Editor's note: Morgan Shaw Parker, '99, recently returned to campus to serve as this year's College of Business Alumni Master. She met with students to share her experiences and knowledge. The story below reflects how openly Shaw Parker talked about her career as a leader in sports.
A marketing major at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Morgan Shaw Parker, ’99, parlayed her internship at Nebraska Athletics into positions with the Kansas City Chiefs, Nike, the Atlanta Falcons and most recently, the Atlanta Dream as president and COO. Named one of the most powerful women in sports by AdWeek in 2019, she became the first person to proactively leap from the NFL to the WNBA last fall and worked to build an authentic brand to empower women, unite a community and change the future of sports.
“There was no opportunity in sports like jumping onto this team at this time with this new leadership. It’s very rare in sports to find an organization with value-driven leadership. The new owners – Larry Gottesdiener, Suzanne Abair and Renee Montgomery – were not only going to invest in the Atlanta Dream but wanted to build the franchise to be the best of the WNBA to change women's sports. That’s when the hair on my arms stood up, and I said, ‘Wow, I think I was built for this,’” Shaw Parker said.
The Atlanta Falcons agreed seven years ago when hiring Shaw Parker as their first female vice president of communications and the first ever in the NFL. Soon promoted to vice president and chief marketing officer at Arthur M. Blank Sports & Entertainment, she oversaw brand and sales marketing, communications, broadcast, and digital and creative design for both the Falcons and Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“It's a little bit jarring to be the only female on the leadership team for quite a while, but over the last five years you've seen that landscape change a lot. You can't go in thinking about the negative. You've got to go in there thinking, ‘I’m an advocate for change by being here. I’m pulling people up along the way and going to open doors and fight for what’s right whether it’s maternity leave or equal pay,’” Shaw Parker said. “It has challenged me to make a great business case. Investing in women’s sports is not a charity, it’s a smart business decision.”
Following her own advice to the Dream, she joined two-time WNBA Executive of the Year Dan Padover, general manager and executive vice president of basketball operations, and Head Coach Tanisha Wright, who played 14 seasons in the WNBA and formerly served as assistant coach for the Charlotte 9ers and the Las Vegas Aces. The trio formed the powerhouse leadership team needed to take the franchise to new heights.
“In 2020 with all the social unrest, a previous ownership group (of the Dream) frankly didn't invest in the growth of these athletes, the resources for these athletes and the team itself. You basically had an owner against Black Lives Matter,” Shaw Parker said. “When you have a league of 80-85% Black women, and you say that that isn't important, you can see why these athletes started to leverage their voices in a way that I think they didn't even know how powerful they could be.”
At the time, the then owner of the Dream ran for U.S. Senate and players joined forces with others in the WNBA to support the opponent, Reverend Raphael Warnock. Their influence helped Warnock become the first Black senator from Georgia. Their efforts also led to the Dream being named the 2020 ESPN Sports Humanitarian Team of the Year.
“I am now afforded the opportunity to do right by these athletes. We have to talk to them and the community to learn what they want from us,” Shaw Parker said. “That's a humbling platform to be able to say, ‘Help us build this.’ It's a bit of a different mindset than most professional teams, than the way they've been built, but we have to look at women's sports differently.”
Believing in the power of sports to bring people and communities together, Shaw Parker noted the importance of listening to the players and people of Atlanta, one of the most diverse communities in the U.S. Working closely with the new owners, she integrated the core values into all parts of the organization from sponsorships, ticketing, retail, marketing, digital, in-game experience, human resources, community engagement, and research and analytics.
Playing in front of back-to-back sold-out crowds this summer, the Atlanta Dream works to rebound from last season's 8-24 record. With the new leadership team and almost an all-new team roster, the Dream seeks to sustain their momentum and culture they built over the past year while striving for a winning record.
Finding Her Path at Nebraska
Born in Mobile, Alabama, Shaw Parker is the oldest of five girls. Growing close while moving around often, they eventually settled in Omaha, Nebraska, for 17 years.
“Community is big in my family, and we lean on each other. There are a lot of conversations and coaxing, and I can’t tell you that I shoved myself off the rug, right? It takes a village,” said Shaw Parker responding to how she developed resilience and the courage to try new things.
Calling herself a decent writer who loved journalism, Shaw Parker ultimately decided to pursue a business degree. She added an English minor to strengthen her verbal and written communication skills which also came in handy as marketing major.
“I always admired the business school at Nebraska. In my heart of hearts, I knew it was the right move for me,” Shaw Parker said. “The things at the University of Nebraska opened doors for me. It was familiar territory since my family lived in Omaha, but it was almost like being with family because you were in a completely different world exposed to things nationally and internationally while you were on campus,” she said.
Needing an internship, friends told her to try Nebraska Athletics. Hired by Heidi Cuca, '87, then assistant athletic director for marketing for 24 sports, Shaw Parker immediately found herself thrown into new situations on a side of sports she never knew existed.
