She was the CEO and race director of the New York City Marathon … the founding global CEO of a Richard Branson-owned wellness company … the director of a world-class cycling team … an adviser to a new professional volleyball league … even a competitor in the U.S. Olympic trials.
As Mary Wittenberg begins the role of president of Gotham FC, the women’s professional soccer team that plays out of Red Bull Arena in Harrison, the obvious question is this: How do all of these previous executive roles in the sports world prepare you for this one?
“I feel like all of that has built to this opportunity and this moment,” she said. “There’s a common thread through it all — and it’s what really drives me: I love sports because they can help people unlock their potential and inspire others.
“I really love to build community and help people find a home through sport.”
Wittenberg sees all of that potential with her role at Gotham FC.
It’s not just the ownership (though she lauds the efforts of first lady Tammy Murphy), the leadership (she’s equally flattering toward General Manager and Montclair native Yael Averbuch) and the players — it also is the area.
“We’re here to be world-class, which is what New York/New Jersey is about, too,” she said. “We’re gritty and glamorous and all of that, but we’re also world-class in the sense of, ‘go big or go home.’ That’s our ambition.”
The ambition, she said, is to help build a franchise that is a winner on and off the pitch. She wants wins that are not just measured in titles and dollar signs, but in community development.
New Jersey has long been a hotbed for soccer. Wittenberg wants to make sure Gotham is connected to the youth and club teams in the areas — and that it’s a two-way relationship.
“We feel a big part of our brand is connecting with clubs and other organizations,” she said. “We’re going to keep growing into what that looks like.
“But, we don’t just want everyone to be here for us — we want to be there for them. That’s the kind of relationship we want to have. If we can start by supporting others, I think that’s a really good place for us to be.”
Wittenberg, who officially started in role Thursday morning, recently spoke with ROI-NJ about all her hopes and plans for the job. Here’s a look at more of the conversation, edited slightly for space and clarity.
Gov. Phil Murphy and his wife, Tammy Murphy, are the principal owners of Gotham FC. We asked new President Mary Wittenberg what impact that has.
“It’s one of the differentiating aspects of this team,” she said. “It’s a big part of helping these players and this community and our staff and fans all thrive.
“I won’t speak for the governor — but, let me speak about Tammy. We’re truly women-led, from ownership and leadership and especially on the field and in the staff. Tammy is so enthusiastic about this team and in it for us to be world class.”
ROI-NJ: You have a resume filled with so many impressive roles in so many different sports, what attracted you to this one?
Mary Wittenberg: There’s a specialty power about leading a team. It is one of my conclusions over these years. I’m an advocate and a champion — and love to partner with teammates. So, for me, this is exactly what I want to do.
ROI: How do you see your role?
MW: First and foremost, it’s to support our team and our staff. It all starts with our people. They help create a team-based culture where everybody is thriving and feels supported. It’s the same thing with the fans. If every fan can feel at home with us, then we’re going to be doing really well.
ROI: That gets to the measuring stick of the job. Is it about wins or dollar signs?
MW: Our job on the business side is winning without regard to the score. Creating a culture and having impact in our local community is a big part of winning for the business team. We’ll work with our partners, we’ll sell tickets and we’ll get out in the community.
We’re here to be world-class, on and off the pitch. That’s the standard to which we aim and which we want to achieve. And, in doing that, we’ll be able to be an inspiration to all kinds of clubs, from the youth level all the way through, in every aspect from building culture to operations to performance on the field.
ROI: Talk about the potential of the New Jersey market. Averbuch, the team’s GM, was a member of the national team — as were Carli Lloyd, Heather O’Reilly, Tobin Heath and many other Jerseyans. How important is that?
MW: Our whole team and staff are really excited about this. We really feel, starting with New Jersey out, that the tri-state area can be the global capital of women’s soccer. It starts at the youth level and goes all the way up to the pro ranks.
ROI: The professional ranks. That is becoming more and more common when describing women’s sports. How gratifying has it been to see such a change in your lifetime — and where do women’s sports go from here?
MW: We’re not that far from the days when women and girls didn’t have a lot of opportunities. So, I’m very driven to create a lot of opportunities.
I think, if we keep fueling these amazing young girls and women, then all of this will keep growing. We finally have a pretty strong foundation because there’s an understanding that these women are incredibly capable — they just really needed the opportunity.
We started with the opportunity on the field and now we’re getting the opportunity to be seen and to be supported — from broadcast and media to sponsorship and investment. Those are the pieces that have been missing to really get the flywheel going and now it’s happening.
We’re only going to get where we’re going by having more of them across more sports. The more attention that’s on them — and all the fans it generates — are absolutely critical to women’s sports being as globally recognized and appreciated and loved as is eminently possible.
Read more from ROI-NJ:
ROI: That includes the management side, too. In addition to Gotham, the New Jersey Devils and the New York Giants have women in leadership and player evaluation roles.
MW: Again, it’s about opportunity. Our general manager, Yael Averbuch, is an extraordinary leader. She’s always been great at soccer, but she is an extraordinary leader, too. For women to have these opportunities is going to end up changing the game. And we’re seeing more and more, from the youth levels all the way through the pros.
I’m hoping we’re going to see more pro athletes like Yael, who become coaches on the performance side as well as leaders on the business side.
ROI: Former athletes. I’m betting that describes you. Tell us about your efforts in the sporting world.
MW: I was really bad at all the classic sports (she says with a big laugh). But that was the beginning of when I saw what sport can do for people. I learned to hustle and learn to be not the best. I was amazing on the bench. And then I found rowing and running.
I rowed lightweight crew at the Westside Rowing Club of Buffalo when I was in college. And then, through rowing, I found I could run a bit when it came to distance. When I graduated, I went to law school at Notre Dame. I naively asked the coach of the men’s team if I could run with them, because we didn’t have a women’s team. At first, he said, ‘No,’ but then he said, ‘Come for a run with me.’ I had an extraordinary experience running Notre Dame cross-country (which added a women’s team before she finished law school).
Then, in my first year as a lawyer, I qualified for the Olympic marathon trials (for the 1988 Games).
ROI: Sounds as if you’ve made the most of it.
MW: I have been lucky. I’ve found ways to play when the opportunities weren’t there. Sports has led to all kinds of experiences — exciting times on the biggest stages, and times when it all goes wrong. That’s why I try to approach everything with a very human heart. I bring the experiences and the joy in the relationships and the experiences that I’ve had to this moment. I think all those different experiences will be relevant here and helpful here. And I’m most excited for the new ones ahead.
ROI: Looking ahead. That leads to the last question — your goals as the new president of Gotham FC. If we were to speak a year from now, what would the conversation be like?
MW: We’d be together at Red Bull Arena — but we wouldn’t be able to hear each other, because the fans would be so loud around us as our players are out there having a great time on the pitch. The most amazing new front-of-jersey sponsor would be giving items that make our fans so happy — and you would be asking me, ‘How did you work with the league to put this game on in prime time?’