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Women in the Game Bring Sports Savvy to the Office

tennis
(Image credit: Getty Images)

For this year’s Women in the Game profile subjects, looking back on the past year naturally meant thinking about the impact of the pandemic. But when they looked back even further, they reflected on the impact of playing sports at an early age on their careers. 

At CAA Sports, Alexa Cook said there was no slowing down during the pandemic. “Our group had the biggest year since its inception, orchestrating over $1 billion in sponsorship revenue,” she said. “We just kept going.”

Still, the pandemic naturally upended most plans. Julie Stewart-Binks had just finished constructing a set for her new FuboTV talk show, Drinks with Binks — she even helped with the painting — when the pandemic hit. “We ended up doing the show for the next 14 months from my apartment,” she said. Working at an upstart network enabled her to be more flexible with the show, tinkering with the format as everyone adapted, and the pandemic actually had a side benefit. “We were able to get more guests from all over the world because they didn’t need to be here to get to the studio,” Stewart-Binks said. “I’d just send an email, saying, ‘Here’s a link, click on it.’ ”

Micky Lawler, president of the World Tennis Association, said that even as the women’s tennis tour had to cancel events and adjust on the fly, officials worked on rebranding and new content for sponsors to replace canceled events. Beth Hutter, lead producer for Golf Channel, said that live events won’t be fully back to normal until the end of the year or even until 2022, changing her work dynamic tremendously. But Ndidi Massay, senior director of Workplace Culture and Diversity Initiatives for CBS Sports, said the new normal may benefit women in the long run.

“I have kids and always tried to do some work from home,” Massay said. “With some supervisors, there was a little bit of a fight. But the pandemic showed the world how effectively we can work from home and in the future there will be less of a fight for women.”

Time spent playing sports helped prepare these women to fight for what was rightfully theirs at work. “All the facets of playing sports transfer over,” Stewart-Binks, who went from being a competitive figure skater in Canada to playing hockey with both boys and girls teams (she still plays in a men’s league in New York), said. “You have to figure out how to handle new situations and you have to be prepared to work hard and give up a lot of your social life.” 

Hutter, who lettered in softball and soccer at the University of Virginia, also said sports taught her about hard work and preparation. “We practiced all facets of the game, day in, day out, to be ready for everything,” she said.  

Melanie Capacia Johnson, head of Whistle Studios at Team Whistle, played basketball and volleyball and was a sprinter, long jumper and triple jumper. “In high school, I had the most amazing hops and they called me Thumper,” she said. Two children later, she said, “I miss those hops,” but the years of sports gave her a “drive and tenacity competitive edge” and taught her about teamwork. “It’s how I run the studio,” Johnson said. “All our productions are very collaborative.”  

Cook earned a college scholarship and was an NCAA Division I four-year Scholar Athlete, serving as the president of student athletes and captain of the women’s swim team at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Beyond the on-field lessons, she said, college sports opened her eyes to professional possibilities. “Prior to that, sports was just fun for me, but building a relationship with the athletic director, being the West Coast Conference rep and going to big NCAA meetings, I saw this whole business side of sports,” Cook recalled. “That actually piqued my interest in the whole industry. I was a finance major and really thought I was going into investment banking — it’s where I was interviewing — but sports was more interesting than portfolio management and this experience made me pursue my career in sports.”

Massay led Northwestern University’s softball team to the NCAA Women’s College World Series as a catcher and was inducted into Northwestern’s Athletics Hall of Fame. She later served as assistant softball coach while getting her law degree at the University of Notre Dame. “I grew up in the [San Francisco] Bay Area as a tomboy playing every sport under the sun with the boys and girls in my neighborhood,” she said. “The boys did not treat me differently when we played tackle football on the asphalt. That made me tougher and more aggressive.”

“Playing sports shaped everything in my life,” Massay said. The experience had helped her as a woman in the boardroom, because she can talk sports with men with enthusiasm, knowledge and credibility. Beyond the ease in those conversations, the lessons learned are innumerable.

“It’s not just teamwork, leadership skills and discipline, it’s learning how to win but also learning how to lose, and to learn from your losses,” she said. “That all transfers into the boardroom.” 

