The problem: Despite the growth in women’s sports, females are still underrepresented in leadership positions at the college and professional level.

Why it matters: Women in sports suffer from many of the same obstacles to advancement as those in the corporate world.

The solution: Use DEI programs, mentoring, career pathing, and other talent development strategies to intentionally build a pipeline of female leaders in sports.

Two days before this year’s College Football Championship game between Michigan and the University of Washington, the most watched collegiate sporting event of the year, a group of 200 people gathered at the swank Grove restaurant in downtown Houston’s Discovery Green Park. They weren’t there for a fancy corporate brand activation or to hear one of the dozens of bands that played that weekend. They were there to listen to something far more important that receives far less attention: female leaders in college sports and media talking about their experiences.

Women Leaders in Sports, a leadership organization developing, connecting, and championing women to advance to be a powerful influence in sports, partnered with the College Football Playoff committee on the event, dubbed “Celebrating Female Playmakers,” for a very specific reason. “College sports is driven by football because football drives media and revenue,” says Women Leaders in Sports CEO Patti Phillips. “If we are going to elevate women into leadership positions in sports, we have to bring them into spaces where they can be seen as leaders by people in power.”

There’s no doubt that female athletics, both amateur and professional, is having a moment. Athletes like Megan Rapinoe, Simone Biles, Coco Gauff, and Caitlin Clark have crossed over from sports into popular culture. Audiences are watching women’s basketball, soccer, tennis, and other sports live or on television by the tens of millions—ratings are up across the board for female sports. Money is pouring into female sports on both the commercial and business side, from lucrative broadcast deals to investments in leagues and purchases of teams.

Yet, for all the growth and excitement around female athletics, advancing women in leadership roles on- and off the field remains a challenge. Women account for less than half of the coaches on women’s college sports teams, for instance, and less than 5% for men’s teams. Women held only 65 of 382 athletic director, commissioner, or other top leadership roles at Division 1 NCAA institutions last year, according to data compiled by Women Leaders in Sports, a figure that has held stubbornly steady for the last five years. Women don’t even make up the majority of general managers in professional women’s sports leagues like the WNBA, where only 33% of GMs are female. Representation in the C-suite of men’s sports is still so infinitesimal that whenever a woman is promoted into a leadership position it makes national headlines.

“The time is now to capitalize on the attention and investment in women’s sports to increase their representation in leadership.”

“The time is now to capitalize on the attention and investment in women’s sports to increase their representation in leadership,”  Phillips says. The visibility of women’s sports is providing the momentum and clout needed to move the needle in the space of female leadership, adds Jenna McLaughlin, head of the collegiate sports practice at Korn Ferry.

Women in sports suffer from many of the same obstacles and challenges as women in the corporate world—and in the larger society for that matter—among them unconscious bias, a lack of mentoring and sponsorship, and career tracks in softer roles like human resources and marketing that aren’t regarded as paths to leadership. Indeed, representation of women leaders in sports mirrors that of their corporate sisters, where they hold about 10% of CEO roles and 33% of board seats on S&P 500 companies.

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Danette Leighton remembers the opportunity that catapulted her into a career in sports leadership, primarily because she didn’t think she was ready for it. It was 1998, and Leighton was a young administrator at the then Pac-10 Conference. Stanford University’s Senior Associate Director at the time, tapped Leighton to become the Executive Director of the 1999 NCAA Women’s Final Four, which the school was hosting. “She had the confidence in me to take on the responsibility when I didn’t check every box,” says Leighton, who eventually went on to become a Vice President with NBA’s Sacramento Kings and WNBA Monarchs, Chief Marketing Officer of the Pac-12 Conference and now serves as CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation.

It was an important steppingstone in Leighton’s career not only because of the visibility, but also because it opened her eyes to the particular set of skills—to borrow Liam Neeson’s famous line—needed to advance in leadership. Revenue generation, fundraising and development, corporate sponsorships, sales, media negotiation, Leighton was exposed to it all. “It got me to look at leadership through the lens of the skills sets of people who were in  those positions,” she says. For most women in sports, however, that kind of access and education is sorely lacking. “As an industry, we need to do a better job of making sure women understand the skills needed for leadership at the beginning of their journey,” Leighton says.

That means being more deliberate about developing a pipeline of female leaders. Diversity and inclusion efforts like those in the corporate world help, as does recruiting, retention, and career pathing strategies that put women on leadership tracts. With women accounting for nearly half of all MBA graduates, for instance, Women Leaders in Sports and other organizations are working with business schools and recruiting firms to bring more of them into the operational side of sports. But it also means having mentors and sponsors to pull women into situations where they can get the exposure needed to advance in leadership roles. Therein lies the problem: the lack of women in leadership roles means there is a lack of mentors pulling them into the spaces where they need to be, such as at the College Football Playoffs.

