For every ticket sold, for every media moment made to every sports partnership you see, there may be a Black woman leading the charge to some of your favorite sports teams or sports moments.
We often don’t hear or even see enough stories about some of the Black women working behind the scenes in the sports industry which is known to be overwhelmingly male and white. However, there are a few of us occupying senior to mid-level roles in the NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB.
Ahead, these eight Black women shared with ESSENCE some of the challenges and misconceptions we often have about their industry along with some advice for other Black women looking to climb the corporate sports ladder.
Traci Otey Blunt, SVP of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs at the NFL
Otey worked in two separate capacities in sports. She started under the leadership of Bob Johnson, the former owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats in the PR department. She is three months into her new role at the NFL where she is responsible for key strategic areas within the league including current affairs, business operations, government affairs, NFL Media, player health and safety and social responsibility.
What are some of the challenges or misconceptions that you have faced as a Black woman in sports? “I don’t think many of people know that there have been several senior-level people of color and African-Americans [working in the industry already]. To come in and know that there are folks who see some of the experiences, concerns or positive things that impact the Black community and share our insights. We can help shape some of the policy and educate people on the community overall. That part is exciting! To know that there’s not just one person at the table. If I can do one thing to help make a change of perception of what the NFL is doing or isn’t doing, then I feel like I’ve done something positive.”
What advice would you give other women aspiring for a senior role within a sports organization? “You always hear people ask, ‘Will you be my mentor?’ I don’t know that you have to formally ask someone. It’s just a matter of asking to get coffee or have lunch with someone. These relationships develop organically, and it doesn’t have to be with somebody that looks like you. There’s mentorship, and then there’s that champion, your sponsor who’s in the room when you’re not and knows enough about you that they can talk about you. The other key thing is to always know that somebody is watching. So anything that you’re doing at work, if someone asks you to do something that is not in your job function, do it. I’ve always seen when you take on other things, and people are watching, then that gives you more opportunity because they know that you’re a go-getter.”
Kim Davis is the Executive Vice President of Social Impact, Growth & Legislative Affairs at the NHL
Davis has the responsibility of growing the game of hockey through the engagement of new and underrepresented audiences, using the sport as a vehicle to help build strong communities through youth development and building community relationships through partnerships with external constituents, including governments across North America.
What are some of the challenges or misconceptions that you have faced as a Black woman in sports? “I think anyone who represents a ‘minority voice’ around an executive table will admit, if they’re honest, that at times it can be tiring always wanting to ensure that your POV is heard and understood, particularly when the conversation centers around inclusion. In this regard, the biggest challenge, in my opinion, is always ensuring that you aren’t put in a position of ‘owning’ the organization’s responsibility for [diversity and inclusion] just because you are Black or female etc. For me, the biggest challenge in my new role with the NHL is learning the nuances of the sport so that I’m viewed as a credible leader by the management team and ownership groups.”
What advice would you give other women aspiring for a senior role within a sports organization? “Don’t be afraid to try something new. Remember that skills and competencies are transferable, and often bringing a fresh, new, unvarnished perspective to the decision-making table can be a real “game-changer.” Be confident in your successes and track-record. And also: go for it!”
Nzinga Shaw, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer & SVP of the Atlanta Hawks [NBA] & State Farm Arena
Shaw has spent 10 years in the sports industry working across three leagues including NBA, NFL, and MLB. She is the first person to hold the Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer [CDIO] position in the NBA and for all 122 North American professional sports teams. She serves as a member of the executive committee and guides the leadership team to engender inclusion in every facet of the business.
What are some of the challenges or misconceptions that you have faced as a Black woman in sports? “It is exciting to be a Black woman working for the NBA. There aren’t many of us, especially within the senior ranks, so I feel honored to be here and optimistic that there is a place for many more Black women to occupy future roles in our league. As the head of diversity and inclusion, I have been very intentional about providing information and education systems so that we can all become aware of our unconscious biases and help employees to make personal improvements so that we are collectively creating an inclusive environment.”
What advice would you give other women aspiring for a senior role within a sports organization? “Don’t get too high on the highs, and don’t get too low on the lows. Try to remain steady and even-tempered through all the peaks and valleys is a recipe for success. Being overly emotional in any direction can cloud the big picture and your overall vision which are the key components that need to remain clear as you ascend the corporate sports ladder.”
Ellen Hill Zeringue, Vice President of Marketing with Detroit Tigers at the MLB
Ellen is in her 20th season with the Detroit Tigers overseeing all marketing, social media, digital, promotions, and special events.
What are some of the challenges or misconceptions that you have faced as a Black woman in sports? “Understanding that there is still much work to be done, the league and the Tigers have made great strides in their efforts to be more diverse and inclusive. That said, I was once commenting to a friend that I was at a meeting and became concerned when I looked around the room and realized that I was the only woman of color. She responded and said, ‘Don’t think of yourself as the only one think of yourself as the chosen one.’ Since that conversation, I have embraced that philosophy. I am grateful that I have worked hard to get to where I am today, and I am honored to (hopefully) use my current status to broaden the playing field to bring more women and people of color to Major League Baseball.”
