In the mid-90s, Julie DeMeo Tacinelli '92 played pickup basketball three nights a week-and weekends-on the outdoor public courts of Washington, DC. Days she spent working on political campaigns or as an appointee to government agencies, but free time, when she had some, was spent shooting hoops.
She had played basketball since high school, including all but her senior year at Bryn Mawr.
Of D.C. she says, "Ninety-nine percent of the time, I was the only female on those courts, and many men's reactions were not positive." Asked why, she says, "Because I was bad, but also because I was a female. I know that, because the guys who were bad got picked before me."
Her strategy to get onto the court followed a time-honored tradition: She claimed her right to play the winners of the game in progress before anyone else had a chance to do it. "In pickup basketball, you call 'I've got next' first, and you get to pick a team and play the winners," Tacinelli says. "The men wouldn't let me on their teams, so it was the only way I could play."
She had just finished work on the 1996 presidential campaign as a press secretary for Tipper Gore and begun a job in policy for the Corporation for National Service when a television commercial caught her attention. The Women's National Basketball Association was starting up in May 1997, and its promotions were on the air. The theme struck a chord with Tacinelli.
"The campaign was called 'We've got next,' " she says with a broad smile. "It was vindication. I thought it was awesome. 'That's what I want to do,' I thought."
Tacinelli was so excited she began lobbying for a job interview before the league had even decided whether Washington would get a team.
"I had a very emotional reaction to the league's forming," she says. "I felt passionate that this was more important to me than any policy at that time."
That switch in focus from government policy to women's athletics was a big change for her. Tacinelli, who spent the first 10 years of her life in the Washington area, had majored in political science and minored in sociology at Bryn Mawr. Her ambition while in college was to become a policy person. In pursuit of that, she came right back to the District to work after graduation.
"I had always planned to return. I love it here," she says. "My original goal was Capitol Hill. In 1992, the Clinton-Gore campaign was underway, so I decided to try to join it and eventually work in federal government."
That summer an insurance company where she had interned had already offered her a permanent job, but she turned it down and took a chance on pursuing a greater interest.
"I had interned for my congresswoman, so I asked her coordinator to write a letter for me to the Clinton campaign," Tacinelli says. "I got a call the next day."
She did advance work on that campaign, much of it on press logistics for events in the District, Arkansas and Georgia. In Ohio she worked as a "crowd person," part of a team charged with getting out an audience of 10,000 for a Clinton-Gore appearance. When Clinton won, she knew she was back in Washington to stay.
While she waited for a political appointment to come through, Tacinelli took a temporary job conducting a health-policy survey for a think tank at George Washington University.
"I based the whole customer-satisfaction survey on what I'd learned in Soc 102 at Bryn Mawr," she says. "It totally prepared me to manage my own survey. It's the reason I was hired."
Eventually she received an appointment to a job at the Department of Agriculture in the communications department. There she again worked with the press and also did advance work for Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy. Gradually her work became more involved with the ill-fated 1994 Health Security Act that the Clinton administration worked on but failed to get passed.
"We moved on," Tacinelli says.
She took a leave from Agriculture to work for Harris Wofford, former president of Bryn Mawr, as a volunteer in his 1994 campaign for the Senate against Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, then went to the White House as an assistant to the head of the Domestic Policy Council, Carol H. Rasco. She started with scheduling, then moved on to dealing with the press, writing speeches and doing advance work. The 1996 campaign with Tipper Gore followed.
"By that point, I felt I was too tracked into press work," she says, "so I went to work in the Clinton Administration at the Corporation for National Service in its policy office. I worked with interagency committees. I'd attend their meetings and see if there was a role for AmeriCorps in what they were doing. The biggest focus was on the America Reads program."
That is what Tacinelli was doing when the "We've got next" promotion for the WNBA appeared and captured her imagination. She went about pursuing it with the same purposeful energy and cultivation of contacts that had brought her success on earlier job hunts.
"I tried for a job, but I didn't know anybody in the organization," she says. "I finally told enough people I met, and one of them knew Susan O'Malley." O'Malley is president of Washington Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Mystics, the Washington Wizards, the Washington Capitals, and the MCI Center where they all play. Once Tacinelli got the interview, she had an opportunity to describe her public relations experience. She remembers that "two weeks later, they announced that the Mystics would be in Washington, so I called back. They said to keep in touch, so I called back every month for six months, and then they were ready to hire a public relations director. I got the job in February '98, and we started the season in May."
Tacinelli's face grows animated when she describes the team's opening night.
"It was a phenomenal opening, with a salute to women who had paved the way," Tacinelli says. Among the spectators were Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD), and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC). "It was a most powerful event for me personally," Tacinelli says. "A lot of people were crying."
