Adweek’s Most Powerful Women in Sports: 31 MVPs Showing Brands and Fans the Way to Win

In the best of times, sports has the power to excite and inspire, to entertain, engage and even unite. But 2020 has been anything but the best of times. Covid-19 impacted sports early and profoundly, and social injustice left an indelible mark both on and off the field. Still, Adweek’s Most Powerful Women in Sports honorees found ways to influence, innovate and raise the bar for their brands and for fans at a time when we needed sports most. Many of these remarkable women—including NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird, MLS president JoAnn Neale, Nascar’s Jill Gregory, the NHL’s Heidi Browning, MLB’s Barbara McHugh, WTA president Micky Lawler, WWE’s Stephanie McMahon, Kate Jhaveri of the NBA and our cover star Naomi Osaka—were an integral part of the groundbreaking “Real Heroes Project” in May that united 14 professional sports leagues to celebrate the country’s front-line medical workers. All of them are game-changers by any measure who come to play, no matter the circumstances. —Erik Wander

Naomi Osaka Two-time U.S. Open tennis champion

It would be tough to pick just one career-defining moment in tennis superstar Naomi Osaka’s recent past. There’s the 2018 U.S. Open, where she beat her childhood idol, Serena Williams. She followed up that emotional victory, which she’s called “a little bit bittersweet,” with her first win at the Australian Open in 2019. And in the wake of those back-to-back Grand Slams, there was her surprise jump from Adidas to Nike in a groundbreaking deal worth $10 million. But the events of late summer 2020 may stand apart from everything that came before, making an even more lasting impression than Osaka’s straight-set blowouts and coveted endorsements. Click here to read Adweek’s full Q&A with cover star Naomi Osaka.

Renie Anderson Chief revenue officer and evp, NFL Partnerships, NFL

LA nearly 15-year veteran of the NFL, Anderson was part of league history when its draft became one of the first virtual events cobbled together in the Covid-19 pandemic’s first few months. It went off without a hitch, as more than 8.4 million viewers tuned in, up more than 35% from the previous year. Anderson was instrumental in incorporating the league’s partners into the broadcast, with Verizon providing the internet service to coaches and players and Bose sending headphones. And to kick off a mostly fanless season, she oversaw the team that added key new partners, including Postmates, Invisalign, Subway and Best Buy. This year has been “one that no one will ever forget,” says Anderson. “ … I am inspired and motivated by the herculean efforts to bring football back in a safe and healthy way. To all women that work in sports, from the boardroom to the locker room, it can be hard, you are not alone—keep going!” —Ryan Barwick

Lisa Baird Commissioner, National Women’s Soccer League

Baird stepped into her new role at the NWSL on March 10—two days before the league shut down due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Still, the league posted a record-breaking year on almost every measure, from a 152% increase in social mentions to a 500% growth in domestic television audiences. The league signed new TV and streaming deals with both CBS Sports and Twitch, and brand partnerships with Google, P&G, Secret and Verizon. In June, the NWSL was the first professional team sports league to return to play and completed a 30-day tournament in a bubble without a single case of the virus. Baird says leading the league to unprecedented success amid a pandemic is among her proudest moments. “What drove me this year in particular were our players,” says Baird. “And being able to ensure that we could continue to compensate them throughout the year.” —Kathryn Lundstrom.

Jessica Berman Deputy commissioner and evp, business affairs, National Lacrosse League

“When I got the offer to become the deputy commissioner, I knew it would be a significant increase in responsibility and role and would involve a lot more travel,” Berman says. “My 12-year-old asked, ‘How many women are deputy commissioners of men’s professional sports leagues?’ When I explained that I would be the first, he said, ‘Mom, you have to take the job. You are a pioneer.’” Indeed, Berman pioneered the NLL’s first leaguewide customer service representative platform, debuting for its 35th season in 2021, in addition to leading the league’s labor relations strategy, preparing the launch of its sports betting initiative, building its first team services function (to help clubs with broadcasting, marketing, sponsorships and ticket sales) and driving expansion, with NLL’s 14th team set to begin play in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2022. In the shorter term, Berman is helping the league navigate Covid-19 in the run-up to its 2021 campaign, saying, “Our approach is practical, solution-oriented and health-conscious, and we have been relentless in our effort to chart the course.” —David Cohen