Alexa Cook

Alexa Cook (Image credit: CAA Sports)

ALEXA COOK  

Property Sales Executive, CAA Sports

KEY STATS:  Within the past 24 months, Alexa Cook has generated more than $300 million in sponsorship revenue from three dozen partnerships, bringing together brands like Adobe, Amazon Web Services, Grubhub and Kia, and clients like Formula One and Red Bull Racing. She has brokered close to $100 million in esports deals, including Riot Games’ League of Legends Championship Series’ first-ever official beer partner (Bud Light); first-ever exclusive automotive partner (Honda); first-ever official energy drink partner (Red Bull); and first-ever official insurance partner (State Farm). 

Cook was central to the team that negotiated more than $1.3 billion in sponsorship deals for Chase Center in San Francisco, the Golden State Warriors’ new arena. Last year, the Oklahoma native built a partnership between CAA Sports and the Oklahoma City Thunder to launch the Thunder Fellows Program, to give opportunities in sports, technology, and entertainment for Black students around Tulsa, working with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission.

VARSITY STATUS: Cook has worked at CAA Sports since 2010, starting as an assistant, going through the mailroom program and working her way up over the past decade. She opened the CAA Dallas office in 2017.

IN HER OWN WORDS: “CAA is the only place I’ve known, so I don’t know what it is like for other women in the industry, but for me it has been pretty darn incredible. Since day one, our leadership has been the most supportive possible, not just at this moment in time. 

“For each one of my clients there was a large learning curve — I had never heard of Formula One or esports before I came here — but at the end of the day, our business is so relationship-driven, and so we’re not working with the organizations, we’re working with the people that are there.

“Our group is founded on innovation, so we want to listen and learn from each pocket of the industry. When esports came about, we were lucky enough to be working with the leader in the space, Riot Games, and that allowed us to become pioneers in the space. It’s all about adapting and innovating and learning. Every deal feels like a miracle when it’s done, but it’s so much fun working on them.” 

Beth Hutter

Beth Hutter (Image credit: Golf Channel)

BETH HUTTER 

Producer, Golf Channel

KEY STATS:  Beth Hutter is the lead producer for NBCUniversal-owned Golf Channel’s LPGA Tour events, a role she has held since 2005. Hutter has also produced several PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions events, making her the first woman to produce a PGA Tour event for television.

In 2021, Hutter is responsible for live tournament coverage of the ANA Inspiration; the U.S. Women’s Open; the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship; the Evian Championship; women’s golf for the Tokyo Olympics; the Solheim Cup; and the CME Group Championship. She serves on the board of the Lady Legacy Scholarship Foundation in Birmingham, Alabama, raising money for college scholarships for girls in golf.

VARSITY STATUS: Hutter began her TV career at News 12 Long Island before joining ESPN, where she worked from 1996 to 1999 as a production assistant for all studio shows, including SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, Monday Night Countdown, RPM Tonight and ESPNews. She joined Golf Channel in 1999, initially in a variety of production roles for both live events and studio shows. She was a studio producer for Golf Central and an associate director, feature producer and replay producer/director for live tournament shows.

IN HER OWN WORDS: “I started working on Wall Street because I had a B.S. in finance and marketing, but I hated it. I hated being indoors all the time, after playing sports 24/7. I had taken some video classes in college so I went to News 12 and said, ‘Hey, I don’t know that much about your industry so here’s what I’m willing to do: I’ll show up for six months every day, you don’t have to pay me a dime, let’s call it an internship, and after six months, hopefully you like my work.’ They thought it was a great idea. 

“We were the smallest TV station in the biggest sports market. It was nonstop and they didn’t have enough reporters, so they’d send me out. That was the year the Jets went 1-14 and finally I was the only one there on Mondays for the press conferences and it was such a joke that ESPN started running them and I got a few contacts at ESPN. Eventually, they hired me for their production assistant program. Later, Golf Channel had hired a ton of golf nuts who knew how to do research but didn’t know how to do television, and they needed TV people who knew some golf but could produce for their Golf Central show. 

