As the executive vice president of marketing at Top Rank Boxing and the deal agent for Filipino boxer and congressman Manny Pacquiao, Lucia McKelvey ’00 has fought her way into the male-dominated world of sports business, and – now one of the top names in the boxing industry – is redefining the image of boxing and its position as a mainstream tier-one sport.
by Alicia Lutz ’98
Photography by Mike Morgan
It’s a Sunday morning. Her hair is piled up in a messy ponytail, and her thin, white wifebeater is still a little damp from the tension she sweated out during the early morning’s kickboxing workout. She’s sitting alone in her Washington, D.C., apartment. She looks around at her wilted plants, her still-made bed, her unpacked suitcase. It’s the first time she’s been home all week, and it’s strange to be here. Lucia McKelvey thrives outside of her comfort zone.
The Las Vegas boxing gym is dark, dank – the kind of place you don’t want to go without a bottle of Purell close at hand. The manager is gruff, rough around the edges, and his office is a smoky, wood-paneled box with a steel tank desk and a buzzing overhead light. She sits on a green plastic–covered chair with the stuffing busting through its seat and – sensing he thinks he has more important things to do than talk to her – gets straight to the nitty-gritty before he can lose his patience. Lucia McKelvey knows how to handle all kinds.
This is L.A. dining at its swankiest. To the right is her client, Filipino boxer and congressman Manny Pacquiao, and his team – most of whom have been by his side since his days living in a box on the side of the road. To the left are the bigwigs from Hewlett Packard – all men who’ve always been wealthy, always been powerful. She raises her glass to toast the $1 million contract she has recently negotiated between the two – the first deal she’d made since becoming Pacquiao’s endorsement agent a month earlier. Lucia McKelvey doesn’t just talk the talk.
Her voice is confident as she strolls into the executive boardroom of HBO’s New York City high-rise. She commands attention, immediately silencing the swishy shuffling of the papers in front of the suited, grey-haired execs. They nod at her findings: The digital market research she’s done speaks for itself. Knowing full well these men have their own research and experience to back up their own objectives, she makes the case for her vision for the future of boxing. Lucia McKelvey is willing to put up a fight.
No matter where she is, whom she’s with or what she’s up against, Lucia McKelvey ’00 always holds her own.
The exception to prove that rule is an aside worth noting – one that gives our subject’s future success in the boxing industry something of an ironic hook: When she was in third grade at Le Lycée Français de Los Angeles, Lucia McKelvey got beat up in the girl’s bathroom. By Laila Ali.
“My daddy’s a famous boxer, and he taught me how to punch,” her classmate had threatened, unprovoked, before driving her fist into the 9-year-old’s gut, overpowering her with just one blow.
Her first encounter with boxing had knocked her right off her feet. It was, however, the last time she’d lose her footing – the last time she’d get knocked down ever again. And, by the time she was seated next to Laila Ali at the Women’s Sports Award Foundation dinner some 25 years later, she was well on her way to being counted among the top ranks of the boxing world.
For the record: That was also the last time in her boxing career that she’d be up against a woman.
Lucia McKelvey could never really stay in her comfort zone. The daughter of a flashy Porsche-driving retail executive who took the family to dinner in a limousine every Sunday and a down-to-earth, Volvo-driving supermom who never missed a parent-teacher conference or a softball game, McKelvey had the best of both worlds. But, while she and her brothers (one younger, one older) certainly got a taste of the high-profile California lifestyle her father loved, she took most of her lessons from playing sports and observing her family’s strong work ethic.
It was all McKelvey ever wanted to do: Work. She took her first job at Russo’s Grocery shortly after the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when she was 14. And she never stopped. She loved it. And, so – after two years playing lacrosse and field hockey at Kenyon College – she decided to transfer to the College of Charleston, where she knew she could get out in the real world and get some practical experience while she was in school.
“I think I was born to be a businesswoman, and I wanted to get out there, I wanted to try anything. I really, really wanted all these internships in college,” says McKelvey, who majored in business administration and wasted no time getting an internship with Morgan Stanley when she got to Charleston. “Any time you transfer in the middle of your college career, you’re taking a risk. But for me, College of Charleston was the best decision.”
That decision to get out of her comfort zone led to more like it, and she joined the semester-long London Internship Program her junior year, which allowed her to work at the London Merrill Lynch offices all day Monday through Thursday and take classes Friday and Saturday.
“It was perfect for me. I think just getting out of your comfort zone a little bit and challenging yourself to move to a place where you don’t know anyone and you’re unfamiliar with the culture is invaluable to your career – at least it was to mine,” she says. “Any time you get out of your comfort zone, you get to meet all new people and build new relationships. Those are really good challenges. That experience helps you grow – whether you’re a freshman or a transfer at the College, or whether it’s travel abroad or a new work culture.”
