When I called new Kansas City Chief Operating Officer Amber Cox, she answered from a room filled with basketball memorabilia, a whiteboard with a court on the wall behind her. She was still in Connecticut, finishing up her most recent role as Vice President of Sports at Mohegan Sun, where she was in charge of generating revenue for the Connecticut Sun and the New England Black Wolves. Before that she was Chief Marketing Officer for the Houston Dash and Dynamo. And before that she was Chief Operating Officer for the Phoenix Mercury. Clearly, there’s a good foundation of sports business knowledge here, which is a good sign for the brand new Kansas City NWSL team (name TBD, as you’ll recall).
On the phone, Cox lit up as I mentioned the Sun are my WNBA team, and that I was most recently excited that Alyssa Thomas was staying. “She’s awesome,” Cox said of Thomas, commiserating over the season of her torn labrums. She sounded like someone who was an actual fan of the sports she was working in - not hard to guess, when so much of her career has exclusively centered around sports. Now she’ll be turning that focus on an NWSL expansion team in a market that has already yielded one collapsed franchise in FC Kansas City. But that was then. This is now. It’s a fresh start; Cox said she liked what she saw from the KC woso ownership group so much that she was the one to reach out to them, offering her insight as a sports business leader. They had a good phone conversation about it, then Cox was in town for a Chiefs play off game. “It was just a really fluid conversation just talking about some of their startup and providing as much insight as I can and then it progressed from there,” she said.
Cox also hails from the area, having grown up in southwest Missouri and attended William Woods University for her undergrad and MBA. She has lots of family in the area - parents, grandmother, nieces, nephews - and began following the team as soon as they were announced. “ I just wanted to see all the excitement. Just seeing women’s pro sports back in Kansas City was great to see,” she said. She was happy to chat about the whole process, her motivations, and her goals.
“One of the things I really pride myself in is being really transparent, especially with our season ticket base, and our fans,” she said. “I think it’s important. I think it helps, right? It gets back to this culture piece; to me, the fans are a part of our family, and if they really understand how we have to get things done and some of the things that we’re doing, it typically makes it feel like we’re all pulling in the same direction.”
Comparing the WNBA and NWSL is and isn’t helpful; they might both be women’s pro sports leagues, but the WNBA is obviously approaching its 25th anniversary, while NWSL is in year nine. WNBA’s player demographic is extremely different, as approximately 75-80% of its players are Black, while NWSL is around 10%. Basketball and soccer occupy different cultural niches in American society. But they’ve both had to fight against misogynist perceptions of women playing sports, and they both have had to repeatedly demonstrate their value over and over again in a market that has historically dismissed women for no other reason than that they’re women, and “women’s sports don’t sell.” The tide is turning - just today Angel City FC announced a reported seven-figure jersey sponsorship deal - and Cox believes there’s been “tremendous growth” in both leagues, complimenting commissioners Lisa Baird and Cathy Engelbert for their leadership in the business arena. But she was also realistic about the timeline of that growth.
“I say it all the time, I think there is a level of, I think the WNBA gets compared to the NBA quite a lot,” she said. “And I always challenge people to go back and look at the attendance in year 25 in the NBA, and the WNBA is actually pacing ahead. So when you think about just how long it takes to build fan bases, it’s very generational. Like you think about why you were a fan of certain teams, it typically goes back to - this isn’t going to be very popular in Kansas City - but I grew up, St. Louis Cardinals were always on in my house, and that’s because my grandfather always had it on. So it just kind of becomes ingrained in you generationally. I think it’s gonna take time to continue to grow those generations and create those memories.”
Cox is right that the growth of women’s sports is a generational project. One only has to look at the state of women’s soccer at the start of WUSA in 2001 to see the differences in the way professional women’s soccer operates. There’s been a cultural shift in the United States paralleling and sometimes intersecting with those differences as more people get used to the idea that women actually, you know, play sports, and that they’re good at it, and it’s fun to watch. The WNBA has certainly paved some of that path for NWSL.
