Honoring women in sports

Courtesy of WISE

From left, Kim Williams, Marla Miller, Gail Hunter and Kathleen Francis at the WISE Awards.

At espnW, we celebrate impressive accomplishments of female athletes on the court or field every day. But today we'll take the time to recognize the achievements of women off the field in sports business, whether it's as a league executive or the head of a television network.

Tuesday afternoon, Women in Sports And Events (WISE), an organization founded in 1993 as a resource for female sports business professionals, hosted its annual Women Of the Year luncheon at the Marriott Marquis in New York City, honoring three women who deserve recognition for their accomplishments in their organizations and within the business of sports.

The 2012 WISE Women of the Year honorees represent three of the four major sports in the United States. Gail Hunter is a senior vice president of events and attractions for the NBA, Marla Miller is senior vice president of special events for MLB and Kim Williams is COO of the NFL Network.

"As WISE celebrates its 18th year of honoring influential women in sports and events, we are proud to continue the legacy of honoring women in key positions within our industry," said Kathleen Francis, national president of WISE. "Our three honorees have made lasting contributions to their respective organizations, and the overall sports landscape. We celebrate their efforts, dedication and commitment to serving as an inspiration to other aspiring women."

In addition to the three Women Of the Year honorees, the organization recognized CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus as its second recipient of the WISE Champion Award for his demonstration of support in recruiting, hiring and promoting women.

"As the proud father of a soon-to-be-teenage daughter, I am honored to be recognized by WISE as a champion of women in the workplace," said McManus. "I accept this award on behalf of my mother, wife and daughter."

Before the largest crowd in WISE history (a sold out room of more than 600), each woman was introduced by friends and mentors in their roles. Ski Austin, the NBA's vice president of events and attractions, introduced Hunter, who is responsible for managing the NBA and WNBA's domestic and international grassroots marketing programs, including NBA All-Star, NBA All-Star Jam Session, NBA Jam Van, NBA Summer League and NBA Nation.

"You can read Gail's bio, but her bio won't reflect the way Gail has changed the way events are done at the NBA," Austin said. "I'm happy she’s being honored today for something I’ve always known."

Hunter quoted Steve Jobs and credited her 103-year old grandmother Mamie and her mother, both of whom attended the event, as women who taught her to believe in herself, even when she wasn’t happy in her previous career as an attorney.

"I keep a Hi-Lock on my desk to remind myself that law was not my passion. WISE reminds us not to settle for anything but the work we love," Hunter said. "It's been a wonderful journey for me because I was actually a part of WISE from the beginning back when I was what I call a newbie in the business. To receive an honor from the same people who have been part of my extended family, it’s just tremendous."

Tim Brosnan, MLB's executive vice president of business, introduced Marla Miller, a 24-year MLB veteran who became the first woman to be named senior vice president in the commissioner's office.

"Marla commands respect while also making people feel comfortable," Brosnan said. "I'm happy, privileged and honored to be presenting her today."

Miller has helped to expand the scope and audience of MLB's biggest events, including the All-Star Game and World Series, including her role overseeing the first All-Star summer in New York City in 2008. She reflected on receiving this honor from an organization she's been a part of since its creation in 1993.

"It's very special particularly because the honor is by my peers," Miller said. "I've been in the industry a long time and I've watched this organization grow and to now have the honoree be me makes it even more special in an almost emotional way. WISE has enabled women in sports and events to find a place where they can communicate with one another and years ago that was not available. Gail [Hunter] and I have seen the change in the opportunities that women now have as a result of an organization like WISE."

Kim Williams first joined the NFL in 2003 as SVP and CFO and has been the COO of the NFL Network since 2006. She played an integral role in the launch of NFL RedZone channel in 2009 and her responsibilities include overseeing the NFL's facilities and studios in Culver City, Calif., operational home of NFL Network, NFL RedZone and NFL.com. Steve Bornstein, president and CEO of the NFL Network, introduced Williams before she addressed the room. Williams talked about herself as the example of a "career unplanned" and urged the women in attendance to embrace their female qualities in the workplace.

"Women naturally have skills that should be embraced and not hidden away," Williams said. "We all need to woman up a bit. We have more power and control than we think."

Several former Women of the Year honorees attended, including veteran reporter Lesley Visser, longtime CBS Sports public relations executive Leslie Anne Wade, WTA CEO Stacey Allaster, New York Yankees assistant GM Jean Afterman and Wendy Lewis and Jacqueline Parkes of MLB.

"This event is really significant because organizations like WISE have provided a foundation for women not just to grow but to flourish," Parkes said. "This event shows that women don't just have a role, they have a leading role in sports and entertainment and the world we live in. And that can only be a good thing."