Unexpected career changes have come together in WNBA Finals where the Sun tops the aces 2-1 with Game 4 scheduled for Sunday in Connecticut. The moves were logical next steps for basketball players, but they exemplify a growing movement in the league, and across sports, to have more women in leadership positions. There are nine female presidents for the 12 teams in the league, and Kathy Engelbert hopes that trend continues.
“One of the things we do at every of our Board of Governors meeting with our WNBA ownership groups is talk about the diversity of our front office and back office,” Engelbert said, “because we are so diverse among the players. … Having Jen and Nikki here as team captains represents these two teams.” It is a huge reflection on the league and the ownership and diversity of our front office.”
Seven of the league’s teams are coached by women, although this tends to be a more natural transition for former players interested in staying involved in the game. Those are the leadership positions on the court, but there is a different level of influence that can come from the executive side. Team leaders typically lead the business side of things and are responsible for everything from arena issues to marketing to community relations and beyond.
These commercial operations positions within professional sports were not traditionally available to women.
Fergas explained: “It is important for us to realize that when you put us in these positions and give us these opportunities, we can be successful and we can succeed and achieve any goal or any results you are trying to reach. Here we are also just as qualified as our male counterparts.”
“As a League, we have always stood at the forefront of many social and social justice initiatives where a lack of representation is considered an injustice. “
Fargas wasn’t looking for opportunity specifically. She met Shabazz—who had been friends with her father-in-law, actor Antonio Vargas, for years—during a pilgrimage to Grenada, and they immediately became friends. The diplomat/social philanthropist/speaker/producer/writer/actress became “Aunt Shabazz.” Shabazz had a relationship with the search company that Aces owner Mark Davis had hired to find a team boss, and reached out to appreciate Vargas’ interest. The rest is history.
Fergas noted that she was heavily involved in ticket sales, team marketing, contract negotiations, arena details and budget balancing during training. All of this helped prepare her for the current role.
Rizzotti won a national championship at U-Conn. and two WNBA titles in Houston but wasn’t interested in coaching. However, she has spent two decades coaching at Hartford, George Washington and within NBA. After GW broke up with her, she felt like it was the time to focus.
“What I love about it, what Nikki and I have been able to do, moving from coaching now to leadership roles, is setting an example and paving the way,” said Rizzotti, “for more players in the league to think about life after playing basketball, and that they can still Get influential jobs.
“They can still develop the game and they can still participate in a different way, on a different level. They can look and see women in those positions that they could one day occupy.”
There are more opportunities on the horizon. The league is expected to expand Two teams in the near future. Engelbert said the league has narrowed those options to 10 cities. New teams mean not only additional executive jobs but ownership opportunities.
Two-time WNBA champion Renee Montgomery witnessed a whirlwind three years that ended up being part of the The property group that bought the Atlanta Dream In 2021. Signed with Dream (2018), started her foundation (2019), opted out of the season in the bubble (2020) and retired (2021) before becoming an owner. Oh, she also got married and started podcasting with her mom, sister, and stepmother during that time.
Montgomery was particularly inspired by the social justice movements in 2020 After the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, he saw the monarchy as an opportunity to be more influential. The dream was put up for sale after the team helped campaign against owner and Senator Kelly Loeffler, who objected to linking the WNBA to Black Lives Matter messages.
“We’re in a very polarized political situation right now, and so there’s been a lot of contentious messaging,” Montgomery said. “And so, for me, it was about, OK, you have to be in a position where you can make these changes, and who makes the decisions? Everyone is talking about ‘Why aren’t these people being hired?’ Well, who hired them and who does that? It starts from the top.
“So when you think about something that starts at the top, that’s when you think, ‘Well, how do I get a seat there? “”
Within the WNBA, the Seattle Storm ownership group is made up of women, and Washington Mystics co-owner Sheila Johnson is believed to be the first African American woman to partner in American professional sports.
“I see it as a badge of bravery and honour,” Johnson previously told the Washington Post. “And what it does is it brings other property, people of color into the sports arena. And we never had the chance. It’s not that we can’t do that; we have to be given the chance. And I think more than anything, it opened doors for a lot of other people. And even Young girls.
“If you get the chance, if that door opens, go for it. Make it work for yourself. Never say you can’t do anything.”