“I think there’s definitely an all boats rise with the tide,” Cox agreed. And she’s seen the growing valuation of women’s sports in the US. But she also cautioned against thinking too linearly about progress. “The W started earlier, was a part of the NBA family, or is part of the NBA family, “she said, “And sort of had to figure out, now you’ve got, I think, more unaffiliated teams than you have affiliated teams with NBA franchises. So it’s just taken a while to find the right markets, all of those things, which, again, is very common. You look back at the NBA and Major League Baseball, and you see how teams have moved around until they sort of find where they’re supposed to be for good.”
It’s early days yet, so Cox didn’t have a ton of specifics on goals and progress. But she did hint at some of the things that she would be working on with KC from the jump - a good attitude to have for a club that has had to spin up from announcing their existence to becoming a fully functional business in about four months. (“We’re moving at a breakneck pace here, you know, trying to get things up and running,” Cox mentioned at one point.)
Cox said there are some general best practices that can be shared across WNBA and NWSL in things like ticket sales, partnerships, and marketing. And she lauded the expansion of the women’s sports footprint in general for making more strategies available to share - the big players in women’s sports used to be basketball, tennis, and sometimes golf, but now with soccer added to the mix and hockey attempting to gain a foothold, there’s more collaboration possible. “I think we know so much more now,” she said.
Areas that Cox says are important to focus on right off the bat are player experience and fan experience. Player experience was, in fact, the first thing she listed when asked about what business ops areas were critical for growth.
“That’s always been a focal point for me,” she said, “Wherever I’ve been, to have those conversations with players to make sure that - not only the logistical side of it, from where they live and all those sorts of things - but just talking to them about, all right, what’s important to you? What do you want to do off the pitch? What can we highlight? All those things, I think, are valuable in building those relationships, because it’s a partnership, right? You gotta have a partnership with your player. I think that’s a big key.... It’s not rocket science. We hear everybody talk about that in business, culture’s so important. I definitely think that translates for sports as well.”
The flip side of that is the fan experience. “We want our matches to be an event. The soccer is going to speak for itself,” said Cox. “These women in this league are the best in the world. So we know that that is going to be fantastic. But we want to really make sure that fan experience around it is unmatched. And I don’t know what that means quite yet. We’re still building a lot of those things out. But I think making sure from the moment someone pulls into the parking lot to the time that they leave, they walk away feeling like man, that was an unbelievable experience.”
She added, “You never take for granted the fact that they’re coming in, they’re spending their money with you, that they are loyal and spending their time with you. I think that’s just really important. And if you keep that at the forefront of everything that you do, it typically works out pretty well.”
One of the things that Cox specifically said she’ll be importing from her WNBA experience, going all the way back to the Phoenix Mercury in 2005, is ticketing best practice. “What we know about both of these leagues is once you get someone in the first time to see the product, they’re going to come back,” she said. “So really just making sure that you know who those first time buyers are. If they’re buying, let’s just say buying via Ticketmaster, for example, you know where that person is sitting on game night, and you’ve got a process to send your ticket sales rep over to welcome them the first time, to follow up via email the next day, figure out what the best product mix for them, if they can’t do a full season ticket is it a partial plan to make sure that you’re continuing to walk them up the ladder, if you will, from a very casual fan who’s coming out for the first time into that full season ticket buyer. Because again, I think both of these products are tremendous. And you get somebody in the door the first time and they’re gonna want to come back.”
When asked what she thought was a good retention rate for these first-time buyers, Cox immediately said 100%. The goal is always a sold out stadium. “Let’s go. Let’s go,” she said with the same energy as a player trying to hype her team before kickoff.
“That’s the expectation, you know, one of the things that’s really exciting about Kansas City,” she said. “It’s a known Soccer City, USA. Everybody loves soccer in Kansas City. I’ve had the privilege to attend a couple of Sporting matches and see how passionate that fan base is. And obviously, it’s one of the most, if not the most, robust youth soccer scenes in the United States. So why not? I think we’re all in this to set a new standard and raise the bar.”