Women of Influence in Irish Sport 2019

Welcome to the publication of our seventh annual list of 50 Women of Influence in Irish Sport.

Since we began back in 2013 the game has certainly changed for how Women’s sport is seen and how Women in Sport are treated with full respect for their talent and skills.

We have more CEO’s of sporting organisations than ever before, more women in positions of influence at our major sporting sponsors and in the media.

On the field of play, we are now more familiar with our female stars across a wide variety of team and individual sports. It makes a real difference. The gap in sporting participation between boys and girls is now down to 4.5 %, lower than it has ever been but still not at the parity which it should be.

The final stages of any journey are always likely to be the hardest but with the right people leading the way and showing that there should be no reason for discrimination and plenty of reasons to create more diverse leadership, it can be achieved.

Over the coming weeks, we will highlight 50 women who are leading the way, making sport and society better through what they do.

We are grateful once again for the support of Liberty Insurance in bringing this list to life.


Antoinette McKeown

Antoinette McKeown is the CEO of Sport NI and as such serves as the most influential person in Northern ireland connecting sport to Government.

Her twitter biography contains the quote that ‘Resilience is made easier when driven by integrity.’  They are appropriate words given the drama she has gone through that resulted in her being suspended from the position for ten months in 2017 but returning last year and knuckling down to serve sport once more.

Overturning a dismissal which dated back to a fractious time in Northern ireland sport amid rows and recriminations over the development of Casement Park, she has put that behind here now but faces major challenges outside of her control with the impact of Stormont not sitting and the oncoming crisis in Governemnt that Brexit represents.

Life and Sport continues though and Sport NI is currently undertaking consultation on a new Strategic Plan to replace the five year plan which McKown oversaw after her appointment to the role in 2013.

A former CEO of the Consumer Council she is a fan of most sports and an effective public administrator, she will open the Game Changer Conference being hosted by Sport NI on September 30th and October 1st at the Titanic Belfast, painting a picture of sport in a good place in Northern Ireland.


Miriam Malone

Miriam Malone is the CEO of Paralympics Ireland and is facing into the final preparation stages of taking a strong Irish team to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

She joined the organisation from her previous position as Director of Business Partnerships at the FAI in 2017.

Malone was instrumental in delivering a successful 2018 Allianz European Para Swimming Championships at the Sport Ireland Campus in August 2018.  She doubled up as Chair of the Local Organising Committee for that event, one of the most prestigious international events to have been staged in Ireland.

The team is shaping up nicely for next year with Ellen Keane securing World Championship Bronze last week, Katie George Dunleavy and Eve McCrystal winning Silver at the ParaCycling World Championships and Jason Smyth and a strong Para Athletics team gearing up for their Worlds later in the year.

Malone began her lifelong career in sport working in San Francisco before returning to Ireland to work with Special Olympics Ireland.  In 2004 She set up the first Kilkenny Sports Partnership and then in 2006 she joined the FAI in Dublin working across grassroots and then into business partnerships.

She is well prepared for leading a strong team into a Paralympic Games off the back of major success in London and Rio.


Michelle Carpenter

Michelle Carpenter is the CEO of Rowing Ireland.  Appointed to the role in May 2018 she has overseen a very strong year for the sport with Ireland now ranked second in the world in Olympic boat classes ahead of both the UK and the United States.

Four boats have already been qualified to take part in next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo but there has also been real success at the grassroots level and in forming a new commercial partnership with Kinetica.

Membership at Rowing Ireland has grown by 25 per cent in the past year and the Get Going Get Rowing programme in schools and colleges has engaged with 30,000 participants.

Originally from Limerick, Carpenter was one of the first registered female rowing members of Shannon Rowing Club, rowing in their first winning women’s championship crew of 1988.

She is actively engaged at international level within World Rowing and was the sports nominee to a 2017 IOC Women in Leadership Forum in Lausanne.

Before becoming involved in the world of sports administration Carpenter was part of the team that launched the Euro currency while working at the European Central bank in Frankfurt.


Sinéad McNulty

Sinéad McNulty was appointed to become Ard Stiúrthóir or CEO of the Camogie Association in June of this year.

The first three months in the post have been a whirlwind but one which has produced some fine results.

