Almost half of all self-professed sports fans in the U.S. are women, girls are growing up participating in sports more than ever before, and female sports teams are breaking records: The 2015 Women’s World Cup final, in which the U.S faced Japan (and won 5-2) was the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history. And that growth is not slowing down.
Leading the charge is Laura Gentile, a powerhouse at the forefront of the world of women in sports. She’s the founder and senior vice president of espnW and Women’s Initiatives, a council member on the U.S. State Department’s Council to Empower Women and Girls Through Sports, and an avid New York Giants fan. An athlete herself, Gentile played field hockey for Duke University, an experience that she now uses as a lens through which to view all her work. In March of this year, Gentile was hailed as one of 13 women at the forefront of the media industry.
And that title is fitting. In 2010, Gentile recognized women were no longer a niche audience. “It just became clear that there was this huge opportunity with women who not only have grown up as athletes but are real sports fans and maybe are somewhat overlooked in the sports media industry,” she says.
With that in mind, Gentile launched the first espnW Women + Sports Summit, a space that brings together the most influential women in sports. This year’s lineup boasts the likes of Sue Bird, Jeanie Buss, and Mallory Pugh, to name a few. Seven years in, Gentile reflects on how the summit has evolved, its impact, and how she manages her time as a VP, a mom, and an athlete.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Fast Company: At what point did you recognize the need for espnW?
Laura Gentile: I grew up playing sports, going to New York Giants football games with my dad, loving the Yankees and loving ESPN. That was just my brand. That sort of came full circle working at ESPN. There’s this huge change with how young girls are growing up; they participate like never before, it’s accepted as never before, and there are so many more opportunities to play thanks to Title IX. Women are gaining our footing in general, across all industries, and have a larger voice in the conversation about things like pay equity and leadership roles. So, I look at the ESPN business and say, “Okay, we should be serving all sports fans.” If we wanna grow and continue to grow, and continue to be the leader, women are a huge opportunity because there’s 83 million female sports fans in this country, and that’s not an insignificant number. We need to really think about that audience and how we’re serving her.
The entirety of the sports industry, but specifically ESPN, is really taking notice and saying, “You know what? This is not a small segment of fans that we can ignore. This is actually vital to our future.” When we created espnW, I thought, let’s create a brand that women really aspire to and say “I love that voice. I love how they’re speaking to me,” and then by virtue ESPN overall seems more appealing and more accessible for women who love sports. The rest of the company is taking notice that this is a burgeoning audience.
FC: How did you bring these ideas to fruition?
LG: Right out of the gate we asked: How do we launch this business? The first thing we did was create the espnW summit in 2010. We invited who we thought at the time were the most influential women in sports to join us for a gathering and to start the process of sharing ideas and thinking big together and have this convening of women in sports that just didn’t exist. I used to joke that if you look at the sport industry, there are conferences for everything under the sun; from facilities to concessions to ticketing but there was never anything focused on women and women in the business. We filled that void.
The first time we ever got together, eight years ago, there was such tremendous passion in the room and there was such tremendous energy to say, “Wow! I’ve never been in the same room with Billie Jean King or Julie Foudy or with all these incredible journalists and on-air talent from ESPN. Let’s start talking and working together.” Multiple people came up to me and said, “You’re gonna do this every year, right?” That’s when we started thinking, “Hey! Maybe we’re onto something.” That’s when we started asking, how do we grow this experience and how do we make it annual and part of our ongoing business product?
FC: The summit is invite-only and tickets are around $2,500 so this event is obviously only for a select few. How do you see attendees taking what they learn and making an impact in tangible ways?
LG: We really try, even though they are guests of ours and they pay a fee, we really try to put them to work and say we want tangible action coming out of this. Last year we honed in on four really important topics in the space and we’ve had a group of 60-80 people not only meet at the summit last year and really have an in-depth discussion about these topics, but then work together. They’re gonna report out their findings this year.
