Kenneth L. Shropshire, faculty director for Wharton’s Coalition for Equity and Opportunity, delves into the world of sports alongside guests Xavier Gutierrez, the NHL’s first Latino president and CEO, and Jonathan Beane, the NFL’s senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer.
The conversation examines the unique role sports play in providing opportunities for underserved communities, and why women are more likely to foster a positive and inclusive work environment. They also address the diversity challenges in team ownership and highlight the ongoing efforts to increase opportunities for minorities in leadership roles within sports organizations. This interview is part of a special 4-part series called “Opportunity Matters.”
Watch the video or read the full transcript below.
Kenneth Shropshire: Welcome to Opportunity Matters. It’s an exciting series where we’ve been looking at ways we can bring greater access to those who don’t traditionally have access. I’m excited in this episode to talk about the area that’s near and dear to me: sports. Sports is kind of this mystical space to think about this whole topic, because it is the Jackie Robinson trope that most people think about, leading America into the state that it’s in. Almost a decade before schools were legally desegregated in the United States, baseball integrates. So people often think that sports is the space where this can happen most readily. We’ll talk about that, and we’ll talk about the problems that still exist in sports and some of the solutions that representatives of two of the great leagues in the United States have asserted.
Let me introduce the guests. Our first is Javier Guttierez, a friend of mine from Arizona. He’s also a California guy. He’s the first Latino president and CEO in the history of the National Hockey League, leading the Arizona Coyotes Hockey Club, and currently the only Latino leading a major league sports team. In this role, Javier overseas all business operations, strategic planning, significant organizational decision-making, and government relations for the club. Previously, he served as managing director at Clear Lake Capital Group, a leading private investment firm that overseas $25 billion of institutional capital. Javier graduated from Harvard College and Stanford Law School. And for two decades, he built a sterling reputation in business investment and finance.
Jonathan Beane is the senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer the NFL since 2020. He spearheads the league’s overarching DEI strategy and implementation, and works closely with senior leadership to drive actionable change throughout the league and all 32 clubs. Over the course of his career, Jonathan has led companies to foster more inclusive cultures and has established himself as a successful diversity strategist. Prior to joining the NFL, Beane served as the senior vice president of global diversity and inclusion for 21st Century Fox.
I want to lay the groundwork of what’s going on in sports and how we’ve gotten to the place that we’re in. Javier, why don’t we start with you? In your unique role as the first Latino in this space, how has this journey been? What kinds of things in terms of equity and opportunity did you want to accomplish as you came in? Lay the groundwork of this journey you’ve had for — where are we now — year two, three?
Javier Guttierez: Season four, if you can believe it. Ken, I appreciate this and applaud everything that you’re doing to continue to be a leader in talking about the importance of opportunity and opening doors. You and I met when I first moved to Arizona in the middle of COVID.
Alex Morello, the first Latino owner in the history of the National Hockey League, and one of the few majority owners of any professional sports team in the history of major professional teams in America, is a longtime friend, business partner. We actually own the largest Latino-owned bank together in California, and I ran his investment for a long time. When he bought the team in August 2019, I was happy for my friend. I was happy for my former business colleague, and existing business partner.
He approached me shortly after buying the team and said, “Obviously, I’d love to bring a Stanley Cup to the Valley. I think there’s an opportunity for us to turn around the organization from a business perspective. The big opportunity is to build an arena, an entertainment district here. The reason why you should do this, you need to do this, is because of the incredible power of sports to make a difference and to make an impact.” And he said, “I want us to be a beloved sports organization. I want to win, but I want us to be beloved. The way you do that is by making an impact and making a difference.”
That really resonated with me. At the time, I was working with one of my best friends, Jose Feliciano, one of the more successful private equity individuals in the world, let alone one of the more successful, diverse investment professionals in the world. We were doing quite well, managing quite a bit of money, office overlooking the beach in Santa Monica. And here I have a friend of mine telling me I’ve got to move to the desert, and I’ve got to run a hockey team. And by the way, 30 days after I said yes, COVID hit and a global pandemic hit. I even called him and said, “You know, I can back out.” And he infamously told me, “There are no takebacks in sports. So no.”
