No Boys Club Anymore

No Boys Club Anymore
Sophie Ozier was named general manager of the Arkansas Travelers in November. (Steve Lewis)

Sophie Ozier, 28, stepped up to the plate as the first female general manager of the Arkansas Travelers at a time when women are advancing in the male-dominated industry of professional baseball.

Miami Marlins GM Kim Ng became the first woman to hold that position in Major League Baseball when she was hired in November. Tampa Tarpons on-the-field Manager Rachel Balkovec, tapped by the MLB team and Single-A affiliate of the New York Yankees in January, was another trailblazer. And a few minor and independent league teams have had women as GMs for years before the two made national headlines.

These women, along with Ozier, are exceptions to the rule in professional baseball, and professional sports in general. 

But the industry has been doing a better job recently of showcasing behind-the-scenes women as well as women athletes, and seeing other women get the type of position she has was inspiring, Ozier said.

To be clear, she didn’t aspire to be a GM. The central Illinois native just wanted to work in baseball, period. 

Ozier, who has been on the Travs’ staff for five years, was named GM in November. The Travs are also on track to having one of its best seasons this year, she said. 

As GM, Ozier handles the business side of things, not the team itself. The players are chosen and paid by the Seattle Mariners, and Ozier isn’t in charge of hiring the coaching staff.

What she does is oversee ticket sales, group tickets, equipment orders, setting up vendors, maintenance at Dickey-Stephens Park and much more during the season. Basically, it’s her job to make sure home game days go smoothly. 

One of her goals as GM is to attract more young families to attend games. One success: launching a $3 entry and beer night. In July, the park is hosting a free kids baseball clinic.

Once, Ozier had a nightmare that the park had run out of hot dog buns. She shared this with friends, who poked fun at her for it, she said.

But running out of hot dog buns at a baseball game would be disastrous, she said. “Putting out fires is a lot of my job,” Ozier said. “And just like knowing the right people. That way, if something does fall through the cracks, you have friends that you can call that can hopefully help you out.”

In the off-season, she makes sure everything is prepped for the players to arrive for the season. She handles team transportation and hotel stays. And she places orders for equipment, picnic tables and even turf.

And she deals with many of the same challenges that any business decision-maker is confronting in 2022: the continuing supply chain backups, hiring amid the ongoing labor shortage, and a tightened budget post-2020, when revenue plummeted because of closures required to stop the spread of COVID-19.

It’s a good thing Ozier likes to be challenged.

One of Just a Few

Though she describes herself as a baseball fan, she doesn’t think that’s a requirement to enjoy the fruits of her and her team’s labors. “What I always liked about baseball is I don’t think you have to be a baseball fan to enjoy going to a baseball game. I don’t think you have to be a sports fan. I think that’s specific to baseball though,” Ozier said. “I think football, most people go to watch the game. Basketball, most people go to watch the game. Baseball, it gets 60-40. Like maybe 60% of people come to watch the game, but 40% just come to drink a beer, get a corndog or hang out with their friends.”

Ozier has at her disposal a full-time staff of 17, which she said is small for a Double-A team operation. Double-A is the level from which most players for MLB teams are directly drafted. In fact, a player got called up to the majors this month, she said. “It’s really cool to see stuff like that happen.”

She said being the first woman to serve as GM adds pressure to her already high-pressure job. Ozier is well aware she is one of a small number of women making decisions in the industry.

She is the only woman, and most likely the only person under the age of 30, on monthly calls with the other eight GMs in the Texas League.  

But Ozier said she tries not to pressure herself too much, telling herself there’s a good reason she was trusted to run the show. “That being said, I do understand the intricacies that go into being a woman in sports or trying to get into this industry. I’m one of those people when I make up my mind that I want to do something, I’m not going to stop doing it until I miserably fail. Whereas, I know that other women aren’t like that. 

“And so it’s very easy for people to get out of the industry if they’re defeated or, you know, someone makes a comment like ‘oh really you want to work in baseball?’”

The most upsetting thing Ozier said she has heard time and again is that she was only pursuing her career to get close to attractive athletes. Something else that’s bugged her is being quizzed on her knowledge of baseball.

“You need to understand the sport of baseball and how it works [to be a GM]. … But really, it’s just people management and having a good business head on your shoulders.”

As she rose through the ranks, “I just felt like I constantly had to prove myself, maybe more so than a man would have had to. I had to show that I was actually a diehard baseball fan. I did actually know how this works, which is not how it should be able to be like for a qualified person that has the good people skills or the good technical skills to be able to work that position.”

To the Travs’ credit, she said, “I’ve been fairly lucky here. I’ve never been treated like the girl in the office.”

Ozier said improving retention of women is the next step the industry needs to take. It’s difficult for women who have children to work the odd and long hours a job like hers requires. She doesn’t have children yet, but wants to, someday. Ozier is also engaged to be married. 

Fortunately, she sees this reality changing. “I think the responsibility of women having to be the primary caretaker is changing,” she said.

Ozier is doing her part by adjusting work schedules for the Travs staff as she can. For example, she’s installed staggered shift start times on game days so that her people can spend some of those weekend mornings with their children.

No Excuses

Her advice for other women in the industry is to not make excuses for themselves, to not let themselves get discouraged because they may be treated poorly by some.

They shouldn’t let that stop them from working hard to achieve their career goals, Ozier said.

“I’m kind of one of those people that I’m very fueled by people who doubt me. This was probably the former athlete in me. … I’m probably my most competitive when people doubt me,” she said. “And so that’s kind of worked to my advantage in this.”

Ozier also advises women coming up in the industry to never stop learning from the people around them.

The people around Ozier, by the way, aren’t from Arkansas. Like her, most of the Travs staff come from elsewhere. 

“Arkansas has been very, very good to me,” Ozier said. “I still don’t understand the obsession with the Arkansas Razorbacks. … The first time I saw people call the Hogs, I was like ‘what is going on? This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,’” she joked. 

Ozier grew up in a small town, Cerro Gordo, in central Illinois, which has a population of around 1,500. She graduated from high school in a class of about 38 students. 

It was a place where kids did a bit of everything. The daughter of a Cardinals fan who once played in a competitive men’s league, Ozier played softball, and that fueled her enthusiasm for baseball.

Her dad loved watching the Cardinals play on TV and her involvement in softball made her want to better understand its cousin, baseball, so she watched those games with him. 

“It just kind of became a thing with me and my dad, just something that we could do. It’s kind of how me and my dad bonded,” Ozier said. 

When she began to think about her career, her mother suggested doing something she enjoyed. “I grew up with Cardinals games. And I had never realized that there’s people that put that production on and make that happen,” Ozier said. “And so I was like, yeah, that actually sounds really fun.”

After high school, she sought out a bigger city and went to a small liberal arts college: Webster University in St. Louis.

“I had a lot of people kind of laugh. ‘Professional sports? Good luck with that,’” Ozier said. 

Despite her classmates’ incredulous reaction to her career aspirations, she started landing internships.

Ozier’s first big break was an internship at Fox Sports Midwest, which broadcasts games for the Cardinals, St. Louis Blues and Saint Louis University’s women’s basketball team.

She also interned with the St. Louis Blue ice hockey team and the River City Rascals, a now defunct professional baseball team that was based in O’Fallon, Missouri.

Ozier graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public relations in 2016, but didn’t get a sports job as planned until January 2017, when she joined the Travs as corporate events planner. She moved up to director of group sales and promotions, assistant manager and finally GM.