WISE Women of the Year honorees at the 20th annual luncheon in 2014.
Front row: Carol Stiff (2013), Christine Driessen (2005 and 2014 WISE Women of Distinction), Judy Sweet (2014 WISE Women of Distinction), Barbara Paddock (2014 WISE Women of Distinction), Sharon Byers (2013), Sara Levinson (1995).
Back row: Gail Hunter (2012), Jo Ann Ross (2005), Marla Miller (2012), Jean Afterman (2010), WISE Founder Sue Rodin, WISE President Kathleen Francis (2001), Rita Benson LeBlanc (2008), Kathy Carter (2009), 2011 WISE Champion Ross Greenburg, Wendy Lewis (2011).
In 1995, Women in Sports and Events, not even two years old, celebrated its first WISE Woman of the Year — Sara Levinson, then president of NFL Properties — at a luncheon in one of Madison Square Garden’s dining rooms, drawing nearly 200 attendees.
Since then, the event has grown, regularly attracting around 600 people or more, including some of sport’s most influential executives, to such iconic venues as the Waldorf Astoria and most recently the Ziegfeld Ballroom. Not only has the event itself evolved, but the honor, too, as more and more leaders in the industry are added to this prestigious list of women.
“Over time, as we’ve gained recognition, awareness in the industry, respect and credibility, the award has really come to signify a crowning achievement for many of the people we honor,” says Sue Rodin, WISE founder and chair emerita. “It’s become a coveted award.”
Honorees represent the scope of opportunity in the industry, having contributed their talents to major sports teams, leagues, media properties, brands and agencies in such areas as operations, marketing and business development, and partnerships. They include a Big East Conference commissioner in Val Ackerman, a sports pioneer in Billie Jean King and an accomplished broadcaster in Robin Roberts.
“These are women who have over the years been excelling in their roles, and at the same time, they have acknowledged the role that women have to play for other women, and they have been doing that in some ways without fanfare,” says Kathleen Francis, WISE national board chair and president.
Shining a Light on Those Giving Back
WISE Women of the Year have reached the highest levels of achievement, but their selection is as much, if not more, about their support of other women. That support can include mentoring, either formally through such programs as WISE Within or informally; recommending qualified female candidates for promotions and new opportunities; and being willing to share best practices with female colleagues.
The importance of these efforts can be traced back to the earliest days of the organization, when the initial tagline was, “Women helping women in sports.”
“It’s really what we’re about,” says Rodin. “Anyone can create an award and give an award and have a big party, and it’s great. But we want to be sure that we shine a light on women who have been available, who are visible leaders, generous leaders, supportive leaders who set a great example for those who are following in their footsteps.”
And the Honorees Are ...
While the criteria for selecting honorees hasn’t changed much, the process and format has. The first three years, five nominees were selected by the national board and invited to the luncheon, where the honoree selected was announced. In 1998, the organization expanded its class of honorees to three, and they are voted on by WISE members and announced prior to the luncheon.
Creating the ballot is a process the organization takes very seriously. In vetting potential nominees, which include submissions from WISE members, the selection committee seeks to get as full a picture of these women as possible, conducting online research and speaking with people who have worked with them in different settings. Narrowing down the list to the eight or nine nominees members will vote on takes about two months.
“We try to put together a ballot we can be proud of, so if any of those nine people are selected, we can feel good about it,” says Rodin.
Illuminating What’s Possible
The award is a special one for those who receive it. Francis, who was named an honoree in 2001, 10 years before taking the helm of WISE, recalls being as humbled by the honor as the women she calls today with news they’ve been nominated or selected.
But the beauty of the award is its potential to reverberate beyond recipients. It demonstrates the opportunities that exist in sports business and encourages women to seek out what is possible and beyond.
Last year, honoree Kim Stone had asked her niece to present her with the award, a responsibility that required the 14-year-old to say a few words about her aunt in front of a crowd of nearly 600. The act reinforces Stone’s selection as an honoree and represents the greater spirit of the award.
“Here was a perfect example of paying it forward, exposing a young woman to an event like that and then thrusting her on stage to prove that she could do this as well, and that will have an unbelievable impact on this young woman going forward,” says Francis.