With Danette Leighton
Written by: Jim Cavale - December 10, 2020
Pac-12 CMO Danette Leighton shares her journey through collegiate sports, professional basketball, and beyond. Valuable lessons learned at each stop along the way help in her current position. Hear the challenges she faces now, and how the Pac-12 targets such a vast audience.
As a student at the University of Arizona, Danette found a part time job in the athletics ticketing office. She discusses how this was when she realized there was a career in sports, even though she grew up with a dad who coached high school baseball and football.
Danette talks about the opportunities that college athletics has for students, and how a student can take advantage of them.
Danette discusses her view on being a female in sports, how her mentors molded her mindset, and why she takes her own mentor role seriously.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” said Danette as she talks about how important the skills and knowledge she gained were as her career progressed and her portfolio expanded.
Danette talks about how her experience at Sony and the NBA/wNBA helped prepare her for the CMO role.
In 2010 when Danette started with the Pac-12, there were several changes happening, one being a rebranding. She discusses what this meant for her role and the conference.
Danette says all collegiate conferences value their missions. Pac-12’s mission is “dedicated to developing the next generation of leaders: by championing excellence in academics, athletics, and the wellbeing of student-athletes.”
In her role as CMO, the student-athlete experience is of the “utmost importance,” and it led to the creation/relocation of several championships to enhance that experience.
Danette talks about how challenging it can be when it comes to advertising to a broad audience of the Pac-12 due to the generational changes in consumption.
Danette discusses the few touch points that the conference has with student-athletes and how the Pac-12 tries to make those touch points memorable.
Danette walks through the biggest challenges and future opportunities her role and the Pac-12 conference has.
Danette gives her advice to those working in college athletics based on everything she’s learned from her career.
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Jim Cavale: Welcome to the newest episode of the “I Want Your Job” podcast. I am your host, Jim Cavale, the CEO of INFLCR. My company works so hard to put each and every episode together for you to hear the stories of some of the most influential leaders in all of college and pro sports. And the best part is you get to hear their whole story, which every time you’ll realize is not a straight path to success. It’s a nonlinear, figure it out, pay your do’s, and get to your goals path. And today’s is another example of that. It’s Danette Leighton, who is the Chief Marketing Officer of the Pac-12 conference. And as a 1993 graduate at Arizona in the Pac-12, back then it was the Pac-10. She has worked with athletics departments like the Arizona Wildcat Athletics Department. Conferences, she was at the Pac-10 back when it was the Pac-10. She’s worked at the Fiesta Bowl, Sony, and even in the wNBA and the NBA. And I just think you’re going to get a lot out of her story because as a marketer she’s thinking from every direction. And so, let’s jump into it. My interview with Danette Leighton, the Chief Marketing Officer at the Pac-12.
Alright then, so first and foremost, you have had a very successful career in sports. And you’ve been doing this for a while. I mean, this is something that really started for you in a young age. And I think that’s where I want to start with our conversation for those listening is tell us when was the first time you realized, you know what, I actually want to work in sports.
Danette Leighton: Well, it’s funny, you know, I think when I realized it was when I was at the University of Arizona as a student, my very first job I ever got in athletics. I needed to get a part time job. It was, you know, one of the requirements of my family to help contribute to my education. And fortunately, at the time, my sister was at UCLA and was working in the central ticket office at UCLA, and had a connection that I went to look for a part-time job in the ticket office at Arizona. And so my very first job at U of A as a student was in the athletic ticket office. And I look back at that fondly because I have yet to leave ticketing when it comes to any form of my role, no matter what role I’ve done, I always tease that the product in which I’ve had to work for is putting a butt in a seat. So no different than how a CMO might work towards working for a company like Tide or Apple or a different entity. You know, one of the roles in college athletics or in pro sports that a CMO has is to always look at how to get fans in the stands.
And so, ironically, my very first opportunity in sports was as a student in the athletic ticket office at Arizona. And I think that is where I realized that there was a career in sports. I don’t think until then I really had any understanding. And my father was a high school baseball coach and a high school football coach. So I’d always kind of grown up around being a part of that side or being on a baseball diamond or, or on a football field. But I don’t think I have connected the dots that there’s actually a business side of sports or behind the scenes side of sports. And so, that was the beginning of my journey.
