Why FIFA’s Fatma Samoura Thinks Soccer Can Change The World

For FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samba Diouf Samoura, soccer transcends religious, gender and racial barriers. It was during her 21-year humanitarian career with the United Nations, where she supported peace and fostered gender equality efforts in disaster-prone countries, that she witnessed the sport’s power to unify communities and drive social change.

While addressing FIFA’s 2018 Conference for Equality and Inclusion, Samoura recalled working in Africa during the first Liberian civil war.

“The only moment when people would stop fighting and receiving orders from the warlords was when it was raining or when they were playing football,” she said. “You cannot simply ignore the power of a sport that sparks the passion of so many millions around the globe.”

Samoura — No. 1 on our list of the Most Powerful Women in International Sports — understands that soccer and FIFA cannot begin to solve all of the world’s problems. However, while implementing the decisions of the 36-member FIFA Council, fostering relations among the 211 member associations and overseeing FIFA’s finances, Samoura is determined that, under her watch, the world’s most widely loved sport will be inclusive for all people.

It may take time convincing wary fans that the multibillion-dollar governing body, the subject of a corruption scandal, is in fact committed to its landmark 2016 reforms. Yet Samoura points toward the oversight required under the FIFA Forward program, which provides member associations with financial investments from FIFA, and the increase in the number of women within FIFA’s administration, from 32% in 2016 to 48%, as signs of progress.

Samoura spoke by phone from the Home of FIFA in Zurich, Switzerland, to discuss the role of women in soccer, FIFA’s governance reforms and the 2018 World Cup. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alana Glass: You spent 21 years acting on behalf of the United Nations supporting peace and development in disaster-prone countries. Briefly describe how your humanitarian career prepared you for your role in soccer today.

Fatma Samoura: FIFA is like the UN of football; it brings people together. People coming together from different cultural backgrounds, different religions and origins. Now that I am also in FIFA, I am trying as much as possible to find a common ground between our 211 member associations and also to put football in the center stage.

You have said: “No society can develop and be economically sustainable if they alienate 50% of their population. My appointment as the first African female secretary general for the world governing body just means that the world of football is embracing diversity, and just considering that football can be loved by both men and women.” How do you see your standing changing mindsets about women in the sport and in top leadership positions?

My appointment in 2016 was a very strong signal that FIFA, a male-dominated organization, was opening itself to more diversity. For some good reason, it has not been an isolated case because we now have a much stronger women representation at all levels of FIFA administration. By creating a division that is fully dedicated to the development of women’s football and that is being chaired by one of the few females that participated in the program of reforms that led to the change of statutes in 2016. We also have a woman leading the flagship program of FIFA, which is the Forward program. Our political body is also diversifying and embracing diversity with the presence of one woman for each of the six confederations. And finally, at the level of the committees, before the reforms, there were 24 committees, and some of them didn’t include women. Today, we have 15-16% women represented on the committees.

Upon your appointment, you listed four priorities, one of which was to have the financial investigation concluded in a manner that would not be detrimental to the morale and level of engagement of the staff. Subsequently, there was restructuring to prevent that type of misconduct from happening in the future. What are your thoughts about that period of FIFA’s history? Where does the organization stand today in moving forward in a way where corruption is kept out of the game?

FIFA conducted a thorough investigation, and we put all of the facts forward and also want to hold accountable all of the wrongdoers. One of the key reforms within FIFA was to put in place a compliance division, which is now something that we can be proud of. We wanted to have more control and oversight of the revenues that are allocated each year to the 211 member associations. And as of 2018, we’ll be having a review covering all of the member associations receiving funding from FIFA. We have handed over all of the evidence on this investigation to Swiss and the U.S. legal authorities, and they continue to pursue those who enrich themselves and abuse their powers in football. We are continuing to cooperate with those authorities so that we can return our focus to the game.

Governance reforms were implemented to prompt greater recognition and promotion of women in soccer, as well as integrating human rights. What results are you seeing with the creation of a women’s soccer division and the increased level of female representation on the standing committees and the FIFA Council?

The fact of having women makes our strategies more inclusive. Before, we did not have any benchmarks for women’s football. Today, we have a very precise goal, which is to reach 60 million women registered as players by 2026. The fact that we have a woman leading a division with a full budget totally dedicated to football has helped us to interact and to engage with all of the football stakeholders and try to put more women competitions on the FIFA agenda. Since 2016, we’ve have organized three conferences on women’s leadership. And we have 65 women that came out of the program with better skills to run the administration. And more than 50% of them since that program have either been promoted or on the way to being promoted. These things would not have been possible if we did not have strong women’s leadership.

