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The WNBA Is Sorry, Not Sorry

Oct 9, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen (13) dribbles in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Sparks guard Chelsea Gray (12) in game one of the WNBA Finals. at Target Center. 

After years of interviewing and studying women in sports, I’ve learned one commonality exists among female athletes – they do not want to be treated any differently than their male counterparts.

And if you were to ask Nneka Ogwumike, President of the WNBA Player’s Association and 2016 MVP, she would prefer that you drop “female” from her professional athlete title altogether. For Ogwumike and her 143 WNBA colleagues, their gender does not define who they as basketball players.

A professional athlete is and will always be a professional athlete. And they are sorry, not sorry for demanding to be treated as such.

Consider the professionalism that sets WNBA players apart from the rest of the field. Their tenacity allows them to play a full season of basketball in the United States, then relocate to a foreign country only to play another entire season all over again. And for those players who don’t play overseas, their offseason includes building small businesses, establishing coaching careers, or training in the broadcast booth. All because they know there are more years of basketball behind them, than ahead them.

Not to mention, the laundry list of topics that WNBA players could spend their time complaining about – media and television coverage, sponsorship deals, or travel accommodations.

Yet, cooperatively, they do not to use their public platforms purely for personal gain. Rather, their civic engagement projects one unified voice that advocates for community social change.

WNBA players are not sorry for being strong women who fight for gender equality, reproductive rights and LGBTQ inclusiveness, all while standing undivided in the midst of the current socio-political climate.

As the league enters the 2017 WNBA Finals with the much-anticipated rematch of the 2016 championship series between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx, looking back at the 21st season, collectively the WNBA and its players are hitting their stride.

“So recognizing that women still appear to be a disenfranchised group where folks think they have the right to tell us what to do with our bodies and whom we should love. That’s not happening here in Seattle, and that’s not happening in the WNBA,” said WNBA President Lisa Borders during the All-Star weekend while reflecting on the age and maturity of the league.

Borders’ powerful statement is in contrast to seasons past where the league drew outspoken criticism for failing to market its players and the game to a wider audience.

In its maturity, the WNBA has established partnerships that allow the league to amplify its standing in professional sports. Specifically, the live streaming partnerships with Twitter and TIDAL, fantasy gaming with FanDuel and DraftKings, as well as the NBA Live 18 video game debut.

“When Jay Parry, our chief operating officer, and I arrived last year, we talked about gaining new fans, new audiences, folks that were unfamiliar with our game who were unenlightened. And we said, ‘we’re going to change that,’” Borders said.

Studying the season-ending metrics, the league’s efforts have likely paid off. Game attendance is at the highest average (7,716) and total (1,574,078) since 2011, merchandise sales increased 18% over last year, viewership is up 7%, and social media engagement grew by 15% with the addition of two million followers from the previous season.

“I think it took us a while to find our voice. We have found our voice,” said WNBA President Lisa Borders. “We’re clear on who we are, and we are articulating our positions every day.”

The WNBA is consciously framing how the world views women who play professional basketball – and they are sorry, not sorry.

As Volleyball Participation Grows, The AVP Tour Readies For The Future

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), more high school girls played volleyball (444,779) than basketball (430,368) in 2016-2017. Further, in the past decade, NFHS’s data shows an increase of more than 400,000 volleyball players and a decrease of 23,000 basketball players.

As more girls set aside collegiate basketball recruiting letters in favor of volleyball scholarships, the sports property poised to reap the benefits of an influx of women in volleyball is the AVP (Association of Volleyball Professionals).

Established in 1983, the AVP’s rich 34-plus year history is recognized as the home of the most respected professional beach volleyball players. Although, after suspending operations in 2010, it appeared that the AVP Pro Tour would never be the same again or serve as the premier beach volleyball association.

Enter Donald Sun, AVP Managing Partner and former computer technology executive, who purchased the brand in 2012. Having played volleyball while growing up in southern California, Sun idolized the AVP’s players and followed the tour up and down the coast.

Professionally, acquiring the AVP trademark and doing something with it was a dream come true for him. Admittedly, Sun describes the last several years as a learning process; noting that he understood operations and logistics on the technology supply chain management side far better than sports and entertainment.

“It has been a challenge, but we’ve gone past all of those hurdles. The first few years have been about reinvigorating the brand. And for me, learning what it means owning a sports and entertainment property, what makes fans and players tick, and what they want from us,” said Sun earlier this month during the 58th Annual AVP Gold Series Manhattan Beach Open, which doubled that of all previous 2017 events and marked the highest participatory numbers in the history of the AVP Pro Tour.

Along with learning the business of professional volleyball, Sun commented that early on a considerable challenge was overcoming the damage to the brand that occurred over the last 10-15 years and reversing the lack of trust.

For April Ross, the two-time Olympic medalist and who joined the AVP Pro Tour in 2006, the biggest change that she has seen over the years has been the difference in leadership and ownership.

Previous AVP owners “went beyond their means and stretched the pie too far,” said Ross during a phone interview before the Manhattan Beach Open. Behavior that she believes came back to haunt the tour and ultimately “ruined [the AVP] for the players.”

“That’s when Donald came in and took over for where we are now. For me, that has been the most positive thing, and that is what I want people to see – his vision and how sustainable he is trying to build the AVP,” Ross added. “The roots are growing, and that is going to stabilize our sport for a long time.”