The Liberty Insurance All Ireland Final between Galway and Kilkenny produced a game for the ages, the highest scoring Final since 1988, and a record stand alone attendance.

Throw into the mix that television numbers and attendance at the semi Finals stage in Limerick were both up by nearly 20 per cent and it has been a good start.

McNulty is a Dublin native, and a graduate of the Leisure Management and MBA programmes at TU Dublin (DIT). She had been Head of Sport at the third level institution for the past ten years and overseen the transition of sports facilities as a central focus of the new Grangegorman Campus.

She brings valuable experience from community sports development and leisure consultancy having worked in sport development roles in Dublin City Council and Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, and as a leisure consultant with Holohan Leisure before joining TU Dublin (DIT) in 2008.

A friend of Sport for Business since our early days, McNulty has also been a highly valued colleague on the Board of the Dublin City Sport and Wellbeing Partnership.

She served as Chairperson of the Scheme Implementation Group of the Government Grant Scheme supporting intercounty Camogie and Ladies Gaelic Football players, Chairperson of Student Sport Ireland’s Finance and Governance Committee, and a member of the GAA’s Towards 2034 Committee.

She is a member of Round Towers GAA Club in Clondalkin, alongside GAA Head of Communications Alan Milton, where she played Ladies Gaelic Football and has worked with the development committee in the club to secure new facilities and government grant aid.


Helen O’Rourke

Helen O’Rourke is CEO of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association.  She has overseen a transformation in how the sport is seen by the general public and is celebrating in 2019 having smashed again the attendance record at the TG4 All Ireland Finals Day for the third year in a row.

This year’s attendance at Croke Park hit 56,411.  Last years was a record 51,141 and before that 46,286.

At the current rate of growth, there would be a full house at the stadium, of over 82,000, by 2023.

It is not a record that has grown easily.  It is a focus of management and staff at the LGFA from the morning after each year’s Finals and significant energy goes into making sure that the growth in numbers watching is backed up by similar growth at a grassroots level in the number of young girls coming into the sport and those who do staying and playing longer.

The partnerships which the association have built with Lidl and nurtured since 2001 with TG4 have been a core element in how the sport is seen and the important part it plays in the overall movement increasing the importance of sport for women to the same traditional position it has always had for men.

Coaching and Leadership across the organisation are vital for sustainable growth behind the headline figures and O’Rourke has enabled massive improvement here as well.

Speaking to Sport for Business earlier this year she said: “We are seeing a lot more players coming back and getting involved in their clubs and schools.”

“We commenced a Leadership Programme this year where we are looking at giving women the confidence to get involved in refereeing, coaching, management and all aspects of the game.”


Kellie Harrington

Kellie Harrington is the reigning Sport Ireland / Irish Times Sportswoman of the Year.  She is a World Champion.  She has the potential to win Olympic Gold in Tokyo next year.  But perhaps more than any of that she is one of the most engaging human beings we have ever come across.

She is a fighter from the North East Inner City of Dublin and her roots in the city are a key part of her character.  We have been involved with her in events around the Dublin SportsFest and she is the star that everyone is attracted towards.  A ready smile that masks the core of steel that you need to cut from fighting at 69 KG to doing so at 60 KG because that gave her a better career path.

She is grounded.  Weekends in recent years were about working in the local St Vincents Psychiatric Hospital in Fairview.  It supplemented the funding that came from Sport Ireland after winning her World Title.

She is important because she reaches out to groups of young girls, and boys, with the hope that they can grow up to be like her, if not in the boxing ring then in whatever they want to turn their hand to.  It’s easier to solve a drop off in sport when school, club and family life is more comfortable, a lot harder when other concerns and social challenges are always just around the corner.

When the National Sports Policy was launched in the summer of 2018 it took place in the streets where Harrington grew up, less than a mile and yet a million miles away from the gleaming glass fronted offices of the IFSC.

Kellie Harrington was the star act that day.  If we can bear her spirit and fortitude in mind as that policy develops over the next decade, we will, as a society, have done a good job.


Anne O’Leary

Anne O’Leary is the CEO of Vodafone Ireland who in 2019 confirmed a four-year extension as the main commercial partner of Irish Rugby.