It was with that lesson in mind that – a decade into her career – McKelvey once again stepped out of her comfort zone. This time, into the big, bad world of boxing.
“Have you ever considered a contact sport?” the man sitting across the two-top asked her. He was a nice enough guy, a headhunter who was clearly familiar with her reputation as a shrewd and forward-thinking leader in the sports industry. After graduation, McKelvey went directly into a sales position at Clear Channel Communication, where she built up a hefty contact list. Those relationships made her attractive to global sports, fashion and media conglomerate IMG, where she eventually was hired on as the vice president of golf development and sales. As successful as she was at IMG, however, she knew she’d gone as far as she could there.
“What contact sport are we talking?”
“Never mind that,” he said slyly. “If you’ll consider it, I’ll set up a meeting with the president and CEO.”
And so McKelvey came to meet with Top Rank Boxing’s president, Todd Duboef, and legendary CEO and founder Bob Arum, who promoted Muhammad Ali through the ranks. Top Rank Boxing is the biggest, oldest, most durable boxing promotion agency that exists, and its top executives wanted her on their team.
“Their message was, ‘Hey, let’s get boxing back on mainstream television. Let’s take its reputation from being this manipulative, wheeling-and-dealing sport and bring it back to its prestige. They had a clear goal of turning the image of the sport into a positive one, something more mainstream,” McKelvey recalls. “I got sold. It was a total Jerry McGuire moment.”
Here was something she could get excited about, something she could be a real part of, make a real difference in. It was a whole new world for her to explore – and, sure, it could be scary, but she’d never let that stop her before.
“It’s uncharted territory, and uncharted territory means opportunity,” McKelvey says. “And not just for me, but for the sport itself.”
Somehow, Lucia McKelvey doesn’t seem out of place – she actually seems to fit right in. If nothing else, she does a good job of blending in wherever she goes. From the putting green to the boxing ring – she never seems to notice that she’s the only woman at her level in the business of sports (much less in the testosterone-fueled business of boxing).
“You can’t think about it like that,” she says, noting that these days it’s rare for a male colleague or client to forego a crass or bawdy joke for her sake. “I can hang. I know I can hold my own among all men. And I deal with all men. Everyone I deal with is a man. But in the end, it comes down to personality, and I have a very easygoing personality. You just have to be able to hang out with all kinds.”
That was something that she didn’t necessarily experience in the homogenous world of golf.
“I was very used to working with the likes of the corporate world, but not the likes of the boxing gym managers. It’s an eye opener, for sure,” says McKelvey, adding that she was totally dazzled by the first super-fight she attended.
“It exhilarated me. It’s just so glitzy with the lights and the music and the entertainment, the star-studded audience – anyone from Bill Clinton to U2 to Beyoncé, Harry Reid, Jay-Z,” she sighs. “It’s bloody, but there’s an elegance to it.”
And it’s not just the glamour of the fight that has McKelvey starry eyed: Since signing on with Top Rank Boxing in January 2011, she has become completely smitten with the sport, the business behind it and her mission within it.
“I’m having so much fun in the boxing industry. I find myself challenged every single day, all day long. There is never a dull moment,” she gushes. In addition to “running all things marketing and all things digital” at Top Rank Boxing, it’s basically her responsibility “to promote the sport of boxing.”
Boxing has suffered in American popular culture over the years. A virtually nonexistent governing body has led to its reputation for corruption and seedy deals, which has only been compounded by its inaccessibility to the greater public. There was a time when boxing was a popular sport, available on all the network television stations. A series of 1970s–80s deals that were meant to pay the fighters more and bring in more subscriptions for the premium channels (HBO, Showtime, ESPN), however, inadvertently diminished the sport’s viewership and its standing as a whole.
“Boxing has a lot of problems to be fixed. But I have found amazing room for change. I have found amazing room for growth. And I have found amazing friends in every corner of the industry,” she says. “I think everyone understands that I’m there to make things better for them.”
And she seems to be making a difference already.
“Someone did come up to me and say, ‘Your image alone is good for boxing,’” McKelvey admits reluctantly. “Because they trust that if I’m associated with it – a woman, an educated woman, is associated with it – it must be OK. It builds confidence in the sport itself.
“So, yes,” she concludes with hesitation, “my face – a woman’s face – could be a good thing for boxing.”
Of course, neither she nor her sport can get off that easy: To get boxing back to the tier-one level, McKelvey and her colleagues at Top Rank Boxing must make fighters visible again – shape their stories and allow the public to get to know them. They are doing this in large part through negotiations with TV networks and through the use of digital media.
