25 of the Most Influential Women in Sports
Though women who have the talent and ambition to be leaders and make a difference still face challenges that simply do not apply to their male counterparts, we experience the kind of access to new opportunities those from past generations never could have imagined.
Higher education is no longer just a formality before getting married and starting a family, or a narrow path that leads to a career as a nurse or school teacher. Most people don't define women by specific roles they're expected to fulfill, unless it's one of their own choosing.
Today, the "glass ceiling" is very real, but it is more often a product of an unenlightened power broker or an organization's flawed culture than an orchestrated environment. And there are few industries in which women have made less headway than sports.
That being said, there are exceptions to every rule. The fact that sports are still such a male-dominated world makes highlighting the influential women in the industry all the more worthwhile.
Those featured on this list are just a sampling of the women making waves throughout the industry, chosen deliberately to reflect a broad range of athletes, coaches, media and executives, presented in no particular order.
Here are 25 of the most influential women who are active in sports today.
In a brutal sport dominated by men, “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey has emerged as one of the biggest stars in MMA. Her penchant for trash-talking her opponents before brutally submitting them with her trademark armbar has definitely pushed her into villain territory. It’s territory Rousey seems to relish.
Since making her amateur debut in 2010, Rousey’s career has skyrocketed. In November 2012 she became the first female fighter to sign with the UFC. Three months later she became the first female fighter to headline a UFC event. To date she’s 9-0 (eight submissions and a TKO) and the No. 1 pound-for-pound female MMA fighter in the world.
Rousey’s influence extends well beyond the Octagon. She gets regular modeling work and had a memorable appearance in ESPN The Magazine’s annual "Body Issue" in 2012. Most recently Rousey has turned her focus to acting, landing roles in The Expendables 3, Fast & Furious 7 and the upcoming Entourage film.
Kelli Masters is one of just a handful of female sports agents today. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma College of Law, Masters began her professional career as a business litigation attorney in 2000. Within five years she became a partner and shareholder at her firm.
Masters ultimately veered toward sports law and began representing Olympians via Kelli Masters Management in 2004. It took several years before she landed her first big NFL client, but it finally happened when she signed Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in 2010.
McCoy would go on to be the No. 3 overall selection in the draft that year and was just the first of many signings to come for Masters. Specializing in combine/pro day training and preparation, draft analysis, contract negotiation, and grievances and arbitration, KMM now represents 24 athletes and counting.
Although women in sports media are still struggling to some degree, having to walk a tightrope in an industry that both prioritizes and demonizes them for their looks, there’s no question that substantial progress has been made in recent decades.
The road may still be rough for women in the industry, but trailblazers like ESPN’s Linda Cohn are responsible for making it far more passable. Since being hired by the Worldwide Leader in 1992, Cohn has become one of the most versatile, capable personalities on the network.
Cohn doesn’t pop up much on the endless lists ranking the hottest women in sports media—not because she’s not attractive, but because she just doesn’t occupy the same space. Maybe it’s her wry sense of humor or that unmistakable Long Island accent, but there’s something about Cohn that distinguishes her.
She is, quite simply, one of the guys.
Tyler Tumminia is the senior vice president of the Goldklang Group, a sports and entertainment consulting and management firm that owns four minor league baseball teams and a collegiate league team. Baseball is in her blood. Tumminia’s father, John, was a longtime scout with the Chicago White Sox, and her husband, Ben Cherington, is the general manager for the Boston Red Sox.
She transitioned from a career in financial services and high-tech public relations at the age of 26, accepting an internship with the Hudson Valley Renegades. Six weeks after Tumminia begged for a shot as an intern, the team named her director of community relations, and less than a year later she joined the Goldklang Group.
Having been in the business just under a decade, Tumminia has enjoyed great success as one of the few female executives in the male-dominated world of baseball. She’s also one of the most sought-after public speakers in the country—last November she delivered the presentation, “Hit a Home Run with a Career in Sports” to a packed auditorium at Mount Saint Mary College, her alma mater.
Considering how much she’s already accomplished, the sky truly is the limit for Tumminia, who is just 35 years old.
Judged on her personal star power and visibility alone, Russian tennis pro Maria Sharapova is not just one of the top women in the sport—she's in the conversation about who rules the sport, period.
Sharapova has built a brand and marketing empire on the strength of winning a career Grand Slam (the Australian, French and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon) and her stunning good looks. Currently, Sharapova is ranked as the ninth-best female tennis player in the world by the WTA.
What elevates her above similar athletes who've leveraged their position to score endorsements or even develop their own product line is that Sharapova pairs a natural ease in the role with razor-sharp savvy.
