Highest Ranking Women In Men’s Professional Sports Shares Her “A-Ha! Moment” And What It Means To Focus On The White Space
The A-Ha! Moment or an epiphany is a wonderful thing.
We have all had an epiphany when, seemingly out of nowhere, we realize a great idea or a great truth. An epiphany can happen during a walk in the woods, while showering -- or anywhere really.
Jessica Berman’s epiphany occurred after a slapshot at a New York Islanders hockey game.
The Islanders had just scored a goal. Every fan – old and young from different backgrounds, socioeconomic classes and ethnicities -- leaped to their feet and all cheered together after the goal was scored. At that moment, Berman had an epiphany – her A-Ha! Moment. She realized that she wanted to work in a field that was a catalyst to unite people and bring them closer together. Decades later the way sports unite people continues to motivate and inspire her.
Recently, Berman was named Deputy Commissioner and Executive Vice President of Business Affairs of the National Lacrosse League (NLL) after 13 years in senior executive positions with the National Hockey League (NHL). As NLL Deputy Commissioner, Berman is the highest ranking woman in men’s professional sports leagues. We had a chance to speak with Berman the day before she started her new job at the NLL.
First, congratulations on the new position. What are your responsibilities as Deputy Commissioner and Executive Vice President of Business Affairs of the NLL?
NLL Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz, and I will be working closely together in essentially all of the growth initiatives that the league is embarking on. Some of the areas that I'm going to be focused on are overseeing all of the league's legal matters, including labor relations with our players association, as well as corporate governance and transactional matters. On the business side, I'll be overseeing the relationship with our teams as it relates to sharing best practices and communications as well as marketing, communications and branding for the league. I will, of course, bring my experience and focus on community engagement and social impact because that is essential to any growth strategy as we build the next generation of fans.
How did you begin your career in sports law?
My first exposure to the legal side of sports was working for a sports agent when I was in college at the University of Michigan. The agent represented Jim Harbaugh and I had the chance to experience the sexy and not-so-sexy parts of being a sports agent. It was a great experience but I wanted to experience sports law from the management side by working for a league, team or a brand. I started my career as an Associate in the Labor and Employment Department at Proskauer before joining the NHL where I served as Vice President and Deputy General Counsel. Later I moved to the business side and became Vice President, Community Development, Culture and Growth as well as Executive Director of the NHL Foundation.
What advice would you share with other women that want to pursue a similar career?
My advice is not necessarily unique to women, although I think there are reasons why for women it could be a little more challenging.
My advice is to find the white space. That's advice that I've tried to give women and men who are really trying to carve out a niche for themselves and oftentimes, especially in industries that are super competitive or high profile in nature, it always feels like someone wants your job or people are very protective of their work and wanting to maintain their territory in terms of what they're building.
I think this advice would apply to anyone, but I think it probably is even more important for women to really seek out the white space, meaning the areas that other people aren't so focused on, so that you can have a little more runway to make your mark and to build out your credibility and your work product in a place where you're not stepping on other people's toes.
What I've observed is that, particularly in situations where women are trying to make their mark, they tend to have more competing demands on their time from the way society's structured. In their careers when they meet resistance or tension, I think it causes them to pause and really take a step back. I've seen too many people opt out of the working world because they just feel like it's not time well spent for them. I think finding the white space allows you to feel like you're contributing and adding value and avoid those situations that might deter you in your pursuit of your career.
Has SLA been helpful to you in your career?
I have not missed an SLA conference since 1999. My next conference will be my 21st conference in a row. Beyond the conference, there have been many points in my career when I sought out the advice of certain people, some on the SLA board as well as others who are members of the association. I truly appreciated their perspectives and advice. Leaving my position at the NHL after 13 years was difficult but in speaking with certain SLA members, I made sure I asked the right questions and did the proper due diligence before I made the move. SLA has certainly been an ongoing asset to me in my career.
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