Despite the challenges that women continually face in the male-dominated sports industry, former Washington Wizards President Susan O’Malley (LAW ’07) has seen drastic improvements since leaving the industry in 2007.
At 29 years old, O’Malley became the National Basketball Association’s first female executive when she was appointed president of the Wizards in 1991.
But when O’Malley left her position 10 years ago, she still stood alone in the NBA’s history of female presidents.
Less than a decade later, during the 2013-14 season, women comprised less than 8 percent of the NBA’s chief executive officers, 16.6 percent of team vice presidents and 21.4 percent of senior level administrators.
However, O’Malley is encouraged by the increasing rate of women sports executives, as well as an increased participation by women in higher-level sports education.
In an interview with The Hoya, O’Malley discussed the current landscape of gender in the sports industry and how it has shifted since she first served as a sports executive.
How were you first introduced into the sports industry?
I was a huge sports fan. I often say I had two great influences: my gym teacher and my father. My gym teacher saw me play sports and suggested I was better suited for a desk job. My father was an attorney for Abe Pollin [late owner of the Wizards] and I had a front row seat on the building of the old Capital Center in Landover, Md.
How did you navigate through your rise in the sports industry, and how was your journey affected by being a woman?
I was very much an outlier and sometimes it was lonely. I do believe being the only woman added pressure. I felt that every mistake I made may slow the opportunity for the next woman who wanted to get into the business. However, let me say that not all men were unsupportive. My boss, Abe Pollin, was a champion of woman, and Wes Unseld [former Washington Bullets player and coach] was supportive and helpful. I read somewhere that you need a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone. I’d say nothing is truer.
What was your most challenging moment as a woman in the male-dominated sports industry, and how did you handle the situation?
Time and time again, I was faced with what I will call “teachable moments,” from the person who thought the reason I was in the executive board room was to get coffee, to the fan who wrote me saying, “stay in the kitchen” (He obviously never saw me cook). Sometimes I used my backbone and sometimes I used my funny bone.
How did other women in your life help you achieve your success?
Two great female influences unfortunately both have passed away: Katharine Graham and Pat Summit. There is an old expression, “you can’t do what you can’t see.” Mrs. Graham helped me navigate in an all-male industry, not just in words but by watching her as role model. Pat was a counselor and a role model for me.
How did you balance your work as a high-leverage team executive and Georgetown Law Center’s curriculum from 2004-2007?
I think with every balancing in life — family and career, school and career, school and family — it becomes a trade-off. My first priority had to be the job, so I was a mediocre student. However, it was an amazing opportunity to have attended Georgetown and learned under some most accomplished law professors.
What has changed in the industry, particularly for women, since you were first introduced?
There are many, many more women working in the industry. And as I teach at the University of South Carolina now, 50 percent of our sports majors are women. I see real change. But there are still very few women in leadership positions, so that has not changed.
Looking back on your achievements with Washington Sports and Entertainment, as well as with the community at large, what are you most proud of during your tenure as president?
Two things come to mind: successfully navigating the role of the first woman president, and two, being a key member of the team that built the Verizon Center — Capital One arena. That project changed the landscape of D.C.
Now, more than 10 years since your tenure as president, how have you remained involved with the sports industry, if it all?
I teach at the University of South Carolina in the Sports and Entertainment college. It not only keeps me current, I view my role as helping prepare the next generation of sports executives. Hopefully that has a lasting impact.
What advice would you give for young women looking to become involved in the sports industry?
I don’t think my advice for men or woman is different. If possible, get a second degree — every high-profile executive in sports has a second degree and there is a reason. Find a mentor, someone who will give you honest feedback. And work harder than anyone. The difference between good and great is often effort.