Roc Nation is the entertainment company founded by rapper Jay Z in 2008. The sports management division of the company launched in the spring of 2013, and its clients to date include Kevin Durant, Robinson Cano, Victor Cruz and Skylar Diggins.
Jana Fleishman has been the director of media and talent relations at Roc Nation since 2009. Although her background is in music and entertainment—she worked her way up through the ranks at Def Jam Music Group for nearly a decade before jumping ship—Fleishman is already a major player in the sports world.
As the company's client list grows, so will Fleishman’s influence. This year alone Roc Nation has already signed Hakeem Nicks and CC Sabathia. It was in the mix to sign projected first-round NFL draft pick Teddy Bridgewater, and Jay Z was reportedly eyeing Johnny Manziel as well.
It didn’t land either prospect, but it's clear Roc Nation is shooting for the stars. And Fleishman is going to help get it there.
Rita Benson LeBlanc
Rita Benson LeBlanc is the granddaughter of Tom Benson, the majority owner of the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans. With a B.S. in agribusiness from Texas A&M, LeBlanc has been personally involved with the family business since she was in high school.
In 2003 she took over management of the Arena Football League’s New Orleans VooDoo, which were also owned by her grandfather, and eventually became the AFL’s top executive. Today, LeBlanc is the vice chairman of the board for both the Saints and Pelicans.
LeBlanc was named the heir apparent to Benson back in 2006, but in 2012 she was “benched” due to her “sense of entitlement,” per a report from Brian Solomon of Forbes. However, whatever family drama was behind that move seems to have been put to bed, as LeBlanc is quite obviously back in the fold.
Former Baylor star Brittney Griner's pro career has just begun, but the imposing 6'8" center has already emerged as a transformative influence on both the game and its cultural landscape.
Griner's physical style of play and athleticism made her one of the most dominant—and electrifying—players in the history of NCAA women's basketball. A shot-blocking beast with 18 career dunks as a college player, she helped lead Baylor to a national title in 2012, and after her freshman season the Lady Bears only lost one regular-season conference game.
The question of whether Griner can duplicate what she was capable of doing on the court in college as part of the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury is one that will eventually be answered.
However, by coming out as a gay pro athlete, Griner refused to hide her life off the court just to protect her career from rumors that could affect her ability to focus on the game. In turn, she set an example for other gay athletes present and future.
You don't get labeled "The Most Powerful Woman in Sports" by being a rudderless figurehead of a major pro sports organization—and the phrase "rudderless figurehead" is simply incompatible with the five-year tenure of WTA CEO Stacey Allaster.
Tasked with both the monumental (growing the popularity of women's pro tennis) and the menial (addressing the "grunting" epidemic), Allaster has expanded the WTA's pool of prize money and landed sponsorships with companies like Xerox and Sony under her tenure.
With international stars like Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and Li Na making women's tennis compelling and relevant, it shouldn't be a surprise that in 2011 the WTA's board unanimously voted to extend Allaster's contract for five more years.
Kelli McGonagill Finglass and Judy Trammell
At this point, most people have learned not to expect anything better than a mediocre 8-8 out of the perennially mediocre Dallas Cowboys. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, on the other hand, manage to field a championship-worthy squad year after year without fail.
That’s thanks to the hard work, dedication and meticulous attention to detail of DCC Director Kelli Finglass and longtime choreographer Judy Trammell. Both former DCCs themselves, Finglass and Trammell have set the standards that have elevated the DCC from an NFL cheerleading squad to an international brand.
Not only are the ladies on the Dallas sidelines some of the most beautiful women you’ll ever see outside the pages of a magazine, they’re also top-notch talent with years of dance training. The epic battle to make the squad has been chronicled on CMT’s Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making The Team for the last eight seasons.
Finglass and Trammell purposefully cede the spotlight to the girls in the show but are ultimately the stars. They set the rules, make the decisions and are personally involved in everything DCC—right down to the most minute of details.
If something’s good? Credit them. If something’s bad? Blame them, but know they’ll never make the same mistake twice.
NASCAR driver Danica Patrick is a moderately polarizing figure in the sports world—and moderately may be an understatement. Although she’s won just a single race in her nine-year career—an IndyCar Series race back in 2008 (Indy Japan 300)—she is unquestionably the most successful, influential woman in the sport’s history.
For better or worse, Patrick is the female face of racing. In fact, she may be more of a household name now than any male driver currently on the circuit. Patrick’s endorsements routinely rank her among the world’s highest-paid female athletes. Her most notable promotion is GoDaddy, which has made her a Super Bowl Sunday advertising staple—in 2014 Patrick starred in her 13th ad for the domain peddlers.
