Aug. 5, 2014, marked a new dawn in professional sports. That Tuesday, the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association announced that they had hired Becky Hammon as their newest assistant coach.
Hammon is the first woman to serve as a full-time assistant coach in any of the four professional sports leagues in history. MLB dates back to the 1800s, the NHL to 1917, the NFL to 1920 and the NBA to 1946. There are just over 120 teams between the four leagues, and no team has ever had a female assistant coach — until now.
Becky Hammon is helping to usher in a new era of women helping to lead major professional sports. But while her hiring is groundbreaking, women have not always been strangers to positions of power in professional sports.
Following her husband’s death, Georgia Frontiere became the majority owner of the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. During her tenure, Frontiere presided over the Rams’ move to Anaheim, and eventually to St. Louis, where the team remains today. Under her ownership, the Rams reached 3 Super Bowls, winning one in 2000.
Similarly, Virginia McCaskey inherited majority control of the NFL’s Chicago Bears in 1983 following the death of her legendary father, George Halas. 31 years later, the Bears have reached 2 Super Bowls under McCaskey, winning one in 1986.
Outside of football, women have also held positions of majority ownership in MLB. Joan Whitney Payson was a co-founder and majority owner of the New York Mets, serving as team president until her death in 1975. In 1984, Marge Schott became the first woman to purchase a team in MLB — the Cincinnati Reds. Schott served as principal owner, president, and CEO from 1985 until 1999. Despite this presence of female ownership in professional sports however, the front office has proved to be an elusive target for women.
To date, no woman has served as a general manager in any of the major professional sports. Kim Ng, the current Senior Vice President for Baseball Operations with Major League Baseball, is widely considered to be the woman that will break that streak. Ng has interviewed unsuccessfully four times for a GM’s post, once each with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Angels. In spite of that fact, Ng remains the highest-ranking female in all of baseball.
While no woman has yet to serve as a general manager in major professional sports, women have not been kept out of prominent roles in the front office. Amy Trask joined the NFL’s Oakland Raiders in the 1980’s and left in 2013, following a change in ownership, as the team’s CEO and lead executive.
Two women, Jeanne Bonk and Katie Blackburn, currently serve as executive vice presidents in the NFL, with the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals, respectively. Blackburn could even be considered the first woman to serve as a general manager, for her father, team owner Mike Brown, does not retain an official general manager and Blackburn’s duties include overseeing personnel and contract negotiations.
The moral of this story is that women are close. They have broken through into the ranks of ownership and the front office. Women have owned franchises by virtue of both inheritance and purchase. Women have held lead roles in front offices by virtue of both family ties and traditional promotion. But never has a woman had the leading role, as GM. Not yet. Congress might only be comprised of 19 percent women, but women make up less than 0.1 percent of major professional sports GMs and coaches.
That number will soon be changing, and if the hiring of Becky Hammon is any indication, it will be a lot sooner rather than later.