Meet the 30 Most Powerful Women in Sports

There was a time when sports was considered a man's world—but that's ancient history now. Whether it's breaking records, influencing thinking, making money or striving past what were once thought to be the limits of human ability, these women represent the best in the game—whatever that game happens to be. Tennis ace Serena Williams is synonymous with winning, the NFL's Dawn Hudson has helped her league persevere through some of its darkest days, and Hannah Storm has set gold-medal standards for TV sports journalism. A handful of our selections in Adweek's inaugural 30 Most Powerful Women in Sports have been Adweek Brand Geniuses of years past. It's the first of hopefully many more years of showcasing the best of the best, as the playing field fills up with more success stories every year. Congratulations to this year's winners, who will be celebrated during the Clio Sports gala in New York on July 7. —Michael Bürgi

1

Serena Williams, tennis star

One can debate all day about whether Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time. The fact that she's instantly recognized by her first name alone puts her in rarefied company: Martina, Billie Jean, Steffi … Serena. She just fits. Then there's her record over the last 21 years since she turned pro. An astounding 21 Grand Slam singles titles (multiple doubles titles too), trailing only Steffi Graf and Margaret Court in the modern Open Era of tennis.

At 34, Williams can be forgiven for thinking about retirement. Few tennis players make it far into their 30s before hanging up the Stan Smiths. To her credit, she's still going strong, having nearly pulled off a calendar Grand Slam (winning all four major tournaments in the same calendar year) just last year—she lost to unseeded Italian Roberta Vinci in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

But off-court activities take up more and more of her time, and that includes a significant profile as an ambassador for sports brands such as Nike (a five-year, $40 million endorsement deal signed in 2013), Gatorade and Wilson, as well as less directly obvious ones like Beats, Audemars Piguet and Delta Air Lines. Long gone is her first five-year endorsement with Puma, signed for a mere $13 million in 1998—which happens to be the first year she won a Grand Slam tournament.

This year she finally became the highest-paid female athlete of Forbes' list, at a whopping $78 million in prize money earned in 2015—not including the $13 million in endorsements she pulled down. Her net worth in 2016, says Forbes, is expected to hit $150 million, lessening her need to win more prize money in tennis (though she'll be the first to tell you that's not what drives her to remain a ferocious competitor when her juniors are bowing out of the sport).

Besides the small stake in the Miami Dolphins NFL franchise she bought with her sister Venus (also a tennis great), Serena's taste for and influence on fashion (a growing trend among top athletes—see Russell Westbrook in this issue) is another off-court attraction. That was literally on display in the spring when she took time to sell her eponymous clothing line on HSN (with which she has a reported equity deal). Williams also made a cameo in Beyoncé's recent Lemonade video. And just last week, premium cable network Epix premiered Serena: The Other Side of Greatness, which chronicled her near miss at Grand Slam greatness in 2015, but also stepped into her personal space.

No one, probably including Williams, can say when she will retire from tennis. But it's safe to say she will leave as indelible a mark on marketing and endorsements to rival the greatest sports endorser of them all: Michael Jordan. —Michael Bürgi

2

Val Ackerman, commissioner, Big East

Basketball is in Val Ackerman's blood. The commissioner of the revamped hoops-centric Big East since its inception in 2013, Ackerman was a four-year starter at Virginia and one-year pro in France. A lawyer, she joined the NBA and worked as special assistant to then-commissioner David Stern, who named her founding president of the WNBA where she served for eight seasons. She was the first female president of USA Basketball and has served as the U.S. representative for men's and women's hoops on the central board of the International Basketball Federation. Over the course of her career, she led NCAA research about the status of the women's game on the court and in business. Her bona fides make her a go-to interview for journalists on many topics, including whether college players should be paid. Her voice is even more in demand now—she sits atop a league with the defending men's national champions, the Villanova Wildcats. —Staff