She spent two years as public relations director, then became director for the Mystics and, later, for Georgetown University basketball as well. She describes the director's job as coordinating business operations-customer service, sponsorships, ticket sales, liaison with the WNBA, troubleshooting-for the Mystics and handling the arrangements for Georgetown basketball at the MCI Center, where they play during the Mystics' off-season.
Tacinelli advises that women interested in professional sports jobs:
1) Never take no for an answer.
"I pulled things together under Susan's leadership, and she made the final decisions on what I'd bring in," she says. "About 95 percent of the organization works for both teams. Susan is the only female president in the NBA-the first and only-and she will not tolerate an approach to the Mystics with any less zeal than to the Wizards. There are lots of resources and support, so I didn't feel like I was struggling for the Mystics. There's a commitment by the organization to make this team a success."
That was one aspect of what she enjoyed about her job. She also liked working as part of a team in a "fun young environment," where there was mentoring, and a level of access that allowed her to learn.
Tacinelli observes that Abe Pollin, chairman of Washington Sports and Entertainment, "is extremely progressive. He has a great record for hiring minority coaches, and of the 13 members of senior management for the Mystics and the Wizards, four are men. Ita terrific place for women to work. I liked that I was included, and that I learned a lot. It's all those women managers."
She explains that it was not just the Pollin organization that created the environment in which she enjoyed working. The Mystics' fan base, she says, is one of the most enthusiastic in the country, in spite of the fact that until last year, the team did not do well.
"We had the worst league record three out of five seasons, yet we led in attendance four out of five seasons. We lost, and people still came and didn't boo. We're the only city I know of with both professional women's basketball and soccer teams, and both teams lead their leagues in attendance. The Mystics make a profit every year."
Tacinelli attributes this to the team's female fans especially.
"I love the fan reaction," she says. "It's great watching the kids who look up to the players, especially the girls. We heard stories from the parents and from the girls about how much the team means to them."
To explain the special quality of Mystics' fans, she describes the results of focus groups that were run for men and women ticketholders at Mystics games.
"The men surveyed identified a problem [with Mystics games] as not winning. The women said any problems they encountered were off the court, customer service for example. They tell us they joined in to support women's sports, and they don't want it to fail. DC fans are a very cause-oriented group."
Last season, fans were rewarded for their loyalty when the Mystics made it all the way to the second round of playoffs at the Eastern Conference finals and the Mystics hosted the All-Star game. True to form, the fans came out in droves."We broke a WNBA attendance record last season," she says. "We averaged 16,000 fans a game."
Tacinelli thinks the future looks great for careers in women's sports. She cites statistics from her own Season Review and Outlook: 1994-2000: a 310 percent increase in cable sports programming in U.S. homes and 37 percent of the U.S. population consider themselves to be fans of the WNBA. She adds that according to the Simmons Teen Spring 2001 Study, 64 percent of all teen-age girls played basketball in 2000.
"Professional sports had neglected half the population," she says. "Now there's expansion within industries related to sports, merchandising and marketing. There are jobs in broadcasting, statistics, sideline analysis, in pro sports and, beyond them, at the college level. There are jobs for coaches, trainers, agents, and in the front offices. And if you're that rare elite player herself, now you don't have to go overseas to play."
Her first bit of advice for women interested in professional sports jobs is never to take no for an answer; there are opportunities out there. Her next word is internships. She began building her own career with them and is a firm believer in their value.
"If you want to work in the front office, it's a leg up," she says. "And if possible, try for an internship at the place where you want to work eventually. Then, if you get one, do a really good job. A large proportion of entry-level jobs go to interns. These organizations won't hire the inexperienced [or] from outside the sports world. The only industries from which experience is transferrable are public relations, marketing and, to some degree, sales."
Tacinelli also says to know exactly what kind of organization you're joining. "Some of them limit women. An interviewee I met told me she was not even allowed to talk to players, while the male interns were. Also, ask what other people have done from the position you're discussing. Some departments promote good people, but others try to hang on tight. If they all stay a year and leave, that tells you something. And ask how many women are in senior management."
Tacinelli moved on from the Mystics in March and took a job at Fleishman Hillard in the District. As a managing supervisor there, she'll be in charge of public relations for an anti-drug campaign by the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy.
"Down the line," she says, "I'm hoping to use my experience to bring sports clients into Fleishman Hillard."
And she doesn't look for pickup games anymore. She taught her husband how to play and shoots hoops with him now.
"He never played before, so I used to kick his butt, but now I win some and lose some," she says.
She does notice who's on the public courts, though.
"You see a couple of women playing pickup when you drive by games. We've had success in terms of a societal effect by now, some success."
Return to Summer 2003 highlights