And so I’m very appreciative for the opportunities that the University of Arizona gave me as a student and I don’t think I’d be sitting here today if it wasn’t for that first job, that then transitioned into working in media relations, that then transitioned into working for the local ABC affiliate in my senior year because I thought back in the day I wanted to be a sportscaster. But all of those jobs came from the University of Arizona being willing to hire students to do different parts of the role that was needed within athletics. And I felt very lucky because at Arizona at the time and still to this day, we had obviously Lute Olson was a head coach of men’s basketball. We had this amazing men’s basketball program. Dick Tomey was the head coach of football. We had a really incredible football story. And then similarly, we had a great baseball story. So we just… I was there in a really special time. And I’m very thankful to people like Butch Henry who hired me, Tom Duddleston in the, in the sports information offices, the ticket office folks at the time, and you know, Cedric Dempsey was the athletics director. And I started seeing roles like Rocky LaRose had. She at the time obviously was a long-standing senior woman administrator at the University of Arizona. And so, I recognize that there could be a job in sports but it all happened as a student of Arizona, so I’m very appreciative to all the people at U of A that gave me that start as a student and opened my eyes to a potential career, and then started to give me experience.
Yeah, I mean, you mentioned a lot of different people and just an overall atmosphere that was there to really welcome you in, teach you, give you the environment you needed to be able to grow. And, you know, some people listening may not feel like they’re at a school that could provide as much of a setting is the University of Arizona’s athletic program could for you. But the reality is, is it really just starts with you taking initiative like you did, and seeing what it takes. So just kind of talk about that to our audience in regard to taking initiative and some of the things you had to do, because as a student, working in athletics, you’re still subjected to see the long hours, the nights, the weekends, you’re obviously going to have to make sacrifices and not be able to do some of the things your friends get to do while they’re in college. But you felt like it was worth it to make that investment. So I want some of the folks listening who might be younger, to understand what it takes in regard to the initiative you need to, to be successful in that realm.
Yeah, you know, now that I’ve been back in college athletics for a while, I think that the majority of our universities hire a significant amount of students. So I think that’s why there’s so many opportunities. And you can look at it through lots of different departments, whether you’re in the development office, and the, you know, where I was in the ticket office, the media relations, whether you’re in operations or marketing, there’s so much opportunity to learn. And so, I think the most important thing is, one, you have to be the one that goes and seek those opportunities and applies those opportunities, then you have to prove on why you’d be the right fit for it. And then you have to do your job and do your job well. I think at the end of the day, I always wanted to make sure that I got good results and that I always took constructive criticism and then I always had the opportunity to ask questions and to learn. So when you’re given that opportunity, you’ve got to take advantage of it. And I never really looked at it as I was missing out. You know, I was such a huge sports fan to begin with and the fact that I’m working every men’s basketball game, every football game, you know, some of those opportunities gave me the chance to go do internships. Or, you know, I remember during my time in Arizona, during spring break was March Madness, and so, a lot of my friends went to… on spring break trips so I had the opportunity to find a way to get myself to the men’s Final Four in New Orleans. And I look back now and kind of giggle. That was when, you know, Michigan and the Fab Five were there. And I was doing some work for CBS just as a, you know, as an intern taking stats. And so, I look at every chance that somebody gave me an opportunity to say, “Well, if you can get yourself here, we’ll let you do this.” And so, I’d find a way to get myself there and sleep on the couch of somebody that I knew and, and managed to get those opportunities. And I never really looked at those as something that wasn’t a part of making my college experience great. If anything, I had a pretty remarkable opportunity to be kind of front, you know, front and center at these really remarkable programs at Arizona that, you know, really made me realize how much I liked working in sports, and at the same time started to really mold me in the direction where I started to see where I had opportunity and which space was probably more of my space. So that, that’s a time. That definitely wasn’t, while I was at U of A was… it was more as I kind of progressed at my career. But that starting point in Arizona, I say this all the time with people who come in and, and, and folks that are graduating from our institutions and U of A hears me say it all the time, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Arizona athletics, definitely would not be here.
That’s awesome. What do you think is one of the number one learnings? I’m sure you learned a lot. You talked about constructive criticism, asking questions. What’s one of the biggest thing you learned during those years before you really officially started your professional career working as a student?