Both Ross and her partner, Lauren Fendrick, are optimistic about the future of professional beach volleyball and recognize the opportunity for growth.

“One of the pros has been the NCAA adding beach volleyball. First, as an emerging sport and last year as a sanctioned sport,” said Fendrick who joined the AVP Pro Tour in 2003 and serves as a volunteer coach at Stanford University. “That has been huge for the women’s side of the game to develop young players to provide a platform for them to play in college with coaching and all of the support that comes with a college athletics program.”

Sun and his team have moved away from the previous business model, which was focused on the top-tier players; now, they are concentrating on the “whole ecosystem” with developmental programs like the AVP Academy, AVPNext, and AVPFirst. This year the AVP Junior Nationals Championship hosted over 215 teams, next year Sun anticipates hosting 150 AVPNext events.

“The more participation you have, the more revenue and also the more interest in the AVP brand,” Sun said. “We are creating that pipeline just like in soccer. The base of the participation are girls and women. You have to go where the crowd is going. Also, it is a testament to our brand that we can have equal opportunities for both sides.”

And those opportunities extend to equal prize money for men and women.

“You see the NBA and how big a lot of other sports are, and of course we want to be up there with them. It is a growth process, and the AVP is doing a great job trying to find a way to get there,” said Fendrick. “One of the cool things about our sport is that males and females are equivalent. We both get paid the same amount, which is not the same for all sports. I am proud of that fact for the people of volleyball.”

Jemele Hill: ‘Even If You Think Women Don’t Belong — Guess What? We’re Not Going Anywhere.’

NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 29: Co-host ESPN2’s His & Hers Jemele Hill speaks at the Why Are We Still Talking About This? Women & Sport in 2016 panel at Liberty Theater during 2016 Advertising Week New York on September 29, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by D Dipasupil/Getty Images for Advertising Week New York)

Jemele Hill never planned on having a decade-long and counting career working at ESPN, the worldwide leader in sports. And her sights were never set on becoming a television anchor. Rather, her lifelong goal was to write long-form stories for Sports Illustrated because she always thought print first.

Gradually, she transitioned from an ESPN.com national columnist to regular studio commentator, appearing on First Take, Around the Horn and Outside the Lines. Ultimately, those opportunities led to a front-and-center role as the co-host of His & Hers, a daily sports discussion television show and podcast.

And somewhere along the way her knack for merging music, culture and sports, as well as her magnetic personality gelled with audiences. Earlier this year, Hill and her co-host, Michael Smith, were paid the ultimate compliment when they were given the nod to take over ESPN’s iconic SportsCenter brand.

After four months on air, SC6 with Michael & Jemele is attracting a younger racially diverse audience, and the time spent viewing SC6 is up double digits over the same period last year.

I spoke with Hill during a telephone interview where she discussed stepping into the SportsCenter spotlight, the role of women in sports media and how she navigated the transitioned from print journalism to television. Her answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Glass: How have viewers and the ESPN family responded to SC6?

Hill: The ESPN family could not have been more supportive and more pleased with what we’ve been able to do. They were looking for the 6:00 pm Sports Center to be more personality branded. In terms of viewers, they have been very positive. There is a contingent of people out there who are still trying to figure out what we are and what we’re doing. Much like we had to do on His & Hers, we have to train the viewers to have a different expectation. When you give people the same thing consistently and with good quality, the next thing you know they can’t remember it any other way.

Glass: You are walking in the footsteps of notable and powerful journalists – Robin Roberts, the late Stuart Scott and John Saunders. What do their legacies mean to you? Are you applying any advice that you received from them to fulfill your current SportsCenter role?

Hill: I have deep admiration for Robin Roberts, Stuart Scott, and John Saunders. From Stuart, the great lesson for everybody is that you’ve got to bet on yourself. People aren’t going to always be positive about what we’re giving them, but we feel so strong about who we are that we’re not willing to change. Even if you don’t like it, even if it’s not successful. I don’t think either one of us could stomach the idea of being someone else on television other than ourselves. Then we would feel like we disappointed people like Stuart Scott, Robin Roberts and John Saunders, because they were very much themselves no matter where they were appearing and that’s what we appreciated about them.

Glass: You’ve been a champion for women in sports, not only female athletes, but also women in front of the camera. And you’ve been outspoken about the treatment of women on social media and how voices of women in sports are often marginalized. Have you seen any improvement in this area?

Hill: I don’t know that if it’s something that will ever be completely solved. Much like with any issue of this magnitude, it’s always going to be a situation where it’s progress and resistance. The unfortunate part is that in sports there’s always going to be this faction where people believe that women just don’t belong. That mentality is going to be out there and unfortunately, it’s something that women in the business have to put up with. And it feels terrible to say that because it empowers and emboldens in many cases the people who do carry that mentality. I hate that is something that we have to take as collateral damage of the job, but that’s unfortunately, how we have to take it. As we continue to get more women in sports media who are in the position of putting women and their voices at the forefront of sports, and so even if you do have the mentality that women don’t belong, guess what? We’re not going anywhere.

Glass: While transitioning from print media to television, what have you learned about the sports business?

