We should all be about learning as much as we can in the limited free time we have, and along with that comes the value of listening and experiencing some traditional ideas through the prism of new voices. With that in mind, we had a whirlwind week of micro events that touched on sports business in China, the Latino market, and then new faces and voices at maybe the most important event Sports Business Journal puts on all year, Game Changers. While we weren’t at any for full days: the China-US Sports Forum was four hours, Portada Sports was a half day and we only spent the morning at Game Changers (as well as the reception the night before) one thing was clear; there are new voices and new stories that are emerging that are not yet being heard by the old school decision makers; at least those “same faces” are not showing up to hear and meet new faces en masse, and we know how valuable showing up is in the listening process.
The good news is that those who went to any or all of the three (I may have been solo on the trio) got to meet and learn and listen from faces that were not the traditional or the same old for the most part. Yes there was surely a mix of friends, colleagues and leadership that were smattered into all, but many of the traditional faces were not there to do business, and that is somewhat troubling. Maybe it was time, maybe it was interest, maybe it was conference or event overload, budget or conflict (Re/Code had their event with Fanatics Michael Rubin and the NBA’s Adam Silver on Wednesday afternoon as well) but it seemed like those who always talk and show up for “same old” should be trying something new. If they would have, they would have picked up some interesting tidbits and new relationships this week with some pretty impressive speakers from Asia, Europe, Central America, and yes even, some impressive sports business leaders who just happen to be women.
Which brings us to Game Changers on Thursday. Now as a 52 year old white Italian-American husband and father of two college age students (one boy, one girl) who has sent over 30 years in sports and entertainment, I can easily slide into the category of “old school” if I let myself. However I have never been able to, since even at some of the biggest stops in my career we have always been scrambling to be different, engaging and relevant in very competitive marketplaces. That and the fact that the teams I work for and many of the properties were not at their let’s say peak when I was there. We are always making chicken salad from chicken poop. Be that as it may, I have always also been around very powerful people, personally and professionally, who by the way, happen to be women. Teachers, coaches and business leaders like Anne Worcester at the WTA and Judy Levering at the USTA, Donna Lopiano when we were trying to get baseball in the Olympics, Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss at WTT and the list goes on. I learned from them, as well as from many men in my career, the value of consensus building, note taking, vision and passion. Not because they were women, but because they were smart and knew how to lead the business or the property they were engaged with at the time. Race, color, gender; didn’t matter. What mattered was the goal and it was never. Never an issue.
I also have a great thirst to always be learning from whomever I cone across, young or old doesn’t matter. Teach me, let me listen to you and take something away that we can all use to improve personally and professionally. Maybe I’m the exception not the norm in what is still a male dominated business, but it’s the way I have grown.
So that gets us to Game Changers again. The conference is well thought out, and somewhat different in its makeup than most sports business conferences in that it celebrates voices who may not be heard elsewhere, almost all of whom happen to be women. From Mary Wittenberg to Anne Wells Crandall to Val Ackerman to Renee Tirado to Jay Parry to Wendy Clark and Michelle Wilson and many others, there was lots to learn, engage in and think about in a packed and inspiring day.
But it wasn’t really a great experience because the speakers (with exceptions like Dan Mannix of Lead Dog Marketing and Mike Golub of the Portland Timbers) were WOMEN, it’s because they were smart PEOPLE and PROFESSIONALS who were amazing storytellers!
That was the great part. Here was the sad part. Where were the guys? The audience; packed audience, was almost all women talking to women, and although that is very important, these were stories that men…of any age and background…should hear, think about and grow with. And what happens next? There will be a slew of conferences where the audience will shift back the other way, like the tide rushing in to wipe out some nicely built sand castles on the shore. It’s not the fault of the event planners, who encourage diversity. It’s an industry quandary that is probably a lot bigger.
Now the tide is turning and I have seen it. I see it in young girls, high school and college age girls who have now grown up engaged in sports with their dad; watching and playing games, but realize at some point that they are not good enough to play beyond a certain point. In the past maybe they drifted away. Now more and more (at least in the US) their DADS and MOMS are saying hey you love this why can’t you have a front office career or a sales career in sports and go for it? It is a regular question and an opportunity now, not an outlier from past years, and that provides great opportunity.
I saw it at both the China Conference and Portada, where young, engaged women were interested and involved in discussions in sports business, not sitting by the wayside. I see it in the emails I get from parents of women asking me how their daughters get a chance, and I see it in colleagues, men and women, who take the diversity issue seriously and actively try to make sure that the pool is deeper than it used to be.
I can’t say that I have walked in the shoes of a woman trying to break through or a man or woman of color who gets those “looks” when they walk in the room or down the street. I can say that I think I have always been a fighter; not one with the greatest gifts or skills but one who is willing to work, to try, to show up and who will learn just as much from the struggle as from the rare moments when you are on top. Maybe that’s where the mentoring and the thirst for learning comes in; no matter the gender, the size, the color, the background, struggle is struggle, and appreciating those willing to make the effort regardless of those factors can be a great driving force.
Game Changers, as were the other events this week, was a different and very worthwhile experience. Those who were there, especially the young women, benefitted greatly from hearing the stories of those who came before them and are now there to help. Still for all the positives the head scratcher remained that it feels like the silos are just too defined still.
Not only were there men missing from the audience that they needed to see and hear, there wasn’t much talk about the MEN who have mentored and helped the careers of the women along as well. Christine Driessen, an ESPN lifer, talked about work life balance but wouldn’t it have been nice if her husband was there to hear his side of the story? And there are plenty of women who have been mentored by men; maybe the Mentoring Challenge, where a great group of young women are paired with successful women for advice and help for a year, gets watered down and off message when males try to help these new faces come along, but there were several men in the audience who said “Hey maybe I can help” and were met with some quizzical looks from those around them. But the inclusive side in the programming was minor; what was major was the lack of diversity, call it reverse diversity, in the audience for whatever reason. Maybe ot was intentional. it just seemed lacking.
We need to be more about the collective success than just one group helping its own group.
Make no mistake; we need more game changers, and multicultural networking events to grow as an industry and strides are moving along; it just would be great if it could all be year-round and not one event at one point. Progress is being made I think, it just needs to keep going along.
Advice to those who were not on hand this year? Mark it for next. You can miss another event with the same faces to see new ones. Heck we may all learn something we need.
That’s the way we grow.