Well, I think in each role it was a little bit different. You know, obviously, in the ticketing world you start to really learn the importance of revenue generation and what it means to have fans in the stands and what it takes behind the scenes to make sure that that’s all, that that’s all happening. I think a lot of people don’t recognize the operations component of working in sports. And I think I have a lot of respect for it. I think a lot of the case because most of the areas that I’m responsible for my team is, is a lot of the behind the scenes that most people don’t get a chance to, you know, really see if you’re just a fan. So it definitely taught me a lot of respect for what it takes to make things happen and the devils in the details. I became a better writer because, obviously, in the communication side, I had to prove myself to be able to write and to do different things. And it was a different type of writing style, obviously, kind of more of a journalistic type of writing style that I had to learn. Even though I had a, you know, media arts class journalism minor at Arizona, it was still kind of, you know, it was my first time of doing it in a practical way. And so, learning a different skill set like that I think really helped me. And then, I think, you know, my time of interning with KGUN and with the local ABC affiliate, and at the time there is a female weekend sports anchor as well as a great weekday anchor named Dave Silver and Sabrina. And the two of them just, again, they opened their, you know, they opened their arms so letting me kind of see everything from video editing to cutting a tape and, you know, I had these, these aspirations of being the next Robin Roberts. You know, when I was in the business, there wasn’t, there wasn’t a lot of female sportscasters. But I think what was so important for me to learn not while I was doing the internship with KGUN but more kind of after the fact is, I learned very quickly that I didn’t love being on that side of it in the sports industry. I didn’t love being the one doing the interviews. I didn’t… honestly, I didn’t love being the one being in the locker room. It wasn’t something that was comfortable for me. And I realized that, gosh, you know, I think a lot of times you start to realize when you get to experience all these different types of jobs and roles, I think it’s more important sometimes to figure out what you don’t like versus what you do like. And so, I think that I have so much respect for those that are sportscasters in that life and people that have chosen to do that. But I realized that wasn’t the life that I wanted. And I very much liked the business side of it. I really, really enjoyed the external side, the business side of it for understanding how to generate revenue, understanding how to align your fans, create emotional experience. And I think early on, I didn’t realize I was kind of all coupled together more in marketing and kind of external affairs. But it was starting to shape me to realize that that’s where my strengths are and that’s where my interest were.
You touched on a few things that I really liked. Number one, being multidimensional with your skills, right, trying different things to see what you like, what you don’t like, not being restricted to this is what I’m going to do and this is only what I’m going to do. And it sounds like you learned a lot of different things outside of your major to be able to do that. And then the second thing you mentioned is, you know, not a lot of women were on television at that time in sports but really not a lot of women worked in sports in general, and still, that’s something we’re seeing that needs to be evolved today. So I want to talk about those two things because those are two really interesting topics. And I think I’ll start with the latter. What was it like for you being a woman in sports? And how did you look at that back in the ‘90s when you’re going through this journey of figuring out what you want to do?
So, you know, I think when I was younger, I never wanted to be judged for my gender. I never wanted to be treated any differently. I didn’t want anybody to look at me differently, but of course, in different settings that occurred, but at the same time, I had some really remarkable female mentors as well as male mentors that did not treat me or, you know, any differently based on the fact that I was a male or a female. So I think, you know, fortunately, I was raised by two very strong parents who never told me I couldn’t do anything and, and I always was very independent, and so I, you know, in some part of it, I think it’s just kind of your nature that you just like see through it. But I think as I have matured in this profession and still see the real need for the evolution of more women to be in executive roles in sports, I see the real needs to continue to find opportunities for me. And it’s a real personal passion of mine to mentor, to mentor young women to want to be successful in this, in this industry.
So I give a lot of thanks to both the male and the female mentors that I had that really gender wasn’t a part of it. And some of those people, as an example, you know, everything from my kind of my first real job out of college was here, coincidentally, at the Pac-10, where they offer a communications fellowship. Back then we called it a public relations internship. And that person that hired me for that job, fresh out of school was Jim Muldoon who’s now retired, you know, senior associate commissioner. He was with Pac-10 for a very long time. He gave me a great opportunity to do something that was going to give me a whole another level of a skill set. I had oversight of both men sports and women’s sports and the, you know, what is called in the collegiate world kind of sports information. At the same time, there was a senior woman administrator here at the time named Christine Hoyles who really took me under her wings and, and helped me learn other sides of the, of the conference office and things that worked.
And similarly, we did an internship coincidentally with the Golden State Warriors for game nights. And at that time, they had a female media relations director, who for me, so I started seeing, you know, even though, unfortunately, at the time, I probably didn’t realize it, they’re relatively rare, I had some pretty remarkable women that were kind of already pioneering. Another example of that was a senior associate at the time at Stanford, she was the SWA and a senior associate athletics director, went on to have multiple director of athletics roles named Cheryl Levick. She really also was a big part of my, part of my kind of nurturing and, and mentoring throughout. But then similarly, I had a lot of great male role models at the same time. Like I mentioned early on in my career that really helped, you know, guide me and again, not looking at my gender. So I think it’s really important that you walk into this industry knowing that yes, there are still, there’s a huge need for more women to be in, my personal opinion, in C-level executive positions, athletic directors, commissioners. We still have a real need there. But I think there’s been a lot of growth from, you know, from, you know, starting positions to middle management. But I think it’s really at the upper executive level that there is still… it’s, it’s not diverse enough. And I would say that’s both in gender and in ethnic diversity as well.
Alright, and then the multidimensional skillset side of things. You talked about that. Did you know at the time, like, I need to learn as many different tricks of the trade as possible, or did that just kind of happen because you were put into places where you just had to learn?