Since taking over the role of CEO six years ago she has follwed a policy of balance in the workforce with 39 per cent of senior leaders, 63 per cent of the senior leadership teams and 48 per cent of middle management being women.

She has also fostered a company culture where diversity is very much seen as a positive.  The company’s strong sense of openness to the LGBT community was a major factor in their support of this year’s Union Cup in Rugby.

The extension of the partnership with the IRFU comes at a key time just before the Rugby World Cup and is a statement of support that gives the sport confidence in knowing that regardless of results on the pitch, the infrastructure for developing the sport is secure.

In an addition to the portfolio of rugby assets from 2020 Vodafone is also taking over as official sponsor of the Women’s Interprovincial tournament.

Speaking to Sport for Business at the time of the announcement O’Leary said  “We have a shared ambition with the IRFU to grow the game on the island of Ireland. We are very proud that our support of Irish Rugby encompasses men’s rugby, women’s rugby and the game at all levels. When it comes to Irish Rugby, we all belong to the Team Of Us.”

O’Leary remains active in sport and is a keen runner, swimmer, cyclist and triathlete.


Joanne Cantwell

Joanne Cantwell steped up as the Main Presenter of RTÉ’s Live Gaelic Games Coverage in 2019 and has taken to the role with ease.

The Sunday Game Live coverage of the Drawn game between Dublin and Kerry in the All Ireland Football Championship attracted a peak audience just short of 1.1 million making it the most watched TV programme of the year so far.

It is a measure of how professional she has been throughout her career in front of the camera that her presence now in the hottest sporting seat that RTÉ has gone by without comment.  The era of Women being accepted as the norm in all areas of sport including media coverage has taken quite a leap forward.

Cantwell has been one of a wave of strong female presenters given a chance and then developed in their career at RTÉ, long before it became an imperative.

She joined from TV3 in 2007 and her first job was as a reporter on The Sunday Game.  Since then she has gone on to host coverage from the Olympic and Paralympic Games as well as programming across a variety of sports.

Cantwell played Ladies Gaelic Football for Dublin, winning an All Star in 1998 after helping Dublin to a first Leinster title.


Nora Stapleton

Nora Stapleton was appointed to the newly created position of Women in Sport Lead at Sport Ireland in April 2019.  She has executive reponsibility on overseeing the additional €3 million funding which was allocated to different programmes across a multitude of sports by Sport Ireland announced in September.

Before taking up the role at Sport Ireland Stapleton had spent six years working at the Irish Rugby Football Union as Women’s Rugby Development Manager.  This overlapped with the period in which the Irish Women’s team won the Six Nations Grand Slam and Ireland hosted the Women’s Rugby World Cup.

Aside from managing the legacy of both those events she was also an integral member of the team, winning a total of 50 caps.

She only came to the sport at the age of 24 after playing in a Tag Rugby event with her employer at the time Bank of Ireland.  Prior to that she played inter county Ladies Gaelic Football for Donegal, winning the Intermediate All Ireland Championship in 2010.  She attended UCD on a soccer scholarship and was part of the UCD team that won three successive FAI Women’s Cup Finals.


Sarah Keane

Sarah Keane is President of the Olympic Federation of Ireland and CEO of Swim Ireland. In both of those roles the next twelve months will be of huge importance.

Having taken over the old Olympic Council in the wake of the scandals that engulfed it through Rio 2016, she has brought together a winning team and steered to ship into a better place than it has ever been.

Survival was the minimum expectation through the dark days of having Government funding witheld and the confidence of Ireland’s sporting establishment at an all time low but that was very quickly exceeded.

A new name, a new identity and a new team came into focus under Keane’s leadership and now there is a sense that Tokyo could yet deliver our most successful ever Olympic Games.  It will certainly be our best organised and that is the foundation upon which the vagaries of international sport have the best platform from which to shoot for the moon.

It is not only Tokyo though that Keane has on her list of priorities.  A new major sponsor in Tesco has been brought on board to lift swim Ireland’s reach and in the coming months, we will see Championships televised on RTÉ and swimming stars given a greater spotlight than ever before.

Keane is humble about the success she has achieved, placing as much credit as she can to those who have played their part.  In terms of the leadership, though that is needed for better things to come to life, she is very much to the fore.


Image Credits: Inpho.ie

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