Kellogg World Alumni Magazine, Winter 2001Kellogg School of Management
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Alumni Profile: Barbara Thomas, '79

Working the ring
Barbara Thomas '79 handles the business side of boxing

  Barbara Thomas '79
  Barbara Thomas '79 is one of relatively few female executives working at senior levels in sports today.
HBO Sports 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.

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 talent.

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 training camp.

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," she says.

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 University.

--Mary E. Morrison

©2001 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University