She’s the first and so far only woman leading a top-tier men’s football league in the world, and her position is both and honor and a challenge: to turn a Central American country’s league into a professional, marketable product
Dr. Vicki Ross considers herself a lucky woman. She is the President of UNAFUT, the organism that manages the first division of football in Costa Rica, and, so far, the first and only woman leading a top-tier men’s football league. But that is not where luck comes in ―that, in her own words, is only the product of “hard work”.
“I was born in a very peculiar, very large family”, she explained during an interview in the World Football Summit podcast. “My mom, alongside her brothers and sisters, played every sport under the sun. It could be football, basketball or volleyball, and some of them did it at a very high level”. For her, that was the lucky part.
A SPORTS-ORIENTED FAMILY
This domestic inclination towards physical exercise, combined with a childhood growing up in Costa Rica together with eight cousins exactly the same age as her, allowed for sports to be on the agenda all the time in a very specific, liberating manner. “Our family didn’t distinguish traditional gender roles, and that afforded me the opportunity of growing up thinking nothing was impossible”. That extended from playing with boys, to getting any type of job that she dreamt of having.
“I understood later in life that was a privilege”, she admitted, “and it was an advantage for me to grow up in that position. I played volleyball in the first division in Costa Rica, and I have also competed in different sports, like tennis, golf and, obviously, football”. Despite playing for 19 years, Dr. Ross, however, still had a few professions ahead of her before football became a career.
BREAKING THE GLASS CEILING
Dr. Ross is a political scientist and a university professor. She’s worked at ULACCAM and the Ann Ross Foundation, both non-profit organizations that operate at a national level to improve the overall situation of cancer in Costa Rica, as well as Univision, the leading Hispanic media company in the United States, as a journalist in their Costa Rican division.For her, however, all of it has been leading to the role she holds today in the football industry: “Everything has to sum up and be coherent at some point in the end, and this road has been very rich and very varied in its nature. It helps me be a better leader today”. Indeed, she has learned something from everything.
“Working in communication has been essential. In politics, you begin to understand power, negotiations and how society works, which is something I also grasped while I worked at the NGOs. You learn how to find where the interest lies and how to find the best advantage for your situation, leveraging different things in regards to your strategy”.
COSTA RICA’S FOOTBALL HERITAGE
“I think we have some very special ingredients here”, Dr. Ross said about their competition. Indeed, football from Costa Rica might not be a global phenomenon yet, but football in Costa Rica definitely is. “It is really embedded in our culture: Anywhere you go, you see children, both boys and girls, playing soccer in the streets in any part of our country. To me, that makes it very powerful”.
The sport is in the DNA of the country, however, can be both a blessing, as it allows the league to work on very fertile land, and somewhat of a course, as tradition is not always a great signifier of change.
First of all, their competition “developed really early on”, as she put it. UNAFUT, as a professional league, has only existed for the past 25 years ―it was created in 1999―, but some of the clubs that compose it go back as far as 117 years ago. “Older than FIFA, for example”, she pointed out.
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Which, consequently means there’s a really complex heritage involved in the competition. “That also poses some of the challenges in changing the culture of football”, she admitted, “but, at the same time, it is also extraordinary to see that this is the only place in the world that was able to break the glass ceiling by naming me their president”.
A NEW STRATEGY FOR THE LEAGUE
When she was appointed president, Dr. Ross’ goal in UNAFUT was straightforward, although not exactly simple: to consolidate the professionalization of the league. “That involved a lot of elements, and it affected not only making every aspect of our league as professional as possible but also applying that same framework to our affiliate clubs”.
In her view, the key to success is knowing where football lives in society, not only sportswise, but on a social level. “The center of our strategy is what I call the triple impact: social side, sports side, and the commercial side. It’s all about understanding how football exists in society”.
That, of course, requires a lot of change in the structure of UNAFUT, starting with the presidency. Ross’ appointment represented the first time in over 100 years of organized football in Costa Rica that their institution did a human resources process to bring the president of the football league. “That speaks about the passion a lot of the people have in Costa Rica and where we want to take it. It’s a difficult process, but we can accelerate it by, for instance, adopting technology for better management”.
When she arrived at her position, one of the first diagnoses showed that over 60% of the people working in UNAFUT lacked the complete skills to be in the position they were occupying. “Now, after a human resources process of finding the best-suited people for the roles, 100% of workers have the appropriate skills to do their jobs. And that change, in and of itself, created a difference in quality on the professional aspect that is very quantifiable and very visible”.
TRANSFORMING THE COSTA RICAN LEAGUE
Once they were cooking with the right ingredients, it was time to turn up the heat, which involved relaunching their brand, working on reputation issues ―which meant having to work on that aforementioned history in their culture and society―, and repositioning the clubs in the eyes of the public as well as in the eyes of the advertisers.
“In the short run, in a year and a half, we were able to spin it off into a much more recognizable brand”, Ross said. “That led to new advertisers coming to us, which helped in another department I wanted to change, which was a certain vulnerability in our structure of income. In less than a year, we doubled it thanks to sponsorship. And it looks like we’ll maintain it”.
“It’s interesting because we have very immediate challenges”, she reflected. “Our consumers can see the product of other better international leagues immediately just by turning on the TV. We want to find a way to create a product that assimilates what they are already watching. We don’t want to disappoint them”.
A NEW SET OF CHALLENGES
Her biggest challenge, unexpectedly, is not one of her goals―she is achieving them, after all. They’re coming from within. “It’s the resistance to change, mostly”, she admitted. But she’s optimistic. “Most of that will dissipate as results come in”.
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Indeed, the results that they had over the last year were rather amazing from a financial standpoint. “We had the best tournament in recorded history regarding ticket sales and assistance. That, combined with the results in sponsorships and the momentum we have gathered for the club, I’m hoping that our fans receive the rest of the change with less resistance”.
A BRIGHT FUTURE FOR COSTA RICA’S FOOTBALL
But the future is not just a matter of challenges. It is also filled with opportunity. And right now, Dr. Ross sees a lot of promise in their youth leagues: “Costa Rica has a very good quality of players, and we have to reposition the way they face the international market because a lot of them could be better marketed outside in better destinations and leagues”.
To her, the best example is Paris Saint-Germain’s goalkeeper Keylor Navas, but she’s choosing to focus on his heirs: “He’s an outstanding player, but today we have between twelve to fifteen goalkeepers between the ages of 18 and 23 that have amazing qualities too, as well as a preparation that’s much more based in science and opportunity”.
DR. ROSS LEGACY IN COSTA RICAN FOOTBALL
But, of course, her prerogative as President of UNAFUT is not just about sponsorships and internationalization: “Above all, we need a competition that reflects the best of our humanity. We want to create circles of goodness. It goes beyond wealth. It is wellbeing”. As for her position, it is of course a bittersweet role. “Being the first woman, there’s a lot of responsibility and there’s a lot of pressure, and you have to take a lot of backlash”.
But, at the end of the day, she thinks of her ten nieces. “A lot of my friends from my generation are pioneers,” she explains. “One of them, for instance, is the first female President of the Chamber of Commerce. And, for their sake, I hope we are the last generation of firsts”. There is a lot to be conquered and many glass ceilings to break, which is why, at World Football Summit, we are always looking for ways to highlight and showcase the brilliant work many women are doing in this industry. But, with figures like her, the road to equality is already shorter.