Patrick’s face isn’t the only part of her that’s famous. Although she’s cut out the men’s-magazine modeling in recent years and GoDaddy has finally gone in a less salacious advertising direction, Patrick’s career took off right around the time she started taking her clothes off.
Perhaps that’s why her rise to superstardom hasn’t sat well with NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty, who had less than positive things to say to reporters earlier this year about Patrick’s prospects. Not that it has impacted Patrick one bit—the fact that Petty is talking about her at all speaks volumes about her influence.
The Guardian recently named Debbie Jevans the most influential woman in British sport. Given what she’s got on her plate over the next few years and what she’s done over the last few, it isn’t any wonder she bested the other 49 women on the list.
In September 2012 Jevans, who had previously served as the director for the London Organising Committee of the Olympics, was appointed the chief executive of England Rugby 2015. She is the first woman to organize a Rugby World Cup.
Once a professional tennis player, Jevans remains active in the sport as a member of the All England Lawn Tennis Club’s committee of management and championships. She also sits on the UK Sport major events panel and is a Sport England board member.
Jevans is not only passionate about her own role in the sports world, she’s a very vocal advocate for all women in the industry. In January, via Anna Kessel of The Guardian, she spoke out about “a dire lack of progress” in recent years and noted the failure of the industry to embrace women has caused her to rethink her opposition to hiring quotas.
For eight years, Condoleezza Rice was one of the most influential women in the world, serving first as National Security Advisor to former President George W. Bush, then being elevated to Secretary of State in the administration’s second term. She was the first African-American female to hold the position as the nation’s top diplomat.
Breaking barriers is nothing new to her.
Rice had only been in Washington for two years when it became clear she was already thinking ahead to a future in sports. In 2002 Mike Freeman, writing for The New York Times, reported that her post-politics dream job would be NFL commissioner.
Rice said of her passion for football, “I really consider myself a student of the game. I find the strategy and tactics absolutely fascinating. I find the evolution of the game really interesting.”
All that studying would eventually pay off for Rice, as she was named one of the first members of the College Football Playoff selection committee in September 2013. In the months that followed, Rice stood firm in the face of criticism from those who asserted her lack of on-field playing experience should preclude her from the committee.
Although she’s relatively new to the sports world and only a part-time power player, Rice has already made a habit of making history. In August 2012, she became one of the first two female members admitted to Augusta National Golf Club, the home of the Masters tournament—just another dramatic first in a long career full of them.
Laura Gentile is the vice president of espnW, the branch of the network dedicated solely to female athletes and fans. She’s held the position since espnW's launch in late 2010 but has been a member of the ESPN team since being hired as director of marketing and advertising more than a decade ago.
Being charged with building the espnW brand from the ground up is quite the task, one that Gentile has whole-heartedly embraced. A former All-American in field hockey at Duke, her vision from the outset was to create a product for women that wasn’t “dumbed down,” painted pink or otherwise condescending.
In 2008, it was she who asked the question, “If women’s sports were everything we believe it can be, what would it look like?” Gentile has been working to answer that question every day since.
The dominance of Pat Summitt's Tennessee teams through the better part of three decades—a run that included eight national titles and 16 SEC championships—is a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment that is unlikely to ever be matched...much less eclipsed.
But Summitt's legacy brings up the question: Is there a women's basketball coach out there that could make the impossible seem...possible?
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley took the reins of a women's basketball program in 2008 that was the ultimate example of futility—two NCAA tournament appearances in 27 years and little reason to expect improvement from a team competing in the same conference as Tennessee.
Staley, a former Virginia standout, Hall of Fame WNBA player and three-time Olympic gold medalist, was a winner as a player, and in her eight seasons as Temple's head coach her Owls made six NCAA tournament appearances.
Coming off a season when the Lady Gamecocks won the SEC and made their third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, Staley's remarkable turnaround job has made her a finalist for the Pat Summitt Coach of the Year Award.
Her passion, smarts and experience have helped Staley recruit blue-chip talent and transform a hapless team in one of basketball's toughest conferences into a national contender.
The daughter of WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon, Stephanie McMahon is as integral to the organization’s brand as her last name suggests. She began her career as an account executive for WWE sales in 1998, and in December 2013 she was promoted from executive vice president to chief brand officer.
In keeping with tradition, McMahon’s corporate role has also been written into various WWE storylines, dating back to 1999. In recent years, she’s been a fixture on Raw, making frequent appearances on the program and using the media to push storylines forward the rest of the week.
