Networking and professional development are essential to any job. The easiest way to simultaneously tackle both of these is at some sort of conference centered around your area of expertise. Whether you’re bouncing from one session to another at CES, sitting in on a panel at NACDA or shaking hands at a local workshop, navigating these events can be a challenge.
This month, I attended my first international sports conference – the Sports Performance Data and Fan Engagement Summit in San Francisco, California. The two-day event gathered professionals from across the globe specializing in fields from innovation to broadcasting. As I sat in the main ballroom on the first day, it struck me that I was one of a handful of women in a room that held more than 400. Not only did this strike me as odd, but it was also, admittedly, a bit intimidating as a first-timer at such an event.
Despite the stark difference in gender representation at these events, there are ways to tackle sport conferences when you’re new to the game. During my time in San Francisco, I sought out other lady bosses in the room to get their take on the matter.
Growing Our Presence
Not only was the audience at this summit skewed heavily male, but out of the 122 speakers and panelists, only 19 were female. For Megan McNally, Founder and CEO of Diana – the first OTT streaming network dedicated to women’s sports – equalizing this ratio starts by making an intentional effort to have female representation.
“It helps to start by inviting [women]. Intentional invitations. In my experience at sports conferences, we invite women to come talk about engaging women,” McNally said. “The future isn’t only white and male, so it might help to have people on these panels who...actually reflect the audience that they’re trying to reach. It’s making sure you have a wider diversity of people involved substantively.”
Beyond sheer numbers, seeing some speakers’ job titles can add another layer of intimidation. However, Markeisha Everett, Director of Marketing, Sales and Fan Engagement for Georgia Tech Athletics, says that this fear is misguided.
“It’s very important that we don’t always look at titles. That might deter females from coming [to these events]. We don’t have to necessarily be in a room full of peers. Being around these other people is going to force us to think outside the box.”
Navigating the Event
Encouraging female participation is only the first hurdle at sport conferences. Once there, the next step is sometimes the more difficult feat: branching out. In terms of breaking into conversations and navigating unfamiliar territory, McNally and Everett offered this advice.
“Send out a signal, find the other women there, and connect with them.” According to McNally, this is the most important thing that you can do when walking into a room and feeling grossly outnumbered.
For Everett, it is more about striking a balance between interacting with fellow women while also not hesitating to engage with men, too.
“Introduce yourself to the females first, but don’t be afraid to step outside the box just because a female is more familiar. After all, we do work in a male-dominated industry.”
McNally notes that it is also important to know that you are not alone at these summits. At the more large-scale events, there are resources dedicated to advancing diversity and encouraging meaningful collaboration among participants.
“At larger conferences, there is an amazing group called The Female Quotient which organizes The Girls’ Lounge. They organize for women to get together as a group to walk the convention floor together. They have created a space for women to go that’s kind of a reprieve from the whole conference. That can be helpful, and that really matters.”
Shifting the Mentality
Perhaps one way to garner additional female interest is by combating a pre-existing perception of a woman’s role in sports when this perception is changing at a much slower rate than we think. In the media, we often discuss the strides that women are making in the sports world, and despite this, female representation is not at the appropriate level given the amount of coverage we put towards the subject.
Lisa Raphael, Chief Creative Officer of The Relish, believes that this change starts in the office. During her panel on increasing fan engagement through storytelling, she said this when asked how to engage more females: “Invite women into the room. If you want content for a certain demographic, then [that demographic] should be making the content.”
For McNally, she continues to see that women, specifically female consumers, are often treated as an afterthought.
“I still think that, overwhelmingly, the sports industry is still discounting women and does not understand that women make up a major portion of their audience.”
On the other hand, the Diana CEO does observe improvement in women showing up at these types of conferences.
“I see women showing up. That’s important. We have to keep showing up, but I think there’s still a whole lot of fighting our way in the door.”
Words of Wisdom
On a final, more positive note, Markeisha and Megan dished out advice for women looking to grow their careers in sports.
“Number one is to find your tribe. Find the women that are in the same industry that you are. Find the women that are ahead of you in that industry, and connect with them. Ask them to sponsor you, not just mentor you, but to sponsor you and help you find opportunities and invite you to conferences like this one. If you can’t find that tribe, build your own.” This mentality has led Megan McNally to launching the FBomb Breakfast Club, a Seattle-based community of women entrepreneurs, and growing that community to more than 1,500 members in just one year.
Markeisha’s advice is this: “Learn the business. Sports is sexy, but it’s a grind. Understand that and understand your role before jumping into it.”
Beyond understanding the in’s and out’s of your role in sports, she also emphasizes that knowing yourself is integral to your success.
“When you know yourself, it’s easier for you to navigate the waters of what this business is. Always be a student of your craft. Don’t ever think you’ve learned everything, because that day will never happen, and if it does, it’s time for you to move on.”