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