Full Court Press
The Sixers take the lead in hiring female execs
By Stacey Adams

Even if you’re a die-hard Sixers fan, you probably haven’t heard of Katie O’Reilly. But you may have caught a glimpse of her chatting up the VIPs at home games.

Ivana Seric isn’t a household name from the Sixers either, but maybe it should be. A former Division 1 basketball player and math whiz, Seric’s mastery of the game and number-crunching skills help Ben Simmons and other players improve their jump shots and exploit rival players’ weaknesses.

Among professional sports teams, the Sixers are recognized for hiring practices that have placed a number of talented women in high-level positions. These Sixers execs, like O’Reilly and Seric, are trailblazers, breaking into what’s still a male-dominated realm. That didn’t happen by accident or happy coincidence, says Lara Price, the Sixers chief operating officer.

“It’s important to us,” says Price, who is third in the chain of command for the Sixers’ business operations. “We do a ton of promotion to get women in our senior staff recognized for awards.”

For many years, that was not the case. Price, who has been with the team since 1996, was often the only woman in the room for important business decisions. When owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer bought the then-slumping team in 2011, they decided the team’s path would be paved by branching out to hire the best people. That meant taking steps so women and other minorities would feel supported, says Price. The decision was made years before NBA Commissioner Adam Silver laid out, in 2018, a new goal that 50 percent of all new hires league-wide be women.

The shift was a long time coming, says Price. When she started her career in the Continental Basketball Association as the director of team operations, most women she encountered on the job were assistants and secretaries.

“It didn’t bother me,” says Price, who played basketball for Colorado State University. “I was always in a gym playing with guys, so maybe that helped.”

Noting that nearly every role she’s had was made possible by the men – and women – who championed her cause along the way, she rose through the ranks quickly. Price came to the Sixers in 1996 as director of marketing. In 1998, a promotion to vice president landed her as one of the first female vice presidents in the NBA.

She has been with the team through both good times (she started two months before Allen Iverson was drafted) and the lean years when “Trust the Process” became a catch-phrase for patience and team building. One of her proudest achievements was the Sixers’ move to its state-of-the-art training complex and corporate office at the Camden Waterfront in 2016.

She says she feels a sense of responsibility to help talented women rise up the ranks.

Among them is O’Reilly, 35, a Philly native whose first job out of college in 2007 was in the ticketing office for the Knicks and Rangers. A promotion landed her in the NBA office as a marketing coordinator where she met the future owners of the Sixers. Hired as the Sixers’ director of business development in 2013, the die-hard fan has really run with the ball. Among her successes, O’Reilly cultivated the “Circle of Stars,” those A-List athletes and celebrities you see courtside rooting for the team.

Now one of the most senior leaders at the Sixers, O’Reilly oversees all aspects of marketing: branding, advertisement and social media. In addition, she led the development of the 76ers Legends Walk – commissioned sculptures installed at the Camden complex.

It’s truly a dream job for O’Reilly, who played high-school ball. But it does involve lots of late nights and travel for the mom of a toddler son.

“We don’t really talk about work-life balance because, ultimately, it’s impossible,” says O’Reilly. She says she makes it work by living in the moment and taking advantage of flexible scheduling between games.

“When I’m home at night with my son, I block my schedule to make sure I’m home with him, my phone is down and I’m not looking at it. When he’s asleep, I’m back online,” she says. “In the morning during the season, I’ll block my schedule off so I can spend more time with him knowing I’ll be at the arena late at night.”

As a controller for the team, Vice President Tina Szwak is another Sixers executive who can relate. She says it feels good to be able to model to her daughters that it’s possible to have a career in sports and also raise a family. In fact, being a female exec for the Sixers has landed her the title of “cool mom” – her kids are proud to tell everyone their mom works for the team. They love attending games with their dad (but she has to work).

Szwak came to the Sixers in 2005 as a controller and was promoted to vice president last year. While she feels supported by other women within the Sixers, she says the league also provides avenues for women to connect across teams. Recently she attended a women’s breakfast at the NBA’s annual finance meeting where she networked with fellow female leaders from all 30 teams, an experience she says was “incredible.”

The feeling of wonderment is still fresh for Seric, a Croatian-born mathematician who arrived just two years ago. Seric took a job in the Sixers data analytics department after completing a six-year doctoral program in computational fluid dynamics at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where she was a starting player on the Division 1 basketball team all four years.

Combining two loves – math and basketball – she number crunches daily to deliver pre-game reports on opponents that help the coaches use players to the best of their abilities. It’s a hands-on job as Seric is often on the court practicing with the team – putting her math to the test. Even after 2 years with the organization, she says it still feels like a dream.

“One of the reasons I agree to do interviews is because there are not that many women, in general, in sports and in STEM fields. I’m kind of at the intersection of both of those things, doing math for a sports team,” says Seric. “It’s important for other women and young girls to see that they can have these kinds of jobs, and that sports and math are not just for boys – they can also have a career in these fields.”

Vice President of Player Development for the Sixers, Annelie Schmittel is another woman whose career was shaped by her love of sports. Growing up in Germany, she excelled in track, tennis and basketball before settling on track.

Moving to Wisconsin as an exchange student during her senior year of high school, she discovered American football and also fell in love with her future husband, a football player. Both of their sports careers ended early as a result of injuries.

Click Here: The Women of the Sixers Talk Making Their Mark

After finishing a PhD in sports communication, she got her dream job with the Oakland Raiders: helping rookie players aging out of the league or leaving after career-ending injuries – many around the same age or even younger than she was –find their path to post-football careers and lives. She’s been doing a similar job with the Sixers since last year.

“My proudest moments are when I was able to help athletes perform on a Sunday when I was with the Raiders, or here on any given day,” Schmittel says. “It’s big moments – when I was able to help a player complete their degree or help them transition into life in the NFL or NBA – plus little moments where they were going through a hard time and I was able to have a conversation or 2 or 5 or 10 that got them through it.”

Her passion for helping athletes get to their next level fits perfectly within the Sixers company culture. She describes that culture as supportive of both the players and people who work within the organization, including women in positions of power.

“We’re really fortunate here,” Price says. “I’ve read articles where women aren’t always supportive of women, but we’ve been incredibly lucky. I think that just goes to the culture we’re building here. We’re incredibly supportive of each other. Having open lines of communication is really important for all employees, but especially when we’re at this high level. We support each other and speak up for each other.”

February 2020
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