Gender Pro Football?

Women now make up more than half of the senior leadership roles at one NFL team. Will other male pro sports teams follow?

This summer Carli Lloyd, a member of the World Cup champion U.S. women’s soccer team, created a bit of a stir with a video of her kicking a 55-yard field goal. When asked if she would be interested in kicking for a professional football team, Lloyd said she’d love to give the NFL a try. 

That hasn’t happened yet.  But in what many see as an important move, women are making key inroads into leadership roles in male professional sports teams. Recent news accounts, for example, reveal that women now make up half of senior leaderships roles at one NFL team, the Philadelphia Eagles. That includes the team’s general counsel, senior vice president of revenue and strategy, and senior vice president of marketing and media. To be sure, the league and other male pro sports teams still lag behind. But this summer, the NBA champion Toronto Raptors promoted data analyst Brittni Donaldson to an assistant coaching position, the tenth female assistant coach on an NBA team, and the fifth hired this off-season alone.

Peggy Hazard, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry who specializes in leadership development, says the changing nature of sports from a cultural, technological, and financial perspective mirrors that of the corporate world and, as a result, is impacting how women and other diverse groups are viewed. “Diverse teams have a higher quality of decision making because they look at issues from different angles, ask a wider variety of questions, are are less likely to revert to the status quo,” says Hazard. To be sure, studies done by Korn Ferry and others show that having more women in leadership roles produces better financial returns. 

The more male pro sports teams hire women into business or operational roles, however, the more important it becomes for them to have a plan for how to not just utilize but also advance them in the organization, says Jed Hughes, vice chairman and global sector for sports at Korn Ferry. “If you just put women into a role without a strategy for how to assimilate them it can end up hurting more than helping,” says Hughes, who has placed women into collegiate and professional sports leadership roles. 

Hughes points to teams like the San Antonio Spurs, the first NBA team to hire a female assistant coach, as an example of an organization that pays as much attention to inclusion as it does diversity. He says the Spurs and other teams and schools that he’s worked with have a process for training diverse hires to build credibility and develop trust with athletes, connect them with mentors and sponsors, create a culture of inclusion at all levels, and have leaders in place who value the skills and experiences diverse candidates bring to the table. 

While progress is being made, a lot more work still needs to be done. Data shows that less than one-third of senior executives in the NFL league office are women, for instance, while less than 20% of VPs or higher at the team level are female. 

Speaking of data, however, the increased use of it, artificial intelligence, and other digital analytics in sports for everything from player selection to injury rehabilitation, could offer a pathway for more women to be hired onto coaching staffs and in leadership positions. As Hughes notes, “Gender doesn’t impact how good of a data analyst someone is.”