These 5 Women Are Shaping How We View and Engage With Our Sports Heroes

They talked with Adweek about using data and marketing tech to change the game

Adweek held a panel discussion with five of the honorees from our Most Powerful Women in Sports list.
Photographed by Sasha Maslov on the Hornblower Infinity yacht

At Adweek’s Women in Media & Sports Summit, held in early June aboard the Hornblower Infinity yacht docked on Manhattan’s West Side, I sat down for a panel discussion with five of the honorees from this year’s Most Powerful Women in Sports list. The lively chat touched on a wide range of topics, including the growing importance of data and mar tech and the ways in which they are advancing and shaping how we view—and engage with—our sports heroes. Here is an abridged version of that conversation with National Hockey Leauge’s Heidi Browning, Major League Baseball’s Kim Ng, Visa’s Kate Johnson, IBM’s Elizabeth O’Brien and Turner/ELeague’s Christina Alejandre.

Adweek: Kate, how did you make the shift from Olympian to corporate executive?
Kate Johnson: I competed in Athens in 2004 in women’s rowing and women’s eight. We won the silver medal. It was the first time we won a medal in 20 years and I always thought once I made it to one Olympics, I’d want to go again and again. Rowers tend to have a long history. But at the same time, I was looking ahead and there weren’t a lot of women ahead of me that were transitioning out of the rowing space, out of the Olympian space and into actual careers. They were going into coaching, which we do need, but they weren’t going into the professional world as much as I wanted to see. So I made the decision to retire at 26—a little early for a rower. My first job was with IMG here in New York City.

Kim, how did sports shape your career?
Kim Ng: I actually played four years of softball at the University of Chicago. I felt that as an athlete I developed a lot of the confidence needed to pursue a profession that’s fairly unorthodox. And through athletics, through sports, I’ve become very disciplined. I’ve learned a lot of leadership skills: how to get the most out of people, how to motivate them and how to take criticism as an athlete as well as a boss.

(L. to r.) Kate Johnson, vp, global sponsorship marketing, Visa; Christina Alejandre, general manager, ELeague, vp, esports; Kim Ng, svp, baseball operations, Major League Baseball.
Sasha Maslov

Christina, you went from a video gamer to now actually running Eleague.
Christina Alejandre: My entire life I have been a gamer. I love playing video games, and I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to work in the video game industry my entire career. I started out at Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon creating video games based off their IP. And then about five years ago I started becoming involved in esports, which is competitive video gaming. You have teams or individuals playing against each other and competing for prize pools. I look at it as an intellectual sport. When I watch esports, what I find most interesting is watching the players and team dynamics versus the actual gameplay.

Heidi, you moved last fall from music site Pandora to the testosterone-fueled NHL. What has that transition been like?
Heidi Browning: I’ve been in digital, data, technology and now sports in my career, so I’ve basically over-indexed on testosterone everywhere I’ve worked. I haven’t even thought about it from that perspective. But what’s really been great and sort of a common bond between my career at Pandora and at the NHL is that everything we do is from a fan-first perspective. Every decision we make is all about the fan experience, and that was the same way that it was at Pandora—it’s always a listener-first attitude. That’s so important as we think about how do we connect with people on an emotional level. You have to first understand from their perspective what their needs and wants are.

Elizabeth O’Brien, program director, worldwide sports and entertainment sponsorship marketing, IBM
Sasha Maslov

At IBM, Elizabeth, you’ve witnessed the digital revolution firsthand. One of the biggest game changers there has been Watson. What exactly can it do for sports?
Elizabeth O’Brien: Watson is, in a nutshell, IBM’s approach to AI. But it’s a little bit of a different take. Watson uses what we call unstructured data. If you look at a photograph, that’s unstructured data, [whereas] if you look at a page of numbers, that’s structured data. So Watson can watch video. Watson can look at photographs. Watson can listen to sounds. What’s the sound that a hockey puck makes when it hits the stick?  What’s the sound that a baseball makes? Does a curve ball sound different than a fastball? Watson can listen to those things and learn what those sounds [mean] and what those images and what those movements look like and derive insight through not just traditional analytics.

Is anyone else here using big data?
Johnson: A lot of people think [Visa is] a credit card. Well, actually we’re not. We’re a payment technology company. And what we do is we work with issuers all over the world to deliver you the payment network that you transact across via your merchants, et cetera. What we’re trying to do with our sponsorships from a technology and an innovation point of view is insert new ways to pay in your journey, at moments that matter to you. The future is significant in terms of where we’re going, from AI to connected refrigerators and connected cars. Our world is changing so fast, especially when it comes to the payment space.

Heidi Browning, CMO, evp, National Hockey League
Sasha Maslov

Browning: We’re using big data to bring to life all the statistics—100 years of stats from the sport of hockey. We have the first game sheets ever made. There are so many different ways that you can cut the data. Our fans are enjoying digging in and getting really nerdy about how each team evolved and what were the greatest hits and greatest players of all time. So data powers that, but there’s so much more that we can do. We have about 20 to 30 different digital [pieces of data] per fan at every touch point, and that’s the data that we need to harness to help us understand who our fans are, how to bring them from fans all the way to customers.

But the services that you [Elizabeth] are providing [with Watson] are exactly what we need as part of our digital transformation because we have to continue to move the fan through the continuum and understand where there are opportunities to drive additional sales of tickets or sales of merchandise or food and beverage. And that’s what our next generation in the league is focused on—using big data to help us get that.

Ng: On the baseball side, clubs are using big data in terms of “How do I make decisions to build my club?” as well as performance analytics and “How do I figure out how to win a game?” One of the interesting things about baseball is that there are thousands of discrete events that take place over the course of a game. So when you throw a pitch there’s the outcome of the pitch, there’s the type of the pitch, the location of the pitch. Who are the runners on first and second? Who are the catcher and the pitcher?  What was the score? There are many different factors in just that one event, that one pitch.

So you see a lot of teams over the course of probably the last 10 years really diving deep into the data. What we’re seeing now, and I think this is one of the really interesting ways that we’re engaging fans, is more of the process. And so, where does a fielder start on the field? You take that exact coordinate and then you show the velocity of the ball on the bat, how far the ball goes, the height of the ball and how far a fielder runs to go get the ball. It’s pretty interesting, and it’s a way for us to really engage our fans and try and bring them into the game itself.

This story first appeared in the June 26, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.