What advice do you have as a Black woman working in a male-dominated industry? “We as women of color who may be charting new territories must be prepared to celebrate our accomplishments, do the work, except that we have been well educated and trained for our various positions and understand our role in creating new opportunities for those that follow in our footsteps. We must also remember to pay tribute to women like Minnie Forbes, who owned the Detroit Stars Negro Leagues Baseball team from 1956-1958 and Mamie ‘Peanut’ Johnson who was the first female pitcher to play in the Negro Leagues. These women, and many others like them, have blazed a trail for all women of color who aspire to work in sports.”
Leslie Isler, Professional Athletes Foundation Associate and Media Relations for the Washington Capitals at the NHL
Leslie works for the charitable arm of the NFL Players Association, the union that represents NFL Players. She helps former NFL players as they transition from their professional football careers by helping them navigate through grants and resources provided by the organization. She is also a member of the Washington Capitals media relations staff during home games and other NHL events such as the Winter Classic and Stadium Series.
What are some challenges or misconceptions you’ve faced as a Black woman working in sports? “At the Washington Capitals, I am the only African-American on staff in the public relations department. I often get questions about my hairstyles constantly changing from media members, but I often respectfully educate those with questions and naïve comments. A common misconception is that you must represent your whole race when you are the only one. Don’t put any extra pressure on yourself. Just work hard, be dependable, and willing to step outside of your comfort zone.”
What advice do you have as a Black woman working in a male-dominated industry? “My advice for Black women in a male-dominated industry is to be your professional self. Our presence and opinions are valuable to organizations, always remember that. Seek out mentors from different demographics to broaden your perspective on your career goals. And be open to intermingling with colleagues outside of the office, especially at company events, it is a great way to network.”
Zenab Keita, Partnership Development Manager for the Golden State Warriors at the NBA
Zenab has worked in sports for four years. As a part of the Partnership Development team, she is responsible for activating, retaining and growing a portfolio of partnership agreements between sponsors and the Warriors.
What are some challenges or misconceptions you’ve faced as a Black woman working in sports? “Due to generalizations created by reality TV or the media in general about the tie between Black women and athletes and sports, I sometimes feel a pressure to expand upon the roles Black women play when it comes to being involved with sports. I sometimes feel a need to represent Black women in those business settings—to demonstrate our intelligence, to display how nuanced we can be in sports business, and more generally, to provide examples of how we, too, can highly contribute in corporate America.”
What advice would you give other women aspiring for a senior role within a sports organization? “Be authentic in everything you do, whether it’s networking across the league or just working across the organization. The field of sports and entertainment is filled with enough people forcing or faking their influence, authority, and worth. Don’t be one of them. Trying to subscribe to a version of you that you think other people will accept, respect, and promote is exhausting, and it’s likely to be exposed eventually. People respect authenticity, and they appreciate it. If you can be trusted to be authentic when working alongside your team and trusted to get your work done in a way that’s true to you and the values of your team, you’ll get the role you want.”
Alexandria Holt, Fan Services Executive at the Atlanta Falcons for the NFL
Holt has worked in the sports world since 2013 and has since worked for two NFL teams including the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Her role is to manage a segmented group of Falcons season ticket members accounts with year around engagement. This includes all forms of communication as well as Falcons home games, Falcons member events, and Mercedes-Benz Stadium Events.
What are some challenges or misconceptions you’ve faced as a Black woman working in sports? “Executive leaders are typically white men. This can be a challenge which trickles down to the associate level. As a Black woman in the NFL, I realize I have a huge responsibility to represent all Black women in a positive light at all times, which can become a challenge. Often, our white counterparts may have had minimal interactions with Black women in their personal and professional lives. Therefore, there is already a biased opinion of how I may ‘behave’ or react to a certain situation based on what they may have seen in the media including, television, movies, and social media.”
What advice would you give other women aspiring for a senior role within a sports organization? “There is the saying in the Black community that you must work twice as hard to be considered as good as your counterparts. This is true, but in a male-dominated industry like the NFL, being both Black and a woman, the need to prove my worth is even greater. I use this as motivation. I make sure that I produce and stay true to who I am. My work will speak for itself. I am a Black woman, yes, but it’s not my burden or my only identity at work. Everyone knows me as a professional, a team player and [someone] who gets the job done. In a business that is in desperate need of more women in color, I’m blessed to be [here] — representation matters.
Demeka Fields, Associate Counsel for the Minnesota Vikings at the NFL
As Associate Counsel, Demeka is responsible for drafting a myriad of contracts, including sponsorships, corporate partnerships, special events, and television and media deals. She works every department within the organization on various business projects and assists with risk management and overall relationship management with clients and partners.
What are some challenges or misconceptions you’ve faced as a Black woman working in sports? “With the lack of diversity in front offices and the legal profession, being a Black woman attorney in the NFL is rare. To date, there are only a handful of Black female attorneys working for NFL teams. At first, many are surprised that I am an attorney and that I like and understand sports. The fact that I work for a sports franchise is even more surprising. But being a Black woman is also powerful because I take each encounter as an opportunity to represent that Black women can successfully master this role. Black women are too powerful to be put inside of a box, and I hope that when people see me in meetings or work with me while negotiating a contract, their perception of Black women is expanded.”
What advice would you give other women aspiring for a senior role within a sports organization? “Be willing to grind to achieve your dreams. Be willing to take chances—sometimes you may have to take less pay to develop your skill set, or you may have to move away from your family and friends for a great opportunity. Be intentional. Be yourself. We are most impactful when we are our authentic selves.”