Hello and welcome to Modern CEO! I’m Stephanie Mehta, CEO and chief content officer of Mansueto Ventures. Each week this newsletter explores inclusive approaches to leadership drawn from conversations with executives and entrepreneurs, and from the pages of Inc. and Fast Company. If you received this newsletter from a friend, you can sign up to get it yourself every Monday morning.

Before the NCAA Women’s Basketball National Championship drew 18.9 million viewers earlier this month, Billie Jean King’s 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match against Bobby Riggs attracted 50 million U.S. television viewers. That same year, King’s activism prompted the U.S. Open to offer equal prize money for men and women, an achievement that resonates today amid commentary on the disparity between the salary of WNBA No. 1 draft pick Caitlin Clark and her male counterparts. (WNBA players aren’t asking for equal pay at this time; union reps say they want players to receive a share of the league’s revenue equal to the percentages the men make in the NBA.) 

Fifty years later, King continues to advocate for female athletes—and other underrepresented groups—but now she’s doing it as an entrepreneur and business leader. BJK Enterprises, her investment and consulting firm, backs other athletes-turned-founders and invests in professional women’s sports teams. King’s enduring commitment to the business of women’s sports helped land her a spot on Inc.’s Female Founders 250 list of the most compelling women entrepreneurs of 2024.

King isn’t the only female entrepreneur who sees opportunity in women’s sports and women athletes. Julie Uhrman, Kara Nortman, and actress Natalie Portman (also on the Inc. Female Founders list), started women’s soccer team Angel City Football Club in 2020. “It seemed completely doable when we started understanding how undervalued these teams are,” Portman told Fast Company in 2022. “This is an opportunity to try and actually make a cultural shift.”

A parallel diversification

There’s a tangible link between business investment in women’s sports and athlete pay. Corporate sponsorship dollars enabled the U.S. Open to offer equal prize money in 1973. Andrea Brimmer, the chief marketing officer of Ally Financial, has increased her company’s advertising spend with television networks that have pledged to boost the visibility of women’s matches and games. Brimmer has argued greater media visibility will lead to higher valuations for leagues, more revenue for teams, and ultimately higher pay for players.

King concurs. “Equal investment is the most important thing,” she told The New York Times last year. “If I talk to a CEO, I ask him, or her, or whoever, ‘Do you spend as much on women’s sports as men’s sports?’ That’s the magic question.”

Women entrepreneurs say they also can offer insights to their counterparts in sports. Elizabeth Buchanan, chief commercial officer and founding team member of e-commerce tech company Rokt, has partnered with Red Bull Racing to sponsor F1 Academy, a female-only, car-racing championship. Buchanan sees parallels between diversifying sports and her company’s efforts to bring more women into engineering roles.

“Racing has been a very male-dominated sport, and we know from our own experiences trying to hire diverse talent in engineering that this can take time,” Buchanan says. “We asked, ‘What are you already doing? How do we partner to bring more awareness to opportunities for women in technology or racing, or both.”

Team leadership applies in both spheres

A few weeks ago, I asked readers to share stories about their experiences with sports and how they or their companies support women’s sports. Lara Abrash, chair of Deloitte US, who plays on a competitive women’s softball team, offered some terrific wisdom which I hope will resonate with all leaders, regardless of whether you played a sport.

“One lesson from sports I carry with me in each role is a reminder that you don’t have to be the best player on the field to be a leader on the team. In sports and in business, leaders often feel they need to prove they are always the best, smartest, or fastest player. But that is not our role as a leader. Our role is assembling the right team, developing a vision and strategy, aligning and empowering team members to achieve our shared commitment, providing the coaching and tools they need to succeed, and ultimately executing together to reach our goal.”

If you’re a CEO with sponsorship and advertising budgets, how would you answer Billie Jean King’s “magic question?” Send your responses to me at [email protected]. The best responses might form the basis of a future newsletter.

Read more: standouts from Inc.’s Female Founders 250

This past year propelled CloudFlare’s Michelle Zatlyn as a leader

De Soi cofounders Katy Perry and Morgan McLachlan have chemistry

How Issei founder Mika Shino survived sweet but sudden success


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