Kim Ng: Women and the Business of Sport

By Claire Nelson

On November 13th, the professional US baseball team the Miami Marlins announced that they had hired Kim Ng as their new General Manager (GM). This was a historic hiring as she is the first woman and the first Asian American to become a general manager of a professional baseball team. Ng has worked for Major League Baseball (MLB) for thirty years in a variety of roles from intern to assistant general manager to Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations. This recent milestone highlights how women’s roles in sport in all aspects – playing, coaching, and business have all been underdeveloped.

There have been remarkable changes and pushes for expanding and increasing the number of women in all sorts of traditionally male dominated industries. Schools, programs, and businesses have all been looking to increase the number of women studying and working in STEM fields. In the United Kingdom in 2017 more than double the number of women accepted places to study law than men. In 2019 women outnumbered men in US medical schools. Many countries have seen increases in the number of women in government. In the United States, Kamala Harris was just elected as the first woman to be vice president and a record number of women were elected to serve in Congress. Not only are women leaders increasing in number, but they are good at their jobs. During the current coronavirus pandemic countries led by women have fared better. However, there has been a significant lack of interest or focus on women in leadership positions in the business of sport.  

Kim Ng is the first woman to be named general manager for a professional baseball team. Prior to Ng, there has only been a single woman general manager of a major male professional sports team in the United States. Susan Tose Spencer was named the general manager of the National Football League (NFL) team the Philadelphia Eagles in 1984 by her father, Leonard Tose, the team’s owner. She was excluded from handling player transactions and faced sexist coverage by Philadelphia newspapers. Women make up roughly half of NFL fans, but only one third of its employees. This is not just a problem in the US. In football only twenty percent of women’s football teams are coached by women and only a few isolated women have coached professional men’s football teams, such as Lisa Fallon of the Cork City Football Club. Globally women are severely underrepresented in the leadership of international sports governing bodies. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and FIFA have never been led by women. In 2016, only 7% of chairs were women, 19% of chief executives were women, and 16.3% of directors were women across nearly 70 governing bodies. Additionally, these women leaders are concentrated in less popular sports and non-Olympic sports bodies.

It would be to the economic benefit of companies, leagues, and teams to look to consider and include women more often in leadership positions in sport. According to a 2019 report by Nielsen, nearly half of women in North America, Europe, and Asia are interested or very interested in sport. According to Samantha Baier, a leader of the Digital Sports Group at Taylor, there is not enough attention paid to the growing number of female sports fans. They are not just watching women’s sports. They are watching the big three of male sports in North America: (American) Football, basketball, and baseball. According to Baier, women sports fans are different from male fans in that they are engaging more with sports on social media, watching content that highlights big game moments, and interested in the stories which humanize their favorite players and teams. The history and stories behind coaches and leaders like Ng have the possibility to draw in and engage more female, and male fans. Additionally, the idea that women’s sports are less interesting or less commercially viable to fans is a myth. In the US, the 2019 Women’s World Cup, where the US women took home gold, received more viewership than the 2018 Men’s World Cup. In 2018 viewership of the Wimbledon championship was up, while viewership for the men’s final was down. Nancy Lough, a professor who studies equity and marketing at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, says that 84% of sports fans are interested in women’s sports and “That breaks down to 51% male and 49% female. There’s an assumption that the fan base of women’s sports is 100% female and that’s absolutely not true.” The extensive social media hype and support for Ng after her hiring shows that both men and women are excited to see women in leadership positions. During the 2020 Super Bowl Microsoft featured Katie Sowers, an offensive assistant coach for the 49ers and the first woman ever to coach a team at the Super Bowl, in an ad for their tablet. Brands are beginning to see the potential in women’s sports and challenge the traditional notions that women in sport are less good, less interesting, and less profitable. 

The biggest spotlight on women in sports is female athletes’ pay. . There have been several high-profile debates— one of the most recent and well known is that of the US Women’s National Soccer Team. They have filed a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation arguing that they are experiencing pay discrimination on the basis of gender. The US Soccer Federation in one of their filings claimed that the men’s team required ‘materially different skill and more responsibility’ than the women’s team. These comments show that despite support for women’s athletics and women’s soccer specifically within the US Soccer Federation, there is a continued underlying attitude of disrespect and notion that women’s sport is lesser. As of 2017, 25 of 44 sports that award prize money were distributing equal pay to men and women. However, of the top 100 most paid athletes in the world, only one was a woman, Serena Williams. Overall although more attention and support are being paid towards equal pay for women athletes, there are still huge gaps in money made, endorsements given, post-retirement opportunities, and commercial success for women athletes.In 2003 Sports Illustrated predicted Ng’s eventual rise to GM: ‘Write it down: Ng may become baseball’s first female GM.’ However, it took another 17 years before she achieved this goal despite her extremely impressive resume. Ng played softball at the University of Chicago before beginning her career with the MLB. She was named the youngest assistant general manager in the MLB when she worked for the New York Yankees. She also served as the assistant general manager and vice president of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ng faced many obstacles on her journey to GM. In 2003 while she was assistant general manager for the Dodgers she experienced racist harassment from a fellow baseball executive. Ng interviewed with five different teams for general manager prior to the Marlins but each time a white man was hired instead. During the press conference after her hiring, Ng stated that she believes that at least some of the interviews she attended for high level executive positions over the years were for show and that she was never being considered seriously. During her executive career the teams she has worked for have had 8 postseason appearances, 6 league championships, and won 3 world series. Ng said of the challenges of being a woman executive in baseball: “It’s been a hard situation. It’s gotten better, but we still have a long way to go.” This historic moment for women in the business of sport should be celebrated. Hopefully it will be a turning point, but there is still a long way to go towards making sport equitable both on and off the pitch. Making sports more equitable is not just the right thing to do but it will ultimately be good business for teams, companies, and leagues.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

Photo by Marcelo Cidrack on Unsplash

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