Hill: The mentality in television is way different than it is in print, and so there were a lot of things I had to learn. Having an opinion was the least of what I had to learn because that came naturally.  What I began to understand very quickly is that having an authentic opinion is not the only thing that makes you successful on television. TV is performance theater in many respects. You have to learn how to perform your opinion and that was probably something that I learned just by repetition. And I’ve said this before; TV can be in some respects very unrelenting on women. I’ve never felt this way at ESPN, but there is a fixation on how women look on television that can be at times uncomfortable. I had to get used to that part of it.

Balancing Act: How Venus Williams Makes A Lasting Impact On And Off The Court

Venus Williams first stepped foot on Arthur Ashe Stadium in 1997. It was during the breakthrough season for the 17-year-old who advanced to the US Open finals as an unseeded newcomer.

Williams’ storied professional tennis career speaks for itself – 49 singles titles, a four-time US Open champion (singles 2000, 2001 and doubles 1999, 2009), and a gender equality fight that brought equal prize money to Wimbledon. 20 years later, she is still wowing tennis fans – and not solely because of her athletic talent.

Beyond the court, Williams leads the athletic apparel line, EleVen by Venus Williams, and the design firm, V Starr Interiors, companies that she founded to nurture her entrepreneurial side and passions for fashion and interior design.

For the second consecutive year, fans pouring into Flushing Meadows will get their first glimpse of Williams as they enter the US Open American Express Fan Experience, which provides virtual tennis activations and hospitality. Williams collaborated with American Express to create the social content series Ace the Open with Venus Williams, and through V Starr Interiors, she provided design direction on elements within the Card Member Club.

“At American Express, we are dedicated to providing memorable experiences for our Card Members, and the US Open continues to serve as the perfect platform for us to engage tennis fans in new and exciting ways through premium access and benefits,” Deborah Curtis, Vice President, Global Experiential Marketing and Partnerships, American Express, said in a released statement.

“We’re thrilled to continue our partnership with Venus Williams – a Card Member, champion and entrepreneur. From delivering a newly designed Card Member Club influenced by Venus herself to a multi-sensory tennis activation, we think that we are delivering services that will truly elevate the US Open experience.”

For Williams, when asked what fans can look forward to when entering the fan experience, she stated that they will see a modern, clean design aesthetic. Adding, “I would love if they can look forward to seeing me with a trophy in the finals [laughing]. I have to do some work towards that; I think it would be the most awesome ending.”

As the ninth ranked player in the world, Williams’ quest to win another women’s singles championship is not far-fetched. After two runner up finishes this season (Australian Open and Wimbledon), Williams is poised to make another run at the world’s top ranking, a distinction she last held in 2002, becoming the first African American woman to hold the top spot in the Open Era. And with five of the top eight women eliminated before the third round in this year’s US Open, the tournament field is wide open.

I spoke with Williams, ranked tenth on FORBES’ 2017 highest-paid tennis players list,  by phone before the start of the US Open. She discussed her partnership with American Express, her entrepreneur adventures, and how she is tackling her 20th US Open appearance.

Glass: How is your partnership with American Express highlighting your off the court experiences?

Venus Williams: The partnership with American Express highlights the things I’ve done off the court especially with interior design and fashion design. It is fun to show what I do off the court and to encourage other business owners. I am able to share the lessons I’ve learned in tennis, how I apply them on the court, and how it has made me better.

Glass: I read that from tennis you’ve learned the lesson of discipline and that you can always achieve more than you thought you could. What is something else that you’ve learned from tennis that you’ve taken to your businesses – V Starr Interiors and EleVen?

Williams: Definitely persistence. It is one of the things you learn as an athlete – even as you learn how to hit the ball – it is persistence. You have to continue to learn and have to continue to change. What could be working in the middle of a match can change, and you have to continue to change your game plan, and that is in business too.

Glass: You’ve said being an entrepreneur is a “choose your own adventure.” What is the boldest adventure that you have been on so far as an entrepreneur?

Williams: Being an entrepreneur is an adventure that does not end. The boldest part is when something is not working because you make plans and do your best and then it does not work. So that in and of itself is the boldest part – reinventing your whole strategy.

Glass: In the past, you discussed that in your businesses you create a culture and give work that is meaningful, honest, and transparent. How would you describe Venus Williams as the boss? What is your leadership style?

Williams: I am just a lot of fun. That’s my whole personality coming through. I am very energetic, but I am also laid back. I am also very empowering, and I like to see people be leaders. And I also like to lead by example. There is nothing that I am going to ask you to do that I have not done. I won’t ask anyone to work any harder because I have worked harder.

Glass: You are one of the hardest working professional athletes out there – 19 US Open appearances and you are four-time champion. At this stage in your career with all that you have accomplished on the court as well as fighting for gender equality, are you your toughest opponent at this stage of your career? What are you still going after?

Williams: I am going after the win. Trust me, it never gets old. It is very addictive, and there is always a euphoria. There is something about knowing that you are putting in the work and then getting the result. Sometimes you put in the work and you don’t get it – you have to reevaluate. I love that pressure. I love the challenge. I will always need that in my life.

Remembering Basketball Pioneer Pat Summitt

How do you say goodbye to a woman who inspired generations of athletes and defined what it means to be a coaching legend?

You don’t.

Instead, you keep her memory alive in your heart and mind.

