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Columbia Business Monthly

The trailblazing career of UofSC professor Susan O’Malley, the first female president of a pro sports team

May 06, 2019 10:19AM
By Leigh Savage
Photo © 2019 Brian Dressler / dresslerphoto.com

Who is Susan O'Malley?

That was actually the correct answer—or question—on the television show Jeopardy. Now a professor at the University of South Carolina, O’Malley earned her enviable status as a Jeopardy question by becoming the first woman to run a major professional sports franchise.

She not only became president of the NBA’s Washington Bullets in 1991, but she did so at the age of 29. “It was some luck, and some make-your-own luck,” she says. “My boss was fired, and the owner put me in for the interim. I thought, ‘I’m never giving this job back.’”

She worked for the Bullets, later renamed the Wizards, and Washington Sports and Entertainment for 20 years, including stints running the Verizon Center and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.  

It all started when she realized she was mediocre at sports. “My family credits the gym teacher who watched me play and said, ‘You should get a desk job,’ she recalls with a laugh. 

O’Malley, who now teaches in UofSC’s Department of Sport and Entertainment Management, also cites being “vertically challenged,” but soon found that what she lacked in height, she made up for with business acumen. When she watched games, she found herself focused mainly on the crowd and how well tickets sold, “and that’s when I knew I found my niche.”

After earning a degree in marketing, she began working her way up the sports management ladder, beginning as an intern for the Bullets and the Capitals hockey team. She started out in advertising and was named president five years later. 

At the same time, she was earning her law degree from Georgetown University. “Whether it be labor law, negligence, or contracts, there is so much law involved in sports,” she says. “I didn’t want to be the only one at the table who wasn’t a lawyer.”

O’Malley says her rapid rise was due in part to her ability to look for creative ways to help teams make more money. “The margins aren’t that big in an arena, so all revenue streams matter,” she says. In her first season handling off-court activities, she helped create the largest ticket revenue increase in the history of the NBA, and also helped achieve the team’s highest ever ticket renewal rate. By the time she retired in 2007, the Verizon Center had brought in more than 21.2 million patrons. 

Second act
She had retired to Sullivan’s Island when she began talking with Tom Regan, a UofSC professor, about a vision for bringing both practice and theory to the Department of Sports and Entertainment Management, which is ranked in the top 10 worldwide for undergraduate and graduate programs.

After hiring professors such as O’Malley and Danny Morrison, who ran the Carolina Panthers, the practical experience has helped create an even stronger program that is very popular among students—especially women. “There are just slightly more women in the program than men,” she says.  

From her earliest jobs, she recalls the gender disparity. “My first NBA Board of Governors meeting, it was me and 29 men,” she says. 

To help create more opportunities for women interested in sports and entertainment management, O’Malley teamed up with Monumental Sports and Entertainment to create a paid internship at UofSC that selects two women per semester to work for the Capitals or Wizards in Washington, D.C. 

She reached out to Ted Leonsis, the current owner of the Capitals and Wizards and CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, to create the internship because she feels compelled to mentor women in the field. “I feel like if sports franchises get internship resumes from Jack and Susan, they will default to Jack,” she says. For the first round of internships this summer, the program was well received, with multiple qualified young women vying for the spots. “I’m glad I don’t have to choose,” she says. 

While O’Malley is happy to offer opportunities for women, she says her best career advice applies to both genders equally: people should find what they are great at and focus on that to stand out. 

She’s had some high-profile mentors over the years, including Katherine Graham, the renowned publisher of the Washington Post, who reached out to O’Malley when she took over the Bullets and invited her to some of her well-known networking dinners. 

Another role model was Pat Summit, the legendary women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee, who would say that your attitude and your effort are two things that you can control, so stay positive and control those two things. 

In classes such as The Live Entertainment Industry, Promoting Entertainment Events, and the Economics of Sports, O’Malley shares with students her real-world experiences and hopes to guide them into an ever-changing field. “(Sports) is the last appointment television,” she says. “But that’s the challenge for filling the stands—you have to make the arena experience awesome. You have to make it better than the experience people can have at home with their 50-inch TV.”

The biggest change she sees is legalized gambling, which will continue to become a big revenue stream for the leagues. “Soon, you’ll bet on everything from each quarter to the high-scoring players, and they’ll be able to tell from the data if the games are fixed,” she says. “It will make people even more vested in the teams.”

In O’Malley’s second career, she’s enjoying working with students, and her quest for constant improvement shows in her habit of finding out who won teacher of the year and then sitting in on their classes to watch and learn. “That’s how you become great at what you do,” she says. “You keep working at being great.”