5 recent milestones in women's sports

Interest—and investment—in women’s sports is at an all-time high. Here are five significant developments on and off the field contributing to its growth.

Double dribble:

The 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship game between Iowa and LSU garnered 10 million viewers, an increase of 103% over the prior year.

A home to call their own:

The KC Current of the National Women’s Soccer League will play in a brand-new stadium this season, the first-ever facility built exclusively for a women’s professional sports franchise.

Overtaking Krzyzewski:

Tara VanDerveer, coach of the Stanford University women’s basketball team, surpassed former Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski as the sports winningest coach ever at the college level, male or female.

A record valuation:

The female-led investor group behind the WNBA’s Seattle Storm sold off minority stakes in 2023 that valued the team at a record $151 million.

Scoring in the NFL:

While still vastly underrepresented, females in coaching or operational roles in the NFL has grown 141% since 2020, with 223 women in such positions this past season.

To be sure, not unlike in the corporate world, if more women are going to advance into leadership roles in sports, they are going to need male allies and influencers to be more intentional about championing them. “It’s a male dominated industry. Culturally, old habits die hard,” says Phillips.

“As an industry, we need to do a better job of making sure women understand the skills needed for leadership from the start of their career journey.”

But there is a shift happening. As Phillips notes, the partnership with the CFP came about because the committee intentionally wanted more women involved in the event. Every time a male star like Steph Curry and LeBron James attends a WNBA game or tweets about a female athlete, it helps. Even better, says McLaughlin, is when a male athletic director or general manager connects a woman to an opportunity where they can be seen and elevated, or when a recruiting firm like Korn Ferry puts a woman on a search slate to be considered for an executive role. “It’s very easy to be passive in this space,” says McLaughlin, “but there has to be an intentionality and accountability if we are going to get past the place where it is considered a risk to have women in these leadership roles.”

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Thanks to Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City has become the epicenter of the NFL world. But this spring all eyes will be on the city’s National Women’s Soccer League team, the KC Current, in which Mahomes is an investor. The team will open its season in a new $120 million, 11,500-seat stadium, the first-ever facility built exclusively for a women’s sports franchise. The stadium is more than a symbolic testament to equality in sports. It is also a statement on the return-on-investment potential of women’s sports. “Traditionally, people don’t invest in women’s sports like they do professional teams,” says Phillips. “But now owners are not just operating teams, they are investing to grow them and generate profit.”

Put another way, investors, especially capital-laden private equity firms, are recognizing that women’s sports leagues and teams are potentially lucrative businesses. In fact, from an investment thesis perspective, the business model for women’s sports looks a lot like that of a tech startup on the rise—unsaturated market, broad consumer appeal, high growth potential. The return-on-investment potential is leading to some major deals, among them the $53 million purchase of a majority stake in NWSL expansion franchise Bay FC by private equity firm Sixth Street, which also owns stakes in men’s clubs FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, and the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. The Women’s Tennis Association raised $150 million last year from private equity firm CVC Capital Partners and India’s Women’s Premier League raised $580 million for five cricket franchises.

Female athletes, celebrities, and investor-led groups are also getting in on the action. Actresses Natalie Portman, Eva Longoria, and Jennifer Garner are among the investors in women’s soccer club Angel City, for instance. Billie Jean King Enterprises, the sports legend’s eponymous investing firm, and a partner created the new six-team Professional Women’s Hockey League (its inaugural season started this year). The WNBA’s Seattle Storm and the NWSL’s Washington Spirit were both bought by female entrepreneurs and businesswomen.

“Traditionally, people don’t invest in women’s sports like they are professional teams. But now owners are not just operating teams, they are investing to grow them and generate profit.”

The emergence of private equity into women’s sports could open a pathway for more women leaders as that industry comes under increased pressure to diversify. Women hold under 20% of executive roles at private equity firms, but institutional investors, which are major players in PE funds, have been pushing firms for more diversity internally and at the operating company level as a condition of investment. Since PE firms typically install their own partners or managing directors in leadership positions at portfolio companies, the more women gain traction in private equity, the more that could theoretically translate into sports as well.

The money flowing into women’s sports, combined with television and streaming platforms like espnW and the Women’s Sports Network are leading to greater visibility and recognition of female athletes. “It’s not as hard to be a fan anymore,” says Phillips. “It gives women’s sports a chance to gain an audience.”

That, in turn, is creating a virtuous cycle, where more attention leads to more investment leads to more growth. Or, as Leighton puts it, “We’re just scratching the surface. There’s a massive opportunity for growth in women’s sports, and female leaders in it.”


For more information, contact Jenna McLaughlin at