I think it was probably a combination of both. I would say… I would like to see I was that strategic and intelligent early on in my career, but I think it happened a lot more by circumstance just because everything was so new. I think for anybody who’s starting a career after college, they’re, you know, you don’t know what you don’t know. And so I think a lot of that was circumstantial, and that I got positions that, you know, in college athletics, we were able to do a lot of things. And so, at the Pac-10, as an example, we were just kind of thrown into the deep end, and you had to do it. We had to represent multiple sports. We had to make sure everything was getting managed. So we were essentially, you know, doing the job of full-time positions and of people that have done, you know, this for a long time. As we had a lot of great people that were helping us making sure that our work product was strong enough to represent Pac-12 baseball or at the time Pac-10 baseball or Pac-10 softball or whatever that may be. So I think it was that combination.
Then I think as I progressed in my career, I would say, when I made the decision to jump from essentially my women’s Final Four role at Stanford and kind of collegiate athletics to jump to the corporate side, that was more deliberate when I made the decision to go work for Sony Tokyo in particular, and work on the PGA Tour side of it. That was really because I wanted to broaden my skills on being on the sponsorship side of the business and being… looking at through… looking at things through the lens of being a sponsor, and why they choose or why they make decisions to invest in aligning their brand with the sports brands. So that was definitely a more deliberate decision where I felt like I needed to expand my, you know, call it external portfolio in both ticketing, sponsorship, and other areas of revenue generation that I knew were imperative. And no matter if you’re in college sports, pro sports or just in the business in general, that was definitely a more deliberate decision that I made to get that experience.
Well, and then, you know, we talked about multidimensional skills, but you’ve also, you look at your story, you’ve really had a lot of different places that you’ve worked that are, you know, different realms of sports, right? You’ve worked at the conference level. You’ve worked at the athletics department’s level. You kept saying Pac-10 for those younger listeners that used to be the Pac-10, of course, the Pac-12, just to clarify the Big 12 used to be the Big 8.
I know. It makes me feel old, but yes, I was in school and we are the Pac-10. And we… and I’ve been here at the Pac-12 when we became the Pac-12. So obviously, that was the very beginning of this role that I’m in now is to bring Utah and Colorado into the fold. So it’s been fun to be a part of the transition.
And… but you’ve also work the Fiesta Bowl, Final Fours, things like that, and most unique out of everywhere you stopped along the way, I think, to me is, is what you did working in the marketing division for Sony Sports. And the reason I bring all this up is, you know, there’s, there’s a lot of stories of folks that are still very impactful and interesting, college sports folks who started in ticket sales, and they’ve worked their way up, and all they’ve done is worked in college sports. And, you know, that is something that I think is also unique in its realm because you get to see the industry evolve, college sports has evolved a ton over the decades. But for you to have that origin story but then bounce outside of college sports in a lot of rounds Including working with Sony, I think brings tons of diverse experiences to your current role as chief marketing officer of the Pac-12 at a time where innovation and forward thinking and really looking at the world of marketing in general, not just in sports or college sports is very important, because how do you capture attention is something that’s continuously, as we know, evolving with the phone and new channels, and all that. So, how did, how did the stop at Sony really fit in to the full skill set you have now as a CMO at the Pac-12?
Yeah, so I think it’s a combination of my stop with Sony and then the almost 10 years I spent in the NBA and WNBA. I would say it’s the combination of both of those that I think really prepared me for the role that I’m in now, coming back to college athletics. You know, from a Sony perspective, it’s a lot of what I said before, I was very deliberate in wanting to be on that side of the business and seeing how decisions are made by the actual corporation who invest in sport property. So the idea that, you know, the entity that we had was a division of Sony Tokyo that essentially was working primarily on two different kind of sports properties, one was Major League Baseball and one was the PGA Tour, I obviously worked on the PGA Tour side and the Sony opened in Hawaii. What I liked about that role was that it was still a lot of event management and it was still a lot of, you know, helping if you put on a sporting event, which I was very familiar with. But then it was working closely with all the different Sony divisions on finding what made the most sense for their involvement in a sport property. So what we did with Sony Music at the Sony open in Hawaii, what we did with Sony Electronics, I mean, this is also going to date me, it was launching kind of HDTV, so high definition in golf was really powerful. Obviously, you could see, you know, I remember one of the first HD broadcasts was a Sony Open in Hawaii and looking at the Sony, you know, equipment of being able to see just like, you know, the detail of the blades of grass and things like that and watching an actual golf tournament, and then also it could be, part of launching a new trailer for a movie for Sony Pictures. So what I loved about the Sony experience was one being a part of a large corporation. Two, they had so many different divisions. And PlayStation, obviously, was a fascinating component of that as well. And being able to see all these different business units and understanding what was important to them as a brand, what they wanted to do in alignment with a potential sport, with a particular sports property, how do we integrate them into that and then just learning and meeting and meeting all those different executives and understanding the different people that ran those different businesses and what essentially the objectives and the goals were of those different businesses that were all part of one of those, you know, massive, huge companies was really fascinating. And on top of it, it was a really remarkable cultural experience for me because my technical bosses were in Japan. So I worked for executives within the Sony division that were in Tokyo. So that was a whole new experience for me. I had never had that before. So that was unique in my kind of just management and, and learning experience. But I would say that’s probably the Sony in a cliff notes version.
