Standing alone at the end of a Wells Fargo Center runway one morning early in 2019, Valerie Camillo surveyed the slipperiest challenge she’d yet faced as the Flyers’ new president of business operations.
Just weeks after becoming the highest-ranking woman in franchise history, Camillo had been invited to break more ground, this time as the first female to join in the hockey team’s annual photo. Now, gazing out at the Flyers assembled at center ice, she wondered how she was going to get there on stiletto heels.
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“I’d been told this would be the first time a woman had ever been in the picture,” Camillo recalled recently. “Pretty cool, right? So I walked down there trying to be as authentic as I could. I was telling myself, ‘Don’t try to act like one of the guys. Just be yourself.’ Then I see I had to go out on this sheet of ice in boots with giant stilettos. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to die.’ ”
Fortunately, an unlikely Sir Walter Raleigh, then-Flyers president Paul Holmgren, recognized Camillo’s distress.
“And this was a guy who, if you know his history, was one of the all-time leaders in penalty minutes,” said Camillo. “The toughest of the tough. Old school. A Flyers’ institutional leader. And he literally and figuratively offered his arm to me. Later he introduced me around the building. And I think that helped me immensely. I’ll always be grateful to him. He certainly didn’t have to do that.”
Two years later, Camillo has maintained her footing and, as the first woman hired to be an NHL team’s president, asserted her grip on the Flyers’ business side.
Despite a disruptive pandemic, the 47-year-old executive has transformed the once-distinct managements of the Flyers and the arena into a single corporate entity, revamped the game-night experience, successfully reached out to a younger generation of fans, aided the NHL in its quest for more diversity on and off the ice, and, maybe most impressively, avoided the land mines that confront women in one of sport’s most macho outposts.
“With her energy level, her style, she just really connected from the get-go,” said her boss, Dave Scott, Comcast Spectacor’s chairman and CEO.
Camillo’s arrival in Philadelphia coincided with an ongoing push by a league that’s playing catch-up in gender equality. The NHL has lagged behind its pro sports counterparts in female employment. According to a 2019 survey, women, who make up an estimated 40 percent of the league’s fan base, held less than 5 percent of its hockey operations jobs.
The NHL is also alone among the four major sports with no domestic abuse policy. Each case is handled individually and the decision made by commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
In response, the NHL last year formed a Female Hockey Advisory Board to address those issues and to foster the growth of the women’s sport. Like the Flyers, several teams recently have added women to high-profile jobs. Canadian Olympic star Hayley Wickenheiser, for example, is now Toronto’s assistant director of player development. (Camillo is actually the second female president in the NHL, but the first, Buffalo’s Kim Pegula, co-owns that team.)
The movement seems to validate the prediction of Kim Davis, who since 2017 has served as an NHL executive vice president:
“The next 100 years,” Davis said, “will be defined by how our sport creates a more welcoming environment and opens its doors to new audiences.”
Camillo, who has completed a hat trick of sports management jobs, having worked earlier in the NBA and MLB, said the only way to equal the playing field was to get more women into positions of authority.
“Twenty-five years ago, when I was first coming into the professional world, there was a subtle pressure to look and act like a man, whatever that means,” she said. “It came across in subtle encouragements like, ‘Take up golf, because that’s where business gets done.’ Well, I don’t like golf. Getting to show my authentic self at work and not having to conform to succeed, that’s gender equality.”
As recently as 2018, Camillo was a pioneering baseball executive. As the Washington Nationals’ chief revenue and marketing officer, she was working contentedly, not only in her favorite sport but in what essentially was her home town. Then, late that year, a headhunter contacted her about the Flyers opening.
“I definitely wasn’t looking,” she said during a recent interview. “But what was so interesting to me was, here you had an iconic brand in the Flyers, a crazy sports town in Philadelphia, and engaged fans. They were doing a $300 million transformation of the arena. And they were part of the Comcast organization. Just to be part of a Fortune 30 company was attractive. Next thing you know, I went from taking a phone call, to listening to an opportunity, to taking the job.”
She had been one of 10 candidates interviewed by Scott, who said he wasn’t worried about inserting a female executive into a male fortress.
“Hockey historically, probably like all sports, had challenges,” said Scott. “But we knew what we wanted to do. With Ron Hextall leaving, we brought in Chuck Fletcher, a very progressive guy. And on the business side, I thought Valerie could step into this and get running with the pack. She’s done that, and she’s also really emerged as a great leader on the NHL side. Already, she’s got a great following among those who work with her, men and women.”
