STANFORD UNIVERSITY — As a youngster, Joanne Pasternack thought she knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up — first an Olympic figure skater and then a pediatrician.
Instead, she has ended up in a totally different realm —professional football, where she works as the director of community relations and philanthropy for the San Francisco 49ers, helping to raise millions for charity.
Likewise, as a youngster Lorie Murphy aspired to be the unlikely combination of an attorney and professional dancer. Today, Murphy is president of entertainment production firm E2K, which directs all the eye-popping entertainment put on during the San Francisco 49ers football team’s home games — everything from National Anthem singers and team cheerleaders to skydiver performances at the 49ers’ current home at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.
Pasternack and Murphy were part of an all-star panel of women who described what it’s like to have a career in the professional sports industry. The panel discussion highlighted the Women in Sports Symposium, held on November 9, and sponsored jointly by the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the San Francisco 49ers.
Panelists included three women working in influential posts for the 49ers, as well as five others holding jobs with the team’s partner organizations, including Stanford Hospital and Clinics, which provides medical services for the players. Sports journalist Andrea Kremer, sideline and feature reporter for NBC Sunday Night Football, served as moderator of the event.
While the sports industry is more an old-boy’s network than a meritocracy, 49ers’ chief operating officer Paraag Marathe said that’s changing as team owners strive to find ways to meet player costs that are rising as much as 20% each year.
”It is not just about winning games, and the business part is an afterthought. They need to be able to run their businesses more efficiently to be able to afford those players,” Marathe, MBA ’04, told the gathering. That means finding talented employees “regardless of their age, ethnicity, or gender,” he said.
The search for the best has brightened prospects for young women aiming for influential posts within professional sports. Marathe pointed to the 49ers’ principal owner, Denise DeBartolo York, who has “long been a champion — not just in the National Football League but across all sports — to advance opportunities for women in sports.” The team recently started an internship specifically for college women interested in sports careers.
”It is really the perfect moment in time for all of you to be considering a job in sports,” Marathe told the mostly young and female audience.
Several of the panelists came to the sports industry through circuitous routes.
Before assuming her current role with the 49ers in 2008, Pasternack said she worked as a senior analyst with the City of Mountain View. Armed with a law degree from Santa Clara University, she helped the mayor and other city officials write speeches and analyze legislation. “It was a very comfortable job,” she said, but it wasn’t exciting.
She had grown up as a competitive ice skater and did a stint as manager of international corporate relations for the Special Olympics, so Pasternack decided to go for the 49ers” position because of her zest for community relations and passion for sports.
As part of her duties, Pasternack arranges for players, former players, team owners, and 49ers employees to participate in service projects, such as building playgrounds in underserved communities or heading to Ronald McDonald House to play board games with young patients. “That’s the really fun part of the job,” she said.
When searching for prospective college interns, Pasternak doesn’t focus on students’ grade point averages. Instead, she’s impressed by candidates who have played on a sports team or taken a leadership role in a campus club or sorority.
”I’m looking for somebody who’s able to come in and take a leadership role, but who also understands how to be part of a team,” said Pasternak. “That’s far more important to me than what they majored in.”
Panelists also reminded the students about the importance of paying their dues while building expertise and credibility.
”Honestly, I think you have to do unpaid internships and if you’re not willing to do that, you’re not willing to work in sports,” said Hannah Gordon, the 49ers’ director of legal affairs and a Stanford Law School grad. After getting a foot in the door, she added, determine which people see your value to the organization and tap them to help you advance.
And, Gordon said, be conversant about sports: “If you can’t hold your own, no one will have respect for you and what you do.”
A strong work ethic and commitment to follow through with assigned duties is crucial to success in a sports industry career, according to Murphy. “The game kicks off on Sunday at one o’clock whether you are ready or not,” she said. “So, I want someone who’s going to share that intensity and sense of urgency.”
Here are some of the other insights for young women embarking on a career in sports, gleaned from the panelists’ wide-ranging, two-hour-long session:
- Prepare for a different world. Because the sports industry remains male dominated, women must be realists and deal with that culture, said Alana Nguyen, executive producer of SFGate.com, the online face of the San Francisco Chronicle. Be assertive and speak up in meetings, Gordon said, “otherwise you will get drowned out and lost.”
- Don’t take criticism personally. Ali Towle, the 49ers’ director of marketing, says in the face of criticism she finds that “women will go off and obsess.” However, “men will have moved on to the next thing, and they haven’t even thought about it another second. I just wish somebody had told me that.”
- Use technology. SFGate.com’s Nguyen gets hundreds of resumes, but one she recently received immediately caught her interest because it contained a Quick Response barcode leading to an online site with more information about the candidate. She also likes people who network using communications tool Twitter. Internship candidates who incisively comment on Nguyen’s Twitter feeds or solicit her opinion on their own blog posts “have got their foot in the door” if they later request an informational interview, she said.
- Enlist mentors, female or male. “It’s really great to find wonderful female mentors, but you have to be open to the fact that a lot of your mentors are going to be men,” said Gordon, since sports remains such a male-dominated industry.
- Network with like-minded people. Panelists mentioned these groups as especially valuable for students and professionals alike: WISE: Women in Sports and Events and the Association for Women in Sports Media.
— Michele Chandler
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