But I think the experience that I, that I got in Sacramento and with the NBA and WNBA I think really led to the role that I have here. I always like to say, I don’t think I’d be in this job if I didn’t have that experience just based on, at the time what Commissioner Scott was looking for. And I think my combination of the understanding of college politics, the experience in college athletics, to know what it, what it takes to be a part of it, but with that from an NBA and WNBA perspective, I think really couple together, it help me be ready for this role. And, you know, may he rest in peace, but I have major respect for David Stern and what I learned from the NBA and my time and the launch of the WNBA and Val Ackerman who is now at the Big East, obviously, the commissioner. And some of the colleagues that I met in the NBA and the WNBA to this day are some of my closest and dearest friends, but more importantly, some of the brightest people I’ve ever known in the business. And really the collaboration we had in the NBA and WNBA how closely we worked with each other from a team by team perspective, how we would find ways to share best practices, how we would look at how we can all be better in ticket sales and game presentation and marketing and communications and digital. It was a very collaborative type of environment. From a business perspective, we might have been competitive on the court. But when it came to trying to see how we could all work better together, I really commend what David created with Team Bow and other things that really helped us all get better and be a lot smarter. You know, we would always, you know, steal the next best idea from somebody else. If Miami Heat was doing something awesome in game presentation, we would steal it and do it and vice versa. And I think we all really shared that common desire to make everybody better. So I think that was really important in my transition here.
But I think the combination of having to do it both for NBA property and my responsibilities on the Kings’ side, but then running the business of the Sacramento Monarchs, I think that combination has also really helped me here in transitioning back to having so many sports. You know, I spent 365 days in Sacramento worrying about the sport of basketball and coming back to the Pac-12. I have to worry about those… both basketballs, but we have a lot more sports than just the two basketballs. And so, understanding the uniqueness of each of the sports, how to customize things appropriately for each of the sports, how we have to prioritize resources, how you have to look at how you make… can make an impact in a league like the Pac-12 who, obviously, our moniker is a “Conference of Champions” and, and we have 529 national titles as well as significant amount of Olympic medals. We’re, we’re pretty, we’re all around incredibly strong from a broad-based sports standpoint. And so, every sport matters and I think that time that I had in Sacramento really helped me to try to figure out how to balance all that and understand the unique differences between an Olympic sport or a women’s sport and a man’s sport and to be able to develop strategies appropriately for each of them. So I think both of those together really helped me be set up for my role here. And again, similarly that I had great mentors and, and great relationships, I had some pretty remarkable people in Sacramento as well, including the President at the time, his name was John Thomas, he gave me so many opportunities, you know, put me in positions that I may or may not have had all the experience for, but saw something in me and always gave me a lot of opportunities at a very young age to, to rise very quickly. And so, I will forever be grateful and thankful for those opportunities that people like him and others gave me to because they saw something in me. So I think I’ve had that all along my path and have been given opportunities to grow the position and learn a position as well as be prepared for the next position. So I think that’s probably how I would define my time between the NBA, WNBA, the Kings, Monarchs and my time with Sony.
Well, if you take all that into consideration, and you look at when you arrive at the Pac-12, now you’re in this CMO seat, and in 2010, a lot changed, right, when it comes to how people consume sports, the device they choose to consume it through, the channels of which they choose to consume it through, and as you look at 2010, today, a decade apart seems almost like worlds apart. So talk about being a CMO of a Power Five conference during this major evolution of content consumption between the iPhone and social media. And, and then of course, the traditional media’s that have always been the norm before that.
Yeah, so I think, you know, what’s fascinating about 2010 is that we had a lot of really early opportunity. So when I came on board, you know, Commissioner Scott was already in a process of doing a rebrand of a conference which include, obviously, a new visual identity, but really thinking about, you know, through the lens of our stakeholders and key constituents, you know, what is… what are the differentiators of the Pac-10 at the time and the brand and what makes them special, makes us unique. And so, my role was to really come in and to kind of take that and then move it into an execution phase and, and different ways in which we could really enhance the brand. But also look at how we, you know, and you know, all things being equal, when we’re looking at it from a brand perspective or marketing perspective, for the most part, everybody compares us to our peer conferences, right?
