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Christine Godleski

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For Christine Godleski, leaving the TV industry to run day-to-day operations for a sports league is less of a challenge than scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro—both of which the WNBA’s chief operating officer has done.

Godleski spent 12 years at ESPN and the Walt Disney Co. in various roles with ESPN Outdoors, ESPN the Magazine and Disney Consumer Products. After leaving her position as VP/general manager for ESPN Outdoors, Godleski took a brief hiatus to live in Africa and teach elementary school.

Her travels took her to the foot of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, where she was volunteering. Spending two months in the shadow of the mountain pushed Godleski to attempt to reach the peak—and she succeeded.

“I’ve always loved sports,” she says. “Passion and enthusiasm in and around sports is really what drives me. There are plenty of times where you want to challenge yourself and try new experiences.”

That thirst for a challenge led Godleski to join the WNBA as COO in January 2010, where she experienced a “huge learning curve” while familiarizing herself with league operations.

But her experience at ESPN gave her an advantage when it came time for the 2011 WNBA Draft, which was held at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., marking the first time the network hosted a pro draft. The partnership included the draft airing on ESPN, which boosted ratings 47% from the 2010 edition on ESPN2.

“Having the knowledge of ESPN and knowing how they worked certainly helped,” Godleski says. “It was a huge team effort. One, they’re great broadcast partners, they put out a terrific product. And two, we wanted to figure out how to get their employees and content executives to really push the WNBA’s brand and understand the draft.”

As the league enters its 15th season, Godleski is looking to promote the brand through digital platforms, with games available on mobile phones for the first time, and enhancing the LiveAccess feature on under a partnership with NeuLion. She has also led the WNBA’s expansion internationally, bringing the league to Europe for the first time in the hopes of continuing its growth.

The league has made great advances in Godleski’s first year; to her, success has less to do with gender than with what kind of leader you are.

“It’s about surrounding yourself with great, passionate, smart and talented people,” Godleski says.