Due to the achievements of Billie Jean King, Mia Hamm, Lisa Leslie, Annika Sorenstam and Venus and Serena Williams, when someone says, "You play like a girl!" more people are replying, "Thanks for the compliment." A Q&A with Karen Durkin, CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor, NYSportsJournalism.com
(Posted October 12, 2009)
In 1974, Billie Jean King showed that a relatively small investment could not only go a long way but lead to big things. King, a legend in tennis and an icon in women's sports, was on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, a TV sports variety show that aired on NBC, where she received a check for $5,000 from the host, Bob Hope, for her work in promoting women's sports, The money was designated to go to her favorite charity, but she decided to use it to start the Women's Sports Foundation, which would work in conjunction with a magazine she was publishing at the time, WomenSports. Since then, the Women's Sports Foundation, headquartered in New York and now celebrating its 35th anniversary, has been a major proponent of female athletes and women's sports via grants, scholarships and fund raising activities; a leader in bringing the causes and issues that affect women athletes and students to public attention; and a staunch advocate of improving the daily lives of young women, including its national GoGirlGo! program, which supports schools, programs and organizations to encourage physical activity.
In May 2008, Karen Durkin was named CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation. Durkin not only has made an impact in sports and marketing via her tenures as EVP-Communications and Brand Strategy at the National Hockey League and as EVP and CMO for the Ladies Professional Golf Assn., but she has walked the walk as an athlete, including captain of the swim team and point guard on the basketball squad at the University of Rochester (NY) and three-time champion of the Stamford (Conn.) City golf tournament. Durkin spoke with NYSportsJournalism.com about women in sports and marketing.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What have been your biggest challenges since joining the Women's Sports Foundation?
Karen Durkin: Like most other organizations, the economy is certainly a key issue in a retracted marketplace. That aside, the challenge — and opportunity — for us to a large degree is reminding and/or making people aware of what I call "the cause" of the Women's Sports Foundation. When a girl gets physically active, every dimension of her life for the rest of her life improves. Health facts, such as 4-6 hours of exercise a week may reduce a girl's chance of getting breast cancer. Reminding people of the incredible power of physical activity is the opportunity from my perspective. It's easy for the public to lose sight of that. And I'm not just talking physical health. It also affects emotional health, education and better grades, having better success in the workforce. Eighty percent of female executives can point back to having played organized sports in high school. Just reinforcing that message is what some would call a challenge but what I call an opportunity.
NYSJ: How do you respond to people who ask, "What does the Women's Sports Foundation do?"
Durkin: I can tell them our mission, but what we really do is pull people together around the common bond of the movement to change girls' lives. If you walk down the street and survey people's causes, we are on the preventive side of the equation. Every negative health issue, and other non-health issues that can happen to an individual, can be combated and reduced effectively through sports and physical activities.
NYSJ: You were with the LPGA and the NHL, so you've seen things from the female side and from the male side. Do you get a different reaction from people when you talk about women's sports as opposed to men's sports?
Durkin: Our mission is to advance the lives of girls and women through physical activities. The best example of how we do that now is through our "GoGirlGo!" program. It started in 2001, and since then we have impacted nearly one million girls in urban communities and reached about 14,000 organizations through grants, training and workshops. Everything that is good for girls relative to sports and physical activities is also good for boys. The benefits of being active and leading a healthy life are genderless. So the dynamic is that girls and women have had less access to this over an historical period of time. That is the big nuance.
NYSJ: Do you feel that there is still an unfair playing field?
Durkin: We have gone from before Title IX [which was enacted in 1972] when there were 1-in-27 girls playing high school sports to now when there are 2-in-5. That's huge progress. But there are still girls not in the game. And the secondary issue at this time is whether or not the experience is the same for girls as it is for boys. Do they have access to locker rooms? Do they have lights on the field? When I was with the LPGA and saw 13-year-old boys scurrying around the tee box to watch Annika Sorenstam, you would not have had that dynamic 10 years earlier.
NYSJ: Do such leagues and organizations as the WNBA, LPGA, Women's Professional Soccer and the Women's Tennis Assn. need to step up more to get girls involved in sports, and also provide more opportunities?
Durkin: The 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta was the coming out party for the U.S. women's soccer team [which won a gold medal led by Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy] and a turning point for women's professional sports in the U.S. Since then, we've seen the formation of the WNBA [which began play in 1997], Women's Professional Soccer [which began play this year but was formed from the ashes of the Women's United Soccer Assn., which operated from 2001-03] and other elite properties for women that did not exist before. In tennis, all four majors have equal prize money for men and women. At the U.S. Open, women now play in prime time on TV. If you look at the field of women in tennis and golf, it is a strong period right now and should continue when you look at the young up-and-coming stars [such as 18-year-old Melanie Oudin in tennis and 14-year-old golfer Alexis Thompson].