3

Katrina Adams, CEO/president, U.S. Tennis Association

You could forgive Katrina Adams for perhaps wishing for a little rain during the 2016 U.S. Open. That's because Arthur Ashe, the main showcourt for the U.S. Open, can finally showcase its retractable roof. A former doubles and singles player on the WTA Tour, Adams in January 2015 became the first pro player, the first African American and youngest person to serve as president of the United States Tennis Association. In addition to driving more participation in the game (including minorities), as part of her gig Adams is also chairman of the U.S. Open tournament, held in Queens, N.Y. Among the largest annual sporting events in the world, the Open typically draws upwards of 700,000 spectators, including advertising execs entertaining clients during one of the final rites of New York summers. —Staff

4

Erin Andrews, Fox Sports

If it's a big-time sports event, chances are Andrews is going to be near the action. As one of the most recognizable faces in sports journalism, Andrews has been on the sidelines for college football bowl games, the Daytona 500, and multiple Super Bowls and World Series. What's more, she has accomplished something few others have. After leaving the comforts of ESPN, she has flourished, becoming one of the most visible personalities on Fox Sports and its ESPN-challenger Fox Sports 1, as well as part of the network's lead NFL broadcast team. —Tim Baysinger

5

Lisa Borders, president, WNBA

At the WNBA draft this past April, new president Lisa Borders, who earlier served as chair of the Coca-Cola Foundation and the brand's vp of global community affairs, engaged draftees with a "W" handshake. The symbolic greeting was in keeping with the energetic style of Borders, who, as vice mayor of Atlanta and president of the city council, was instrumental in bringing the WNBA to the city in 2008. (As a season ticket holder, she rooted for the Dream from courtside.) Today, Borders oversees a league that has more talent on the court than ever before—just as it celebrates its 20th anniversary. That said, she hopes to boost attendance from an all-time average low of 7,318 in 2015, reverse a 15 percent national ratings decline on ESPN and ESPN2, and grow sponsorship sales. The fourth WNBA president arrives as the league will showcase a new playoff format that takes the top eight clubs, features re-seeding and aims to create buzz and viewership gains by matching the top two squads, regardless of conference. —Staff

6

Jeanie Buss, co-owner/president, L.A. Lakers

While the team is technically owned by the late Dr. Jerry Buss' six kids via a family trust, make no mistake about it: Jeanie Buss is the NBA franchise's most powerful executive. As team president, Buss leads business operations and oversees the basketball side of things. It's also Jeanie, not the presumed successor (her brother Jimmy), who represents the team at the league's board of governors meetings. With Kobe Bryant retired and the once-proud franchise stuck in the unfamiliar position of ranking as the second-best team in L.A. (behind the Clippers), it will be Jeanie that gets the assist (and credit) if and when the Lakers return to prominence. —Tim Baysinger

7

Pamela El, CMO, NBA

When El was brought on board two years ago, she was the NBA's first CMO since the late '90s. Along with the NFL's Dawn Hudson, El is one of only two female marketing chiefs among the major pro sports leagues. Serving in the same capacity for the WNBA (where she has her work cut out—see Lisa Borders), she is the only exec to head up marketing for two pro-sports outfits. El made an impact as soon as she took charge, bringing in New York-based Translation as the league's agency of record and rolling out "This Is Why We Play," the league's first multiseason campaign in two years. —Tim Baysinger

8

Morgan Flatley, CMO, Gatorade

Gatorade's Olympics campaign launched two weeks ago features younger versions of Serena Williams, Usain Bolt, Paul George and April Ross urging their present-day selves to never lose their fighting spirit—even on days when they feel unmotivated and would rather stay in bed. It's the latest in a long line of notable initiatives guided by Flatley, who's earned acclaim for stylishly linking the thirst quencher to sports' brightest stars and biggest moments. Other examples include the Grand Clio Sports Award-winning Made in N.Y. film, which followed Derek Jeter through New York shortly before his retirement, and last year's stirring U.S. Open-timed ad that used footage of Williams interviewed as a child. For her efforts, Flatley was honored as Adweek's Grand Brand Genius for 2015. —David Gianatasio