So what makes us unique and different from the Big Ten, from the SEC, from the ACC, from the Big 12, etc. And so, looking at that lens is kind of where I started, and I think that at the same time, we are in a position where our TV rights were coming up obviously, so, you know, my job was to make sure that we could position our conference and our brand in the best possible light so that we could prepare it for obviously having the best potential media terms that we get. So we had a lot that was happening very early. And then that, obviously, was also, you know, how we also chose to expand and bring in two remarkable universities in Colorado and Utah. So that happened within like a year and a half time of when I started of… we, obviously, we grew to become the Pac-12. We are going to be negotiating media terms. We’re negotiating new media terms with, obviously, ESPN and Fox. We had launched our own media company in the Pac-12 Network. So lots of new and lots of change.
Since then, obviously, there’s been even more change. And obviously, we’re on a cycle in which now it’s looking ahead to the kind of the next iteration of that. But part of all that change also included, you know, first and foremost, is being reminded and making sure that we as a conference and with our members help always stay true to what our mission is. And I think that’s something that all collegiate conferences, you know, value greatly and for me has always been my North Star. And the Pac-12 Conference has always been to dedicate, you know, we’re dedicated to developing the next generation of leaders by championing excellence in academics, athletics and the well-being of student athletes.
So the overall student athlete experience is a component that is of the utmost critical nature for me and how we make decisions for everything from what our team does today, which is looking at the championship experience, the evolution of our championships in tournaments. You know, in 2010, we had our men’s basketball tournament at Staples Center. We had our women’s basketball tournament across the street at Galen Center. You know, obviously, I was a part of men’s and women’s basketball for a really long time. So a big part of my role at the time was looking at making that transition. And we obviously moved events to Las Vegas, which have been very successful. We moved the women’s to Seattle, and now we’re in Las Vegas. And we launched the football championship game. So all of those big championships were under my team’s responsibility in conjunction, obviously, with other peers that I have up here. But those are all brand new, essentially, events that we built to, like, try to really kind of not only establish first and foremost an amazing experience for our student athletes and really, you know, raise our game for all of our championships, our Olympic championships and, and those as well, but at the same time looking for opportunities to make sure that our 12 members could be proud of the conference that they are part of. We represent our 12 members incredibly well, because at the end of the day, the league is obviously the, the affinity goes to our 12 institutions. And so, I always believe that I work for our 12 schools and there is, you know, I think one of my favorite lines that did happen, one of my first, you know, probably two months on the job, we were, I was going through a presentation of our kind of our brand, you know, our brand direction, what we’re going to do and some of these changes, and I think I heard and it was, you know, a provost at one of our institutions made the comment, “Whatever you do, don’t embarrass us.” And that has really resonated with me for, you know, the 10 years that I’ve been here is I represent Stanford, I represent Arizona, I represent UCLA, I represent Colorado, Utah, etc., and everything that we do from the league office has to make sure that it is obviously something in which our 12 members can be proud of. So I take that very seriously. And I think from our perspective, that’s something that is also a North Star for us.
And so, I think the opportunities that we’ve had to be able to do some of those changes and to innovate have really all come from that at its core and its foundation. And so, there’s been a lot of change in the industry, of course, but there’s been a lot of things that stay consistent, you know, as I kind of teased about, you know, butts and seats and putting fans in the stands and creating a great experience, that’s still is a necessity. It’s just evolved and how you have to do it and what you have to do more of in a very customized type of mindset. You know, I tease that Millennials and Gen Zs want to consume things very differently than Gen X and Boomers do and we have to be able to talk to all of them. I think the one thing that’s unique in college athletics that’s a little bit different than the pros is our kind of demo is probably one of the broadest demos you can get and it’s really from when somebody has an affinity or an association to a university, whether that be when they went to that institution or they grew up near that institution, all the way into their life cycle. That’s not necessarily the case in most sports properties. So having such a vast type of audience and knowing how incredibly important is to customize I think is probably the most challenging component to the future of, you know, kind of sport consumption, both from a live perspective, from a digital perspective, from a linear or television perspective, that’s so, that’s ever changing. And I think that it’s very different based on kind of what you’ve been raised with. How my 16-year-old consumes is very different than how I consume.
And so, I think for the challenge of CMOs, the challenge of anybody in our industry is where do you find that sweet spot. Where do you find consistency? How do you get as customized as you really want to get with the resources that you have? I think that’s always… I think that’s always a challenge. But I think all of these things are interesting of where we started to where we are today. And I think it all comes with that foundation of what the mission of the Pac-12 is, and just a reminder that we represent 12 of the, you know, most prestigious, higher education institutions in the country, both academically and athletically. And we have the good fortune of being able to use athletics as the front porch for our brand and to tell the story of these amazing student athletes. But more importantly, you know, these 7,000 student athletes get the opportunity to go to school, and get to compete at the highest level and get to earn a degree. And I think that’s something that we obviously take very seriously. And we want to make sure that we represent our schools to the best of our ability and they’re proud to wear the Pac-12 shields in their uniforms.
