The Estrogen Effect
How Northwest women are changing the business of sports
By Bridgete Lynch

Today women represent 46 percent of the total workforce, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau. The same study reports that women hold half of the management, professional and related occupations. However, the business of sports often seems, at least from the outside, to be one of the last bastions of the “No Girls Allowed” clubs that Spanky and Alfalfa were so fond of.

Though female athletes like Serena Williams, Mia Hamm, Maria Sharapova and Annika Sorenstam dominate their sports, in many cases the upper echelons of the business apparatus that surrounds athletics remain mostly male-dominated.

And right here in Oregon much of that multi-billion dollar sports business takes place. Oregon is home to some of the giants in sports apparel and equipment, such as Nike, Columbia Sportswear, Adidas, SportHill, Dakine, Salomon, InSport, to name just a few. And in part because of Oregon’s spectacular wind, snow and other climate plusses, many top athletes live or train in the state. As a natural consequence, Oregon is also one of the places where women are showing their stuff in the business of sports.

So how high do they climb up, how deep into traditional male sports have women forged, and what effect is all that estrogen having on sports?

“There are a healthy number of women working for the NFL,” says Whitney Moulaison, adjunct instructor of marketing at the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center and former NFL marketing executive. “But all the women are in the lower third of jobs. Everyone has an assistant who is female and they are speckled in middle management and there are one or two at the high level but there are a disproportionate number of women in low level jobs.”

Though there does not appear to be any overt or systematic exclusion of women, they sometimes need to do things differently, Moulaison says.

“You have to get used to being the only woman in the meeting,” she says. “That was my experience for seven years (in the NFL.) There is just something that happens when there are six guys in suits sitting around a table and a woman walks in. There is a change of air pressure. You have to be comfortable being the only woman. Second, I felt as if I had a smaller margin of error. We have to be better at our own particular job that any guy would be. We have to be a better communicator and just a little sharper.”

Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal recently compiled a list of the top 20 women in sports business and focused their search on women in the boardroom rather than women on the courts or playing fields. “While there remains a need for greater gender equity in this business, there does exist a deep pool of talented female executives active in sports business today,” the article says.

Marta Monetti, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for the Portland Trail Blazers, sees the situation as one of an overall drive to hire the best people for the job.

“I don’t see (sports business) as any different than anywhere else,” Monetti says. “It has been very male dominated but I feel like it is changing. It’s like when you draft, you go for the best athlete. Companies are going for talented people. And a lot of times, the positions are being filled by women because they are tremendously talented women.”

Monetti has worked for the Trail Blazers for 15 years and has seen a great deal of change during that time, including an effort to hire more women overall in the sports business, she says.

“Ten or 15 years ago, lots of business was done over golf while smoking cigars,” she says. I had to figure out how to be successful because I was really terrible at golf. I tried really hard but I really stunk. So I had to figure out how to make my way and I decided that it would be through really great service, by listening to what customers needs were and building relationships based on great service. The industry was also changing because a lot of the decision makers and sponsors were women. That made it easier.”

Echoing Monetti’s view is Lauren Anderson, Partnership Marketing Manager for Portland-based Adidas. “In this industry it matters if you are good,” Anderson says. “Sports (business) moves too fast for it to matter what gender you are. There is so much interest in working in this field. Anyone who is changing jobs says ‘Oh, I’ll go to work in sports, that’d be fun.’ So there is often more supply of potential employees than there are jobs available. What matters is who is the best person for the job.”

To the extent that there might be perceived challenges to women working in sports, there are also benefits, says Maidie Oliveau, sports attorney at Law Sports.

“I’ve been a women working in sports for 20 years,” Oliveau says. “I’ve never been anything else so I have nothing to compare it to but I can say that there are benefits to being different and feminine in a room full of testosterone. If I can take advantage of the attention that I get, I do that. I get deference, if not respect. It’s a big edge.”

Oliveau tells the story of meeting an ABC executive for the first time while she was working for the Los Angeles Olympics. The exec asked one of her staff people to point her out in the crowd. Upon doing so, the exec took a step back and exclaimed, ‘That little girl?”

“Sometimes people are expecting an ogre and are diasarmed,” Oliveau says.

Jennifer Rottenberg, Senior Vice President of Business Development for CC&C Management, says that there really is no advantage to being a woman in sports business. But the real advantage lies in being a sports fan. One of Rottenberg’s major clients is the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players’ Association, for whom she handles sponsorships, licensing sales and long-term asset creation.

“My personal experience with (soccer) is an advantage in this job,” Rottenberg says. “I’m a soccer fan when I’m not working—last year I had season tickets to the LA Galaxy. My entire life I’ve known what is going on with soccer and I think that makes me more attuned to what the fans are interested in.”

Her relationship to soccer as a fan helps Rottenberg when she is working on business opportunities, she says. Recently Rottenberg helped develop a plan to create a U.S. Women’s Soccer Team fantasy camp.

“For years and years there were mainly baseball fantasy camps,” she says. “Middle-aged guys go down to spring training and hang out with baseball players. Now we’ve gotten to the point in this country where women in their 30s and 40s have actually grown up participating in sports. So I thought now is the time for a fantasy camp for women to go to where they get to hang out with their heroes.”

Rottenberg says that her connection to the sport made her intuitively realize that there was a market for such an idea.

“It wasn’t because I am a woman,” she says. “It’s because I understand the sport.”

Moulaison’s mother always tells the story that as a kid, Whitney never played house or school. Instead, she always played bank, Moulaison says. She had a teller window and a drawer of money set up in her bedroom, she says.

“It was clear that business was where I was going from the start,” she says. “I was always a jock wanna be and I wished I had enough athletic talent to be one, but that clearly wasn’t the case. It came to me in an epiphany that I could do something with my love of sports and the business side. I got started with an internship with the athletic department in college.”