Shropshire: Wait, I didn’t know this was going to be a therapy session for you!
Guttierez: There you go. But it does speak to how’s it going, because the reality is, everything you’ve said in terms around the impact has absolutely been the case, and perhaps even more. COVID really showed the power of sports to communities and to culture and to commerce. When we shut down, the impact we had on the local economy was significant. The impact that we had, also, coming back as a convener and as a source of inspiration and joy, and that feeling that we were all in this together, I thought was really, really powerful.
As you know quite well, Ken, impact is the center around which everything that we do we focuses on. Impact on the ice, in terms of rebuilding a franchise from the ground up via the draft. We have a historic number of draft picks in the NHL. We’ve been at the forefront of putting our games over the air for free. We’ve been at the forefront of being that bridge-to-growth cohorts, of young, female, diverse, tech savvy and purpose driven, and using content, and fashion and merchandise. We have one of the first fashion designers working with us that created a jersey that their players wear during games. Not just an alternative jersey, but actually a fashion statement.
There’s everything that we do to be seen as a community leader and monetizing that. I have one of the largest home helmet sponsorships with Goodwill, a nonprofit. Why? It wasn’t because we were winning. It wasn’t because our ratings were great, because our RSN was going through a bankruptcy. And it wasn’t because we were playing in a big arena. It was because we were a community leader that could help them with being positioned in terms of continuing their values.
Shropshire: You struck an issue that I think is very important: the power that you have with the franchise to provide opportunities in the community. Jonathan, I mentioned Jackie Robinson. The NFL has been stellar in addressing one of the issues the way we used to think about diversity in sports, this idea of who’s not playing. And the issue was, the closer you were to the ball, the less likely you were to be a person of color, so there were no Black quarterbacks. Now that issue is addressed. What are the big issues with the National Football League now? And the big successes, too?
Jonathan Beane: Ken, thanks for that. And Javier, congratulations on the success that you explained. We hope to see that in all the industry, and hopefully we will sooner rather than later. For us, you know, it always goes to the top. We certainly want to increase our diverse ownership in the organization. Right now, we have one primary owner who happens to be diverse, and that’s Shad Khan. Kim Pegula certainly is a critical piece as well, but Shad Khan is the solo primary owner who happens to be diverse. That has been something that has been one of the biggest priorities of the league. Obviously, when you look at numbers and you look at how expensive it is to own a club, that certainly does lower the numbers a little bit. But I certainly think that there’s a lot of people like Jose Feliciano, whom I have met and I think he’s awesome. There are people out there.
We’ve been very intentional on our efforts to attract more diverse ownership. What’s important is, we want the primary ownership, but we also want those limited partners as well. We’ve had two clubs that have been for sale over the last couple years, the first one being the Denver Broncos and the second one being the Washington Commanders. In both cases, you see significant diverse ownership, with Melody Hobson, Condoleezza Rice, and Sir Lewis Hamilton with the Broncos, and with Magic Johnson and others at the Washington Commanders.
Before that process even started for both of those clubs, we made a statement where we said, “As organizations are putting together their offers for a club, we will see it very favorably for there to be diverse ownership as a part of that overall package and proposal.” Just making it very clear that that is something we are looking for and hoping for going forward. And we’ve been able to see that.
Ken, you mentioned that ownership, of course, at the very top is very critical. But also, these other roles. The head coach roles. General manager roles. The president roles. We have seen some good progress in some of those areas. In particular, with the president. In August of 2020, Jason Wright was the first African American president in the history of the National Football League. Today, we have five African American presidents at the league, and we feel very proud about that. We also have one of them being Sandra Douglass Morgan, who really is amazing, as a Black woman, the first person in that role, too.