“Heidi catapulted me into tough situations where I had to learn very quickly in an unfamiliar space. One time someone was sick, so I had to learn every football hand signal and stand in front of the football team keeping my eyes on the 50-yard-line referee,” said Shaw Parker. “Without that opportunity, I would never have known that working on the business side of sports was a career track. I also had no idea that doors would open due to my internship in athletics.”
Working for Cuca, whom Shaw Parker called powerful, busy and not a micromanager, provided great experience in broadcasting, marketing, sales and sponsorships. Shaw Parker gained a strong understanding of the many different functions within a sports business environment.
“Morgan is a shining example of someone who is willing to work hard, ask questions and learn to maximize her natural abilities to make the world a better place. An inherently gifted communicator, motivator and leader, she uses her talents to seek out what needs to be done, learn what she needs to learn and then delivers an extraordinary outcome,” Cuca said.
Cuca credited former Husker Athletics Director Bill Byrne for supporting their work and hiring women in powerful leadership roles like Pat Logsdon, retired senior woman administrator, and Chris Anderson, former sports information director.
“Bill embraced putting women in powerful positions. There were so many opportunities at Nebraska so I didn’t think twice about it, as it was normal,” Shaw Parker said. “Once I got out into the professional world in the NFL and other sports and agencies, then I started to realize that was not a normal thing. Bill was ahead of the curve in that space.”
After graduation, she planned to earn a master’s degree fully funded through a graduate assistantship, but the Kansas City Chiefs called with a job offer. Her father worried that she might not be able to make a living in sports, which lit a fire under her to prove him wrong.
Doing the Work Coast-to-Coast
Blazing a path to Kansas City, Shaw Parker looked forward to working with the Chiefs strong and loyal fanbase. Ready to ignite the NFL with her skills as manager of public relations, Shaw Parker found the role difficult.
“People think you’ve made it to the NFL, and it’s supposed to be this amazing thing, but it was hard. It was the grunt work. What I realized was you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and spend the time needed to perfect it or you’re not going to hop up the food chain or understand what the rest of your coworkers are going through. I’ve been able to dive deep in a lot of different places, and it’s helped to say, ‘I’ve done that and been behind the scenes,’” Shaw Parker said.
Some perks of the job included gaining insight from Lamar Hunt, founder and then owner of the Chiefs, “back in the days when sports teams were just a big family.” Talking with former coaches Marty Schottenheimer, Dick Vermeil and Gunther Cunningham, also helped her get comfortable at the Chiefs.
“You could literally walk into their office and ask a question and I didn’t know any different. They were always kind enough to answer,” said Shaw Parker. “I developed more confidence to create my own pipeline. I had to do the work, and learn and understand it, but there was also room for failure. That’s carried forth in my own leadership – to allow room for that growth for failure and create a pipeline for young people to succeed.”
Looking to learn more about the operations side of business, Shaw Parker moved to a sports agency after five years. Working with the Sprint and NASCAR team when professional driver Adam Petty died, she also experienced working through crisis communications. When NASCAR offered her a position unsolicited, she decided to try to market herself.
“I had a couple of opportunities – one with the NBA, the WNBA, the Olympics Committee and one with Nike. I chose to move to Portland, Oregon, to work at Nike headquarters,” Shaw Parker said.
After buying a house, her boss at Nike called to ask if she wanted to move to Manhattan. While sitting in her new home, he offered her a position as the spokesperson for the Nike women’s group in New York.
“First of all, I think I puked. I never aspired to be in New York City. With a little conversation with my family, I said, ‘What the heck? When will I get this opportunity again?’ I’m so glad I did, because once again, it pushed me completely out of my comfort zone. A Nebraska girl in the middle of Manhattan with a trailer full of stuff from my new house,” she said.
In two years, she moved back to Portland and developed Nike’s marketing communication strategies for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China; the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada; and the 2016 Olympic in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“It’s very intentional at Nike that they want you to change jobs every two years. I held six positions in 10 years. They do that to create versatility and make sure you have a well-rounded experience and think differently when they put you on a new job,” she said.
The only person with previous experience in the NFL in 2012, Shaw Parker led the communication strategy when Nike captured the NFL partnership from Reebok.
“Then the NFL had been outfitted by Reebok. It was the biggest deal Nike had ever landed at the time. It was massive for Nike and working on something so high profile was one of those pivotal moments for me,” said Shaw Parker who headed to the Falcons three years later.
Named a game changer by Sports Business Journal, the Atlanta Dream needed one in Shaw Parker. With the $22 million in back pay settlement to the National Women’s Soccer League and another $2 million for the players, along with the women’s basketball championship using the term March Madness for the first time and ESPN’s ads selling out by tip off, change is happening in women’s sports.
“The commissioner has done an incredible job bringing on community partners like Nike and others to start to fund what needs to happen with the $75 million capital raise from the WNBA,” she said. “It’s the right time to be in sports. If I look back on why I took the leap into different situations, it all started at Nebraska.”
To learn more about Shaw Parker, watch her on the Huskers Radio Network Podcast episode from April 4:
Explore the events and programs the College of Business offers specifically for women in business and those that support them:
To learn more about the marketing major, visit: business.unl.edu/marketingmajor.