How to Succeed as a Woman in Sports: 6 Tips From Professionals
Breaking into the sports industry can be competitive and intimidating. We spoke with four women in sports about their experiences and advice for success.
Published on February 2, 2022 · Updated on May 6, 2022
- When researching schools, look for unique courses and opportunities for work experience.
- Internships can help you explore potential sports jobs and learn from industry pros.
- Networking is key in the sports industry — your peers are a great first connection.
- Soft skills like professionalism, hard work, and positivity can propel your sports career.
About 94% of women who hold C-suite level positions are former athletes, pointing to a clear correlation between sports and success in business. Yet, in the sports industry, women professionals are far outnumbered by men.
Sports management jobs can include anything from scouting and coaching to directing community outreach and managing social media. So what's the best way to ensure women can excel in this field?
To answer this question, we spoke with four women working in the sports industry. Specifically, we asked for their advice on how women can begin a career — and ultimately succeed — in sports today. Here are their biggest tips.
Tip 1: Choose a Well-Rounded Academic Program
For many, a sports-related degree marks the start of their journey in the sports industry. The professionals we spoke to all noted the importance of choosing a school with a strong curriculum, an array of work experience opportunities, and active alumni networks.
"We offer specialized classes to meet the changing demands of the industry, such as courses on gambling, esports, data and analytics, and the globalization of sport," said Windy Dees, Ph.D., a professor and graduate program director at the University of Miami (UM).
Erin McNary, Ph.D., an assistant professor in sport administration at the University of Miami, advises students to consider the student-to-teacher ratio, faculty composition, and opportunities for exposure to the sports industry.
"If having female or diversity among professors matters to you, look up faculty biographies," said McNary. "At UM, we also have a faculty member directly responsible for helping to find internships and outside-the-classroom experiences."
Many universities partner with local organizations to offer internships and host conferences and events.
"[Our students can] attend a professional sport industry conference right on campus where the biggest names in sports come to them to speak and present," Dees explained.
Ayla Acosta, an account services executive for the Arizona Diamondbacks, chose to pursue her Master of Education in Sport Administration with UOnline at the University of Miami for "the promise of an expansive alumni base filled with sports professionals across all industries."
Tip 2: Find Ways to Explore the Sports Industry
The sports industry offers a variety of professional paths. Exploring different roles early in your career can help you discover your passion and where you're most likely to thrive.
Caitlin Moyer, who spent two decades working in Major League Baseball (MLB), now runs her own communications and marketing agency. She recommends using internships, volunteer work, and informational interviews to explore potential career paths.
"There are so many ways to be involved in sports, from community outreach, marketing, sponsorship sales, and ticket sales to working in finance, human resources, on the field, and more," Moyer said.
Moyer realized she wanted to pursue a sports career during her baseball internship — and after trying several paths.
"That's why internships are so valuable," she said. "You learn what you want to do and also what you DON'T want to do before you're too far down a path."
You don't have to map out your career path from the get-go — many people discover what they love along the way.
"Be open to learning about sports industry positions that you might not think would be a good fit," said McNary. "Many times, I see students hyper-focused on one position, but they have not job shadowed or spoken with someone within that role."
You can research potential jobs and positions in sports by looking at open jobs at companies you admire. Also, see what kinds of roles professionals on LinkedIn had throughout their careers and job shadow at companies with various departments.
Tip 3: See Internships as Gateways to Jobs
Internships are often considered an essential step toward a career in sports. Moyer, for example, credits her internship to the start of a successful career.
"Getting my foot in the door as an intern with an MLB team ultimately led to almost two decades with the club in various capacities as I moved through the ranks," Moyer explained.
It's important to take advantage of your time as an intern to showcase your character and make connections. Adding the experience to your resume is no doubt beneficial, but the impact you make on the people you work with can leave a lasting impression.
"Some [interns] would come in and put their heads down, and you might never learn their name," Moyer said. "The ones who went out of their way to help, took initiative, and showed interest were the ones you remembered — and who you reached out to when more permanent positions became available."
Completing an internship can also enrich your educational experience.
"Not only are you then learning about the life experience, but you're living it and applying your education directly to your work," Acosta said.
Tip 4: Don't Underestimate the Value of Networking
While networking can be a great tool in any profession, all the women we spoke to emphasized that it's especially essential in the sports world.
"The sports industry may seem large, but it is very tight-knit," Moyer said. "If you're a good, smart, hardworking person, those connections will come in handy down the line, and people will want to help you succeed."
It's common to encounter the same people at different points in your career as you change organizations. Having those existing connections can help you build a good reputation that will lead to new opportunities.
According to Dees, sport employees often change teams as frequently as the athletes themselves.
"Developing a strong personal and professional network helps stimulate career trajectory and success," Dees said. "Sport organizations are always on the lookout for the best talent, and those who are well known for their great work, leadership, and integrity get many opportunities to work in this realm."
McNary's recommendations for networking include reaching out to guest speakers from classes, messaging professionals on social media, and setting up informational interviews.
"Many communities also have special networking chapters that serve as a resource for professional women in sport business. For example, in South Florida, there is Women in Sports and Events," said McNary.
Tip 5: Know Your Classmates Will Be Your Co-Workers
Networking doesn't just apply to faculty and established professionals — connecting with peers is an easy way to start building up a network. After all, there's a fair chance that at least some of your classmates will eventually be your co-workers.
