Where the ladies at?
That’s the bewildered cry of Monster-Energy-guzzling bros and the North American sports-viewing public alike. Because just like the seedy clubs that said bros were tricked into paying $25 in cover for by a sleazy club-promoter named Chip, the ownership boxes of North American sports franchises are glaringly devoid of any women.
Don’t believe me? Let’s try a little experiment.
Close your eyes, and start picturing the owners you know. It’ll probably start with the famous faces — the Joneses, Cubans, Rooneys and Steinbrenners. Next, you‘ll likely think of the major villains: the Lorias, Snyders, and Gilberts. Finally, as you rack your brain for a few more, you might stumble on some of the old-timers: the Krafts, Bowlens and Reinsdorfs. Notice anything missing from that list? Of course you do. Even though I primed you 50,000 times in this article’s intro, title, and photo, you probably couldn’t name one owner with two x-chromosomes.
But don’t worry, it’s not entirely your fault. Part of the problem has to do with coverage (hence the need for this article!), as you’re way more likely to hear about Pat Bowlen’s bowel movements than you are to hear about the fierceness of Martha Firestone Ford. But the problem goes way deeper than a lack of appearances on TMZ. Look around the North American sports landscape, and it becomes painstakingly clear that it’s just as hard for leagues to recruit qualified women to own their franchises as it is for you to remember any of the current owners’ names. I mean, how else would you explain the fact that across the Big 4, only 9 of the 133 teams have female leaders at the helm?
By the way, even that number is deceptively high. Of those nine, one of those teams is co-owned by a husband-wife partnership, where the husband usually gets top-billing (the Bills), with another four being of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge she totally owns the team variety (the Raiders, Avalanche, 49ers and Nuggets). That leaves only five franchises with a woman in charge.
When you break down that total number by league, that ‘9’ starts to feel even smaller. The NFL leads the way, with six of its 32 teams (the Titans, Bears, Lions, Bills, 49ers and Raiders) owned by women. (Although once again, three of those come with large asterisks.) The NBA ranks second, with one full owner (the Jazz) and one asterisk (the Nuggets). The NHL only has an asterisk owner (the Avalanche), while Major League Baseball lives up to its reputation as the sport of old, white men by being owned exclusively by old, white men (unless you want to count Magic Johnson’s 2.3% share in the Dodgers, which we don’t).
And while that level of representation might seem dismal, it works out to a 6.7% women ownership rate, which is .3% higher than the percentage of Fortune 500 companies run by women. So, progress?
Now, if you find yourself amongst the chorus of fans groaning about the premise of this piece, and wondering about why an owner’s gender matters, I’m here to tell you it doesn’t. Leagues should seek out passionate, invested, stable owners that want what’s best for the city and franchise, regardless of gender. When you do that, you reduce the chances of saddling a fanbase with a James Dolan or Donald Sterling or a Maloof Brother or a human-gremlin-hybrid like Dan Snyder. When you expand the applicant pool, everyone wins.
The problem is, that hasn’t been happening.
Since 2000, 67 pro sports franchises have been sold, with only the Bills (them of the aforementioned wife and husband co-ownership) being purchased by a woman. That’s sixty-six missed opportunities for the leagues to find and recruit wealthy women to steer their franchises.
Whether or not you personally think there’s a ‘need’ for more female leadership in the game, from a business standpoint, it makes a whole ton of sense. It’s been proven time and time and time again that female executives bring a different skill-set to the table, ranging from more holistic problem-solving to better partnership-building, to stronger strategic vision. Not only would diversifying ownership bring about league-wide growth, but it might also finally end the laughable practice of teams trying to ‘appeal’ to women by designing jerseys with lacy pink trim.
But that’s enough about the women that aren’t owners. The purpose of this piece is to examine those that already part of this exclusive club. So with that said, we introduce to you the inaugural Power Rankings of the 9 Best (And once again, only) Female Owners in Sports.