9

Missy Franklin, swimmer

The face of women's swimming in 2012, then 17-year-old Missy Franklin captured five Olympic medals, including four of the gilded variety. As part of her life plan, Franklin (who retained her amateur status for the London Games) subsequently swam at UC Berkeley for two years, before turning pro and concentrating on getting ready for Rio. Having inked endorsement deals with Speedo, United Airlines, Minute Maid, Visa, GoPro, Wheaties and Topps, Franklin can also be seen in promos on NBCU properties and at theaters where she is featured in Fandango's "I Love Movies: Rio Olympic Edition" content. She'll have her work cut out to retain golden-girl status in Brazil. Katie Ledecky's ascendance is threatening to unseat Franklin as the strongest U.S. distance swimmer at the advanced age of 21. As Olympic generations turn over with every quadrennial, it underscores Franklin's noble medal quest. —Staff

10

Lauren Hobart, evp and CMO, Dick’s Sporting Goods

Marketing chief Lauren Hobart, a 2013 Adweek Brand Genius, joined the Pittsburgh-based retail chain in 2011 after a 14-year stint at PepsiCo. Under her watch, Dick's ad spend has grown steadily, reaching $276 million during fiscal year 2015—and it's money well spent as its ads have been well received. Dick's also attached itself to the Olympics by becoming the official sporting goods retail sponsor of Team USA. The chain employs more than 200 Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, and told some of their stories through its marketing. Besides the Olympics, Dick's took aim at the athleisure trend, launching its first campaign targeting women in spring 2015 under the retailer's broader "Who Will You Be?" creative initiative. The media mix encompasses print, digital and TV, and various marketing endeavors that support the core brand and ecommerce operation, as well as specialty stores under the Golf Galaxy, Field & Stream, True Runner and Chelsea Collective banners (Hobart was made gm of the latter). The chain itself continues to grow as well, with eight new stores opening this year so far. —Staff

11

Dawn Hudson, CMO, NFL

Football is America's most popular sport, earning millions of fans—as well as constant scrutiny of late over its players' transgressions. Dawn Hudson joined the NFL from consultancy The Parthenon Group in the fall of 2014 amid domestic violence scandals involving Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson. The league's game plan said, "No More," a series of PSAs featuring top stars of the sport. But Hudson, who knew commissioner Roger Goodell from her days as president and CEO for North America at league sponsor PepsiCo, also has the NFL playing offense with the "Football Is Family" campaign, emphasizing core values like integrity and respect. There never seems to be a quiet moment for Hudson, who must deal with fallout from the Deflategate ruckus and controversy around player concussions. Still, the league is on track to achieve its goal of $25 billion in revenue by 2027. —Staff

12

Jeanne Jackson, advisor to the CEO, Nike

If Nike CEO Mark Parker achieves his ambitious goal of boosting sales to $50 billion by 2020 (up from just over $30 billion last year), the company's direct-to-consumer engine—expanded and stoked in recent years by Jeanne Jackson—will be a key driver of that success. So say industry watchers, who credit Jackson with helping streamline and modernize the company's approach since her arrival in 2009. "She built the foundation for Nike's robust DTC and ecommerce businesses," says NPD analyst Matt Powell. Last month, after three years leading product and merchandising, Jackson moved into a new role as a senior strategic advisor to Parker where "her broad and deep background in retail gives her a unique perspective" to spur innovation at scale, says Powell. In addition to Nike, Jackson's resume includes stints as CEO of both Walmart.com and Gap Direct, and president/CEO of Banana Republic. —David Gianatasio

13

Sheila Johnson, vice chairman, Monumental Sports & Entertainment; president/managing partner, Washington Mystics

While Sheila Johnson is known primarily in the media and advertising worlds as a co-founder of BET with her ex-husband Robert Johnson, she has another claim to fame. Johnson is the first African-American woman to be an owner or partner in three professional sports franchises: the Washington Capitals, Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics. It's with the Mystics where she has the largest role, as president, managing partner and governor. She also serves on the executive committee of the United States Golf Association—and happens to be an accomplished violinist. With a net worth that exceeds $4 billion, Johnson is the second wealthiest African-American business exec, behind only Oprah. —Tim Baysinger