Pat Summitt, 64, who died on Tuesday after a nearly five-year battle with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, was the queen of women’s basketball.

imagesAs the longtime head coach at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Summitt guided the Lady Vols from 1974-2012. After 38 seasons, she had amassed a record of 1,098 victories and 208 losses, making her the winningest coach in college basketball history – both men and women. She was also the first men’s or women’s coach to reach 1,000 victories.

Summitt was the gold standard in coaching.

She built a powerhouse program, and we were her women’s basketball disciples. When she spoke, we listened. She was a fierce competitor who stressed unwavering work ethic.

Anyone who witnessed Summitt’s greatness will tell you that no one worked harder than she did – and the results showed.

Her coaching recorded included 18 Final Fours, eight NCAA Championships, and an Olympic gold medal.

The seven-time NCAA Coach of the Year championed gender equity in women’s sports, and we witnessed the fruits of her labor.

Loyal fans flocked to Thompson-Boling Arena to watch the Lady Vols, where on their attendance numbers often outpaced the men. Including the 1999 season where they compiled the women’s basketball record of 16,565 per game.

In 2006, she signed a contract extension that made her the first women’s basketball coach to reach the $1 million mark – a far cry from her $250 a month wages in 1974. In Summitt’s final season, she earned $1.5 million. Last year, 10 SEC coaches were paid more than $400,000. Coaches around the country have Summitt to thank for the road she paved.

Summitt commented on her historic contract extension by saying, “In women’s basketball, just the fact that we’re starting to generate more interest and revenue and television, you get the exposure for the university. All of those things are a plus in terms of potential compensation. That’s where I see our game improving and growing.”

Indeed, the game grew and improved under Summitt’s watchful eye.

I remember meeting her during the early 90’s at a Tennessee basketball camps, and again in 2013 at the Tribeca Film Festival. Her signature smile and warm embrace made me feel like I was the most important person in the room.  I wrote about those life-changing moments in the piece Pat XO: ESPN’s Love Letter to Pat Summitt.

Summitt was an icon and the greatest basketball coach of all-time. She raised the bar and we all owe her a debt of gratitude. More importantly, we owe it to Summitt to keep her spirit and legacy alive.

WNBA Reveals The 20 Greatest Players Of All Time

June 21, 1997 will forever be etched in stone as the date of the inaugural WNBA game.

The sold-out crowd of 14,284 fans gathered at the Great Western Forum – the longtime home of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers – to watch the New York Liberty versus the Los Angeles Sparks.

new_wnba_logo_tsFast forward to season 20 and in honor of that historic day the WNBA announced its 20 greatest players  and most influential players in league history – Top 20@20 presented by Verizon.

Among the honorees are Sparks forward, Candace Parker, and Minnesota Lynx forward, Maya Moore, who were adolescents at the time of the league’s founding, are now the WNBA’s brightest stars.

In Parker’s eight WNBA seasons, she was named the 2008 Rookie of the Year and voted as a two-time regular season MVP (2008, 2013).

Moore has won a WNBA championship in three out of five seasons (2011, 2013, 2015), in addition to being voted as the 2013 WNBA Finals MVP and the 2014 regular season MVP.

This season, Parker’s 11-0 Sparks and Moore’s 12-0 Lynx are off to the two best starts in WNBA history, breaking the 10-0 mark set by the Lynx in 2012.

Their upcoming matchup will once again place June 21st in the record books as it is the first time in the WNBA, NBA, NFL, MLB or NHL that two teams with ten or more wins, no losses, and no ties will meet during the regular season.

In addition to being two of 20 most influential WNBA players on the court, Moore and Parker have also cemented themselves as vocal off the court leaders who are championing increased exposure for the league.

In 2015, Moore penned the Players’ Tribune essay – (In)Visibility – where she called for celebrating the female athlete and the WNBA product. Moore described growing up without a local WNBA team, so instead she chose to admire the Houston Comets – the dominant team at that time – and WNBA pioneers Tina Thompson, Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes.

Women whom she said, “I saw myself in them and them in me.” Today, Moore stands next to them as one of the league’s greatest players.

When asked what changes she has seen since writing her essay, Moore said, “In general media coverage has improved. This a good year for women’s basketball with the Olympics coming around and our 20th season. I am confident that the piece that I wrote was a good part of the conversation that has led to more conversations. I think we are heading in the right direction so far in 2016.”

While a lot of sports fans still wonder where the league is headed, the consensus among WNBA players and coaches is that in its 20th season the league is on an upward trajectory.

For more information on the WNBA’s Top20@20 presented by Verizon visit WNBA.com.

The full list includes nine current players: Maya Moore, Candace Parker, Seimone Augustus, Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Tamika Catchings, Cappie Pondexter, Diana Taurasi and Lindsay Whalen.  Eleven former players are also among the honorees: Cynthia Cooper, Yolanda Griffith, Becky Hammon, Lauren Jackson, Lisa Leslie, Deanna Nolan, Ticha Penicheiro, Katie Smith, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson and Teresa Weatherspoon.

How Women Are Reforming FIFA’s Brand Crisis

This is the story of the world’s most popular sport – football – that spans more than 100 years. It is treasured and unites generations of fans. However, over the years, its governing body – the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) – which is responsible for the regulation and promotion of the sport worldwide has struggled to maintain the integrity of the beautiful game.

