As more and more fans tune into women’s collegiate and professional sports, the call for teams, leagues, owners, and brands to invest in women’s sports is ever louder. Industry leaders are now seeking ways to build and reinforce sustainable business models around women’s sports.
To explore this topic, the UO Lundquist College of Business Professional Edge program hosted Taking Flight: The Future of Women’s Sports Business. The summit featured the experiences of more than 60 industry leaders, students, faculty, and community members, with one common goal in mind—accelerating the business of women's sports.
Natalie Abele, MBA ’23, who was a graduate employee with Professional Edge, spearheaded the event. The Toronto native was driven to the Oregon MBA sports business program by her desire to one day bring more women’s professional sports teams to Canada.
“This weekend was the highlight of my grad school journey, and pulling it all together is one of my proudest accomplishments,” she said. “I’m so thankful to Trish [[Dorman, Lundquist’s senior associate director for student engagement and programming]], and the business school for believing in the vision and empowering us to see it through.”
The weekend kicked off with a WNBA watch party sponsored by E&J Gallo Winery at The Graduate Hotel in Eugene, where participants networked and watched UO basketball legend Sabrina Ionescu begin her fourth season with the New York Liberty against the Washington Mystics.
Industry professionals traveled across the country to present their expertise on how organizations can best support women’s sports as “status quo disrupters.”
Cassidy Lichtman, director of volleyball for Athletes Unlimited, delivered a powerful keynote presentation summarizing the historical challenges and current opportunities in women’s sports.
“If I spend $10,000 to throw a party for Johanna and I tell everyone about it, but only spend $100 to throw a party for Jorge and let everyone find out for themselves where and when the party is, it’s no surprise when Johanna’s party is a hit and Jorge’s isn’t,” Cassidy explained in her speech.
The analogy served as a common thread throughout the rest of the day’s events. To increase the success of women’s sports, more resources are needed to throw a bigger party.
“I think women’s sports, in general, is the perfect example of needing to give the plant the soil and the water and the sun to grow,” said Julia Rood, a junior studying business, a member of the Warsaw Sports Business Club, and the cofounder of Oregon Flight Crew—a student-led organization dedicated to bringing exposure to Ducks women’s sports teams.
“You can’t just expect it to grow with no resources,” she said. “I’m excited to see that there are so many different people in different industries putting those resources in.”
Attendees participated in four workshops, each exploring a different touch point relative to the landscape of women’s sports.
Kaila Turner, a sales recruiting manager for E&J Gallo Winery and a former women’s basketball player at Notre Dame, as well as Heather Pease, vice president of ticketing and data strategy for Angel City FC, walked participants through a personal branding and relationship-building exercise.
Max Forer, a UO alum who is now a sports and business attorney at Miller Nash LLP, led a mock negotiation activity alongside concurrent JD/MBA students Alex Mackay and Mia Manney. The workshop assigned participants a role as either an agent representing a female athlete or a representative of a sports drink company seeking to sign an endorsement contract with the athlete.
Attendees also got a taste of the investment and sponsorship world, with a valuation exercise led by Emily Watts, MBA ’21, senior manager of projects at Wasserman; Stephanie Peel, UO Professor of Practice and Porter Faculty Fellow; and Jorge Balderrama, MBA ’23. The activity revolved around a new soccer-specific stadium for the Kansas City Current, where participants were grouped into teams to assess the pros and cons of three different financial strategies for the National Women’s Soccer League team’s new home.
Maggie Mullen, MBA ’22, then led an open conversation to pick industry experts’ brains on the current assessment of women’s sports and what excited them the most about the future. On the panel, Lichtman, Watts, and Pease were joined by Jenny Nguyen, owner of The Sports Bra, the Portland establishment famous for only playing women’s sports on its screens.
“I’m so impressed with the talent that was here, the presenters as well as the audience,” reflected Sharon Peel, a community member passionate about UO and women’s sports. “The workshops we did were amazing, and so were the responses and the thinking power.”
To wrap up the day, participants were divided into groups to participate in a design-thinking activity led by Mullen and Bryan Quintanilla, a former service experience design expert at Nike. Guided by prompts, attendees shared their own personal memories connected to women’s sports and uncovered challenges facing the industry moving forward. Participants then developed a plan for overcoming those obstacles in big, bold ways—from ideating better ways to broadcast women’s sports to building a multisport complex specifically for women, and crafting creative ways to connect with local communities and loyal sports fans.
After a weekend integrated into the complexities and opportunities within women’s sports, participants said they left feeling inspired, connected, and energized about their own involvement to accelerate growth.
“My outlook on the industry is that it’s in extremely good hands. It’s refreshing to see so many people passionate about it,” said Kaila Turner from E&J Gallo Winery.
Said Owen Tyler, a UO junior in the Warsaw Sports Business Club, “I think it has a lot of potential and that it really is boundless. Going forward, if an investment is made and you’re able to sell that investment as profitable, there is a lot of potential to see future growth.”
These activities were made possible through a gift to enhance access to diverse business education from Lawrence Jackson, senior advisor at New Mountain Capital, and Lundquist College board member.
—Makenzie Fancher, MBA ’23