NJ/NY Gotham FC President Mary Wittenberg has been one of the top NYC sports executives for many years. As the first woman named President and CEO of the New York Road Runners (NYRR,) she turned the TCS New York City Marathon into a huge event. Now with Gotham FC in the NWSL, the Buffalo, NY native wants to make the tri-state area the global capital of women's soccer.
Wittenberg joined Sportsjam with Doug Doyle to talk about her goals and Gotham FC, a team that's filled with stars from all over the world.
"We do that by bringing fans on this journey with us. We already have extraordinary world-class athletes here. We are a team on the rise. These women are the best players in the world. They're here on this team. A year ago, we were at the bottom of the table. Our incredible GM Yael Averbuch hired an extraordinary coach Juan Carlos Amorós from Spain. We have a great mix of a coach and staffing from around the world. They have not only recruited these incredible players but helped them develop. The team spirit her is unrivaled. We have everything we need on the pitch, now we need to bring fans this entire region to be part of this with us."
Gotham FC will be honoring its legendary captain, defender, soccer and cultural icon Ali Krieger during the October 15 match at Red Bulls Stadium in Harrison, NJ. Krieger, a two-time World Cup champion (2015, 2019) and Olympian (2016), announced earlier this season that she is retiring from the sport. Wittenberg says Krieger has meant so much to Gotham FC.
"Alis is bigger than the game. She has made an extraordinary difference. I've been on the road with the team since I started in early August. I've been to four away games. Not only is she loved here as you would expect at Gotham FC, but in North Carolina, D.C., San Diego and all these other markets, you can't believe the number of young people who come out to honor Ali. With deep lumps in their throat, they say she's really made a difference for them. So for us to have Ali Krieger as our captain, we have an woman of not only incredible skill and speed, but she's also a woman of integrity and a woman who is ahead of her time by authentically living as she is and sharing with the world who she is in a way that would make space for other people. So, it's massive for the team. We're the lucky ones to have her on the team."
Krieger has been a leader in the fight for women's equality and LGBTQ+ rights. Krieger and her teammates will also be in action at Red Bulls Stadium on October 1.
Gotham FC's line is a global powerhouse.
USA: Ali Krieger, Kelley O'Hara, Lynn Williams, Kristie Mewis
Spain: Esther Gonzalez
Ireland: Sinead Farrelly
Nigeria: Ifeoma "Ify" Onumonu
Wittenberg stresses it's a wonderful time for the NWSL to evolve.
"This league (NWSL), we are scratching the surface. Again, we already have the best players in the world. Where we are very early is on the commercial side. Part of our job is to build the commercial proposition because brands help tell the story.
One of the unique marketing initiatives that is already underway is called "Common Ground," a unique and exciting partnership of music and women's soccer. The original content series is produced in collaboration with Gotham FC, official Scotch whisky partner Johnnie Walker, and United Masters.
"I think it's so important to marry music, sport, entertainment and everything about culture in our area, from food and fashion. We were thrilled when Johnnie Walker wanted to do this series with us. We've taken these world-class athletes with these incredible independent musicians and artists, mostly in this region, and they do this sit down and they talk about where they have common ground as athletes and artists. It's incredibly compelling."
Raised in a large and athletic Irish Catholic family, Wittenberg played softball, baseball and basketball, all sports that her father coached. In high school, she focused on cheerleading, and also starred on a champion West Side Rowing Club team. Wittenberg went on to attend Canisius College, and was a coxswain for the men's crew team that won a championship for small colleges.
During her senior year in college, Wittenberg took up running. She trained with the men's cross county team while attending law school at the University of Notre Dame. Her strong performance at the Marine Corps Marathon qualified her for the 1988 Olympic marathon trials. However, she soon required surgery for a knee injury, and a back ailment forced her to drop out of the qualifying races. After that she primarily focused on her law career.
Wittenberg is extremely proud of what she has accomplished with the NYC Marathon.
"It does mean so much to so many people. It's a day that where we are all part of something bigger than ourselves. People are shoulder to shoulder, 9,10 15 deep, and they are together and that is the magic of the NYC Marathon."
Wittenberg is hoping this year's marathon on November 5 will coincide with a Gotham FC playoff match. At the time of this episode, Gotham FC is in second place and within reach of the playoffs.
You can See the entire SportsJam interview with Mary Wittenberg here.