You’ve been outspoken about soccer being a unifying sport. What is your hope over the next two years as the 2018 and 2019 World Cups approach?

FIFA is convinced that through football, and particularly the FIFA World Cup and its international spotlight, we can achieve positive change. And the FIFA World Cup is also to promote dialogue and unite nations and fans around the world in the spirit of fair play and respect. When it comes to the Women’s World Cup, the growing popularity of the tournament is obviously a strong signal for the development of the women’s game. And what we are looking forward to is now to have a sustainable Women’s World Cup through changing the way we are contracting and we are selling our commercial rights through sponsors, and be able to associate the Women’s World Cup and the men’s World Cup under the new commercial strategy so that we can see how much funding is generated through the game and be able to reinvest it in women’s development in football.

There is a report that FIFA plans to launch a global women’s league that will begin play as early as 2019. What can you say about this development? Are the plans in line with the initiative of increasing the number of female players to 60 million by 2026?

Women’s football has been recognized as the biggest growth opportunity for FIFA and football — both on and off the pitch. But there is still a lack of opportunities. Because as you know, the men’s World Cup is funding all of our activities within FIFA, including the non-football-related events. People want to address the issues of this lack of opportunities and try to find a solution that will drive development for the 211 member associations. We have initiated an extensive consultation process. And hopefully, by the end of this year, at the October FIFA Council meeting, we will come up with a proposal on where we are going to be the next year in terms of women’s development, but also in terms of promoting the highest level of competition for women, including the possibility of having a world league one day.

How USA Basketball And Dawn Staley Are Keeping Women In The Game

It is hard to imagine a time when USA Basketball did not dominate the international game. In the early 1990s, the United States Women’s National Team suffered embarrassing losses at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games and the ensuing FIBA World Championship in 1994. Those subpar performances served as wakeup calls to USA Basketball that it needed to double down on its commitment to the women’s basketball.

ANNAPOLIS, MD – SEPTEMBER 10: Assistant coach Dawn Staley speaks with players during Women’s Senior U.S. National Team practice on September 10, 2014 in Annapolis, MD. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Right around that same time, the United States was preparing to host the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. Recognizing that all eyes would be on American athletes competing on their home soil, USA Basketball identified sponsors that would invest in the women’s game formed a dedicated program.

Among the 12-member Dream Team was University of Virginia point guard, Dawn Staley, who was cut from 1992 National Team roster.

Hearing that she lacked international experience, Staley set out to change the trajectory of her career by signing a contract to play overseas. She constructed a homemade calendar and marked off the days that she spent training and perfecting her craft. When asked what motivated her to pursue the 1995-1996 team, Staley will tell you that she did what she did not want to do, in order to become an Olympian.

“When someone tells me ‘no,’ I am going to break my neck trying to prove them wrong,” said Staley during the inaugural USA Basketball Women in the Game conference.

The three-time Olympic gold medalist (1996, 2000, and 2004) has indeed proved her doubters wrong.

At 30 years old, while still competing in the WNBA, Staley became the head basketball coach at Temple University. She led the Owls to six NCAA tournaments and a #15 national ranking – achievements that were firsts in the program’s history. And in 2008, she took over the reins of the University of South Carolina women’s basketball– a program once considered the doormat of the Southeastern Conference – and delivered its first NCAA Championship in 2017.

Staley added: “The likelihood of me being where I am today, and the things that I have accomplished today is because I beat the odds. People that I grew up with said that I wouldn’t be a National Champion or an Olympian. I stayed persistent and continued to be extremely competitive.”

Over 20 years have passed since Staley joined USA Basketball as an athlete. And now, her story has come full circle as she is the 2017-2020 Women’s National Team head coach.

“I don’t think that it is unusual that a point guard becomes a good coach,” said Carol Callan, USA Basketball women’s national team director. “That 1995-96 team had a passion for being more than just basketball players in that year-long program. And it shows today in terms of where a lot of those players are in giving back to the game.”

As keepers of the game, USA Basketball and Staley are extending their reach beyond the basketball court. Through the Women in the Game initiative, the governing body “educates high school girls, college-aged women and young, female professionals about career paths in the sports industry and how to turn a passion into an opportunity.” In addition to the two-day conference (April 7-8 at the Windward School in Los Angeles), attendees will have the opportunity to apply for a six-week mentorship program designed to help develop future female leasers in sports.

“I had no exposure to coaching, except for the coaches who coached me. I saw how hard it was for them to do this and balance everything, so I shied away from that,” said Staley.

“But once you get exposed to coaching, you fall in love with it. And you want to go to the very top as a competitor. I am very fortunate to have been around great basketball with USA Basketball.”

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.