14

Lesa France Kennedy, CEO, International Speedway Corp.; board member, Nascar

A third-generation member of Nascar's first family, Lesa France Kennedy continues to rev the throttle on the motorsports world. A vice chair of Nascar, France Kennedy is CEO and vice chair of the board of directors for International Speedway Corp., which owns and/or operates 13 of the nation's premier motorsports entertainment venues. That portfolio includes the renowned Daytona International Speedway, which was modernized under the $400 million Daytona Rising project. Joining ISC in 1983, France Kennedy's son, Ben Kennedy, is a driver on the Nascar Camping World Truck Series. Her leadership in driving the growth of motorsports and ICS inspired Forbes to call her "The Most Powerful Woman in Sports" in 2015. —Staff

15

Lydia Ko, professional golfer

With Tiger Woods' career stuck in purgatory, golf has looked to the likes of Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth for an influx of fresh talent. But it's actually 19-year-old Lydia Ko, a South Korean-born New Zealander, who has been leading the charge on golf's youth movement. Ko became the youngest player in the sport's history to be ranked the top pro golfer, something not even Tiger accomplished. Before she turned pro in 2013, she was the top-ranked woman amateur golfer for 130 weeks. Of course, that success drew Callaway Golf to her in 2014 when she signed an estimated $1 million deal. —Tim Baysinger

16

Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan, Team USA soccer players

Coming off their 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup triumph in Canada, Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan are looking to give the U.S. a third consecutive gold medal in soccer this summer. Currently recovering from a knee injury sustained while playing for the National Women's Soccer League's Houston Dash, Lloyd netted the gold-medal winning goals in Beijing and London in 2008 and 2012, respectively. She took things up a notch last July when she scored a hat trick against Japan to give the U.S. its first World Cup since 1999—it not only earned her top tournament honors but also FIFA Women's Player of the Year. She currently has endorsement deals with Nike, Visa, Whole Foods and Heineken. Meanwhile, Morgan, a member of the national team since 2011 and a 2012 gold medalist, was recovering from a knee injury that hampered her play during the 2015 World Cup. Now healthy, the telegenic scorer from the NWSL's Orlando Pride, who has inked sponsorship deals with the likes of Nike, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Panasonic, Nationwide and Dick's Sporting Goods, is expected to shine in Rio. The Olympics outcome aside, Lloyd and Morgan are looking for a win in the courtroom as well. The pair are among two of five national team players that have filed a federal wage discrimination complaint against the U.S. Soccer Federation, citing significant compensation inequities between the women's and men's teams. —Staff

17

Adrienne Lofton, svp, global brand marketing, Under Armour

A former NCAA Division 1 volleyball player, Adrienne Lofton brings an athlete's focus and intensity to the sportswear brand's advertising, which consistently ranks among the most lauded and memorable in the category. It's a big reason Lofton was named one of Adweek's 2015 Brand Geniuses. UA's "Rule Yourself" campaign vividly captures the passion and perseverance of its star endorsers as they push themselves to the limit. In one recent spot, swimmer Michael Phelps was shown putting his 30-year-old body through the ringer in grueling workouts and weight-lifting sessions ahead of his final Olympics appearance at the upcoming Rio Summer Games. Another ad displayed the self-sacrifice and determination of the U.S. women's gymnastics team. This hard-charging approach fits Under Armour to a T, mirroring the company's 20-year rise to its current standing as the nation's No. 2 sportswear brand, trailing only Nike. —David Gianatasio

18

Rebecca Lowe, NBC Sports

The daughter of a BBC commentator, Rebecca Lowe crossed the pond for the 2013-14 Premier League season after covering football for BBC, Setanta Sports and ESPN UK. Her enthusiastic, authoritative voice as the lead host of NBC Sports Group's expansive league coverage has provided an assist in the programmer's 134 percent jump in audience. After returning from Olympics hosting duties in Rio, Lowe begins a new, six-year deal that coincides with the programmer's $1 billion Premier League rights renewal. With Lowe in tow, the media giant, as chairman Mark Lazarus expects, will look to put more Premier League viewers in the back of the net into the early part of the next decade. —Staff