So, we are seeing some nice improvement there. We have more diverse general managers than we’ve had in the history of the league, with nine, eight of which who happen to be African American. And that doesn’t include the two who currently are interims right now in JoJo [Wooden] at the Los Angeles Chargers and Champ [Kelly] at the Las Vegas Raiders. Obviously, we’re still working on that head coach issue, and we’re going to continue to do so. But we feel very confident that we’ll see change there.
Shropshire: Javier, I do want to come back to the business impact question in the community. But Jonathan reminds me of an important issue that you two can discuss, and that is women’s access in leadership in your respective leagues, where there aren’t women playing the game in your leagues. We’ve got men who have played the game that have difficulty getting in some of these positions sometimes. How do we balance that against the idea that we need to have women in these positions, too? One person that we were talking to in the entertainment industry said, “My focus is on Black people and getting Black people in.”
I guess part of the question is, how do we get the focus right? This whole idea of diversity. Is there a proper mix? Are we somehow negatively impacting one group if we focus on women’s month, or Latino history month, or Black history month? How do we do the balance of this whole space?
Beane: One thing that I have realized, especially in the role that I’ve been in for almost three and a half years now at the National Football League, is you cannot make the kind of transformational change in a particular area without also making the change in another area, which will support each other. I’ll be direct about that. If we’re talking about us doing a better job of having more diversity — in particular with African Americans and Latinos and Asians and in areas of leadership — you’re not going to get that leadership without also driving more inclusivity and diverse representation with women.
It’s interesting, because there is someone who I do a lot of work with and is a player. There was a comment that was said to me that was, there was a clear change in the culture and the environment of the clubs that he worked with when women were on staff. Other aspects of diversity, like people of color, got better and more inclusive with women on staff. And vice versa. So one thing drives the other. There is no need to say, “I’m going to lock in on one thing,” and then leave the others behind. It is the commitment to all of it, holistically, which drives the improvement in those areas.
I don’t think that we are going to get the progress that we need, in particular, with particular groups — whether they be Black groups, Latino groups and others — without also having that progress, and in particular with women. Women will drive that increased progress for us.
Guttierez: I think that’s a really good point, Jonathan. That one thing will exponentially impact something else. I’ll add a slightly different point to this, which is, we ask ourselves constantly, what is the goal? What is the end goal? One of the goals is, we want to be a best-in-class business operation and business organization. And if you don’t have diverse voices, especially if you don’t have female voices, you’re not going to make the best decisions. They’re going to be impacted. You’re going to not have the full perspective, the full viewpoint, full insight as an organization. It starts with, if we want to be the best business, let’s bring the best people. And that includes bringing the best amount and highest amount of perspective to make the best decisions. That’s No. 1.
No. 2, as an organization and as a business, what do we want to do? We are a very high-profile consumer business. What do those consumers look like? In particular, what does the growth look like in the consumer market in America? It’s young, female, diverse, tech savvy, and purpose driven. I constantly talk about those growth cohorts. If we want to be a bridge to those growth cohorts — which, by the way, is one of the key value propositions that we offer to our partners, our media partners, our business partners. If we want to be a bridge to those growth cohorts, you really need those folks in the seat giving you that type of perspective of attracting that. Because a monolithic viewpoint will not get you the understanding or at least the openness of understanding how to capture those growth cohorts. So, if your goal is best-in-class organization and being a bridge to growth cohorts, you have to ask yourself, what does your team look like in order to accomplish that?
And for us, I’m very proud. I grew one of the largest female front offices in the NHL. I did so by bringing people from other industries into the business of the organization. That’s No. 1. No. 2, I decided very intentionally to have certain key positions be open to females, and in particular, females of color. I’m very proud of hiring the first Latina chief operating officer, certainly in the NHL, and we think across all of sports. She came from a perspective from venture capital, from media and entertainment consulting, from the finance world. It was things that we needed as an organization, and it was an opportunity to bring in somebody who also had this unique, distinct perspective.
Again, I don’t ascribe to this theory that only an African American can sit in that seat in order to help you attract other African Americans, or the African American market. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, having them in the seat, as Jonathan alluded to, creates a culture and an environment in which you’re asking, and you’re opening to saying, “Are we capturing all the distinct perspectives that we need as an organization? And are we capturing the distinct and unique approaches in order to capture those growth cohorts?” For us, again, it begins with, what’s your goals? How do you best accomplish them? And what’s the team that you need to accomplish that?