“Boxing has a legacy like no other sport, and there is a lot of room for someone like me to come in and make change and get that sport back to a tier-one level,” says McKelvey. “If I set up a meeting with a TV network, and we do make a deal, it makes an actual change in the history of the sport. So, I mean, it’s pretty cool, right? Usually it’s the commissioner of the sport who does that kind of thing – but, in boxing, it could be me. Me!”
Lucia McKelvey knows how to deliver. She knows what she’s talking about and she knows how to turn words into actions. And – compiled in the form of the endorsement portfolio she has built for Manny Pacquiao – those actions have turned heads.
It was Valentines Day 2011 when she met the Filipino congressman, a month after she signed on with Top Rank Boxing. He was the only boxer she’d ever really been interested in; she’d seen HBO’s 24/7 about his climb from the streets of the Philippines to the worlds of boxing and politics and – eventually – a position of national prestige.
But, when McKelvey finally met him, all she noticed was: He had no power in his handshake.
“I remember thinking, Wow! I could take him!” laughs McKelvey, who was introduced to Pacquiao as someone who could represent his interests in the United States and land him some of the endorsements he had been missing out on. “I’m sure he was thinking, OK, you look nice and everything, but show me the money!”
Exactly four weeks later, McKelvey closed Manny’s first deal for over $1 million – this one for Hewlett Packard.
“It went on from that to another one, another one, another one,” she says, adding that last summer she closed another seven-figure deal for the boxer, who has since become a close friend. “I had his attention then.”
She also had the attention of The New York Times and The Washington Post – both of which featured her in articles over the summer – and of Georgetown University and UCLA, where she was asked to speak to the student bodies. Her work in sports is even the subject of a Harvard case study.
“I’m humbled by the fact that people want to hear what I have to say about a successful career,” says McKelvey. “People are in awe of a career in sports, especially a woman – and a woman at the top. Especially a woman at the top of boxing! And at such a young age! People are really fascinated because I’m the unusual suspect – the last person you’d imagine in this position.”
Whatever the reason, her work with Pacquiao (which has her flying off to Paris, to Manila, the Philippines, wherever, at the drop of a hat) has earned her some respect among the good-old-boy network that she says is at the top of every tier-one sports institution.
“Those men have subsequently come to really, really respect me. It’s never easy, though, because men like to talk about sports with men, they like to talk shop,” says McKelvey. “But when sports is a business, it’s a different ballgame, and I want to tell you that I can talk sports as a business. I might not be able to rattle off every statistic, but I can definitely handle the back end.
“As long as you know your stuff, you can hold your own,” she continues, although she acknowledges that women “have to know their stuff 10 times better. But if you know your stuff even more than they do, then it’s just like a double whammy. It just blows their minds.”
It may not be fair or just, but – at least in male-dominated industries like sports – McKelvey predicts it’s always going to be something to contend with.
“You can’t fight the good-old-boy club, and you can’t try to join it or become one of the boys. That won’t work either,” she warns. “You have to be yourself and be confident in yourself. It’s for sure a battle, but the best thing to do is learn to work within it.”
Lucia McKelvey isn’t scared to fight for what she wants. And, for as long as she can remember, what she’s wanted is to be in the business of sports.
“I have a passion for sports, and I have a passion for business, and gelling the two together was always kind of my end-all, be-all goal,” says McKelvey. “Sports as a business is where I’m meant to be. It’s my passion upon passion. I think I understand it well. I love it.”
And she’s willing to fight for it, too.
“I know better than to let my guard down,” she says. “Ten thousand people would take my job in an instant. Sports is a business that is competitive to its core. I mean, think about it: The people out there who love sports are competitive, and when they can’t compete in the sport, they want to move into something they do know: sports. So there’s a lot of competition.”
Fortunately, she has fun learning everything there is to know about the business of sports – and the business of boxing.
“It’s a very clever ideology behind sports. It’s been really interesting for me,” she says. “I love learning about ways to improve it, ways to do things, ways to capitalize on digital content monetization – how to monetize digital boxing angles. The sports world moves very, very fast – especially in today’s generation where all the content is digital, so you have to teach yourself and learn from other people every single day. I am constantly out there with people who might run the digital part of the NBA and might run the digital part of MLB to learn what they’re doing so I can improve mine, or vice versa.”
McKelvey’s curiosity hasn’t gone unnoticed. Industry professionals can see that she is very, very smart.
“I’m not saying I am, but it’s fun for them to think that,” she says with a smile.
It certainly can’t hurt her moving forward – nor can her charisma and foresight.
“I can see from a high-level perspective how to shape things and move things and do things,” she says, lending some explanation to how she’s managed to shape her career goal of being the CEO of a large company into her future reality.
“Ultimately,” she says, “I want to run the show. That’s where I see myself headed, and that’s where I’m going.”
And, no matter where she goes, whom she meets or what she’s up against, Lucia McKelvey will always hold her own. No one – not even that Laila Ali – can knock her down now.