Within the sports world, we still feel like we’re building a network of women. Women haven’t always been the movers and the shakers and the ones making all the decisions so we’re actually creating working relationships. It’s developing into a sort of business network for women in sports that just didn’t exist before.
FC: What are the four topics you examine at the summit?
LG: Women in Leadership: How do you get more women at the table making decisions at media entities or at leagues or owning teams? How do you get women to be much more influential and how do we get past the middle management barriers and really get women in the executive suite?
Women Breaking Barriers in Sports Media: There’s been so many firsts in the past few years. Whether that’s Dorris Burke as the first, female full-time analyst in NBA, or Jessica Mendoza, as the first women in the Sunday-night baseball booth, or even Beth Mowins calling a Monday-night football game. How do we continue to drive that? Is mentorship and sponsorship within the industry a real key to that? How do we work across our companies? We have tons of people at the summit who on a piece of paper would be considered our competitors but we don’t look at it that way. We feel like we all need to work together to the point of really making strides in this space. We shouldn’t be competitive, we shouldn’t look at it like that. We’re trying to lift up women within the industry.
Campus Sexual Assault: Ending violence that exists on campuses and thinking through solutions on that front, whether it’s more education for athletic directors or student athletes.
Athlete Activism and Driving Social Change: This is an important topic, but as you can imagine after the past few weeks, has sort of taken on a life of its own. When we first developed this topic around athlete activism, it really had nothing to do with Colin Kaepernick or kneeling or standing or anything. Women athletes have such an interest in driving social change and using their platform for good that a lot of the conversation was, how do athletes do that? What is the most productive way to do that? So, it’ll be interesting to talk about it because now it really has become about kneeling or standing and the flag and the military.
FC: You’re a council member on the U.S. Department of State’s Council to Empower Women and Girls Through Sports. Could you talk about how the current administration impacts women in sports and if you have plans to work with them on implementing some of your goals, whether that be through your partnership with the State Department or at espnW?
LG: We’ve talked a lot to our State Department partners about what the future holds. I think we’re working to develop a plan that really puts the benefits of the program front and center and really tells the stories of these young women and the changes they’re making in their hometown. How do we ensure that the State Department really understands the value of it? It’s hard to predict where it’s going to go. I just know our colleagues there really believe in the power of sports diplomacy and they really believe in the empowerment of women. I just can’t predict where it goes after this year.
FC: You’re a VP and you work with the State Department and you’re a mom and the list goes on. That’s a lot to juggle. How do you decide what opportunities you say yes and no to?
LG: It’s hard. I’ve learned in establishing espnW, that there are opportunities around every corner. Part of the secret sauce that has made espnW successful is that we’ve been really open to people’s ideas and doing things differently and experimenting. So, for every coffee I have, three out five actually end up being relevant and something surprising comes out of it. I’ve learned over the years that doing more of those, not less, is better. It keeps your head up rather than working head down without having the sense of other opportunities.
For me, its not necessarily what I say yes or no to. It’s more the time allocations. I’ve gotten better at productive half-hour coffee meetings as opposed to an hour-and-a-half lunch.
FC: So, how do you manage it all? What are three work tools you couldn’t live without?
LG: Outlook Calendar: Good ol’ Outlook is vital. I’m constantly looking at and updating my calendar. It’s like the commingling of personal and professional; kids activities and school functions commingled with massively important meetings. But that’s kind of an interesting place to find yourself in; where personal and professional are all sort of intertwined and you have to have maximum flexibility to make it all work.
WSJ Stock Ticker: I’m able to get a snapshot of what’s going on in the market today and what really vital companies are up to. That’s good to sort of get your head out of the day-to-day and think about industry and competitors and just business overall.
Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter: I use those three as a sign of what’s going on in my circle and my network. To keep your finger on the pulse and follow athletes that are doing really cool stuff on Twitter and follow newsmakers and influencers and I think that’s sort of the biggest thing. How do you wade through all the information that is at your fingertips all day long and sort of cut to the chase?