A 2015 indictment of former FIFA officials by the United States Justice Department alleges racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering, among other offenses rocked the football world.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch described the situation as deep-rooted, rampant and systematic corruption that spans two generations (1991-2015) of soccer officials abusing their positions of trust for personal gain.

FIFA’s brand and its reputation have taken a major hit.

In a recent Victim Statement and Request for Restitution filed with United States District Court Eastern District of New York, FIFA is attempting to reclaim tens of millions of dollars in damages that it alleges was caused by its former officials; FIFA notes: “The damage done by the Defendants’ greed cannot be overstated. Their actions have deeply tarnished the FIFA brand and impaired FIFA’s ability to use its resources for positive actions throughout the world…”

Further, the court filing continues, “Yet today, FIFA has become notable for the Defendants’ bribery and corruption, not its many good works the Defendants are responsible for harming FIFA’s brand and bringing FIFA and the game itself into disrepute.”

FIFA’s brand recovery will not happen overnight. However, its recent institutional reforms point in the direction of FIFA embracing a once marginalized voice – women.

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“There were three of us on the FIFA Executive Committee, and we looked at each other and said, ‘Of course it is time for reform, but why isn’t anyone talking about gender equality?’ The fact that we were there and we had the opportunity to be heard. It is called the power of the pulpit,” said Executive Committee member, Moya Dodd, regarding the role of gender equality in FIFA’s reform movement during her address at FIFA’s 2016 Women’s Football and Leadership Conference.

“Having a position means that I can stand here and talk, and some people will listen. That gave us the opportunity to step into the game when things opened up when the football world was reeling from the shocks that occurred in May and September.”

For Dodd and her colleagues, Lydia Nsekera, who was the first women elected to the executive committee and Sonia Bien-Aime who was the first female non-dedicated seat executive committee member, those shocks to the game provided their opening to move the ball – gender equality – forward.

“When the game opens up, your first instinct is to accelerate into the space and to find a teammate who is running into that space. That is really what the reform movement on gender equality [is about] – that is how it began. A few of us looked at each other and said, well you know if we can make a difference here, we can make ten years of progress in six months.”

Women all over the world joined the conversation.

#WomenInFIFA was active on social media with 47 million Twitter timelines spreading the message of gender equality. Football advocates, including the lone female voice on the 13-member reform committee, Sarai Bareman, deputy secretary general of the Oceanic Football Confederation, and Tatjana Haenni, deputy director and head of women’s competitions at FIFA, said that one way to improve the game is to let women in the door.

On February 26, 2016, the world and FIFA’s Extraordinary Congress were ready to hear that message.

Notably, gender equality was an election issue during the highly publicized FIFA presidential election to replace the former president, Sepp Blatter, who is serving an eight-year suspension from all football-related activities.

Candidates including the newly elected president, Gianni Infantino, were asked by the UK-based organization, Women in Football, what they would do on gender equality.

“If I am elected the next FIFA president, women’s football will be a priority and this will be reflected in how FIFA distributes its development funding,” Infantino replied. “We will increase FIFA dedicated staff to oversee an appropriately monitor the development programs delivered specifically for women’s football projects.”

Infantino continued his comments: “Furthermore, we will strengthen cooperation with the confederations to create synergies for greater support. Lastly, specific initiatives will be put in place to support the member associations to develop their club and league strategies, to further drive that growth and improve the grassroots and elite player pathway systems.”

Additionally, when asked if FIFA should be a leader and a model of gender equality and if he would commit to identifying and eliminate any gender pay gaps in FIFA, Infantino answered, “Yes.”

While the reforms passed by the FIFA Congress do not incorporate all of the measures that Dodd and her colleagues originally proposed – a 30% representation of women in FIFA leadership and fair resourcing similar to Title IX – they do dedicate at least six voting seats on the new 36-member FIFA Council to women.

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“I think we have the momentum on our side – on women’s football and the women in football side,” said Haenni when asked about gender equality next steps.

“So far there was no clear FIFA women’s strategy, and I think that is one of the first things FIFA now needs. And I am very positive that this is something we will get.”

As women continue to advance the conversation of gender equality in football, Dodd offered her own pitch to Infantino regarding commercializing women’s football.

“We do not need you to think about women as a problem that needs to be solved or addressed and ranked in order of all of the other problems you are facing,” said Dodd, while speaking directly to Infantino during a panel discussion at the FIFA Women’s Football and Leadership Conference.
“We are part of the solution commercially because we have one big revenue stream, one big asset called the men’s World Cup. We need more than one. There are a couple of opportunities sitting right there. The women’s World Cup, maybe a club world cup to start diversifying our revenue streams. Any businessperson will tell you that is a good idea.”

Dodd concluded by addressing FIFA’s brand crisis.

“We have a really bad brand problem, and women are part of the solution to fix it. Because of all of the horrible things you hear about FIFA, none of them are about women’s football. I have not heard a bad thing about the Women’s World Cup. I have not heard a bad thing about women in football. Nobody is saying, ‘If only there were less women in FIFA, it would be a better game, right?’ There is part of your branding answer.

For the women’s game, the reality is that it is growing globally, and the product on the field is  improving. As competition advances, sponsors and media attention will follow.

