Sports industry leaders gather in Toronto to spark action at espnW Summit
“I felt invisible … like people didn’t acknowledge, respect, understand, or care about my role.”
Laurie Kepron’s description of her experience as a woman working in sport is likely familiar to many.
When she began working with the Winnipeg Jets in 1993, Kepron was one of only three women in the organization. She started as an account executive with the franchise and then transitioned to manager of partnerships with the National Hockey League in 1996.
“It was many years for me of grit and resilience. I am a survivor. We had a layoff in the NHL. We shut down our business for a year,” recalled Kepron of the NHL lockout in 2004-05.
She persisted and has now become a leader in the hockey industry. Kepron currently holds the role of senior vice-president of integrated marketing, working out of the NHL office in Toronto, but the promotions didn’t come without their challenges.
“In 1996, Auston Matthews did not exist. He wasn’t born yet,” Kepron says of her first year working for the NHL. “What also didn’t exist was diversity, equity and inclusion. That wasn’t part of the lexicon. That wasn’t being discussed. It wasn't even a thought in anybody’s mind.”
Kepron is one of dozens of influential female leaders in the sports industry who gathered in Toronto Friday for the espnW Summit, held at the Evergreen Brick Works.
Journalists, executives, entrepreneurs and athletes who are impacting the growth of women’s sport globally are part of a day-long discussion designed to push boundaries, spark action and effect change.
Kepron, along with Stacey Allaster, the CEO of the US Tennis Association and Rachel Epstein, vice-president of espnW, headlined the panel, Women at the Helm, moderated by ESPN’s Sarah Spain.
Kepron told the audience that the key to how she’s been able to forge a successful career in such a male-dominated space is simple.
“I get s--t done. I get s--t done really well,” she said. “That has allowed me to be successful. With that, my voice has been able to grow. I’ve been intentional with leadership practices. I’ve been annoying, quite frankly, at times.”
Allaster, who was awarded the Order of Canada in 2022, joined the United States Tennis Association (USTA) in 2016. Four years later, she became the first female US Open tournament director in 140 years. Allaster is currently the USTA’s chief executive, responsible for setting the strategic vision and growth strategy for the US Open and for the USTA’s professional tennis division.
“Consciously, there wasn’t any [gender] bias,” Allaster said of becoming the first female to hold the role. “But I’m realistic. There were a few. There’s a few everywhere. In the words of the icon Moira Rose, ‘Never let the bastards get you down.’”
Allaster has been credited with establishing equal prize money for women at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. In her former role as chair and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, Allaster mobilized “public shaming” and a “team of fighters” to achieve prize parity for the women.
“We were at 93 per cent [of what the men were earning]...like, come on,” Allaster said.
Through a combination of athlete leadership, data research, sponsorship and government leadership, Allaster says they were finally able to accomplish something that had never been done at a major international sporting event until that point: give equal prize money to the female tennis players. The change took place in 2007.
“We never faltered, and we led, and it was a special achievement,” Allaster said.
Those are just some of the stories being shared by panelists at the espnW Summit. Much like the women’s sports industry, the summit is growing and shows no signs of slowing down. What began as a small gathering in the United States in 2010 has now grown into an international event celebrating its 14th year.
“Women’s sports are growing and it’s very driven by women as fans,” said Rachel Epstein, vice-president of espnW. “Women’s sports are thriving and growing. The investment is coming in. Ten to 15 years ago, many female fans didn’t watch women’s sports. The WNBA has a majority female audience.”
Other panels at Friday’s event included a discussion on how the role of data and technology is redefining the fan experience, featuring San Jose Sharks senior vice-president of business analytics and technology Neda Tabatabaie and Stathletes founder and TSN contributor Meghan Chayka.
TSN’s Jennifer Hedger, Kara Wagland, Kayla Grey, and Kate Beirness also led conversations on topics like international investment in women’s sports, the role of media in changing the game, and how athletes are moving the narrative forward.
It’s also a weekend of firsts in Toronto. This is the first time the espnW Summit has been held in Canada. It’s also the first time a WNBA game will be played in Canada, with the Chicago Sky facing the Minnesota Lynx Saturday afternoon in a preseason game at Scotiabank Arena.
“We want to sense the passion,” said Cathy Engelbert, commissioner of the WNBA.
It’s only the third time that a WNBA game will be played outside of the United States. Engelbert said she now feels comfortable bringing new owners into the league because she knows they are going to be successful, given the growth of women's sport.
“We’re really thrilled to be here, feel the energy around [Toronto] and the country for our game and for our players,” Engelbert added. “We know the popularity of the game will play out tomorrow on that court.”