Shropshire: I want to say, you guys have been the ideal. As I’ve been thinking about this series in terms of this broad issue that’s been on my mind — and it’s been on my mind a lot because of the issues that have been raised recently with antisemitism and Islamophobia. My response to a lot of people has been, “The best professionals in this space are always trying to think about everybody, and always are trying to figure out how to include everyone. And how do you make sure there’s not bias going against anyone?” And the best professionals are always saying, too, “There’s not a universal approach for each group. I need to do whatever it is I need to do to address these issues, and I need to constantly stay on top of these issues.”
I’m not dragging you guys in with my viewpoint. But it’s one that I think people that are being critical of the work in the space need to have a better understanding of what the true professionals do in this space when you’re dealing with diversity, DEI — as we’re calling it, opportunity — whatever it might be.
The one last area I want to cover is this area of business opportunities that a league, that a franchise, can provide to people that don’t normally have access to do business with a league or team. Jonathan, why don’t you take a minute. And then Javier, I’ll ask you to close out with a last minute on the kinds of things that are available.
Beane: Yeah. Ken, absolutely, this piece is really critical. You look at the NHL, you look at the NFL. Huge organizations. Multibillion-dollar organizations. Very profitable organizations. Very connected to the fan base organizations, and more and more becoming global. Just as we need to have diversity and representation in terms of our employees, we need to have diversity in terms of the organizations and businesses that we’re working with and share the pie. We wouldn’t be who we are today without all of these communities that we’re talking about. We’re really, really focused and made it a huge priority around increasing the number of diverse vendors that we work with.
It’s not just in one particular space. Events is critical, marketing’s critical. Banking’s critical. Finance. We’ve actually had a lot of success in that area, working with the National Black Bank Foundation, with Ashley Bell and others. And this is not only at the league office, but also at the clubs. In order for us to get better to have better solutions and have the best partners working with us, we have to have a diverse lens and be very focused on bringing in a variety of different people from different backgrounds and organizations that can serve us in a variety of different ways. That’s critical for us. We’ve been working on that very hard for two-plus years specifically. And there’s still a lot more work to get done. But we’re doing some good work there.
Guttierez: I’ll echo everything that Jonathan said. I don’t want to repeat it, because it’s absolutely true, right? These are drivers of economic activity, especially in local communities. And it goes beyond just game day. It’s content and merchandising, and our licensing. They want to partner with us because we can be that bridge to not only the growth cohorts, but we can give them an opportunity to expand their own business efforts that they’re looking for.
I’ll give you an example of that. Equality Health is a local health organization that really targets the lower-income, primarily Latino, African American community in the greater Phoenix area. They came to us to sign up and sponsor the largest street hockey program in the NHL. In Arizona, by the way. And why? Because they knew that that was their target, and they were trying to make health care accessible and really break down walls and barriers around the issues of health care. Why not do it with an organization that can help them do it in a very unique way, because that organization is focused on that? Just like we’re trying to make hockey accessible through street hockey. Just like we’re trying to target these growth and diverse segments. They wanted to align with that.
So, it’s not just seeing it as bringing them into the supply chain and procurement. It’s also being that research for those enterprises to then also make that difference in the community. For me, that’s the power that we have to combine our platforms, our voices, our impact, with the business opportunities that make sense for the league, for the team, for our partners, for the community. As much as these are the right things that we are doing, Ken, they’re the right business decisions. And that’s what bothers me whenever there’s critique. I go, “Great. Give me a critique as to why this is not a good business decision. As a business guy, as a private equity guy, tell me why this is not a good business decision. Because I can tell you why it is.”
Shropshire: Javier, that’s a great point to end on, the idea of this whole space. The idea of looking for opportunities, and the idea that it can be positively business impactful if you do it the right way. Thank you both for joining us on Opportunity Matters.