NYSJ: People are always looking for the next Michael Jordan with relation to his achievements on the basketball court and his marketing success off the court. In women's sports, is there a woman athlete who might be the next Michael Jordan?
Durkin: I would like the question to be: Who is the next Mia Hamm? And I think you can make a strong argument that Mia was the next Michael Jordan. Gatorade made a good case for that when they put Michael Jordan and Mia together in a commercial [from 1999 in which they face each other in one-on-one competition in basketball, soccer, tennis, fencing, judo and running, played out to the song, "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better"].
NYSJ: The International Olympic Committee has approved golf's reinstatement in the Olympics, beginning with the 2016 Games in Rio. What impact might that have on the sport?
Durkin: There is no greater stage for any sport than the Olympics. It will be great for all of golf. It [will] not only help golf grow around the world for generations to come, it [will] be a strong partner to the sports already represented at the Olympics.
NYSJ: The LPGA has faced some serious challenges this year, including the resignation of commissioner Carolyn Bivens after several top players sought her removal and the loss of some tournament sponsors due to economics. What do you see for the LPGA moving forward?
Durkin: I don't think in any way that they have lost their status or footing. The LPGA is one of the stalwarts of women's sports. Like all organizations, there are ebbs and flows relative to the economy. But the foundation of that organization and the talent there are solid, so I see an upside for the LPGA going forward.
NYSJ: Does it seem as if young women athletes are being rushed to the national stage too quickly, with Michelle Wie being a prime example of someone who signed big marketing endorsements and faced perhaps overly extended expectations when she was 16 (Wie turned 20 on Oct. 11).
Durkin: I don't see that as being a new issue. With any extraordinary athlete, be it a boy or girl who has incredible talent, they have to be carefully watched. And that's a very challenging thing for someone who has superb talent beyond their years. As sports evolves, and again this applies to both the male and female side, as an industry, from the parents to the coaches to the leagues to the governing bodies, everybody is more cognizant of this issue. But at the same time there are more tools to excel faster and earlier in your career.
"There is still significant difference in the amount of media coverage dedicated to women's sports as opposed to men's sports. Women's sports still garners less than 10% of the overall media coverage. That is alarming."
NYSJ: There are many excellent women in sports marketing who are making a major impact: Kathy Carter with Major League Soccer, Jacqueline Parkes with Major League Baseball, Jennifer Storms with Gatorade, to name a few. But are they getting the same type of recognition and buzz as their male counterparts in sports marketing?
Durkin: There is always room for women within any industry to get more exposure, recognition and spotlighting for the great work they are doing. The number of women [in positions of authority in sports marketing] is growing and getting better, but they are still by far a minority of people driving the sports industry. The women who are there are excelling and doing excellent work, but there is always room for more recognition. Women in Sports and Events, under the direction of President Sue Rodin, is doing a phenomenal job of not only recognizing the women already in sports marketing but offering more opportunities for more women to get into sports marketing. And SportsBusinessJournal is also recognizing more women in sports marketing, and that's really important.
NYSJ: Oct. 13 is WSF's 30th annual Salute to Women in Sports dinner. How important is it to WSF in particular and women in sports overall?
Durkin: I call it the biggest night in women's sports. This year's event is the largest gathering of women athletes under one roof in one evening since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. We are extremely pleased with the fundraising support we have received and are extremely happy with the support we have received from our marketing partners: Gatorade, American Airlines, ESPN and The Academy of Cosmetology & Esthetics in New York (a Paul Mitchell Partner School). We are more than 50% ahead of our original fundraising goal, which is very gratifying in this economy. Special honorees are Annika Sorenstam, [University of Tennessee head basketball coach] Pat Summitt and Dick Ebersol [chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics]. Gatorade will receive the Billy Jean King Contribution Award for its work in promoting women athletes and women sports. And there is the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award among others.
NYSJ: What are the biggest differences you've seen over the past few years in the way women athletes and women sports are marketed, and what do you foresee in the future?
Durkin: Although there has been an improvement, there is still significant difference in the amount of media coverage dedicated to women's sports as opposed to men's sports. Women's sports still garners less than 10% of the overall media coverage. That is alarming. Also, while there is more marketing of individual athletes, there is still not an equitable footing between women and men. But what you are seeing is a more authentic, more realistic approach to the way women athletes are marketed and a more powerful portrayal of female athletes. But, again, there is a lot of room for growth and improvement.
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