And these student athletes now have the opportunity to tell their own story, right, with social media and the platform that these amazing Pac-12 universities provide these student athletes, gives these student athletes a chance to really build their own brand, which is why we exist, right, at INFLCR. And when you look at that North Star, we share it, the athlete, the student athlete experience. Talk about that a little more, like, what does it really mean in college athletics to put student athlete first? And when you answer that, answer it a little bit with your University of Arizona athletics hat on, but then answer it from the conference level. Because I know those are two different things.
Yeah, so, I think, you know, it’s where our universities and what our student athletes have, you know, it’s not easy being a student athlete, I think, obviously, at Division I level highly competitive, and especially in our conference, like I look at, you know, the national champions that we… that they know that we have, the types of programs that we have, I mean, just look at our women’s basketball programs this year and how proud we are of those.
Oh, it’s amazing.
And just it, it’s just, it’s, it’s really cool to watch just the level of competition that we have in our league and, and how well we do on a national scale. You know, we always fill on time as we get ready for an Olympic year going into Tokyo. You know, this is one of my favorite stats in the Pac-12. If we were a country in the last three Olympics, we would have finished 5th in the Olympic count, just behind Russia. USA would have been one. China would have been two. Great Britain would have been three. Russia would have been four. And the Pac-12 is five.
That is remarkable. And so, and that is consistent with the last three Olympics, if you look at the last three. So preparing for Tokyo and seeing, you know, the numbers that we most likely will have that don’t just represent Team USA, I think this will go back tied to your student athlete experience question, they represent the globe. You know, we’ve had over 111 countries represented in the Olympics from Pac-12 student athletes or coaches or former. And that I think is what’s so unique about college athletics is the global component, and the opportunities in which we are able to really have for these, you know, men and women that are able to go on campus and in some cases, you know, it is the opportunity and I always use my dad as an example. My dad got a baseball scholarship to UCLA, and that really is what, you know, kick started higher education in my family, you know. Before then, not a lot of people in my immediate family had gone to school. So I also look at that opportunity that my dad had to play baseball. I don’t think my sister and I would be where we’re seeing today if my dad didn’t play baseball at UCLA and earned his undergraduate degree and then go on to earn his master’s degree. You know, I think those types of things, I think, are really important to just kind of the trajectory from an education standpoint for families. But I think what I love about the student athlete experience and where I feel like we can make an impact on it, like I think our institutions do a remarkable job and the opportunities in which they’re given and the fact that they have, you know, what they are able to do while they’re on campus and, and obviously do it both in the classroom and the community as well as athletically.
From a conference perspective, I think we try to really look at that through all of the different initiatives that we’re able to support with our members and then support our members and initiatives that they’re doing locally. So we obviously spend a lot of time around our championships because that’s an opportunity where we get to interact with our student athletes. I’m not on campus every day. That’s the one thing that you do miss when you’re at a conference office or you’re at a league, when you’re not, when you’re at a team or when you’re at a school, you really get to be a part of that environment and spend a lot more time with the student athletes. Well, we, at the league level, get to spend time with our student athletes in some of our organizations like SAAC and different, you know, and our governance structure where student athletes are a part of our governance structure, and then obviously, around our championships. So we spend a lot of time trying to make sure that those experiences that they have, whether it be the last time they ever play their sport, or, you know, the first time they ever play their sports, they’re going to be able to walk away and say, “Wow, that was really special for me to be able to compete in that gymnastics championship in Utah,” or “the track and field Championship up at Oregon.” That’s really important to us, because we know this is a moment in their life that we want them to have a memory that they can say it was a special one. And I think what I get excited about is, you know, we have fellows here that are both on the communication side that I was lucky enough to be but we also have these administrative fellows that are former student athletes. And currently we have a former football player and a former football player from Oregon and a former rower from UCLA. And I love listening to their experience on their institutions, their experience at our championships and what it meant to them.
So when I hear from Juwan what it meant to him to play in the football championship game at Levi’s, or hearing Lenea talk about her rowing experience up at the Lake Natoma, those are all really not only great insight for us on how to be better, but also making sure that we’re connecting with the student athletes in a way that, you know, making their experience that much better while they’re… while they’re competing.
And then, obviously, I think a lot of it has to do with more on a national scale and looking at how we as a league and as our schools are looking at things from a, from a national perspective and college athletics, which there obviously is a lot more change that’s happening and going to continue to happen. So I think that, like any business, it’s ever evolving. And I think I feel pretty blessed that I get to work in an industry that really is mission-based and has a purpose and cares about education and cares about young people and we get to have a platform to try to help, you know, really try to develop those future leaders because we see the results of young people that play sports and the correlation between the next leaders of, of corporations or in, you know, civic leaders or community leaders, we… there is definitely a strong tie to the importance of playing athletics or being a part of the team. And that’s something that I’ve always been very passionate about specifically for women and the importance of girls playing sports.
