By Emily Kaplan
Back in the early 1970s, when women working in sports were rare exceptions, Rosa Gatti received a letter early in her tenure as Villanova’s Sports Information Director.
Gatti recalls the letter from an SID at a rival university as something of a warning.
“It basically said, ‘Rosa, this is a very challenging, difficult job and I’m not sure that a woman can do it. But, I will certainly work with you,’ ” Gatti recalled. “ And I when I got it, I was like, ‘Whoa.’ ”
The message from her male counterpart didn’t depress Gatti, who in 1974 had become the first female sports information director at a major NCAA university. Actually, it did the opposite.
“What it did was make me all the more determined to work with him and win him over for him to see that I was serious about what I was doing and that I was professional,” Gatti said. “He quickly saw that and we actually became good acquaintances.”
In a sports communications career now spanning four decades, Gatti has become one of the most respected people in the industry. Her poise and professionalism have defined her 31 years at ESPN, and her accomplishments and values are the reason she is the 2011 Mary Garber Pioneer Award winner.
The award recognizes individuals who have broken barriers and served as role models for women in sports media.
Gatti is the first non-journalist to win the award since it was created in 1999.
“Rosa embodies everything the Mary Garber Pioneer Award is about,” said Meri-Jo Borzilleri AWSM’s chairperson for the award. “Also, I think having a public relations person win the award is a nice precedent to have for an association that’s for women and sports media, not just journalists alone.”
Gatti remains a trailblazing fixture at the worldwide leader in sports, where she is currently an adviser to ESPN’s communications department. She joined ESPN in its infancy in 1980, and has been an integral part of its incredible growth, overseeing all the public relations efforts for ESPN International, ESPN Regional Television, ESPN Radio, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine and ESPN Enterprises.
Growing up during the civil rights and women’s movement in the ‘60s, Gatti never envisioned herself as being a pioneer. After graduating from Villanova in 1972, where she majored in languages, all she found was a job as a waitress and at a department store.
She was considering moving to France, when she was offered a job as a secretary to the SID at Villanova. “At first I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll take this job for another year, make a little money and then I’ll go to France,’ ” Gatti recalled. “And then, all of the sudden, I was in this whole world that I never considered, working with sports, dealing with the media, and helping set up press conferences, helping sending press releases out. It was so exciting and I learned on the job.”
After two-plus years as a SID at her alma mater, she left in 1976 for the same position at Brown, which hosted several NCAA championships, including the men’s hockey Frozen Four, which was televised by ESPN. Gatti was in charge of all of the media arrangements. She did such a good job, an ESPN producer recommended her to the company’s president.
“I was just performing my job,” Gatti said. “And other people noticed.”
In those early years of ESPN, Gatti was exposed to a highly uncertain world.
“In the first six months of the job I was like, ‘Oh, my, you really did it this time Rosa.’ ” Gatti recalled. “It was a lot, it was a lot to learn. And oh boy, I don’t know how I’m going to make it.”
At the time, ESPN was little more than a sports cable curiosity, a money-losing enterprise reaching only one million homes across the country. Many doubted it would survive.
“My job was to promote and get media to write stories about us,” Gatti said. “And I remember talking to some reporters, and they said, ‘Why should we write about this when we don’t get it, we can’t see it?’”
With the force of her creativity and energy, Gatti helped get ESPN on the national media radar with more and more stories about the burgeoning network.
Note: Featured in the AWSM Newsletter, Spring/Summer 2011 edition.