“Sports is not a job. You need a skill set and point of entry.”
Those were just a few of the words of advice provided by the panelists at Wednesday night’s YWCA of the City of New York “Getting Into the Game!” event at the offices of Proskauer in Times Square.
The event, hosted by the YWCA’s Academy of Women Leaders in connection with Women’s History Month, brought together female executives in the sports industry. The executives shared their insights on the sports business, their work experiences, the future of women’s sports and how women are making more of an impact in an area long seen as an “old boys’ club.”
The evening’s panelists were Val Ackerman, founding President of the WNBA and current Adjunct Professor of Sports Management at Columbia University; Jennifer Duberstein, Proskauer alumnae and Business Affairs executive with CAA Sports; and Jennifer Vescio, Vice President of Business Development at ESPN. Proskauer litigation partner Margaret Dale moderated the discussion before a packed room of attorneys, clients and sports fans looking to break into the highly competitive industry.
Ackerman spoke of her road from the basketball court as a player to the boardroom as one of the most influential women in the sports industry. Her dream was go to law school and then work as in-house counsel at a league. But despite her excellent academic credentials at UCLA law school and athletic experience, she got rejection letters because she had no legal experience. She worked as a corporate and banking associate at the New York law firm of Simpson Thacher and Bartlett in order to get that critical legal experience. The decision paid off as she went to work as a “utility lawyer” at the NBA in 1988 as the league was starting its expansion. Eight years later, Ackerman was named the WNBA’s first President.
“If you work hard and don’t complain and no job is too small and you’re good at what you do, doors open for you,” Ackerman said. “There’s no substitute for competency in any job.”
While she did experience great career success, Ackerman spoke of the challenges of being one of the only women at the NBA — and thus without a support system. She’s glad to see so many more women working in sports today and believes the numbers will increase (half of Ackerman’s students at Columbia are women).
Duberstein reflected on her experience at Proskauer and how it helped prepare the Michigan graduate and lifelong sports fan and athlete for a career in sports. While working at the firm, she learned “how to problem solve and use [my] judgment,” skills that prove indispensable in her role at CAA Sports and previously as Senior Counsel at Major League Soccer.
Duberstein has also seen an increase in the number of women on her team at CAA. When she joined CAA Sports in 2010, there were four women in sports who weren’t assistants; today there are ten. She also spoke of the importance of mentorship in career development, even in an informal capacity.
“The best mentors are those who you don’t need something from other than an opinion,” Duberstein said. “You can pick up the phone and ask for their advice.”
Vescio brought a different perspective to the panel as the only non-lawyer in the group. The former soccer player and UCLA Anderson School of Business graduate started her career at a startup before moving to established companies like CBS Interactive and now ESPN, where she focuses on deals relating to its content business. Vescio talked of the different lessons she’s learned working in both environments.
“In smaller companies you need to have a higher risk profile and be more creative with the color gray,” Vescio said. “At larger companies, you spend lots of time persuading and navigating the culture.”
When asked about a “glass ceiling” in the sports industry, Vescio emphasized that women are becoming more visible on the business side. At ESPN, two out of seven members of the company’s executive committee are women.
“We need to stop talking about it as a difference,” Vescio said.
Though it may be some time until we see a female commissioner of a major sports league, progress is being made. Wednesday night’s panel showed that women are getting in the game and provided advice and insight to ensure that more are on their way.