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The 21 Most Powerful Women in the Business of Sports

Mighty barriers remain, but women are gaining ground in one of the most gender lopsided arenas in the world.

Photo by Naomi Baker - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

For all of the strides that women have made, in some respects sports—the whole wide world of it—is still in the stone age.

Whether it’s on the field of play or off of it, women struggle for gender parity. Members of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team are among those who earn a fraction of what their male counterparts do, even as they wildly outperform them. The wage gap persists for female coaches and sports executives, who continue to hold only a fraction of the gigs, C-suite or otherwise. Only 4 percent—4 percent—of all sports coverage features female athletes, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation. And female agents for the major leagues still represent less than 5 percent of all agents certified, even as they’re closing in on parity in some sports when it comes to the gender breakdown of fans in the stands.

Clearly there is room, if not a Grand Canyon, for improvement in one of the most gender lopsided arenas in the world.

But one could argue that in some respects, it’s also a golden age for women in sports. On the professional tennis tour, Serena and Venus Williams are reinventing themselves both as top-ranked players and by using the court as a pulpit for awareness around issues including maternal health and ending gun violence. The U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team has followed the lead of their colleagues in soccer in demanding equal pay, a once soft cry that is now literally echoing as a chorus from fans in the stands. A flurry of lawsuits from women inside sports are shedding light on travails at powerhouse institutions ranging from the U.S. Olympic Committee to Nike. Executives such as Michele Roberts and Cynthia Marshall are remaking the National Basketball Association when basketball couldn’t be more dynamic on the court—and if they have their way, consequential behind the scenes, too.

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Whether it’s baseball or badminton, women are on a path to power that could transform the sports world. Team USA sent more women than men to the 2016 Rio Games and they came home with more gold medals than men, a trend they repeated from the London Games four years prior. The women’s World Cup this summer was the highest-rated soccer game in the U.S.—male or female. Simone Biles continues to snag national titles performing staggering new feats while calling out her frustrations against her governing body, USA Gymnastics, for failing to do its job in the ongoing fallout from the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.

We’re all better off for it, as what happens along the sidelines, in executive offices or on the field of play carries implications far beyond what matters to athletes or sports fans. “Sports,” as Billie Jean King has said, “are a microcosm of society.”

Here, in no particular order, are 21-plus of the most powerful women in the business of sports.

  1. Michele Roberts Executive Director, National Basketball Players Association
  2. Serena and Venus Williams Tennis Stars and Advocates
  3. Rachael Denhollander And the Women of the Larry Nassar Case - Gymnasts, Lawyers, Advocates
  4. Sally Bergesen Founder and CEO, Oiselle
  5. Sheila Johnson Owner and Partner, the Washington Capitals, the Washington Mystics and the Washington Wizards
  6. Jemele Hill Staff Writer, The Atlantic
  7. Ronda Rousey Professional Wrestler
  8. Cynthia Marshall CEO, Dallas Mavericks
  9. Naomi Osaka Tennis Player
  10. Val Ackerman Commissioner, Big East Conference
  11. Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan And the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team
  12. Kim Ng Senior Vice President for Baseball Operations, Major League Baseball
  13. Amy Trask Host, CBS Sports Network; former CEO, Oakland Raiders
  14. The Women Challenging Nike Executives, Athletes
  15. Nicole Lynn Agent, Young Money APAA Sports Agency
  16. Lesa France Kennedy CEO, International Speedway; Vice Chairperson of the Board of Directors, NASCAR
  17. Brittney Griner Player, Phoenix Mercury
  18. Jeanie Buss Controlling Owner and President, Los Angeles Lakers
  19. Dawn Staley Women’s Basketball Coach, University of South Carolina
  20. Lisa Friel Special Counsel for Investigations, National Football League
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