I love it. I love it. And in fitting in the CMO seat for the Pac-12, what do you look at are some of the one big thing coming that is a huge opportunity? What’s was the biggest opportunity you see in college athletics, especially from the conference?
Oh, my gosh, that’s a hard question. I don’t know if I can answer just one. I mean, I think I, I kind of referenced it a little bit earlier. I think that the customization and the different forms of content consumption and knowing where to focus or prioritize or, you know, do more of, I think that’s forever going to be one of the biggest challenges as a CMO to try to continue to drive engagement with fans and an affinity with fans to want to consume their team or their school in any form or fashion, whether that be going to the live events, watching you on TV, taking in your information on social, watching, you know, whatever that looks like, I think is, I think what I, you know, probably keeps me up at night the most is the variety and the vast amount of how different that has to be and knowing what the sweet spot is. I don’t think there is a silver bullet and there’s never been a silver bullet in what I’ve done. So I think that’s something that is intriguing, I think, both as a challenge but as an opportunity. I think, you know, we always tease in our space like what we do is in a lot of cases very subjective but we do, you know, most of our work is based on analytics and data. So I think that’s a huge part of something that I’m very proud of what we’ve also worked really hard to build here for our members is a pretty robust fan data program and making decisions based on having a better understanding of what’s happening and the behaviors of your fans and the can… and what they’re doing and where there are, you know, where there are best practices to share.
The thing much like I’m appreciative for my Team Bow in NBA days, I think that best practice sharing amongst my peers on campus and looking at how we all can be better in the areas that we’re responsible for I think is something that I’m really hopeful that we’re trying to build here and bring back to our schools. And then working very closely with our schools locally, every one of our schools have different challenges. And so, I believe part of our role at the conference office is to support our schools in those efforts. So we like to work very closely with each of our institutions on different projects that are important to them and where we can be an extension of their team and, and provide value. So I think those are all opportunities for us moving forward, but I don’t think there’s just one. I think there’s many.
Yeah, that’s I guess the, the biggest thing with marketing now is, right, it’s like where do you focus. There’s so many different places to reach so many different audiences. But you’re obviously doing an amazing job. You have innovated with a lot of different platforms throughout the 10 years. You’ve been back with Pac-12. And just congrats on all your success. Thanks for sharing the stuff you shared today on this interview for the different folks who are listening who obviously want to have the opportunity to have the impact that you’ve been able to have. And I know just from working with half of your schools with INFLCR, you guys are pushing from the conference level a mindset of anything is possible. And I think that is what’s making the biggest impact on the student athletes. So just, you know, congrats on all this and then, obviously, Godspeed, as you go forward into a lot of these new phases of college athletics.
Well, thank you, Jim. I appreciate that very much. It’s very kind words. But like any good organization, it’s a team effort. It’s not just one person. And I think that’s something that, you know, if I give any advice out there, stay humble. Stay true to yourself, know your North Star. I always tell everybody, you, you, you should work and live with your own personal values and ethics. And you work hard. There’s, I think, at the end of the day, you know, lots of people gave me great opportunities, but it’s also boiled down to the individual of, of, you know, put your head down. And I still believe in, you know, grit and hard work and grinding it. And I’m fortunate to have a really remarkable team here that we are like a family and everybody has a really unique skill set. And together, we complement each other. And I think that, that goes a long way. And obviously, I get to work for 12 schools that are pretty remarkable. So it wasn’t hard for me to come, to become the CMO of the Pac-12 because, one, it’s very personal to me; but two, I’ve always had a lot of admiration for the 12 institutions that are a part of this, a part of this league. So, it’s been a… it’s been a real dream to be able to be the CMO with the Pac-12.
Wonderful interview from a really influential woman in sports, and really appreciate Danette taking the time to share her story and all of her learnings with you, and with us here on the “I Want Your Job” podcast. We have so many great episodes here in Season 2. Episode 1 started us off with a bang with Coach Cal, and we continue to hear with Episode 2 with Danette Leighton.
Episode 3 is going to feature one the most powerful athletic directors’ in all of college sports, and that’s Ross Bjork the new athletic director at Texas A&M, one of the biggest budgets and overall biggest schools’ in college sports. And you’re going to hear all about his transition, at one point being the youngest athletic director in the SEC over at Ole Miss now moving over to Texas A&M another SEC school. A lot of learnings coming from Ross, and throughout this season you’re just going to hear some great podcasts from some great leaders. So, make sure you’ve subscribed on Apple iTunes or Spotify, and if you can give us a share as well because people need to hear these stories. That’s how we learn is from each other, and from all the things that we’ve experienced in our journey.
So, for everybody here at INFLCR, thanks for tuning into Episode 2 of th “I Want Your Job” podcast. I’m Jim Cavale, stay tuned for Episode 3 next week with Ross Bjork.