport in North America by not aiming too high, too fast. Now, over a decade in, 12 of the 19 teams in the MLS play in soccer-specific stadiums. That's a sign of stability and longevity.
So who's in charge of growing the game in North America? That would be Kathryn Carter. As VP of Soccer United Marketing, she oversees all broadcast sponsorship deals for the MLS (so yes, she's the one behind the move to put sponsors on MLS jerseys like every other soccer league in the world), as well as those for the all Men's and Women's U.S. national team games, and any Mexican national team games played in the United States. I'd say she's doing a pretty good job.
11. Kathryn Carter
Race fans can complain about Danica Patrick's lack of credentials as a driver till they're blue in the face, but she's still one of the most famous people in auto racing today. Last year, despite being an average to slightly above average driver, she was #3 on the list of top-earning female athletes, raking in a cool $12 million. And let's face it—those who are magnets for money wield a lot of influence in this world.
10. Danica Patrick
Jeanie Buss is the longtime girlfriend of basketball zenmaster legend Phil Jackson and, more importantly, the Executive VP of Business Operations for the Los Angeles Lakers since 1999. Obviously, the Lakers are one of the biggest brands in all of pro sports, and they continue to be successful. Under other circumstances, Buss these factors would probably put Buss in the top 5, or maybe even the top 3. However, since her dad, Jerry Buss, is the owner of the team and her boss, it's hard to say how much of her influence is really her influence.
9. Jeanie Buss
Pat Summit isn't just the most famous female coach in American sports; she's the only famous female coach in female sports. Or at least, the only female coach who is a household name.
Last August she announced that she had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, and that the 2011-12 season would be her last. She ended her 38-year coaching career with the Tennessee women's basketball team with a ridiculous record of 1098-208 (more wins than any NCAA basketball coach, men's or women's) and 8 National Championships (second only to the legendary John Wooden of UCLA). Then in April it was announced that Summit would be joining Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Neil Armstrong as recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian award given out by the U.S. Government).
In short, there is no woman more revered for her knowledge of a sport than Pat Summit.
8. Pat Summit
We probably could have put Serena Williams on this list all by herself. After all, she was the #1 most googled female athlete of 2011 by a long shot. But the reality is that these two have had and will continue to have more influence in women's tennis (and sports generally) as a pair. After all, they're not just players. They burst onto the tennis scene as a freakish phenomenon—not one but two insanely gifted athletes from the same family, completely dominating a sport. And here's the thing: they're not going to go away when their careers are through. Pretty starlets will come and go, but these two will be tennis royalty forever, which will bring them significant influence for years to come.
7. The Williams Sisters
I would venture to guess that no other non-sports entity (i.e., a company that doesn't produce sports or sporting goods) has had a greater role in constructing sports narratives over the last 20 years than Gatorade. I mean, usually an athlete endorsement puts a product on the cultural map, but with Gatorade I wouldn't be surprised if athletes paid them. That's because, in the modern sports world, their commercials play a key role in the coronation of athletes as legends. (Right, Micahel Jordan?)
Anyway, the Chief Marketing Officer for Gatorade, a division of PepsiCo, is a woman named Sarah Robb O'Hagan. In recent years she has presided over a shift in Gatorade's master plan, in which they've moved from marketing Gatorade as the official drink of elite pro athletes to the official drink of all athletes. And, what to you know, revenues have gone up.
6. Sarah Robb O'Hagan
Virginia McCaskey, 89, is not just the principal owner of the Chicago Bears (which in itself would make her a very influential woman in the world of pro sports), but the daughter of legendary Bears coach/owner George Halas. So that makes her pretty much NFL royalty. She's been officially retired from running the team since 1999, but insiders say she still has a lot of influence around Bears headquarters. (Matriarchs always do.)
5. Virginia McCaskey
Like #9 Jeanie Buss of the Lakers, Rita Benson LeBlanc is related to the principal owner of the team she helps run. But unlike Jeanie Buss, it's pretty clear how much influence and power LeBlanc actually has.
Though she is officially just the Executive VP of the New Orleans Saint, the granddaughter of principal owner Tom Benson has become the de facto CEO and face of the franchise. She oversees all business operations, represents the team at NFL owners meetings, and is the most visible of the team's senior executives. Word has it that when Tom Benson kicks the bucket, Rita will take over as the official principal owner...at which point she'll probably merit an even higher spot on this list.
4. Rita Benson LeBlanc
People probably don't realize it, but the WWE is one of the most profitable sports operations in the World. You might think of it as a league, since it supposedly has various competitors vying for titles. But really, the WWE is best conceived as a single sports franchise, with all the wrestlers being part of one team...a team that brings in over $500 million each and every year. With that much annual revenue and a weekly television audience in the ballpark of 15 million, that probably would make the WWE the most valuable sports franchise in North America. And presiding over it all is a woman named Donna Goldsmith (pictured far left). She's the WWE's COO, and one of the most influential women in all of sports.
3. Donna Goldsmith
The NBA is one of the most popular sports brands in the world thanks to international icons like Michael Jordan, Yao Ming, and LeBron James. Over the last 20 years, the popularity of basketball and, consequently, world's preeminent basketball league, has grown exponentially in Europe (where is might be the #2 sport behind soccer) and China.
And the person largely responsible for the NBA's growth in popularity in China (thanks to adept marketing of Yao Ming) is Heidi Ueberroth, the league's President of International Business Operations.
2. Heidi Ueberroth
Lesa France Kennedy isn't just one of the most powerful women in NASCAR. She's one of the most powerful people, period. The daughter of NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr., she sits on NASCAR's board of directors while also serving as CEO of the International Speedway Corporation, the company that owns and operates 13 NASCAR race tracks (including Daytona, Talladega, Darlington, and Auto Club).
If you suspect that owning and operating the sport's most famous and important race tracks and sitting on the sport's board of directors gives Kennedy a unique ability to exert influence over NASCAR, you'd be correct. It would be like if someone on the board of directors for Major League Baseball owned half the baseball stadiums in America.
1. Lesa France Kennedy
Women, women in sports, Women's Soccer, Women's Tennis,