Recently, in a WWE.com interview (h/t SB Nation), McMahon insisted fan-favorite wrestler Daniel Bryan is “like a pea” next to Triple H, who happens to be her husband. Drama! She’s obviously learned the value of playing the villain over the years.
However, McMahon’s influence could be severely diminished if rumors that her father is ready to sell WWE, like this one from Bloomberg News, turn out to be true.
Barbara Berlusconi is the daughter of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Considering the wide array of unsavory escapades her father has been implicated in—all the while remaining a viable political candidate for national office—her last name carries a lot of weight.
Barbara Berlusconi was named to AC Milan’s Board of Directors in April 2011, and in late 2013 she became the club’s deputy chief executive. Although she’s been a high-profile player in the sports world for several years, she’s also been the frequent subject of tabloid fodder. Proving the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, Berlusconi made headlines in 2011 for romancing a Brazilian footballer five years her junior.
In February 2014, Berlusconi dismissed rumors that the club was for sale, categorically denying them and reaffirming her family’s “engagement” toward Milan. According to her, the team is currently looking for potential investment partners in hopes of securing the necessary funds to build a new stadium.
Not only is Chinese tennis star Li Na one of the most influential women in sports, according to Time magazine in 2013, she’s also one of the 100 most influential people in the entire world.
There were 116 million people who watched Li win the French Open in 2011. With that win, she became the first Asian-born player to win a Grand Slam singles tournament. Another 70 million watched her defeat Dominika Cibulkova at the Australian Open in 2014.
There may be no other nation on Earth more steadfastly dedicated to supporting its athletes in international competition than China.
Li has certainly peaked late for a tennis player. She achieved her highest WTA ranking to date (No. 2) in February 2014, the same month she turned 32. American tennis star Serena Williams, by contrast, is the same age as Li but won her first Grand Slam in 1999.
As for Li’s influence, the popularity of tennis in China has skyrocketed. The sport was barely a blip on the radar a few years ago; now some 15 million people play it.
Lesa France Kennedy
In the fall of 2009, Forbes ranked Lesa France Kennedy No. 1 on its list of "The Most Powerful Women In Sports." As the chief executive officer of International Speedway Corporation, a member of NASCAR’s board of directors and a vice chairperson of NASCAR, Kennedy’s influence within the sports world is wide-reaching.
She was named the president of International Speedway in 2003 and has been an integral player in the company’s business dating back to the '90s, having been a member of the board since 1983. Kennedy’s grandfather, Bill France Sr., and her father, Bill Jr., were both pivotal players in building NASCAR and the ISC.
That’s not to say Kennedy has coasted along on her family’s name alone. She received a B.A. in economics and a B.A. in psychology from Duke in 1983. Kennedy maintained a moderately low profile, given the public nature of her position, before stepping into the spotlight in recent years with her leadership role.
When decorated alpine skier Lindsey Vonn announced she hadn’t sufficiently recovered from a knee injury to compete at the Sochi Olympics, there was almost certainly a momentary meltdown at NBC. The Winter Games don’t have near the star power of the sexier Summer Games, making it all the more difficult for the network to contend with losing its biggest name just five weeks before the opening ceremony.
Although she wasn’t able to compete in Sochi, Vonn was still a visible presence—NBC acted quickly to bring her on board as an Olympic correspondent for the Today show.
One of the most decorated women in the sport’s history, Vonn is one of those rare athletes whose star only continues to climb after a career performance on a global stage. She took gold in the downhill and bronze in super-G at the Vancouver Olympics.
Four years later, she’s a far bigger star than she was then.
That’s probably because she’s embraced her celebrity with open arms. Remember the media firestorm she set off by Tebowing a few years back? Vonn has an active presence on social media, with over 300,000 Twitter followers and another 160,000 on Instagram. Her profile is quite a contrast to that of her boyfriend of over a year, notoriously private PGA superstar Tiger Woods.
Kim Ng is the single most influential woman in Major League Baseball today. Her goal is to become the first female general manager in baseball—or any other major sport for that matter. Although she’s not quite there yet, Ng has been quietly building an impressive resume over the last two decades.
While working as a special projects analyst for the Chicago White Sox in 1995, she became the first woman to present a salary arbitration case at the age of 26. At 29, the New York Yankees hired her as their assistant general manager. In 2001, she accepted the same assistant position with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
To date, Ng has interviewed for three GM jobs but has been passed over by the Dodgers, Mariners and Padres, respectively.