"Don't focus just on people in the roles you aspire to one day reach; focus also on your peers," advised Acosta. "They are going to be the most candid with you as you grow together and will speak on your behalf when jobs open up at their organization."
McNary explained that the University of Miami facilitates some of those connections.
"We have a Facebook page where alumni post jobs and internship openings," she said. "We also post volunteer opportunities and other important events."
Tip 6: Hone Your Soft Skills
While your resume, grades, and networking prowess are important for landing an interview, your character is another factor that can lead to success. The sports industry especially values professionalism, hard work, and enthusiasm.
Acosta managed to score a job from her internship "by taking responsibility for important tasks, constantly asking for more responsibility, and then executing them to a level that made it a no-brainer to keep [her] on the team."
A strong sense of self can also help you stand out.
"The sports industry can be intense and competitive, but graduates can succeed by staying true to their ethical and moral codes of conduct," McNary said.
In her classes, Dees encourages students to work on honing the soft skills they'll need to succeed in sports.
"I promote hard work, professionalism, and networking," said Dees. "In sport, you have to work long hours, nights, and weekends. Those who do that with a positive attitude and team-oriented spirit are highly valued."
According to Dees, professionalism is what often stands out the most about those working in the sports world.
"People who present themselves professionally, communicate well verbally and in writing, and are good at working with different types of people are often promoted through their organizations," she said.
The Sports Industry Is Changing — but There's Still Room to Grow
We asked women working professionally in sports how the industry has evolved for women and what they hope to see change.
"I first started attending the National Sports Forum … about 15 years ago, and I remember noticing how few women were there," Moyer said. "Now, we're living in an age where women are making headlines as they are hired as GMs (Kim Ng, Miami Marlins) and managers (Rachel Balkovec, minor league baseball)."
Moyer hopes that in the next 10 years, these stories will no longer be headlines "because that means it's no longer newsworthy — it's the norm."
At some point in her career with MLB, Acosta noticed her co-workers would assign tasks to women that they wouldn't ask their male peers to do.
"I started being assigned responsibility for ordering food or setting up for parties/events or being expected to take notes during a meeting," Acosta said. "And when I refused to be that person, it was assigned to another female."
Acosta also shared that she wasn't given as much opportunity to talk in conversations with clients.
"I stopped letting people talk over me and would respectfully talk to them about their actions because half the time they weren't aware of what they were doing," she explained.
According to McNary, there's progress to be made in the sports industry for women in terms of shared workloads, pay equity, and leadership opportunities.
"More awareness has been cultivated around the issues and challenges that women and minorities face professionally," said McNary. "My personal experience has been that there is more of a support network for females in the industry and that women feel more confident as they are seeing more females in roles they aspire to fill."
Women in sports are hopeful about the changes happening in the industry and encourage prospective students to be part of that growth.
With Advice From:
Windy Dees, Ph.D.
Windy Dees joined the sport administration faculty at UM in August 2010. She graduated from Texas A&M University, where she earned a doctorate in sport management in 2007. Dees received a master's in sport management from the University of Florida and a bachelor's in psychology and communications from Rollins College. Prior to obtaining her Ph.D., Dees worked as an account executive for Synergy Sports Marketing.
Dees has research specializations in sports marketing and sponsorship, and she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on these topics at UM. Her research focuses on the effectiveness of corporate partnerships and how sponsors and properties execute successful sport marketing strategies. Her research has also examined brand awareness and brand personality, consumer attitudes, image enhancement, and purchase behavior.
Dees currently serves as the sport administration graduate program director at the University of Miami and an executive board member of the Sport Marketing Association.
Erin McNary, Ph.D.
Erin McNary joined UM's faculty in August 2017. Previously, she worked at two different universities in St. Louis, Missouri, where she taught sport administration courses. She was also a full-time faculty member in the sport marketing and management program at Indiana University-Bloomington, where she received her doctorate.
McNary has several years of experience in campus recreation at Arizona State University and the University of Texas-San Antonio, as well as five years of experience working for a national physical activity and fitness awards program.
McNary currently teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in sport facility and event management, as well as globalization of sport. She focuses on cultivating community partnerships and bringing experience and insights to her students. She is also the Global Sport Industry Conference director (see miamisportconference.com).
Her research examines sport management pedagogy, ethics in youth sport communication, and marketing and the promotion of youth and marginalized athletes.
Ayla Acosta is a 26-year-old corporate partnerships account executive with the Arizona Diamondbacks. A Wake Forest University Double Deac ('17, '22) and University of Miami ('19) alum, Acosta has balanced an extensive course load with a rapid ascension in her career. In her free time, Acosta enjoys binge-watching shows and movies, reading, traveling, and spending time with friends and family.
In 2021, Caitlin Moyer started her own communications and marketing consulting agency. She works with clients inside and outside of the sports industry, specializing in creative ideas, strategy and problem-solving, public relations, writing, and social media. Some of her clients include the Wells Fargo Championship, the Green Bay Packers, and Marquette University Athletics.
Prior to founding her company, Moyer spent 18 seasons working in the marketing and communications departments for the Milwaukee Brewers. She held various roles related to advertising, marketing, and promotions. In her most recent position with the team, she was responsible for social media strategy across all of the team's platforms. She created content that fostered a deeper, more meaningful relationship with lifelong fans and expanded engagement among more casual fans.
Moyer also serves as an adjunct professor at Marquette University and Cardinal Stritch University, teaching classes related to emerging media and sports public relations.
Feature Image: Alistair Berg / DigitalVision / Getty Images