Raised in Newark in a conservative Hispanic household as one of six children to immigrant parents, Elisa Padilla seemingly entered the world with the odds stacked against her. Nonetheless, she went on to develop a love for basketball and women and is now the senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, managing all marketing avenues for the Barclays Center, Brooklyn Nets, New York Islanders, Long Island Nets and Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The born-and-bred Jersey girl made a conscious effort at a young age to keep her eyes on the prize. “Being who I am, I saw the positives and negatives of the industry at a young age so I held back. I did not readily disclose my ethnic background and I kept my sexual orientation secret because I did not want anyone to have that extra filter against me. It was all about labeling for me and I did not want to be passed up for a promotion.”
Sports entertainment can be an intimidating arena, especially for someone such as yourself. What made you decide to cultivate your career in this field?
Elisa Padilla: I was raised in a traditional Hispanic immigrant household in the heart of Newark where girls had roles to play and sports was not one of them. My older brother played basketball and introduced me to the sport at a young age, prompting me to take internships with venues such as Madison Square Garden and enroll in various marketing courses during my college career. I ultimately earned my B.S in Communications from Centenary University and MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University. During the process, I received a job offer to work for the New York Knicks and I have been in the game ever since. I knew sports was and still is a male-dominated field; however, I inherently made a decision to not let that derail me. What’s interesting is I did not begin to feel the competition amongst my peers until I hit the director level.
You seemingly and effortlessly led the rebranding strategy of the Nets from New Jersey to Brooklyn. As a lifelong Jersey girl, did you feel as though you betrayed your own state?
EP: New Jersey was losing its professional sports franchise; however, I was given the opportunity to lead that franchise. I do not like that the state of New Jersey does not have a professional basketball team, but I knew there was much more growth potential in moving the team to Brooklyn and given the close proximity to New Jersey, it made the transition smoother. I am often criticized for managing New York teams and living in New Jersey, which is ironic considering a majority of the executives that work for the company live in New Jersey, including everyone above 35. I love the Garden State. I grew up in a multifaceted city, rich in culture. I chose to complete my education here and I still live here today, having moved to the suburbs of Morris County, which is accepting despite its strong conservative demographic component. I love that New Jersey offers the best of both worlds and is so accessible to New York City. When I think of home, I think of Jersey.
Due to your culturally diverse background, what are your thoughts on the current presidential administration and its immigration policies?
EP: I firmly believe there have to be policies and procedures in place to protect our country yet also give people opportunity. I do not agree with the way this immigration ban has been implemented. The White House is essentially making immigrants fearful just for being in this country, when that is not the message that should be sent. For people already in this country, there should be a system of checks and balances to ensure that they are within the laws the administration is trying to enforce. Scaring people out of this country is not what America was built upon. This could all still be altered; however, I ultimately do not believe welcoming immigrants into this country is what’s causing terrorism.
Leading up to the first annual Brooklyn Nets Pride Night at Barclays Center, you shocked many when you let it be known that you are a lesbian and married to a woman who has been your partner for 28 years. Was this motivated by the initiatives being introduced by the Trump presidency and are you okay with acknowledging your sexuality with us officially?
EP: Absolutely. The election was really the driving force. I was haunted that the rights granted to the LGBT community would be reversed, and being as I have a voice, I knew I had to use it. I never wanted who I am to inherently interfere with my professional growth or career so I thought it through tremendously. I feared how this would affect the brands I work on. I vetted my concerns with our public relations department, whose support I had, and after disclosing my story leading up to Pride Night, I did not receive one negative response. Everyone was beyond supportive to the point that I wish I had the confidence to come out to my colleagues sooner. I had spent decades constantly turning conversations away from me and on to others. The barrier was finally broken. We need to educate, especially given the regression we are witnessing today, and I was not doing the next level of women coming up in sports justice by keeping my unique background a secret.
Being as you are a female, Hispanic, lesbian and spearheading some of the biggest brands in sports in a male-dominated field, do you consider yourself the antithesis of the current political climate?
EP: Success needs to be based on intellectual property and the value a person can bring because of his or her differences, not similarities. We need to do a better job as a society in educating and exposing people to that which they are not familiar. People still look at something different as being something wrong. Being who I am, I bring an entire different view because my counterparts do not come from the same background. Being who I am has actually made me an asset to the company and its businesses.
Compared to when you began to establish your career in sports entertainment, has the industry as a whole become more liberal and embracing?
EP: There is much more work that needs to be done within sports, including much more education. It all comes down to when kids start playing sports at a young age. When I started out in this field 25 years ago, it was very homophobic. However, we have made some inroads. I applauded the Brooklyn Nets for signing Jason Collins, the first openly gay basketball player to be signed by the NBA. Likewise, Billy Bean opened doors in baseball when he came out as well.
These were huge steps. Yet, while teams in tri-state metropolitan areas are often very accepting, especially in this region, we have a long way to go. We are not going to see tremendous change until someone in the NFL comes out. Look what happened to Michael Sam. He came out and was not drafted by the NFL. He was very much iced out. I hope by me coming out today that I can be a part of the change.
In closing, was Pride Night the start of a growing enterprise of LGBT sports events, or was it more so a gauge at seeing if there was an audience and appeal for it?
EP: Based on the success of Pride Night, which was overwhelming, we are putting together a strategic plan to host multiple impact events year-round, every quarter. We are targeting for June towards Pride, back-to-school season and the holiday season. While we definitely want to capitalize on the sports teams, we want to simultaneously provide a platform through the lens of awareness, diversity and inclusion. We are excited about partnering with the Trevor Project and are working with them specifically on programs that are specific to prevent teen suicide.