Mariners president Catie Griggs is part of wave of female sports bosses

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SEATTLE — Catie Griggs walks the T-Mobile Park concourse and picks up trash. She sees a plastic spoon and coughs it in the nearest recycling bin. The napkin. The bottle cap. She is the Seattle Mariners’ president of business operations, the only woman in Major League Baseball with that lofty title. She could order any of hundreds of stadium workers to clean up quickly after fans. She would rather do her part, no matter how menial the task.

You must spend some time around Griggs to realize this is truly who she is. She isn’t performing for a reporter, presenting herself as ordinary and hospitable. She holds an elite job without an elite approach. She has the mental agility to wow and intimidate a room, and she is direct as a communicator. But curiosity and servant leadership are the traits that separate her as a boss navigating a nascent era in which women are gaining more power and influence in men’s professional sports.

“I’m not someone who set out as an 18-year-old saying, ‘One day, I’m going to be the president of a Major League Baseball club,’ ” said Griggs, who has been on the job for a year. “And here I am. In all candor, it never would have occurred to me to even aspire to be the president of a Major League Baseball team. I think, from a career trajectory and career-pathing standpoint, it really all ties back to that innate curiosity. I like learning new things. I like putting myself in situations where I’m challenged, where I have certain skills and experiences I can bring to bear, but where I’m missing something that I need to do the job particularly well, and I can build that muscle. I’ve been very fortunate to have others who’ve given me those chances.”

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In addition to Griggs, the Miami Marlins employ Caroline O’Connor as their chief operating officer and Kim Ng as their general manager. The New York Mets hired Elizabeth Benn in February to be their director of major league operations, making her the highest-ranking female executive in franchise history. In the NFL, the Las Vegas Raiders named Sandra Douglass Morgan the league’s first Black female team president this summer. In the NBA, there is an abundance of female representation in the middle ranks and near the top of various organizations.

After an embarrassingly slow trek to this point, the opportunity now exists for greater gender inclusivity in male-dominant arenas. It has been more of a point of emphasis everywhere, including the NHL and Major League Soccer. While it’s still hard to predict how close we are to seeing a woman rise to head coach or manager, it’s already downright absurd to think about how long it took for the business side of these multibillion-dollar franchises to embrace female management.

Griggs doesn’t handle the Mariners’ roster. Jerry Dipoto, the president of baseball operations, is in charge of that. He has spent seven years steering the franchise toward contention on the field, and after finishing 90-72 a year ago and falling short of the playoffs on the season’s final day, the Mariners are in position to earn a wild-card berth as the final quarter of this 2022 run begins. They hope to make the postseason for the first time in 21 years, the longest drought among all teams in the four most American pro sports leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL).

In that sense, Griggs arrived at an ideal time after she left her job as the chief business officer of Atlanta United FC and traded soccer for baseball. As the ultimate fan-focused leader, she has a knack for bottling excitement and deepening the connection between a team and its fan base. But she also came to Seattle knowing she had to help repair faith in upper management. Former Mariners president and CEO Kevin Mather resigned in February 2021 after video surfaced of offensive comments he made about players to a local Rotary Club.

Mather had been in the organization for 21 years. He was promoted in 2014 to replace his predecessor, Chuck Armstrong, who spent 28 years in charge. The franchise needed a fresh approach even before Mather’s mouth forced him out. The Mariners were in good financial shape despite the playoff drought, but comfortable profit margins are the expectation for well-established major pro teams. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are functioning properly.

Last August, just before her first day with the Mariners, Griggs plotted with her husband, Justin.

“What am I going to wear?” she asked.

He laughed and asked what she wanted to wear.

“I want to wear jeans and Jordans,” she said. “I don’t know. Am I allowed to?”

“I’m pretty sure you’re the boss,” Justin told her.

She wore the outfit and took command in comfort. She’s a 40-year-old wife and mother of two. Although she is polished and intentional, she is approachable, self-deprecating and engaging.

“I’m fully capable of dressing up for the occasion, but that’s who I am,” Griggs said. “I am casual. I’m relaxed. It doesn’t mean I have to have low standards. Those things aren’t mutually independent.”

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Griggs took an atypical path to becoming a sports executive, but her childhood athletic experiences explain why her career evolved this way. At age 11, she was home-schooled in North Carolina, allowing her to learn at an accelerated pace. She graduated from high school and enrolled in classes at North Carolina State at 14. Sports fortified her social and emotional development while she was at home speeding through her education.

She swam. She played tennis, soccer and softball. She rode horses. Sports meant connection to her dela, and throughout her life dela she has been fascinated with how games build community.

“Part of the role of sports in my life growing up was not just the athletic pursuit and the joy that sports can bring and the competitiveness of it, although I liked all of that,” Griggs said. “It was also the social element.”

Griggs transferred from NC State to Dartmouth, graduated with an international studies degree and later earned a master’s degree from the college’s Tuck School of Business. She took a job at Turner Sports and rose through the organization while learning the intricacies of media rights deals. She left to help launch Futures Sport and Entertainment and then went to Atlanta United, helping to quickly guide the franchise from its early expansion days to a championship organization setting MLS attendance standards in a city notorious for fan apathy.

She came to the Mariners declaring they would become the “most progressive” franchise in baseball. One year into the job, she’s balancing impatience — which she considers her biggest flaw — with her desire to learn more about the team and city, empower her staff instead of micromanaging and master the pace of baseball.

“When she talked about her approach to her news conference last August, the jury was out for me, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll believe it when I see it,’ ” said Mandy Lincoln, the team’s senior director of experiential marketing. It’s a new role Griggs created and a challenge Lincoln needed after 15 years with the Mariners. “But she just comes with this style where she’s listening, she’s accessible. She looks at it like, ‘I want to know what everybody in this organization does, how I can help them, how it can make things better.’ It’s really refreshing.”

Lincoln has a weekly meeting with Griggs. The boss’s first question is always the same: How are you doing? It’s not a polite, obligatory greeting. She wants honesty, and she responds with empathy.

Griggs listens first during all meetings, but the staff knows that when she speaks she always comes equipped with questions and ideas that will challenge them to think differently. One day, Griggs is thinking about moving concessions to ensure a clear view of the field as spectators circle the concourse. Or she’s asking to study the menus, to streamline the ordering process and make the lines move faster. She’s examining how to save costs for fans on certain items or how to better customize ticketing and seating options in recognition that fan bases are not monolithic.

“How do we truly understand what people are looking for?” she.

She loves to walk the stadium and watch. She jokes about being angry that she averages only 10,000 steps per game, less than the 20,000-plus she logged wandering about during MLS games. She notes at what direction fans are looking and when. She sees everything, even a glitch on the video board.

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After the first game of a rare day-night Seattle doubleheader this season, Griggs put on gloves and helped the workers clean between games. She found a baseball in the center field bleachers. She put it in her pocket dela, and when the gates opened for Game 2, she saw a boy dressed in full Mariners gear sitting with his family dele in the 300 level. He looked about 4 years old.

“You a Mariners fan? You play baseball?” Griggs asked him.

“If I threw a ball that one of the players hit, do you think you could catch it?”

She threw it. The boy corralled it and cried.

As Griggs roamed the ballpark that night, she knew she was in the right place.

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