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Buffy Filippell was the first female IMG agent in Cleveland. Now she’s the Godmother of Sports Management: Q&A

December 4, 2018

Buffy Filippell was the first female IMG agent in Cleveland. Now she’s the Godmother of Sports Management: Q&A

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Buffy Filippell has been called the Godmother of Sports Management. 

The 64-year-old Shaker Heights resident was the first female IMG sports agent in Cleveland in 1978 and nine years later founded TeamWork Consulting, which recruits executives for jobs in sports and live events. She developed TeamWork Online in 2000.

Not that Filippell considered herself a trailblazer. She just wanted to do the work, to create a family of clients she takes care of.

“I think being naive helped me take risks when I was young. I just didn’t know better,” Filippell said. “Maybe it was coupled with a stubbornness? Women can’t be afraid to take risk, particularly when we don’t have anything to start with.” 

A self-proclaimed tomboy, Filippell was an athlete herself, participating in the 1974 USTA Women’s National Collegiate Tennis Championships as a student at Indiana University. That gave her the boost to get her first job. 

Now, her company and its online offshoot boasts more than 1,200 employers - 85 percent of all major league sport organizations, plus minor leagues, golf, tennis, motorsports, mixed martial arts, colleges, major events and the majority of National Governing Bodies. Her top clients in Cleveland include Cleveland Browns, Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Sports Commission and IMG.

Filippell last year was one of three winners of the WISE Women in Sports and Events Women of the Year Award, given previously to big names like Billie Jean King and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

Shatter spoke with Filippell about her career, her role models and her advice for women today. (Hint: Call your mom.) 

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Who were the greatest sports influences in your life growing up? 

The sports influence came from my brother.

I used to comb my hair back like him. I used to play Matchbox cars with him, we played with baseball or football cards of sports players and he drew up football or baseball plays on the carpet, depending on the players we were playing with.

With white shirt cardboard from my dad’s shirts, he also drew up color-coded plays on the cards and we would run basketball plays on the driveway. There’s a picture of me throwing a baseball wearing a party-dress and a cowboy hat and mitt on my other hand. My brother is the brain in the family; my sister is a fabulous artist. I had to find my place. 

But my mother (Betty Gordon Searle), who somehow tolerated that, was the real influence in my becoming an entrepreneur. We were tied at the hip.

I can still remember the joy in going to the grocery store with her and I would sit in the cart looking back at her. I also traveled with her much more than my other siblings. When my father passed away, my stepfather and her support of my own business was immensely helpful in encouraging me.  

The acorn doesn’t fall too far from the tree. She lived in Cleveland for a few years in her youth. She was a big Bob Feller fan.  

Connie Schultz, the wife of Sen. Sherrod Brown and entrepreneur herself, is godmother to my son, Davis. My husband Mark and I are godparents to her daughter, Caitlin. Connie knew my mother. I think these two women were my greatest influence, more than people know. 

How did your success in tennis at Indiana University help you in your career?  

I was good athletically.  I swam, ran track, played basketball, golf, field hockey and even won awards in a private girl’s middle school for being the top athlete. I moved around a lot, and sports was always a way for me to connect to my classmates as the “new girl.” I even rode a unicycle. 

My success in tennis – playing in the 1974 USTA National Collegiate Tennis Championships which I did because I volunteered to do so, as two players from any school who had a team could “volunteer” – was the credential I needed to get my first job with Wilson Sporting Goods in their tennis promotion department. I had been to the national championships, so I knew the top players.  Of course, I knew them from watching them in the stands. I lost in the preliminary draw. 

When you were hired as the first female agent at IMG in 1978, what obstacles did you face being a woman in a male-dominated industry? How did you overcome those obstacles? 

While I certainly could tell I was the only woman who had an office and a woman as a secretary, I didn’t think of myself as a role model or a trailblazer. I think you just try to figure out how to survive. 

One of the most memorable moments that brought home to me I was a woman, was when we talked about salary. It seemed I wasn’t considered the “breadwinner” of my family and thus wasn’t eligible for a certain level of compensation. Men could say that even if they didn’t have a family.   

Do you challenge anyone? No, you just try to do your best and call your mom when you are stressed. 

How did your mom help in your career? 

My sister and brother were older and off at college. My mom and I became quite close. She was my sixth grade teacher at a private girls school. We drove to school every day. When I was in college, she became a bridge teacher at the Women’s Athletic Club in downtown Chicago and the Casino Club. She was a fairly young, Life-Master Bridge Player, and she competed in bridge tournaments up until her 80s. She taught at various country clubs and then gave private lessons to women’s groups. She had her own business. 

She was busy; she was popular and she had a lot of friends. She didn’t encourage me to start my own business, but she was incredibly supportive of it and always proud of me.  

As she aged, I became more like her and served in the role she had with her mother. The flexibility of my career allowed me to do more with her and for that I’m always grateful. 

What motivated you to found TeamWork, the first recruiting company to focus on sports executive recruiting, in 1987? 

My father died in April of 1987. I was in my early 30s, recently married and had been working for a big executive search firm, Korn/Ferry. On my second annual review, I was told I wasn’t a good recruiter when my father was in a coma from his brain cancer, so I knew I couldn’t go back to Korn/Ferry.   

When he died, I just cried all the time and wrote to all of my women friends and apologized for anything I had ever done wrong to them. I was going to make sure I made amends with my friends before I died.  

Then I read an article in Time Magazine about how painful situations often lead starting businesses. Fortuitously, I then I received a phone call from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association who said they wanted me to do a search. I told them I didn’t work for Korn/Ferry any longer. They said, “Fine, you are the only person who knows what we’ve been doing for the past year.” So, my business was kind of founded for me. 

How did you get the nickname “Godmother of Sports Management?” 

Dr. Bill Sutton, who will be retiring from the University of South Florida this August, coined the phrase in an article for SportsBusiness Journal. We have been very close over the years. When I first started recruiting, I helped him get a job. I was six months pregnant, and met him on my back porch. I cared about him.  

In fact, I cared about all of the people I work with and have recruited. I used to give the recruits a directory of all of the others I recruited and a T-shirt every year. I felt like they were members of my family; I was going to take care of them.   

As I’ve gotten older and had a family of my own, I hope I’ve fulfilled this role of “Godmother.”

What advice do you have for women hoping to build or maintain a sports career? 

I would encourage women to take risks in their career. Find the companies with the best reputations and work there, do your best and get to know everyone there. Make sure you do well enough so people rely upon you for the business success. Look for opportunities that are underserved and fill those needs. 

What networking tips do you have for people in any industry? 

You need to present yourself as attractive; be excited about your life. Take a picture with someone you want to meet again, and follow up. This can be an employer or even a friend. Keep following up until you can set another time to meet that someone again. The second time, have a longer conversation. Then you’ll know if you really connect. Keep making those connections.  

People are busy. Don’t let that stop you. Have get-togethers at your home and invite people to come. My husband and I would have a holiday party every year and it really helped in developing better relationships with people in our community. 

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