Ilisa Kessler, Master's in Sport Management '00

The Power of Inclusiveness

Sport is much more than a game.

Ilisa Kessler ‘00 says her entire professional career in sports, and her satisfaction with its contributions to social change, exists because of what opened up for her while in the Master in Sport Management program at USF.

More than having a passion for sports, Ilisa has always felt a responsibility to change social perceptions for the better. Her work in the program reflected that, and now, as chief operations officer for Special Olympics Northern California and Nevada (SONC), her career reflects that.

“Inclusive, competitive, forgiving, joyous, celebratory — SONC embodies everything sports should be,” Ilisa says. “We have more than 24,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities competing year-round in more than 225 competitions, and it’s all at no-cost to them and their families.”

As COO, Ilisa is part of the senior leadership team driving strategic planning. She currently oversees marketing and PR, IT and office administration, but also liaises with the board of directors and represents the program at the Special Olympics Hill Day in Washington D.C. where SONC asks Congress to include appropriations to the federal budget that will support the work she’s doing.

Working for this organization has really given me a greater appreciation for the impact of sports and how it can change someone’s life.

It’s Much More Than Just A Game

According to Ilisa, transformative power lies in the inclusiveness that sports provides, and the effect that has on everyone involved.

For instance, SONC is currently growing a Special Olympics program called Unified Sports that brings Special Olympics into schools all across the region. It includes students with and without disabilities so that they’re playing as teammates.

“Suddenly we have students with intellectual disabilities having the opportunity to wear a school uniform, earn a letter, play in a fully sanctioned league — all things they would never have otherwise had the chance to do,” she said.

According to studies, less than 30 percent of the general student population are comfortable speaking to a classmate with an intellectual disability. For those involved with Unified Sports, Ilisa and SONC are finding that number more than doubles, with about 79 percent considering those same classmates friends.

Sports can be so transformative to someone’s life. I’m not talking about when you go pro and come into a lot of money, I’m talking about more basic changes in how you’re valued, respected, included — how you can become a part of something bigger than yourself.

A Force For Social Change

Ilisa first got a taste of this in the program, when she found a way to blend her passion for social change with her passion for sport in the form of real job experience.

Very early on, she found herself gravitating toward operations, and the program equipped her to investigate that through coursework and, eventually, an internship, with the American Basketball League’s Bay Area team, the San Jose Lasers, and then through jobs with Women’s World Cup ’99, the San Jose CyberRays, and ultimately as the general manager of FC Gold Pride, a women’s pro soccer team in a new but now defunct Women’s Professional Soccer League.

I always valued how important it is to showcase strong, smart, athletic women to young girls, and found it equally important for boys to see these strong, capable women, so that when they sit across a boardroom table with them, there is a mutual respect. I felt a huge weight on my shoulders to carry that message to the community. I see that now in the work I do with SONC.

 The timing couldn’t have been better for her to be getting a Master in Sport Management. Interest in women’s professional sports was just piquing and finding traction, and she was able to tap into it.

Her career has had a lot to do with luck and timing, and networking — but she would not be where she is today if she hadn’t taken the leap and studied at USF. She says that she’s been so appreciative of the program that she continues to return as a guest speaker and as an adjunct professor.