The Washington Post
Wizards’ O’Malley Will Step Down
NBA’s First Female Team President Known for Innovation and Controversy
Susan O’Malley, who at 29 became the first female president of an NBA franchise, announced yesterday she will leave Washington Sports & Entertainment at the end of the month. She helped shaped the region’s pro- fessional sports landscape as head of the company, which owns Verizon Center and the Washington Wizards.
O’Malley, 45, who graduated this spring from Georgetown University Law School, said she will spend the summer in Nantucket, Mass., before deciding what to do next. She will stay on as an adviser to sports mogul Abe Pollin, owner of Washington Sports & Entertainment, to help find a successor and supervise the downtown arena’s 10th anniversary in December.
“I’m leaving because I feel like the franchise and the Verizon Center are in a good place,” O’Malley said in a telephone interview yesterday. Wiz- ards Coach Eddie Jordan and General Manager Ernie Grunfeld “are phenomenal basketball people and the city is lucky enough to have its first superstar with Gilbert Arenas. The Verizon Center is 10 years old and the city is kind enough to get us a $50 mil-
lion refurbishing. I feel like my work is done now.”
In more than 20 years at Washington Sports & Entertainment, O’Malley became a key adviser, strategist, gatekeeper and public relations manager to Pollin, whose empire once also included the Washington Capitals and Washington Mystics. Her accomplishments include innovative marketing and customer service initiatives that are still in use today.
O’Malley was also a controversial figure, seen by some as an overly powerful influence on Pollin, thwarting perceived rivals in other parts of the organization. Some employees saw her as deceitful and dictatorial, while critics outside the company said she routinely inflated attendance figures for Pollin’s under-performing professional teams.
She was known best for her unwavering loyalty to Pollin. “Susan has been my right hand through the past 20 years and has helped guide the fortunes of our company,” Pollin, 83, said in a statement. “She has simply been fantastic in every way, from the moment she came here to the present, and I will always be thankful for her guidance and leadership. I wish her nothing but the best in her future endeavors.”
Wizards spokesman Matt Williams said Pollin is likely to name O’Malley’s successor in the next few weeks. Possible candidates include Rick Moreland, the Wizards’ senior vice president of corporate marketing/ executive seating; and Ed Tapscott, the former president of the Charlotte Bobcats who was a front-office executive with the New York Knicks when Grunfeld was general manager there.
Under O’Malley’s guidance, Verizon Center, formerly known as MCI Center, opened in 1997 with a thenrecord naming rights deal of $50 million over 10 years. The $220 million facility, which Pollin paid for, has helped revitalize downtown Washington.
O’Malley’s arrival at the Bullets and Capitals in 1986 was no accident. Her father, Peter O’Malley, founded one of Prince George’s County’s most influential law firms and became a confidant of Pollin’s. Peter O’Malley helped Pollin navigate Prince George’s zoning and legal minefields to build the Capital Centre in Landover, which opened in December 1973.
Susan O’Malley joined Pollin’s group as director of advertising for the Washington Bullets, as the team was then known, and rose through the ranks through what she called her pluck, hard work and marketing savvy. When she attended her first NBA Board of Governors’ meeting, she was the only woman among 26 executives.
She is known as an exacting boss who sometimes stood by the elevator to time employees’ arrival, and penalized the tardy by asking that they buy doughnuts. At the same time, she was widely respected as a pioneer for women who wanted sports business careers.
“She has inspired a generation of women to understand that sports management was a land of opportunity,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said. “I think it’s so iconic that she was able to win the confidence and trust of Abe Pollin and to be entrusted with the most important position of the franchise.”
O’Malley’s bag of marketing and public service tricks included having players and top team executives phone season ticket holders to ask if they were happy with the team, a policy that continues to this day. She would send Wizards Dance Team members to ticket holders’ homes with balloons and autographed basketballs to thank them for their business.
O’Malley is in demand as a motivational speaker and known for her ability to bring fans to an arena that was home to professional basketball and hockey teams that often had difficulty winning. She was known for shamelessly hawking Wizards tickets, grabbing a microphone and carefully repeating the phone number to the team’s ticket office, not caring if she was addressing the Rotary Club or a kids’ soccer team.
Her halftime entertainment ranged from hypnotists to dog acts to ugly blazer night. She once had a man propose to his girlfriend at midcourt during a break in a Wizards game. As part of the act, the woman ran away in horror before he could put the ring on her finger. She had the team mascot walk from Washington to New Jersey to promote the team’s appearance in the NBA lottery draft.
On the other hand, she was criticized, often by other sports businesspeople and former employees, for dramatically discounting the price of tickets, sometimes even giving them away by the hundreds to fill seats. Critics said she was inflating attendance; supporters claimed Pollin was giving back to the community.
She was often seen — justifiably or not — as Pollin’s gatekeeper and sometime enforcer. When critics and news organizations inquired about the management of the Wizards and whether Pollin was spending enough on his team, it was often O’Malley who was called upon to handle damage control.
After AOL mogul Ted Leonsis bought the Capitals and a minority share of Washington Sports & Entertainment from Pollin in 1999, he occasionally locked horns with O’Malley, who frequently represented her boss’s interests. Leonsis, chairman of Lincoln Holdings, a partnership of investors that owns more than 40 percent of Pollin’s group, said he wished her well.
“She called me earlier in the day to tell me what her plans were,” Leonsis said yesterday. “She did a good job. You judge someone’s performance by the franchise’s increase in value. Did sales and revenues increase? The answer to that is yes. So Susan was very valuable to the company. The investors in Lincoln are sorry to see her go.”
One of Leonsis’s partners said O’Malley deserved credit for being a pioneer. “As the first female president of a major professional sports franchise, she broke down barriers in sports management,” said Raul Fernandez, a part-owner of the Capitals.
O’Malley said yesterday that there were no low points. Then she said if anyone felt pity toward her departure, “In lieu of sending me flowers, people should purchase tickets at 202-6615050.”