A combination of nerd and jock, Camillo grew up in northern Virginia immersed in sports, both as a participant and a fan. Even as a youngster, her ambition was a front-office job in team sports.
“I always cut a little bit of an unlikely figure,” she said. “I was a young woman who knew a lot about sports, stats and history. I would regularly test the guys. And somewhere over the years I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
Her father worked in the defense industry while her homemaker mother was an avid baseball fan. From the start, Camillo said, she launched herself toward the glass ceilings she’d eventually help shatter.
“I’m a child of the ’70s, and Star Wars was a formative part of my youth, the toys I played with, what engaged me creatively as a kid,” she said. “I had a Millennial Falcon, and I used to kick Han Solo out and let Princess Leia fly it. The little boy next door was my best friend, and he and I would fight about it. So that was probably a sign of things to come.”
Her maternal grandfather, a New Yorker, turned her into a fan of the Yankees and especially their star catcher, Thurman Munson. Vacationing in Wildwood, N.J., in August 1979, she learned that that her idol had died in a plane crash.
“I don’t know why I liked him. I just I did,” she said of Munson. “He was like my doll, my first crush. I was only 6 when he was killed but I wrote his widow a letter to express how sad I was.”
An eager but not particularly gifted athlete, Camillo played basketball, softball, and lacrosse in high school. She was limited to intramurals at the University of Virginia, where she earned both an undergrad degree in commerce and her MBA.
For a decade and a half after graduation she worked for consulting firms, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Booz Allen Hamilton.
“Before I ever got into sports, I had a great foundation in business, data analytics and strategy,” she said. “Then a little bit into my career I started to try to make the move into sports. Back then it was hard for team sports executives to project exactly how what I did could be applicable to a team.”
Then came “Moneyball” and the analytics explosion, both on the field and in front offices. Teams were collecting more customer data, and they wanted to know how best to exploit it. That was Camillo’s wheelhouse, and in 2010 she began consulting the NBA as part of its Team Marketing and Business Operations Group.
“I Ioved working at the NBA, but if you’re passionate about sports, a team is where the action is,” she said.
Back in the 1990s, Camillo, with an eye toward one day landing in its front office, had been part of a Washington-area group that lobbied MLB for another baseball team. In 2005, the Montreal Expos moved there and became the Nationals. Nine years later, Camillo joined them.
“How often does a dream became real?” she said.
For four years, Camillo directed the Nationals’ money-making operations from tickets to broadcasting to licensing to concessions. If there’s one regret, she said, it’s that the team’s first World Series triumph came a year after she departed. Still, her tenure cemented her understanding of sports finances.
“The question I’m often asked by young women is, ‘How do I get to be president of a team?’” Camillo said. “And what I advise them is stay close to the money. Stay on top of the money.”
When she surprised everyone and left Washington and baseball for Philadelphia and the black-and-blue world of hockey, she was warned to prepare for culture shock.
“I listened, but it wasn’t my first time at that rodeo, being the only women at the table or working in male-centered environments,” she said. “During the interview process someone said to me, ‘You know, you’d be the first woman hired to be a president of an NHL club.’ Someone else said, ‘It’s very macho, and it may not be super warm.’ But my experience with the Flyers has been pretty opposite of that.”
Married, living now in Newtown Square after an initial residence in Center City, Camillo helped create some of the many new experiences at Flyers games, all of them aimed at broadening an aging fan base.
“We’ve got to be mindful of building the next generation of Flyers fans,” she said. “We have to be mindful of attracting a diverse set of fans. Our challenge is how to create a customized fan experience.”
She hopes millennials, who tend to be more social than older fans, will be attracted to the Assembly Room and Revolutionary Row, the new, casual, lofty Wells Fargo Center areas where they can mingle, drink and watch hockey; or the Rage Room, where they can smash things for a price.
Though 40 percent of Flyers single-game ticket-purchasers are women, Camillo thinks that number can grow with new family-friendly amenities like the Sensory Room, meant to provide a safe space for fans with autistic children.
“For anyone on the business side, being able to take part in a $300 million transformation of the arena was a dream,” she said. “Dave Scott told me they wanted a leader who could say what it should look like, what it should be. They wanted someone to maximize the fan experience, maximize revenue. That’s what was so attractive about this job. And I’ve been allowed the autonomy to lead the transformation.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, has slowed and altered some of those plans. But the 76ers season is now underway, and the Flyers will soon join them. What those seasons will look like in a few months and how the arena will adapt is still anyone’s guess.
“There have been a lot of unexpected and new challenges,” Camillo said. “But we’re making the most of the hand we’ve been dealt. For those that are creative, there are new opportunities and paths forward.”