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5 Lessons in Leadership from Sports’ Top Advertisers

Leaders from across the world of sports marketing and sponsorships, Shawna Burtscher, Director, Experiential Marketing, Audi of America, Kerry Scalora, Director – Sports Marketing, Michelob Ultra, Anheuser-Busch, Bridget Sponsky, Executive Director – Brand, Sports & Sponsorship Marketing, Ally, Dana Dar, Director of Strategic Business Development, Intel Sports, Intel, and Marissa Weseloh, Director of Sponsorships, Verizon, joined Stacie Pearson, Account Executive, Cadent for a panel during Brand Innovators’ Sports Marketing Upfronts: Soccer. The executives shared their perspectives on what it means to be a woman in sports leadership and how the women’s sports landscape is changing.  

Read our 5 key insights from their discussion below, including why there is still a long way to go for women’s equity in sports, as well as how today’s leaders can create change for tomorrow’s women advertisers and athletes. 

The following has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. 

  1. Build sponsorships with purpose.  

Sports sponsorships are about so much more than brand awareness. It’s a critical opportunity to show consumers what matters most to your business stands. “Our values are the most important part of our company and they’re all rooted in doing what’s right. The customer is at the center of every single thing that we do, and we have this firm belief that the diversity of thought is critical to progression and success. In the end, we believe in deeds and not just words, and that values-based spirit is how we approach our alignments in sports,” Bridget explained. “We’re very purposeful with the sponsorships that we have in that they align with those values and that they have a voice in culture… How are we an ally to athletes, to fans, to the league, to the communities we serve?”   

Offering her take, Kerry said, “Our brand purpose is to show consumers that living an active and balanced lifestyle doesn’t need to be stressful. […] In our ads, we want to show that these athletes aren’t just happy because they win – they win because they’re happy people. We’ve leaned into these big sporting moments and athletes to help us amplify our brand message and make it that much more relatable. Consumers are aspiring to be these athletes, so ultimately we hope our brand ethos and message is transferred on to them.”  

  1. Vote with your engagement & your wallet.   

Touching on the subject of inequities between men and women athletes, Shawna called out, “We all can vote with our viewership and dollars – where we’re paying attention to content and who we follow. What’s happened over the past few years has made people a bit more vulnerable and more open to talking about [inequality].” She went on to highlight, “We’re also seeing more people support one another – not just the trailblazers who are willing to speak up – but being less afraid of the backlash that could come. […] When people see others leading with that kind of integrity, they feel empowered to do so too.”  

  1. Normalize women in sports leadership roles.   

“I think they’re helping to change the conversation and debunk this myth that women are not qualified or don’t have the capabilities to take on these roles – that’s important and they’re inspiring the next generation,” Marissa said.   

Yet despite the strides women have made in sports, we still have a long way to go. “I had an executive in a previous role say to me, ‘It’s great that we have a female on this sports account.’ And I remember thinking, I’m here because I’m qualified, but what is that statement implying? That it’s an exception that a female runs a sports account. So, the more we see the momentum of women taking these positions – which I’d love to continue to see – the more it’s changing the conversation, to where it becomes the norm. In the future, we’d get to the point where this panel doesn’t exist and it’s just about leadership in sports because there’s natural representation across the board.”   

Watch a video of the session on demand now:  

  1. Use your platform to create opportunities.  

A repeated theme of the discussion was women supporting women. As Dana noted, “All these amazing women athletes you mentioned have such a great platform, so when they voice something, it amplifies the message. But it is also up to us – those who are behind the scenes on the business side of sponsorship side within sports – to create that same conversation so that the next woman who’s up and coming doesn’t hear the same comment that Marissa just mentioned.”    

This emphasis on using your voice and creating opportunities for one another drives home the importance of mentorship among women in sports, as well as other industries and professions.   

  1. Don’t be afraid to take risks!  

The panelists also took a moment to reflect on their journeys and how they’ve found success as women in sports marketing.   

“Not only was I a woman in sports, but a saleswoman in sports. That being said, I’ve always counted on myself to put in the work and make a name for myself. The gender bias in sports motivates me to work harder and stay on top of my game,” said Kerry.     

Shawna explained, thinking back to the beginning of her career, “One day, I invited myself into an agency’s office because I knew they were hiring a new division, and it was the first time they were getting into sports marketing. At that time, I had worked extensively in motorsports, so I realized – they didn’t know anything! […] The reactions I was getting from people were like, ‘should I not know some of these things?’ Yet I was hired on the spot, in what was probably a more elevated role than had I just sent in a resume.” 

Leaving us with a powerful piece of advice: “A lot of it was my naiveté and passion to be there, but I knew what I knew. I would say you should follow your intuition and don’t be afraid to take risks. If you’re an expert at something, don’t be afraid to showcase that you are.” 

To learn more about the Women at Cadent, check out our recent blog series.