Ann Rodriguez ’99
Ann Rodriguez ’99 has been a fan of the WNBA since its beginning, attending her first New York Liberty game as an undergrad in 1997, the league’s first season. When the 2017 playoffs tip off tonight, Rodriguez will be more than a spectator: As the WNBA’s new senior vice president, she assigns referees, works with broadcast partners, and handles other important logistics to make sure that the season’s most pressure-packed games go off without a hitch.

“My focus really is on the playing side — making sure that I understand the experience that our athletes are currently having and ways that we could enhance that and improve it,” says Rodriguez, a veteran sports executive who has spent much of her career working in professional soccer.

Earlier this year, Rodriguez was at the center of one of Major League Soccer’s most remarkable stories, helping to launch Atlanta United FC, an expansion team that ranks at the top of the league in attendance in its inaugural season. Atlanta United has averaged more than 46,000 fans per game and sold 35,000 season tickets — an eye-popping number in a league where most teams draw crowds of about 20,000. And as defender Michael Parkhurst told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in July, “it’s not just the numbers. It’s the atmosphere. It’s the passion. It’s the singing, the chants. It’s an awesome environment to play in front of.”

“The fans are a massive part of the environment in soccer, and those fans did such a great job of organizing themselves and inventing rituals and moments that we hadn’t even conceived,” Rodriguez says. “We were smart enough not to interrupt it and figure out how to build on it, but hats off to the awesome people in Atlanta. They really brought the enthusiasm to the club.”

Rodriguez was drawn to working in sports partly because of her experience as a student-athlete at Princeton, where she played on two Ivy League-champion women’s lacrosse teams. Competing for one of the nation’s top programs, she says, “requires a certain level of intensity and focus, and when you don’t deliver that, you get feedback, in the form of a coach letting you know or teammates letting you know.” That exposure to critical feedback helped her to be “coachable” in a business context, she says.

As a Princeton senior, Rodriguez reached out to alumni in hopes of working for a sports team or league. She still remembers the advice she received from Byron Allen ’84, now a senior vice president at IMG Worldwide, who told her to “start small” and work in an organization where she could learn from a variety of roles.

Rodriguez followed that guidance, volunteering as an intern at one of the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup sites. That eventually led to jobs with the Washington Freedom of the Women’s United Soccer Association and the MLS’s San Jose Earthquakes. After completing her MBA at Stanford, she spent five years at Under Armour; one of her final assignments was negotiating the apparel brand’s sponsorship of Colo Colo FC in Chile.

The international nature of soccer has always appealed to Rodriguez, and working in basketball has a similar feel, she says. The WNBA attracts top athletes from more than a dozen countries outside the United States, and Rodriguez has been equally impressed by the players off the court.

“I’ve just been blown away by the caliber of their personalities, their achievements, their education, their willingness to go abroad,” she says. “These women are just amazing, and it’s really, really neat to be in the seat that I’m in now and be able to serve them.”