The ************* Club
Carol Davis — Oakland Raiders*
This is one of those ‘Technically she owns the team, but…’ situations. From all accounts, Carol and her late-husband Al were both cut from the same Raiders’ cloth, in terms of their feistiness and passion. Unfortunately, the people of Oakland haven’t gotten the chance to see this from her, as control of the team was handed to her son Mark, who was last spotted chest-bumping the Rock while boarding his private jet as he screamed ‘Just Vegas, Baby’.
Denise DeBartolo York — San Francisco 49ers*
While John York and Denise DeBartolo York are formally the co-owners of the team, it’s son Jed that Google recognizes as the team’s official owner, which is all we really need to say about that.
Ann Walton Kroenke — Denver Nuggets /Colorado Avalanche**************************
In order to take full ownership of the LA nee St. Louis nee Los Angeles nee Cleveland Rams, endangered-elephant-hunting-aficionado/Austin-Powers-Supervillian Stan Kroenke had to transfer his ownership of the Nuggets and Avalanche to a family trust controlled by his wife, but actually run by their son Josh. The Walmart heiress’ has her name on the door, but nobody can confirm whether she knows where said door is located.
6) Amy Adams Strunk — Tennessee Titans
Since becoming the controlling owner back in 2015, Strunk has been a solid presence for the Titans, cleaning house after a dismissal three-year run, and instilling the franchise with credibility and stability after a dark few years.
5) Kim Pegula — Buffalo Bills
Kim co-owns the Bills with husband Terry, and together, deprived the franchise of what could have been a fruitful and wildly successful relocation to Toronto. (But Buffalo’s still cool, right? Right? RIGHT?). Despite that misstep (oh and the whole Rex Ryan thing) Pegula’s said all the right things about wanting to win Championships and build a great product, and invest in Buffalo, etc etc etc. More impressively, she’s said all those nice things about Buffalo with a straight face, which instantly puts her in the top tier of NFL owners. And if that isn’t enough, as a baby, she was abandoned on the streets of Seoul, lived for several years in an orphanage, was eventually adopted and brought to America, and then casually bought an NFL franchise. Even though the Bills haven’t reached the promised land, it would be unwise to bet against a woman with Pegula’s pedigree.
4) Martha Firestone Ford — Detroit Lions
Martha succeeded her husband William Clay Ford as the Lions’ owner when the latter passed away in 2014. In that short time, the 92-year-old(!) has lived up to the ‘fire’ part of her name, displaying none of the excessive patience or ‘maybe-Matt-Millen-will-figure-it-out-this-year’ laissez-faire-ness of her late husband. Instead, Ford cleaned house as soon as realized the Lions brass couldn’t get it done and has been known to personally call the league office to berate them about blown calls. Not too shabby for a member of the nonagenarian club.
3) Virginia Halas McCaskey — Chicago Bears
The OG of this list, McCaskey or ‘Mama Bear’ has been running things since taking over from her father George back in 1979. McCaskey is revered for her excellent stewardship, quiet passion, and her ability to make tough choices (including removing her son as President of the team.).
2) Gail Miller— Utah Jazz
You can be forgiven if you’re not an ardent Utah Jazz fan. Not many non-Mormons are. But after her husband passed away in 2009, Gail continued on their joint-legacy of dignity, respect, and an affinity for the state of Utah. In one of the more boss moves ever done by a team owner, Gail transferred ownership of the Jazz to a family trust that will exist in perpetuity, a first for the Big 4. This trust essentially guarantees the team will remain in Utah until a point in the future when Skynet takes over.
1) Jeanie Buss—LA Lakers
God bless Buss. She threw Phil Jackson to the curb before it was cool, and excommunicated the lesser Buss kids after they tried to convince La La Land that Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng were long-term pieces. She replaced them with Magic Johnson and a born-again-evangelist-Rob-Lowe-look-a-like, who might just actually be Rob Lowe, moves which are already paying huge dividends for the franchise. Buss’ spot atop this list is already well-deserved, as she flexed when she needed to in order to end years of family drama, and quickly righted the Lakers’ ship, after years of bumbling and futility.