Growing the women’s game is not just fair, it is also smart business. By correcting the most profound and systematic injustices in football – the under representation of women in leadership and under-resourcing female participation – FIFA just might bring integrity back to the game and save its brand while doing so.

Stuck In A Rut? Here’s How To Win Like The UConn Huskies

The University of Connecticut (UConn) women’s basketball team captured its fourth straight national championship with cold-blooded efficiency.

Its seven-time James A. Naismith Women’s College Coach of the Year, Geno Auriemma, made history by winning a record 11 championships and passing the legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach, John Wooden.

Much has been talked about, debated, and analyzed surrounding UConn’s dominance and whether it is good or bad for basketball. However, this it is not the first time critics have questioned whether a basketball team is too good for their sport.

160406072024-01-womens-bball-0406-super-169In 1997, a Sports Illustrated cover story asked, “Are the Chicago Bulls so good they’re bad for the NBA?” And more recently, GQ Magazine questioned the Golden State Warriors’ unparalleled record by commenting that they are “so good they’re ruining the NBA.”

Sure, no one enjoys watching lopsided blowout victories; yet, somehow when accomplished female athletes attain perfection it attracts vitriol from women’s basketball outsiders.

Meanwhile, inside of the women’s basketball landscape, there is no denying that the Huskies’ dominance challenges their opponents to become better.

Take Lubbock Christian, the eventual Division II national champions, for example, who played the Huskies in an exhibition game at the start of the season.

“They started the year off by beating us by 56 points,” said head coach Steve Gomez. “I appreciate it so much because it was the best drubbing we have ever taken. It got us off to a good start learning how to compete with the best.”

Syracuse Orange head coach, Quentin Hillsman, commented on UConn’s dynasty before the finals match up, describing the Huskies as a team that has forgotten how to lose.

“I want to be bad for basketball one day,” said Hillsman jokingly. “I want you all to say he is really bad for basketball. Because I tell you right now, if winning every game is bad for basketball, then let me be that.”

Yes, UConn won every single game this season compiling a 37-0 record. Remarkably, the team has not lost a game since 2014.

Led by WBCA National Player of the Year, Breanna Stewart, arguably the greatest player in UConn history, the Huskies are disciplined, technically proficient, and the embodiment of excellence.

While I sat behind UConn’s bench during the national championship game, I was in awe of their talent and attention detail. Their poise and confidence were inspiring, and a true testament to what is possible when athletes are focused on a single goal – to win a championship.

There is no denying that the players are talented millennials, a generation that is often criticized for being spoiled and lazy. Rarely are 20-something voices heard or even praised for that matter, however, after the Huskies cut down the nets and celebrated their victory, I wanted to learn what it takes to win four consecutive national championships.

I caught up with the players in the locker room and asked them one question: “What advice would you give someone who wants to perform at a high level?” Here is what they had to say.

Never apologize for being great.
Kia Nurse – Sophomore, 6-0 Guard

Never apologize for being great at something or wanting to be great at it. There are people who are going to be in your path along the way, who understand you and understand why you fight so hard and compete so hard each and every day. And there are people who will not understand it, hate on you and not appreciate it. But never apologize for being great at something or wanting to be great it.

If it is easy, then you are doing it wrong.
Gabby Williams – Sophomore, 5-11 Guard

If it is easy, then you are doing it wrong. That is something that you have to learn quick, especially at this program. People come in, and they see the outcome, but they do not see what goes into it. At times, we do make it look easy on the court that is because we practice until we cannot get it wrong anymore.

Prepare the right way.
Moriah Jefferson – Senior, 5-7 Guard

You have to prepare the right way. You have to work extremely hard each and every day. This championship did not start at the tournament; it started in the summertime when we were doing workouts with the military. You have to work hard each and every day, so when you are tested and put in tough situations, you are prepared for it.

Win or lose, put it all out there.
Breanna Stewart – Senior, 6-4 Forward

When you feel the most satisfied. You feel like you have done all that you can do. When you are working this hard and performing at that level, there is nothing else that can be asked of you. No matter win or lose, anything like that as long as you are putting it all out there that is what you want.

Get up and go after what you want.
Briana Pulido – Senior, 5-7 Guard

It is hard work, but that is not something that is not every other day or every other week, it is hard work every single day. There is a sense of not giving up. You will be hit by obstacles in life, and you just have to know how to get up and go after what you want.

Dedication is knowing what you want.
Saniya Chong – Junior, 5-8 Guard

It takes dedication; know what you want and what you love. You are obviously going to make mistakes. How are you going to step up and figure it out?

Learn how to handle failure.
Natalie Butler – Junior, 6-5 Center

It takes a strong work ethic. Determination, I think that is the biggest thing. Seeing what you love and just going out there and having the passion for it. If you do not have the passion for what you are doing, you are not going to get what you want out of it. And not to be afraid to fail, because you’re going to fail through the processes.

WNBA President Lisa M. Borders Says NBA, WNBA Are Joined At The Hip

As women’s collegiate basketball is on the verge of crowning its 2016 national champion, the NCAA Tournament does not end the basketball conversation; rather it shifts toward the professional level – the WNBA.