In March 2011, she moved in a new direction, crossing coasts once again after accepting the job of senior VP for baseball operations at the MLB offices in Manhattan. As part of her new position, Ng oversees international baseball operations, the scouting bureau and the fall league.
Always with an eye on the ball, Ng said of the opportunity, via Ken Gurnick of MLB.com: "This is a chance for me to contribute in a very meaningful way to the game. As far as long-term aspirations, they’re still there. If anything, this makes me a more fully qualified candidate."
This is one woman you never bet against.
It’s hard to believe that Erin Andrews, America’s sweetheart, has been hard at work in the business for almost 15 years now. She got her start as a freelance reporter for Fox Sports in 2000. Four years later she headed to ESPN, remaining with the Worldwide Leader until 2012, when she made the move to Fox Sports.
A statuesque blonde with a megawatt smile, it would be dishonest to say that Andrews' stunning good looks haven’t played a role in her success. That being said, she’s also had to fight against them at times. Andrews is, without question, a capable reporter who has far more good moments than bad, but she may never shake those critics who long ago dismissed her as nothing more than a pretty face.
Andrews' influence in the sports world is such that she’s not just a person, she’s the occupation she helped define. The entirety of the Internet has been on the hunt for “the next Erin Andrews,” a never-ending search that dates back almost a decade.
Her reach now extends well beyond sports—Andrews was recently named the co-cost of ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, which she competed on back in 2010.
An American male has not won a men’s singles Grand Slam championship in over a decade. The last time was 2003, when Andre Agassi won the Australian Open and Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open. That year marked, for all intents and purposes, the death of men’s tennis in the United States.
Although American men have been coming up short in a big way, one American woman has taken it upon herself to see that the U.S. remains an international force to be reckoned with in the sport.
That woman is, of course, Serena Williams, who has won 13 individual Grand Slams in that time—not to mention eight doubles Grand Slams and three Olympic gold medals. In her entire career, she's won 17 singles Grand Slams, 13 women's doubles Grand Slams, two mixed doubles Grand Slams and four Olympic gold medals.
Serena is often discussed in conjunction with her older sister, Venus, who has seven individual career Grand Slam wins to her name. While Venus has certainly made an impression in her own right, there is simply no comparison between the two. Venus was a great tennis player, but Serena, who was named the AP’s Female Athlete of the Year in 2013 at age 32, is one of the greatest female athletes of all time.
Her place on the all-time list of all athletes can (and has) been much discussed but somehow not quite as debated as her place on tennis’ all-time list. No one would ever argue Steffi Graf is the greatest female athlete of all time, but she still has five more Grand Slams (22) to her name than Williams.
In August 2011, Pat Summitt, the longtime coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team, announced she had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. It was a stunning revelation that would, in less than one year’s time, bring to an end one of the most storied coaching careers in the history of college sports.
Summitt racked up 1,098 wins and eight NCAA championships in just under 40 years at the helm in Tennessee. That makes her one of just four college coaches ever to reach 1,000 wins and puts her behind only famed UCLA coach John Wooden in total titles. She retired after the 2011-12 season but still serves as the head coach emeritus for the Lady Vols.
Although Summitt has been noticeably absent from the bench for nearly two years now, it will be decades before her influence even begins to fade. She enjoyed greater success over a longer period of time than most coaches today can even dream of. Summitt won with honor and dignity—unlike, for example, Indiana’s Bob Knight.
A quick Google search of her name proves how relevant Summitt remains in the sports world. In the last 24 hours alone, she generated six headlines, several of them being national. In addition to being honored at an Alzheimer’s luncheon, making the finals of the ESPN radio coaches bracket contest and being the subject of an exhibit at the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, Summitt’s 23-year-old son, Tyler, was just hired as the women’s head coach at Louisiana Tech.
Jeanie Buss is the president of the Los Angeles Lakers as well as part owner of the franchise. She was recently elevated to the position after serving 14 seasons as the executive vice president of business operations.
Buss has been working in the business for more than 30 years, getting her start as the general manager of the World Team Tennis’ Los Angeles Strings at the age of 19.
In 2005, Sporting News named Buss one of the Top 20 Most Influential Women in Sports, and her influence has only grown since then. In addition to running the day-to-day operation of the Lakers, she also represents the team on the NBA’s Board of Governors.
Buss has embraced her expanded role, recently telling ESPN LA 710's Mason and Ireland (via Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles), “I’m the boss. I am responsible ultimately for anything with the team and decisions that are made.”
This past March, Kavitha A. Davidson of Bloomberg View argued that Buss is the most important woman in sports today. She presented a great case for Buss—one that I’m not the least bit inclined to refute.