Blazing Trails for Women in Pro Sports

Apr 16, 2014

Photo: Courtesy Susan O’Malley

Like many kids, Susan O’Malley had to write a paper in junior high about what she wanted to be when she grew up. But unlike many kids— and some adults—O’Malley had a very clear idea about what she wanted to do. 
 
“I knew I wanted to run a sports franchise. And my teacher wrote on the paper, ‘nice but not really realistic,’” says O’Malley.
 
Good thing she didn’t listen to that teacher. 
 
O’Malley is a sports pioneer. She joined the NBA’s Washington Bullets (now the Wizards) as director of advertising in 1986. Her father was a real estate lawyer who helped Bullets owner and Washington Sports and Entertainment CEO Abe Pollin build the Bullets’ first home, the $18 million Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. At 29, O’Malley became the first female president of an NBA franchise.
 
O’Malley admits that she wasn’t very good at sports. “My gym teacher was inspirational. When she saw me play basketball, she said I should get a desk job,” O’Malley quips. “That might have been the defining moment in my sports career.”
 While not a great basketball player, O’Malley loved being around the game. “I was kind of an arena rat. I grew up there,” O’Malley says of the old Capital Centre. “It was the overall atmosphere, the excitement, the whole process. It’s kind of nerdy, but I was just as taken by the sponsors and giveaways as I was by what was happening on the court.” 
 
At Mount St. Mary’s college, her father’s alma mater, O’Malley zeroed in on marketing and spent every summer interning. “I interned for the Caps [hockey team], the Bullets, and the Baltimore Orioles. Every minute I had free I wanted to be around sports teams.”
 
In her first season as president, the team experienced the largest ticket revenue increase in the history of an NBA franchise to date and the highest renewal rate of season tickets ever by the franchise, including the year following the 1977–1978 championship season. 
 
Under O’Malley’s guidance, Verizon Center, formerly known as the MCI Center, opened in 1997 with a then-record naming rights deal of $50 million over 10 years. The $220 million facility helped revitalize downtown Washington.
 
And the 2005–2006 Wizards season saw the franchise tally 14 sellouts and average more than 17,000 fans per game en route to its second consecutive trip to the NBA playoffs.
 
By the time O’Malley stepped down from Washington Sports and Entertainment in 2007, she estimates that the team was worth $500 million. “It was a big business at that time,” O’Malley says.
 
It was also a very male-dominated business. O’Malley was often the only woman in the room. “At my first board meeting, there were 26 men and me. [Former NBA commissioner] David Stern welcomed us by saying, ‘Welcome gentlemen and lady.’” 
 
O’Malley remembers receiving hate mail during her tenure as president of the Wizards. “Sometimes you’d get ugly fan mail urging you to ‘go back where you belong,’ or saying ‘you’ve ruined the last male bastion.’ But to me that was always a motivation and not just about me. I felt that if I screwed up, I slowed the process for the next woman.” 
 
Today, O’Malley teaches sports marketing and sports law at the College of Charleston and says that she often receives fan mail from men. “I get a lot of letters about being the first woman. Matter of fact, I just got one the other day. A father hunted me down. He had been a ticket holder, and his daughter is turning 16 next year. He’s writing to people who he thinks can write to his daughter and be influential in her life,” says O’Malley. “He’s trying to find strong women who’ve made a difference. I get letters like that all the time, from women who are encouraging and positive, and from dads, which is always nice.” 
 
O’Malley is speaking at America’s Small Business Summit on June 13, where she will discuss her remarkable career, the importance of building teams, and “life lessons from being raised in a large Catholic family with rules and discipline, which are transferable to business.” 
 

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