19

Stephanie McMahon, chief brand officer, WWE

Stephanie McMahon is the woman behind—and in front of—the curtain at WWE. Over the organization's 36-year history, few executives have been as important to its growth than McMahon, who is the daughter of CEO Vince McMahon. After starting there as an account executive, McMahon now sits on the WWE's board of directors, following a two-decade rise through the ranks that has put her hands into virtually every facet of the business, including creative, talent relations, digital and her current role overseeing WWE's brand efforts and brand reputation among investors, media, business partners and advertisers. And with her dad now in his 70s, McMahon, along with her husband Paul Levesque (better known as "Triple H"), could be poised to inherit the keys to the powerful WWE kingdom. —Tim Baysinger

20

Jayme Messler, president, The Players Tribune

Derek Jeter's name might be on the marquee of The Players Tribune, but it is Jaymee Messler who runs the show day-to-day. She co-founded the media company with Jeter, who she met during her 15-year tenure at Excel Sports Management, working with NBA stars like Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and Deron Williams. Since its launch two years ago, TPT has become a place for athletes to circumvent the mainstream media and tell their stories their own way, with Messler shepherding more than 1,200 pieces of content from more than 500 athletes. Traffic growth has been slow but steady, with the occasional site-crashing news such as Kobe Bryant announcing his retirement there last fall. —Tim Baysinger

 

21

Kim Ng, svp, baseball operations, Major League Baseball

Kim Ng is the highest-ranking Asian-American woman in baseball. But many believe Ng, who assumed her current role under Joe Torre five years ago, could lead a team as general manager. A four-year softball player with a degree in public policy from the University of Chicago, Ng began her career with the Chicago White Sox in 1991 as special projects analyst. Four years later, as assistant director of baseball operations, she became the youngest person and first woman to present and win a salary arbitration case. Her path has included turns as assistant gm for the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. She was in the running to be Dodgers gm in 2005 and has subsequently been in contention for the job with Seattle, San Diego and Anaheim. Should she push through that glass ceiling, she will not only become MLB's first female gm but also the first woman to hold that post in any pro sport. —Staff

22

Alison Overholt, editor in chief, ESPN The Magazine

In February, Overholt became the first woman editor in chief in ESPN The Magazine's 18-year history, concurrent with her role as ranking editor for espnW. But her history at the media brand goes even deeper. Since joining ESPN in 2005, Overholt has been instrumental in shaping its content, first for the magazine, as both a reporter and senior editor, and then moving on to assist in getting espnW off the ground as founding editor. And her influence hasn't been limited to ESPN. The journalist's work has also appeared in publications including Fast Company, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, O: The Oprah Magazine—even ESPN rival Sports Illustrated. —Tim Baysinger

23

Danica Patrick, race car driver

Danica Patrick's career has been all about breaking down—or rather, driving right through—borders. Since becoming a professional driver in 2002 with Rahal Letterman Racing, she has paved the way for female drivers across the sport. Patrick is only the second woman ever to race in both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500. She was the first woman to lead the Indy 500 and the first woman to win the pole position at the Daytona 500. During her career, Patrick has also become one of the top female athlete brand ambassadors, appearing in commercials for Secret, Honda and, most notably, GoDaddy.com's spots in the Super Bowl. —Tim Baysinger

24

Michele Roberts, executive director, NBA Players Association

While casual NBA fans may not know Michele Roberts, they're going to hear her name a lot during the coming months. As executive director of the NBA players union—and its first female leader—Roberts will be the one sitting across the negotiating table from league commissioner Adam Silver when the two sides hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement. With both sides expected to opt-out of the existing agreement by year's end, Roberts will be tasked with something her predecessors couldn't accomplish: avoiding another lockout, which took a chunk out of two seasons in 2011 and 1999. Tim Baysinger

