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Susan O'Malley - To The Arena Born
by John Greenya
"I was nine years old, and I was standing in the middle of a cornfield in Prince George's County with my father and his client, Abe Pollin, and Mr. Pollin said, 'I'm going to build an arena here.' I said to myself, 'This old man's crazy.'" Then, laughing, Susan O'Malley, the irrepressible president of Pollin's Bullets basketball, adds, "Three years ago I was standing with Mr. Pollin in the middle of a parking lot in downtown Washington, and he said, 'I'm going to build an arena here,' and I though, 'This old man's still crazy.'"
Make that crazy like a fox. In 1991 Pollin rewarded Susan O'Malley for all the empty seats she'd filled since joining his organization five years earlier by naming her president of the Bullets. That move made the then 29-year-old O'Malley the highest ranking (nonowner) woman in professional sports management.
"I wanted that job since I was in the eighth grade," O'Malley told Washington Flyer. "I was 12 years old, and my dad was running the hockey team when the [USAir] arena was built, and I was always around that environment. And if you admire your parents, you aspire to be like them.
"I interned for the Caps and the Bullets when I was in college" (she has a degree in business and finance from Mount St. Mary's) "and the advice I got was that there's no way a woman is going to get from ticket sales to running a team, so go out and get some experience, but come back in a midlevel position and try to work up from there."
In 1986, after three years as an account executive for Earle Palmer Brown -- "I tried to get all the sports experience I could; I kept my eye on the ball" -- O'Malley joined the Bullets as director of advertising. "That was the last year the Bullets made the playoffs," O'Malley candidly admits. "I'm starting to think it was me."
Ignoring the twin charges of nepotism and favoritism, Susan O'Malley plunged in head first. "I was glad to have the marketing and advertising aspects of the job because they're so measurable. Are you filling the seats or not filling the seats?" In 1989 Abe Pollin, determined to shake up his organization, gave her the top job, but said it was only on an interim basis.
"When he walked out the door," she recalls, "I said, out loud, 'I'm never giving this job back.'"
Losing season or no losing season, ticket sales increased every year under her tenure. In 1995 Pollin tapped her (and his lifetime favorite Bullet, general manager Wes Unseld) to run the hocket team as well. It was Pollin's voite of confidence in her methodology.
Back in '89 she'd begun the turnaround of the Bullets' dismal season ticket picture (only a 62 percent renewal rate) with a series of focus group meetings that told her just what the fans though of, and wanted from, the team. Then she locked herself and the rest of management in a hotel suite for three days and laid out an ambitious plan to win back the fans.
"We took the 12 main complaints," she says, "and said, okay, number one, they say they never hear from the Bullets except when the bill [for season tickets] is due. Well then, we're going to inundate them with information. And so on down the list. We just went crazy with ideas."
Clearly, MCI, the corporate sponsor of the new downtown arena (which O'Malley calls "the money pit," yet swears will open on schedule in the fall of 1997) and the folks who brought us "Friends and Family" and any number of other high-octane maketing approaches, feels simpatico with Susan O'Malley. So do any number of other Washingtonians. She and Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser enjoy a bantering relationship. He calls her "La Sooz"; she characterizes his television appearances by saying, "Tony was made for radio."
What does the future hold for Susan O'Malley, who turns 35 this November? According to Washington attorney Stanley M. Brand, the vice president of Minor League Baseball, "Susan O'Malley is the most prominent woman in sports management today. She could be commissioner of the National Basketball Association someday."
"No way I'd want that job," says O'Malley. "My goal is to get the Bullets and the Caps into the MCI Center" -- the point at which the name of the basketball team officially becomes the Wizards -- "and then think about what the next step is for me. I'm a marketer, a marketer-slash-salesman. I think what I can do is transferable to the Kennedy Center or USAir or Marriott -- it's filling empty rooms, filling empty seats. I just love a challenge."
O'Malley also loves the water. Her favorite vacation spot is Nantucket and she owns a motorboat. She recently moved into a larger house in the Washington area because "my tiny little house wasn't big enough for me and my dog," a golden retriever she named Tony after "you guessed it," a certain Washington Post sports and humor columnist.
Taken without permission from Washington Flyer, September/October 1996, pp. 7-8. Washington Flyer is a free magazine available at Washington, DC area airports (I picked mine up at Dulles Airport).