“Being a producer for live sports is always fascinating because I can prepare as much as humanly possible, but you never know what’s going to happen. I try to make sure everyone is ready: the more you prepare, the easier it is to adapt on the fly. So I inundate myself and try to prepare for every scenario. Even when it’s exciting, I try to be as even-keeled as possible

Melanie Capacia Johnson

Melanie Capacia Johnson (Image credit: Whistle)

MELANIE CAPACIA JOHNSON

Head of Whistle Studios, Team Whistle

KEY STATS: Melanie Capacia Johnson heads the scripted, unscripted, animation and interactive studio business for Team Whistle, a next-generation publisher, agency and studio, specializing in telling 360-degree inspiring stories in sports and entertainment. She oversees the production from Whistle, Tiny Horse, Vertical Network and New Form. With Team Whistle being acquired by multinational broadcaster Eleven Sports (owned by Aser Ventures), Johnson will be in charge of the company’s U.S. content. Under Johnson the studio has produced projects with Dwayne Wade (Legacy), Carmelo Anthony (Fight Ball) and Steph Curry (NAACP Image Awards-nominated Benedict Men) that span across premium streaming services, Snapchat, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Whistle’s owned channels. Whistle Studios and Insight TV are partnering on Making (Her)Story, a docuseries following three rising female athletes competing in the male-dominated sports of horse, NASCAR and Formula 4 racing.

VARSITY STATUS: Johnson was the cofounder of Tiny Horse in 2011 and sold her  company to Team Whistle last year. She started out as an independent film producer before working on live and unscripted programming at Viacom, working on programs like the MTV Movie Awards, MTV Video Music Awards, Hip Hop Honors, Rock Honors, VH1 Divas and Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards

IN HER OWN WORDS: “We had been working with Whistle since 2016, creating authentic content for people watching on digital. We were being courted by several companies for acquisition and where Whistle was headed was the best fit: we were very like minded. But when I came in the four companies under Team Whistle were working in silos and not talking to each other so I’ve been putting it all together collectively, shaping new goals and aspirations. 

“I came up in traditional linear production and saw a lot of line producers and producers yell and scream and throw things. That’s not how you build a team that will be excited to come to work every day. I can provide stern feedback when needed but I’m not a yeller, I find a solution. As a woman in charge, I am communicative and let people know they will be heard. I do have a nurturing side, creating a safe space. Maybe that’s just me being a mother.”

Micky Lawler

Micky Lawler (Image credit: WTA)

MICKY LAWLER

President, World Tennis Association

KEY STATS: As president of the World Tennis Association since 2015, Micky Lawler has overseen commercial growth and marketing of women’s tennis, including several rebranding campaigns. She has helped expand the geographic footprint of women’s tennis, most notably with a historic investment partnership for the WTA Finals in China, while crafting specialized rights deals (like the one for StatsPerform data rights recently in 2020) and commercial partnerships like Porsche Race to Shenzen, all while leading to closer collaboration with the men’s tour. 

VARSITY STATUS: Lawler was working as a language teacher in Paris in 1985
when she saw an ad for a job as a press officer with the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council. She got that job and after two years there, spent nearly 27 years at Octagon, overseeing all aspects of the sports agency’s Tennis Division, including player representation, event management and international business initiatives across Octagon’s sport and entertainment platforms. Prior to assuming the WTA presidency, Lawler put in 11 years as a WTA board member.

IN HER OWN WORDS: “It’s certainly possible, considering the deep-rooted passion my family and I have always had for sports and strong female role models like my grandmother, women’s tennis might have found me. Either way, I’m incredibly fortunate and grateful to the universe for its divine intervention with that ad early on. 

“At Octagon, I had the opportunity to work closely with specific athletes
from beginning to end, which offered a deeper understanding of what individual players need at every turn from a holistic approach: workload management, commercial opportunities, marketing, public relations, etc. 

“I also learned the importance of adapting and aligning to a players’ journey, whether it be humble beginnings in a single market, or global star power that transcends one’s sport. These were invaluable learnings for my role as board member at the WTA and soon thereafter as president.”

Ndidi Massay

Ndidi Massay (Image credit: CBS Sports )

NDIDI MASSAY 

Senior Director of Workplace Culture and Diversity Initiatives, CBS Sports

KEY STATS:  The role of senior director of Workplace Culture and Diversity Initiatives for CBS Sports was created with the hiring of Massay, who began in February and will drive the strategic planning, development, execution and measurement of CBS Sports initiatives toward a more diverse and inclusive workplace. She will create tailored strategies, programs and experiences, reporting to CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus and president David Berson.