Lynne Biggar CMO, Visa

Even in the face of mass event cancellations, Biggar showed how a corporate sponsor can score major wins. Under her leadership in 2020, Visa became the first solo sponsor of the Union of European Football Associations’ women’s league. Of the more than 90 athletes selected to be part of Team Visa for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo, more than half were women. In response to the pandemic, the payments technology company created a series of PSA-style videos featuring athletes such as Sky Brown and Katie Ledecky engaging in safe, sanitary practices like hand-washing and social distancing. And to help small businesses, Visa enlisted NFL stars Saquon Barkley, George Kittle and Larry Fitzgerald for an NFL draft spot featuring the stars holding up shirts advertising their favorite local businesses. “I’ve been so inspired by the passionate team of Visa employees I get to see and work with every single day—now through video conference—and their passion for our clients, and for our mission of enabling individuals, businesses and economies to thrive,” Biggar says, crediting them for the award. —Richard Collings

Melanie Boulden President, Stills Business Unit, incoming chief marketing officer, Coca-Cola North America

Boulden took on her current role during the early days of the pandemic, when the cloud of confusion and uncertainty was at its thickest. She got to work with what she calls her “resilient and passionate team” to “stabilize the business, revise our strategic intent [and] reprioritize investments” given a world in flux. Since the outbreak, Coca-Cola’s Covid-19 relief efforts have surpassed $100 million around the globe. The former global head of marketing and brand management at Reebok who was recently named to the board of directors at Adobe will play a key role in Coca-Cola’s marketing around the Super Bowl and Olympics, and Boulden says her focus now is on “ensuring our growth portfolio of profitable, leading brands is supported by effective and cutting-edge marketing.” Despite these accomplishments, one of Boulden’s fondest moments of the past year was watching her 17-year-old daughter’s volleyball team pull off a major upset against a formidable rival. “It still brings a smile to my face thinking about their reaction and celebration after a big win,” she says. —Paul Hiebert

Karen Brodkin Evp, content strategy and partnerships, Endeavor; co-head, WME Sports

As the NFL’s Chargers began plotting their move from San Diego to Los Angeles a few years ago, they knew establishing better connections with the entertainment industry was key to their success in a new, highly competitive market. They turned to Brodkin, a senior leader at legendary Hollywood talent agency WME’s sports division and its parent conglomerate Endeavor, who helped lay the foundation for the Chargers’ brand relaunch, digital content, game-day consumer experiences and sponsor deals. Brodkin and her team act as “commercial and cultural consultants,” she says, going far beyond selling tickets to events, for a roster that includes the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz, MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers, as well as the NCAA, XFL, Premier Lacrosse League, NHL and New York Road Runners. A pioneer in bringing video game tournaments to TV and turning them into fast-growing franchises, Brodkin expects to deepen her group’s esports work in 2021 where, she says, “we’ve really found our lane.” —T.L. Stanley

Heidi Browning CMO, NHL

When Browning took the marketing reins at the NHL four years ago, she was tasked with building up the league’s social and digital presence. What no one at the league could have predicted was how important that framework would prove to be this year. Thanks to Browning’s efforts, the NHL had established a strong online presence that allowed it to continue engaging with fans during the pandemic. Over the past several months, the league built upon that network, creating new content and experiences for fans during the monthslong shutdown—leading to record-breaking engagement from players and fans alike. “When sports leagues and teams around the world took a pause, our social media and content teams became the center of communication, connection and content for hockey fans,” says Browning. “We used this opportunity to showcase the personalities of our players, highlight their community contributions and give fans a look into their lives off the ice.” —Kathryn Lundstrom