Marketing seems to be one of the major strongholds of women in sports business.

“By and large, my counterparts in the business are probably about 50-50, male-female,” Anderson says. “But the more senior management at companies that we work with in sponsorship marketing are more male dominated.”

Nine out of the 20 women on the Street & Smith SportsBusiness list of the Most Influential Women in Sports Business fall under the broad umbrella of marketing professionals. This might have something to do with another trend involving women and sports, the rise of the female fan and female-targeted advertising campaigns. Recent numbers from Brandweek magazine say that women influence 88 percent of household purchases and sports franchises and leagues are paying attention.

“If women are making all those decisions for the household, they are involved with discretionary income,” Rottenberg says. “If dad says he wants to buy Trail Blazers season tickets or even tickets to Friday night’s game, mom is going to be involved in that decision now more than ever. It benefits the Trail Blazers to have mom favorably disposed to the idea—it benefits the franchises.”

Historically, sports were considered the best way for consumer products companies to reach the “coveted male demographic” as it was called, she says. Today however, sports are reaching more people than ever.

“Honestly, I don’t get it because why is that male demo coveted if women are making 88 percent of the decisions?” she says. “The addition of women to the fan base opens a whole new world for teams and leagues to be able to pitch to entities.”

Though the Trail Blazers don’t do large amounts of so-called targeted marketing, they are absolutely trying to reach women, Monetti says.

“They are the decision makers of the family and we are marketing to different places where we think women might be listening,” she says. “We primarily do general marketing as opposed to super targeted marketing but we will chose certain radio formats because we know women are listening.”

Moulaison uses the example of Major League Baseball ads in women’s magazines as evidence that sports are speaking to women directly through targeted channels of communication like never before. However, the sport itself, in this case baseball, isn’t changing in response to the female fan base.

“The product is the product and in sports in particular, you can’t tinker with that too much without negatively effecting a huge amount of people,” she says. “It’s not like toothpaste. You can make minor changes to toothpaste and people will say ‘Well, I’ve got to buy toothpaste so it’s okay.’ If they really start to change the game, which is the product, that would have such a negative backlash from traditionalists and their core audience that they are not willing to do that. The product won’t change but the marketing has.”

Though they use promotions like “family night” to market the game to women, the Trail Blazers main goal is to entertain people and not get in the way of enjoying the game, Monetti says.

“We want to enhance the game experience as opposed to hindering it,” she says. “But some people always have differing opinions. It’s kind of like having a party for 18,000 people—trying to please everyone is really hard.” It is a fine balance for sports to actively market to women while remaining loyal to their male-dominated fan base.

“There is a tipping point in marketing,” Moulaison says. “You can’t speak to one segment too heavily because the core fan will get offended. For instance, take light beer as an example. If a man has a light beer in his hand and he sees a commercial on Monday night football that is targeted to women and they are drinking light beer and it talks about how sexy it is and how ‘he’ll think you’re still cute if you are drinking it,’ that man says ‘holy shit, I’m drinking a chick beer.’”

This holds true for football and baseball, she says. Teams want the male fan to think that watching these games is “what men do” and if a man sees female-targeted ads then there is a possibility that he’ll say “wait a minute I thought this was manly” and be upset, she says. They key is that you can’t cross promotional messages, so you can’t have the core audience see a message that isn’t targeted to them because that makes them uncomfortable, she says.

“The fear will be that ‘Oh they are making it for women now and my male experience will go away if we start including the ladies,’” she says.

In a recent ESPN Sports Poll, researchers found that 42 percent of NASCAR fans are women. In 1995, women made up only 36 percent of the NASCAR fan base. A Neilson Media Research survey conducted in 2003, showed that NASCAR was leading the NFL and MLB in the percentage of female viewers. NASCAR sponsors are clearly listening, as is evidenced by two of the newest logos to appear on cars in the Busch series: Boudreaux’s Butt Paste, a diaper rash cream, on Kim Crosby’s car and Vassarette Lingerie on Shawna Robinson’s car.

And women have something else that sponsors are thirsty for: loyalty.

“It’s the borrowed equity proposition,” Rottenberg says. “Fans have loyalty and passion for their favorite team and a brand that sponsors their team sort of borrows from that equity and gets the rub.”

NASCAR is a prime example. Fans know implicitly that sponsors help make sure that their sport and their driver exist, so that passion translates directly to support of those sponsors and the purchase of their products, Rottenberg says. It’s what Procter and Gamble set out to do 30 years ago when they invented the soap opera. Women watched their soaps and knew that Proctor and Gamble paid for them so they bought their soap. That’s where “soap opera” came from, she says.

There is a tendency for a slightly higher brand passion proposition for the women’s leagues like the WNBA, she says. Fans want those leagues to grow and they are more attuned to doing anything they can to support them, she says. According to a 2004 survey by Scarborough Research, 57 percent of WNBA fans are women.

“The women’s leagues should be going for the same sponsors as the big leagues do,” Rottenberg says. “They have a different value proposition—they’re smaller so they cost less and they have a high degree of fan loyalty. It’s not just men watching sports. The world is not like that anymore—it’s as hard for a consumer products company to reach busy women as it is for them to reach men. If they play a sports sponsorship right, it only benefits them.”

The estrogen effect in sports looks like it’s here to stay. And businesses that take that effect into account might just get an edge on their competitors. Although women still may not be as numerous at the top executive levels, they are deeply immersed in sports business and shaping the future of sports both as fans and marketers, athletes and referees, and even owners and CEOs.

Chalk it up to Oregon’s pioneering spirit or to the benefits of Oregon’s amazing geography, but women in the Northwest are putting together their own winning team in sports business.

BrainstormNW - June 2005

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