The league is entering its 20th season with a brand-new marquee partner, Verizon, and a new president – Lisa M. Borders.

new_wnba_logo_tsBorders joins the WNBA after serving as chair of The Coca-Cola Foundation and vice president of Global Community Affairs. In that position, she articulated the values of the company by virtue of its charitable giving and heightened Coca-Cola’s brand by strengthening communities in 207 countries around the globe. Now, Borders is charged with an almost identical task in elevating the WNBA’s brand in its current 12 markets and future markets.

Handpicked by NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, to lead the league, Borders is certainly no stranger to the WNBA. She was instrumental in its expansion to Atlanta in 2008 and has been on the sidelines as a long-time Dream season ticket holder ever since.

And if anyone doubted whether championing female athletes is her top priority, on Borders’ first day on the job, she released a statement on behalf of the WNBA regarding comments made by former Indian Wells CEO, Raymond Moore, about the women of the WTA.

Borders said: “At a time when the physical and emotional benefits of athletic participation have never been more clear, we need to empower female athletes and promote opportunities for girls and women to play sports, rather than promote outdated, offensive and uninformed opinions.”

I spoke with Borders shortly after the WNBA presidency announcement. We discussed her passion for women’s basketball, what she sees for the future of the league, and how she plans to collaborate with Commissioner Silver. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Glass: You’re adding to a trend that I’ve seen where fans, female fans, have moved from the sidelines and have stepped up and taken leadership positions within the WNBA.  We saw that in Los Angeles with its former ownership group and the current owners in Seattle who were season ticket holders.  Now, you’re moving from the Dream sidelines to the league office. What was it about the WNBA that attracted you to the presidency position?

Borders: I do things that make me happy, that are important to me. And passion is my barometer for that; how excited do I get when I go to a game or talk about it or read about the WNBA.  And I get incredibly excited about it.

That passion was turned up in 2007 when Donna Orender, my predecessor, came to Atlanta to invite us to consider having a team here.  I was a bit by the bug, but it was cemented when I went to a luncheon in New York where she and her team then were launching a program called Inspiring Women. And Madeleine Albright was the keynote speaker. What stood out to me most was she made a statement that, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women.” I picked up my phone and said we’re bringing a team to Atlanta.  We put together a group to do just that.  So my passion was as a season ticket holder yesterday and today as an appointed president of the WNBA.

Glass:  You’re moving from a consumer products company, Coca-Cola, to professional sports. How do you view your background in leading within a global brand?  How will it translate to your new role in leading the WNBA brand?

Borders: There are great skills at the league office, and they are very deep in sports management and organizational management. I view my skills as complimentary to what’s already there.  We’ve got people who are marketing experts.  We’ve got those who are business operations experts. I see myself as the tip of the spear but as a part of a much larger organization, not just the league office, but the 12 teams in the markets that they play in today.  Everybody has a role to play, and mine is to be out front and make sure that we are getting it right. Listening to all the voices, being as inclusive as we can be, being as transparent as we can be, and being as accountable as we can be. I see my skills as completely complimentary to those that are already present to help elevate the WNBA to its next level of maturity.

Glass:  WNBA fans are excited about the 20th season. Fans who have been following the league are asking questions wanting to know about increased attendance, viewership, and marketing. And wanting to know what those strategies look like moving into Season 20. What can you share about the league’s strategies in those areas?

Borders: Certainly, the 20th year is an opportunity for us to reevaluate what’s working, what’s not working, and are there new things that we should be doing. All of our stakeholders have a point of view on what we could be doing to make the experience even better and to make it even more attractive to current fans and fans that we are hopeful will come and join us.

My first thought is fans need an opportunity to experience a game.  If they can come to a game, it’s fantastic. The deal that we’ve struck with ESPN where they are broadcasting live all of the playoff games, that’s a new and improved opportunity for people to get a front-row seat at the WNBA. NBA TV has 40 games going, and we’ve got Live Access. I hear the fans loud and clear, but I don’t want to get out too far in front of my colleagues who have done great work thus far.

Glass: You mentioned earlier about stakeholders and individuals with whom you’ll be working with. The Associated Press reported that Commissioner Adam Silver asked you if you’d be interested in the position. And we all know that no one is more important to the future of the WNBA than Commissioner Silver, who was very instrumental in the league being launched in 1997. How will you and the WNBA collaborate with Commissioner Silver?

Borders: Adam and I are joined at the hip on this one. I asked him initially when we had a conversation about the WNBA and this role if he was committed. I didn’t ask him if he wrote the business plan. I didn’t ask him how he did it. I asked him if he believed in this league.  And he assured me unequivocally that he was 1,000 percent committed. Because in the absence of commitment, it doesn’t matter who wrote the business plan. If you don’t have belief at the very top of the organization, it’s not going to work. And so I agree with you 100 percent that without Adam’s full stamp of approval or his fingerprints on this, it doesn’t work.

We are joined at the hip, and I recognize that the NBA and the WNBA are joined at the hip.  There are things that we do; we leverage inside the business because there are economies of scale that can be garnered by the two leagues working together. So at a minimum, we are operating as efficiently as we can by leveraging resources.  If we are not philosophically aligned, it doesn’t matter how many resources are leveraged.

Glass:  As you move into the start of the season, tell me, what are you most excited about? What successes from the previous 19 seasons are you hoping to build on?

