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In The Major Leagues, Female Coaches Are Barely A Rounding Error

Jen Welter has been hired by the Arizona Cardinals as an assistant coaching intern and may be the first female coach of any kind in the NFL. But her presence alone is enough to put the NFL near the top of the list among major men’s sports in terms of coaching gender balance. The share of female NBA assistant coaches is 0.5 percent, and it’s even lower in the NFL, but both are ahead of MLB and MLS’s zero percent.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida, known by the acronym of Tides, publishes an annual report card on race and gender, which notes that last year, the San Antonio Spurs hired the NBA’s first female assistant coach, Becky Hammon. The NBA also has two women working as referees, and earlier this year, the NFL hired its first female full-time official. Among the professional sports Tides tracks, women’s basketball is the only one to have any women serving as head coaches or general managers.1

(Welter may or may not be the first female assistant coach in the NFL. The most recent Tides report on the NFL logged two female assistant coaches but did not identify them or their team. At the time of this writing, report author and Tides Director Richard Lapchick was out of the country and could not be reached to identify the two women who may have preceded Welter. If these women have passed unnoticed, it may be because the total count of female coaches in sports tends to look like a rounding error.)

(Update, 10:30 a.m., July 30: A Tides editor said the other two women in their report had job titles that led them to be coded as assistant coaches, but appear not to have worked in that capacity. That appears to confirm that Welter is the first female assistant coach in the NFL.)

Women are more likely to hold leadership roles away from the sidelines. Twenty-three percent of the WNBA’s vice presidents are women, and men’s sports aren’t far behind.

WNBA 20 23 33
NBA 7 20 5
MLB 0 17 16
NFL 0 15
MLS 0 14 0

Tides lists nine women who were either principal owners or held significant ownership stakes in NFL franchises in 2014, but it does not provide data on the overall share of owners who are female.

It’s hard to tell whether the larger number of women at the VP level means that women are in the hiring pipeline and could help promote others to serve as presidents and CEOs. The NFL and MLS have both nearly doubled their share of female VPs over the past 10 years, but for the other men’s sports, the proportion of female VPs has remained close to constant.

Welter’s new position is great news for her and for the Arizona Cardinals, but female staff are still rare enough in men’s sports so as to be the stuff of anecdotes, not statistics.


  1. Tides has compiled reports on the NFL, the NBA, MLB and MLS but not the NHL. The data in this article is drawn from the most recent report available for each sport: 2015 for the NBA and MLB and 2014 for the WNBA, NFL and MLS.

Leah Libresco is a former news writer for FiveThirtyEight.