photo by Brandon Sullivan; Final Four host committee CEO Dawn Rogers

Dawn of a New Era

Written by Craig Morgan Category: Valley News Issue: March 2016
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As Phoenix looks toward the Final Four in 2017, two major local appointments reflect a growing trend in big-ticket sporting events: women at the helm.

Jay Parry has some advice for Dawn Rogers as Rogers embarks on her new gig as the executive director and CEO of the host committee for the 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four in Phoenix.

“Hang on, because it’s going to be a wild ride,” says Parry, who served as President and CEO for the 2015 Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee. “These mega-events are not for the faint of heart and when you look back on it you’ll wonder how it was ever possible that you pulled it off.”

A search committee chose Rogers in October to head Arizona’s first Final Four and the first played west of Texas since 1995. The games will be held April 1 and 3, 2017 at University of Phoenix Stadium, which will be adapted to seat 75,063 fans – four times the capacity of a typical NBA arena. The week-long event could mean between $100-$150 million in economic impact for the Valley, drawing between 100,000-150,000 visitors.

Soon after she accepted her previous job as a senior associate athletic director at ASU in 2007, Rogers began working with community officials to secure a Final Four bid. The first bid was unsuccessful, but the second time was the charm in November 2014.

Rogers and Final Four bid committee member Debbie Johnson said some of the key selling points for the Valley were an expanded Phoenix Convention Center and additional hotels downtown, the light rail system and the city’s proven track record of hosting big events like the Super Bowl and major college bowl games at University of Phoenix Stadium.

“When we knew we had succeeded, my mind turned to thinking about who the best person would be to run this and having the right leadership in place,” says Rogers, who left her job at ASU in November 2015 (she will not return) to focus on the new gig. “The more I thought about it, the more excited I got about doing it myself.”

Female executives are still a relative rarity in major professional sports, but here, at least, is one sector in which they are taking the fore – directing host-city efforts for big-ticket annuals like the Super Bowl and Final Four. Before Perry, Allison Melangton served as president and CEO of the Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee in 2012; after her, Sallie Sargent was tapped to lead the 2017 Houston Super Bowl Host Committee. The NCAA Final Four host committees are more often than not helmed by women – Susan Baughman in Indianapolis in 2010 and 2015, Charlotte Anderson in Dallas in 2014, and Sharon Goldmacher in Atlanta in 2013. And, of course, Rogers in 2017.

“The challenge wasn’t a gender challenge,” Parry says of her role for last year’s Super Bowl. “Do I think sometimes ‘Gosh, I wish there were more women in here?’ The answer is yes. It’s standard operating procedure that when you walk into the board room, there’s not a lot of women, so it’s part of my responsibility to figure out how we get more women involved and how we get more women feeling comfortable in this sphere, but I’m happy to say that in Arizona, the people that are making the decisions are gender neutral.”

Rogers, 50, is still in the early stage of planning next year’s Final Four – finding the right people for the board and the subcommittees and securing funding. Once the 2016 Final Four plays out in Houston in April, Rogers will zero in on the myriad other aspects of her job, including transportation plans, public safety plans, fan-oriented events, charitable events and legacy projects. “As an executive director, it’s soup to nuts,” she says. “You get to be involved with everything, which is similar to the job I had, so the breadth of responsibilities gets me excited and engaged.”

Parry says working with the NFL felt  comfortable because she worked for the Phoenix Suns as their senior vice president of brand and business development, and for the Mercury as their Chief Operating Officer, so she understood the professional sports culture. “No one hands you a road map, but the great thing about that is the NFL gives you a lot of latitude. The Super Bowl can take on the personality of Arizona and we can create programs that really work for what our initiatives are in this state,” Parry says of an event that generated an estimated $500 million in economic impact for the city. “That was the fulfilling part – working with community leaders and tribal leaders and elected officials to decide what we wanted this to accomplish for Arizona.”

Rogers wonders what sort of legacy she will leave when her work is complete, but hesitates to think that advancing gender equality will be part of it. “I don’t see myself as a pioneer,” she says. “I just look at it as a great responsibility because it’s the first time we’re hosting a Final Four in Phoenix, or even in Arizona. We need to execute this at the highest level so we can host it again, so I feel like a pioneer in that respect. This is our first shot and we’ve got to exceed expectations.”

Johnson believes Rogers is up to the task.“She has NCAA experience with all the different events, not just the Final Four,” she says. “But I think the thing that stood out the most to us and certainly to me was... her passion for the Final Four and college athletics... It’s truly contagious and I think will get everybody else excited about this.”