Borders: I want to celebrate where we’ve come from. We tend, I think, as human beings, not to celebrate the successes.  We tend to look at what there is yet to be done. I think there’s an opportunity to build on the folks that have come before us. We’ve got an extraordinary group of women, past, present and, ultimately, those that we will have in the future who will have the opportunity to live out their dreams and the full potential of their lives.

Lesa France Kennedy, International Speedway Corporation Debut $400 Million DAYTONA Rising

Lesa France Kennedy, who topped Forbes’ list of the Most Powerful Women in Sports and serves as the Chief Executive Officer of the International Speedway Corporation (ISC), has added another accomplishment to her impressive credentials – constructing the world’s first motorsports stadium.

Led by Kennedy and ISC, which in 2015 accumulated $645.4 million in total revenue, DAYTONA Rising is the $400 million redevelopment project that is reimagining the American Icon – Daytona International Speedway (DIS).

After 31 months of construction, DAYTONA Rising features 101,500 permanent and wider seating and 60 luxury suites with a revamped hospitality area.

The massive redesign includes 11 football –field sized social areas (called “neighborhoods”) featuring dining and retail amenities. Four of those neighborhoods are sponsored by founding corporate partners – Toyota, Florida Hospital, Chevrolet and SunocLFK1-5502-1940x1385o – that each hold the naming rights to one of five injectors. The redesigned entrances include over 20,000 square feet of fan engagement and vertically span four concourse levels.

“Daytona Rising is going to help us launch new events,” said Kennedy while noting the expanding business opportunities for DIS, such as hosting the Country 500 during Memorial Day weekend and the Ferrari World Finals in December 2016 – the first time this event will be held in North America. “I think it is going to propel us to a whole new level when it comes to reaching fans and providing entertainment and content.”

Beyond racing, ISC and Kennedy are constructing ONE DAYTONA – an $120-150 million 181-acre retail, entertainment and dining complex located directly across from DIS. Anchored by Bass Pro Shops, Cobb Theaters and Marriott Autograph Collection, the phased development project is set to open in 2017.

Leading up to the 58th Daytona 500, I caught with Kennedy to discuss DAYTONA Rising, the growth of ISC, and what she sees for the future of motorsports. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Glass: The Daytona 500 is an iconic Great American Race and you have been connected to it for so many years. What are your thoughts about this year’s Daytona 500?

Kennedy: All of us are very excited about it because the speedway itself has been totally transformed into a modern day sports stadium. It is one of the most unique properties that I have ever seen. You have to see it to believe it and to appreciate and understand it. The magnitude of it is just amazing.

Glass: As you mentioned, Daytona Rising is the world’s first motorsports stadium. It took over 31 months of construction, and I am sure it was a labor of love. Looking back from when you started the project to where you are now, what were some of the highlights and points of interest?

Kennedy: One thing that stands out for me is the involvement of our founding partners.  They signed on early, and they were part of the design process, which has contributed to the uniqueness of this stadium. They each have a 20,000 square foot footprint if you will, and it is very interactive. It is a different way to display their products and to get in front of the race fans, and it is also very entertaining. I think the fans are going to love it.

Glass: Speaking of the fans, how have they reacted now that construction is complete?

Kennedy: We opened for the Rolex 24 event, and they were just overwhelmed. It was fun for me because we had a chance to see fans experience it for the first time. They would walk through the stadium with a whole new look about them. It was real exciting to see their first reactions.

Glass: Going back to your founding corporate partners – Florida Hospital, Sunoco, Toyota and Chevrolet. What does it mean to have these valuable brands on board, not only in terms of the Daytona Rising but to motorsports in general?

Kennedy: Our fans are the most loyal in all of sports, and they are very loyal to the brands that participate in NASCAR. We are very proud of the way they designed and displayed their products. It goes back to the close nature the fans have with the products and also with the brands. The way they have displayed it is in an interactive fashion, so it is not just passive. It is an entertaining experience between the fans and the brands.

Glass: Looking back at 2015, ISC had a banner year by exceeding financial expectations. What attributed to the growth and what are you anticipating for 2016, especially in light of the new Daytona Rising project?

Kennedy: You saw a lot of excitement and enthusiasm that was building throughout last year. And a lot of that was the momentum of the new Chase format. We saw that anticipation building all the way through that event. There were four events that were sold out last year; Watkins Glen International, Phoenix International Raceway, Auto Club Speedway and Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Leading up that all really elevated and launched us into the start of this season. So the Chase format in combination with the Daytona 500 and the new Daytona Rising I think elevates it to a whole new level.

Glass:  I understand that there is a new NASCAR charter system that was recently announced. There is anticipation that it will help with growth initiatives, track partners, as well as manufacturers and sponsors. I know it is very early in the announcement, but do you anticipate that this new system will flow into the business side – not only at DIS but as well as your other tracks?

Kennedy: I can speak about it from the track standpoint. The certainty provided to all the stakeholders will be very beneficial to the business, to the sport, and long term – the fans. I want to give you an example of the five-year sanction agreement. It is going to give the tracks the ability to see their schedules in the future and to have the certainty that they want to be able to invest in these facilities. It will give sponsors long-term visibility and overall it is going to be good for the sport. Talking about the five-year sanction agreements, often times our fans will plan way in advance their vacations surrounding our events. This is going to give them a chance to plan further ahead and to anticipate the events.

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