For at least 25 years, senior sales executives Leela Narang and Cynthia Howard often crossed paths in their work.
It was impossible for them to miss each other as two women in a largely male-dominated field of sales, with Narang working for Golf Digest and Howard selling for Sports Illustrated.
“You don’t get a lot of women in sales positions and our careers were parallel, so that’s how we met,” said Narang of Westport, Connecticut. Narang was also the former tournament director of the ShopRite LPGA Classic and a vice president of the golf division at Octagon sports.
Fast forward to March 2023, with the two sales veterans now in their 50s with a combined 60 years of contacts and experience between them working for major global sports properties.
An epiphany was bound to happen.
“We had played golf together, entertaining similar clients, and we knew our contacts were our currency,” said Howard of Rye, New York, who also worked in sales for the PGA Tour for 13 years. “It’s such a small world, and we thought that maybe we should work together.”
Narang posed the idea to Howard to create a female-owned-and-operated agency with a mission to concentrate on driving revenue solely to women’s sports.
“We were both beneficiaries of Title IX, and we are people who don’t give up. We made a decision that we had to do something. We didn’t just jump on the women’s sports bandwagon.” — Leela Narang
Through their company, Sturges Sports Group, they would produce customized marketing programs for clients by leveraging women’s sports properties, female athletes and media to help grow clients’ brands.
The two also saw an opportunity to pay forward their respective experiences as former college athletes. Narang had played varsity basketball at Wesleyan University, and Howard played field hockey and lacrosse at the University of Virginia.
“We were both beneficiaries of Title IX, and we are people who don’t give up,” Narang said. “We made a decision that we had to do something. We didn’t just jump on the women’s sports bandwagon.”
Howard noted that an estimated “94 percent of C-suite [executive level] women played a team sport,” which further fueled their united desire to focus exclusively on women’s sports.
“That means we need to help provide more opportunities for girls to play sports,” Howard said. “If we really want to move the needle and get more women in high-profile and leadership roles in business, we have to start somewhere.”
Both women acknowledged that while many brands talk about entering the market of women’s sports, not as many actually invest. To make their idea work, they would need to tap into their respective knowledge and understanding of how to sell women in sports.
“Women across every sport are underpaid, undervalued and under-represented, so we both felt like, let’s go tackle this challenge,” Narang said. “It’s not going to be easy, but we’re enthusiastic when we talk about the properties, like the LPGA and women’s soccer.”
They decided to look more at sponsorship, rather than the basic numbers game of advertising.
Sponsorships would allow them to integrate player involvement in “telling stories” with behind-the-scenes experiences for a brand – utilizing different portals of communication through social media, engagement and activation.
“From a B-to-B [business to business] perspective, if a company signs on to [sponsor] an LPGA player and they bring their best customer to play golf with that player in an LPGA pro-am, that customer will never forget their experience,” Howard said.
“It’s a completely different thing when you’re selling a sponsorship,” Narang added. “It’s a much closer-to-your-heart-strings kind of experience with greater access to the women athletes.”
Sturges Sports Group partnered with the LPGA’s developmental Epson Tour this summer to help the Hartford Healthcare Women’s Championship generate community and corporate awareness at its event in Milford, Connecticut.
“I would love to see new brands step up and sponsor women’s golf and women’s sports. We need these companies to be the vanguard so other brands will get onboard. And yes, we’re just going to keep knocking on their doors.” — Cynthia Howard
Howard and Narang developed a women’s golf day and clinic, created media exposure for title-sponsor executives, led the tournament’s sponsorship sales and activation, and helped the event establish community engagement through charity, education and partnerships.
“The Epson Tour provided us with the players, and we brought in people and sponsors from the community,” Narang said. “We were there to help this tournament generate buzz and drive some revenue.”
Added Howard: “We brought in around 24 executive women to the clinic, and we’re hoping to do it again next summer.”
The duo also created a program called Power Hitters, in which executive-level women are invited to participate in an annual corporate golf outing. A former golf tournament professional, Narang had often been invited to participate in overnight corporate hospitality events with a largely male clientele. Clubs offering an on-site “cottage golf experience” would bring executives together for two or three days of golf, hospitality, five-star dinners and engagement that often would result in business connections not possible in boardrooms.
Remembering the business productivity of those corporate overnight outings, Narang wanted to offer the same cottage golf experience for female executives through Power Hitters. They brought in 16 women this year to one destination course in New Jersey, where they all played golf, dined and spent time together for a high-end corporate-bonding experience.
“We wanted them to realize they have worked their way up to the top of their companies and that they should not be shut out of further opportunities because they don’t know how to play golf,” Narang said. “These were executive women who were turning down trips and missing out on business and on building their careers.”
When the female executives were brought together for the Power Hitters outing, Howard and Narang reinforced that the goal was for them to connect with other women and their respective businesses, build relationships and then help others “feel comfortable” on a golf course. Jill Thomas, chief marketing officer for PGA Tour Superstore, was one of the women on the Power Hitters trip, and because of that experience, she is now a corporate client with Sturges Sports Group.
In addition to representing six LPGA Tour players, Sturges Sports Group is the exclusive agency representing the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate. That tournament, set for March 4-6, 2024, features 17 women’s college teams at Long Cove Golf Club in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
“We’re working with the Golf Channel in a partnership, selling the broadcast integration (including advertising units, billboards and on-site activation),” Howard said.
Narang and Howard are hopeful their leap of faith to launch their own company not only will be sustainable but will make a difference in the sports world. They want to be viewed as women who support women.
“As a women-owned agency, I would like to have credibility that we’re doing the right things and we’re serious about making an impact,” Narang said. “Others can say they want to drive revenue to women’s sports, but Cynthia and I are actually using our relationships to reach out.”
“I would love to see new brands step up and sponsor women’s golf and women’s sports,” Howard said. “We need these companies to be the vanguard so other brands will get onboard. And yes, we’re just going to keep knocking on their doors.”
© 2023 Global Golf Post LLC
Top: Leela Narang (third from left) and Cynthia Howard (third from right) joined other women to discuss the sports media ecosystem at a recent Women’s Sports Club breakfast. Courtesy Sturges Sports Group
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