25

Ronda Rousey, UFC fighter

As the UFC has made headway in the American sports consciousness, Ronda Rousey has given the sport the one thing it's been lacking: a bona fide superstar. She's making her way out of the fighter's circle, with roles in The Expendables 3, Furious 7 and upcoming starring turns in a Road House reboot and the Tina Fey comedy Do Nothing Bitches. Last December, Rousey became only the third female athlete—and the first in 22 years—to host NBC's Saturday Night Live. Rousey is also quickly becoming one of the most sought-after brand reps, pitching companies like Carl's Jr. Though her last bout saw a stunning defeat at the hands of Holly Holm, a first for Rousey, her comeback fight will be one of the most-anticipated, and profitable, in UFC history. Tim Baysinger

26

Jill Smoller, partner, WME

A onetime tennis pro, this ace sports agent is best known for her representation of—and tight relationship with—Serena Williams (also included on this list). But tennis doesn't define Jill Smoller, who rose up the ranks of the agent world in the classic sense: by starting in the mail room at ICM. She also represents hoops veteran Kevin Garnett and track and fielder Allyson Felix, while past clients have included track legend Florence Griffith Joyner. It's her acumen at striking deals to get her sports clients into the entertainment world (TV, advertising and film work) that have made her the crossover agent to watch. But her humanity is never far from her work—she remained at Williams' side when the tennis star suffered a pulmonary embolism in 2011 that nearly derailed her career. Now that's an agent who cares. —Michael Bürgi

27

Breanna Stewart, basketball player

Lew Alcindor, better known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was the winningest college basketball player until he was supplanted this spring by "Stewie." Breanna Stewart led UConn to championships in each of her four years at Storrs and was named the outstanding player of the Final Four in each of the title runs. The top pick in the 2016 WNBA draft, the transformative player, equally proficient in the paint and beyond the three-point line, is now a member of the Seattle Storm, where teamed with Huskies alumna Sue Bird, she is trying to revitalize the fervor of fans still smarting from the defection of the NBA Sonics to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season. A Nike endorsee, Stewart's talent will be on display this summer as a member of the U.S. Olympic team. —Staff

28

Hannah Storm, ESPN

Along with Leslie Visser, Hannah Storm has been a pioneer for female sports broadcasters during a career that dates back to the 1980s. Storm was the first woman in U.S. television history to be solo host of a network sports package when she hosted NBC Major League Baseball games from 1994 to 2000. Storm has anchored coverage for just about every sport, including football, basketball, tennis, golf and the Olympics, and was the first play-by-play announcer in WNBA history. (She's even moonlighted as a morning show anchor when she co-hosted the CBS Early Show from 2002-07.) At ESPN since 2008, Storm remains one of the network's most recognizable and respected hosts. And her value continues to rise in the wake of the departures of other high-profile personalities. Tim Baysinger

 

29

Jenny Storms, CMO, NBC Sports Group

Returning to the media side after serving as global svp of sports marketing at PepsiCo, including a few years with the Gatorade brand, Jenny Storms has been marketing chief for NBC Sports Group since last October. Reporting to chairman Mark Lazarus, she oversees marketing for the broadcast network, NBCSN, Golf Channel and 10 regional sports networks. She also heads the NBC Sports Agency, which produces campaigns for league partners. While former CMO John Miller continues to head NBC's efforts around the Olympics, Storms (whose career also includes a 14-year run at TBS/Turner Sports) is in the thick of the company's battles for eyeballs against ESPN, Fox and CBS. Among the properties she is responsible for are golf's Open Championship, Ryder Cup and FedEx playoffs, new seasons with Nascar, Premier League soccer, NHL—and the addition of five NFL Thursday Night Football games on top of Sunday Night Football, television's prime-time ratings winner for a fifth straight year. —Staff

30

Nicole Vollebregt, head of women’s unit, Adidas

The longtime Adidas executive this year was tasked with helping the German sportswear provider step up its women's game amid intense pressure from rivals including Nike, Under Armour and Puma. Thus far, initiatives include a partnership with millennial-focused yoga lifestyle event firm Wanderlust and a quarterly subscription service for women's product-sample mailings. In February, she launched a global campaign themed "I'm Here to Create," with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, soccer midfielder Morgan Brian and nonathletes like Hannah Bronfman sharing their views on individuality, creativity and winning—it aired during the Academy Awards and other female-centric events. —David Gianatasio

This story first appeared in the June 27, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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