Profile: Barbara Thomas, '79
Barbara Thomas '79 handles the business side of boxing
has enjoyed its share of knockouts. It is widely known for
in-depth coverage of high-profile boxing. It has numerous
critically acclaimed weekly series. And it has award-winning
documentaries detailing the most vivid moments in sports history.
Thomas '79 is one of relatively few female executives
working at senior levels in sports today.
Yet much of the action actually happens off the air, where
Barbara Thomas '79, senior vice president and CFO for sports
at HBO, works out the budgets and contracts for such programs.
Thomas, who is responsible for the financial operations and
strategic planning for HBO Sports and TVKO, the division's
pay-per-view arm, spends a great deal of time in the artful
negotiation of who gets what when the network signs on big
It's a job description that often puts her face to face with
the some of the toughest people in the business: boxing promoters.
"I was scared out of my mind the first time I did it,
and now I enjoy the challenge," says Thomas, who is often
the only woman in the room during such meetings. "I've
learned a lot from sitting across the table from them."
It isn't exactly where she thought her career would take her
when she graduated from Washington University in St. Louis
with a bachelor's degree in drama. "I never had an interest
in sports when I was growing up. In fact, this is the last
place I thought I would end up," she says.
But after a year in a master's of fine arts program at the
California Institute of the Arts, Thomas decided she was "too
chicken" to wait for the chance and good fortune it often
takes to make it as an actress. "I was doing OK and even
got some professional, paying jobs, but I realized that it's
real luck of the draw," she says.
She visited a friend who was a student at Kellogg. Thomas
liked the school, decided to apply and enrolled the next year.
She graduated from Kellogg with her husband, David -- whom
she met on the first day -- and a solid business foundation.
"I had a good math background from Wash U., but I did
not know how businesses worked, and Kellogg showed me that."
It's a lesson that has served her well -- as an accountant
and tax auditor at Price Waterhouse, as an assistant controller
at Dino DeLaurentiis Corp. and in various financial operations
positions at cable TV networks.
Most recently, it has helped her line up the hit sports programming
for which HBO has become known. The network has longstanding
favorites, including "Inside the NFL," which has
been around some 25 years. And it has more recent hits, such
as a six-week series, "Hard Knocks," that provided
fans with an insider look at the Baltimore Ravens' football
The fact that HBO is supported by subscriptions, not advertising,
allows it to look at sports in ways that other networks can't,
Thomas notes. For instance, "Real Sports," a highly
popular show hosted by Bryant Gumbel, is what Thomas calls
the "60 Minutes" of sports. "We have no restraints.
We can do whatever we want, and it gives us journalistic freedom,"
Another area in which such freedom has been key is the network's
documentaries about significant moments in sports history.
One such program detailed the boxing "fight of the century"
between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden
in 1971 -- and won the network another George Foster Peabody
Award for broadcast excellence.
Outside the sporting arena, Thomas remains involved in theater
as a member of the board of trustees at the Roundabout Theatre
in New York, and serves on the board of trustees at Washington
--Mary E. Morrison