VARSITY STATUS: Massay has deep experience in this field, running her own consulting business to provide diversity, equity and inclusion counsel, services and training to corporate entities, national governing bodies and collegiate athletic departments. She had served as the commissioner of the New York State Athletic Commission since 2016. Prior to that, she helped launch the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), a nonprofit that works to improve race relations throughout sports by promoting understanding, respect and equality, and was a diversity-
and-inclusion consultant for the NFL. Earlier in her career, Massay was director of business affairs for ABC News and director of business operations and development for ESPN, after working as an attorney on issues related to both sports and entertainment law and diversity and inclusion matters. 

IN HER OWN WORDS: “I started to focus more on diversity, equity and inclusion (D, E and I) about 10 years ago, because career opportunities in the area were available and the older I got, the more I thought about making a difference — making lasting change rather than just doing a job. Over the last year as civil unrest has really exploded, the D, E and I space has moved to a whole different level. I was serving as a commissioner for NYSAC but still consulting in D, E and I and wanted to focus on it full time. Katrina Adams [Women in the Game, 2017] is a good friend and sent the CBS Sports role to me. The job description read like it was written for me. I wanted to build something here like I did at RISE and take CBS Sports to the next level.

“I’ve been in those interviews where I felt it was a check-the-box role. I did not take those jobs: I don’t want to be a check-the-box person. I want to be in a role where I have resources, commitment and support from senior management. Sean and David are 100% committed to D, E and I. It’s real and it has teeth. We want to create a more diverse workforce at all levels and to create a more inclusive culture." 

Julie Stewart-Binks

Julie Stewart-Binks (Image credit: FuboTV)

JULIE STEWART-BINKS

Host, ‘Drinks with Binks,’ Fubo Sports Network

KEY STATS: Julie Stewart-Binks is the host of Drinks with Binks, an interview show that premiered with the launch of Fubo Sports Network in 2019. She also anchors Call It a Night, a late-night show that earned a Telly Award, and Ball Is Back, a series that highlights the return of major tournaments and sporting events. 

VARSITY STATUS: Early in her career, Stewart-Binks was a reporter on Fox Soccer’s Fox Soccer Report in Winnipeg; a program assistant at CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada and a sports anchor and reporter at CTV in Regina, Saskatchewan. She later was one of the original anchors and reporters for FS1 and hosted the 2014 Sochi Olympics and reported on the 2015 Women’s World Cup. In 2015, she also became Fox’s regular sideline reporter for Major League Soccer matches, before moving to ESPN, where she was a sideline reporter for MLS as well as the U.S. men’s and women’s national soccer teams and college football. (She is the first female reporter to call two straight MLS Cups with two different networks. Fox and ESPN.) Stewart-Binks moved to Barstool Sports as the host of Barstool Breakfast on Sirius XM in 2017 before leaving to train in improv comedy and try her hand at stand-up as well. 

IN HER OWN WORDS: “Growing up, I wanted to win at the Olympics in figure skating and track and field. When I realized that wasn’t going to happen, I got a double degree in physical and health education and drama. Everyone laughed at me, but it’s now the bread and butter of what I do. I wanted to go into sports psychology, but my mom, a radio reporter, said you should volunteer at the local radio station at the university. They said, ‘We have too many volunteers, try the TV station.’ And the TV station said, ‘We need someone to do an interview tomorrow.’ The adrenaline rush of being on camera, gearing up for the live moment, reminded me so much of my sports days. I realized I wanted to do this and became a campus sports reporter. 

“When I left my job to learn improv, it was because I wanted to become better at listening and responding: When you’re doing interviews, it’s the key to everything. Before this, I had the opportunity to go to a traditional network and do more traditional work. But I met with Pamela Duckworth [Women in the Game, 2020] and she was so warm, smart and powerful and she’s a woman, and I’ve always, except once, had male bosses. I wanted to be around this trailblazer. I do feel a bit of onus: I want to help give back too. I like to feature women and as many Black journalists on my show as I can. I want to use my show for good, or else what’s the point?”