On a scorching June afternoon, historic Wrigley Field served as a fitting backdrop.
Chicago Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts holds a rare position within men’s professional sports leagues. She is one of a few women currently at the ownership level. And as chairman of the board for Cubs Charities, Ricketts has witnessed firsthand how sports can have an impact on communities.
Although she didn’t grow up with aspirations of a career in sports, Ricketts says she was the best athlete in her family.
“My brothers would probably disagree about that, but my mom will not disagree. She knows,” Ricketts said with a smile during a recent interview with the Tribune. “So that was my thing.”
Born five years after Title IX passed in 1972, Ricketts was among the first generation of girls to benefit from the amendment, which included opportunities in sports. She recalled playing T-ball at 5 years old, and by the time she reached high school, volleyball, softball, basketball and track filled up her calendar. Recently she has started playing tennis with her wife, Brooke.
“It’s hard to overstate how it’s impacted my life — and it made me who I am today, honestly,” Ricketts said of sports. “Sports teaches you about being a teammate, it teaches you to put yourself out there, it teaches you to work really hard, it teaches you about resiliency, it teaches you that there’s no shame in failing as long as you try hard or try something new.
“I know all of those played into my development and who I am to this very day.”
Ricketts also has the distinction of being Major League Baseball’s first openly gay owner. Ricketts, who was out when her family bought the Cubs in 2009, acknowledges there can be a burden to breaking barriers; however, she believes it’s an opportunity.
“I may be a queer woman, but I’m also a white woman,” Ricketts said, “so imagine being a queer brown or Black woman, or just imagine being a Black or brown human being of limited means in this country, right? I don’t know what it’s like to walk in their shoes, but I can have the beginning of an understanding of what it’s like not to be equal and to be thought of as the other. I have this incredible access and incredible privilege.
“Obviously it comes up in baseball. … I have the credibility as the queer person in the room to give the leeway for conversation and to allow people to grow and to learn from it.”
Her foundation in sports helped Ricketts navigate law school at Michigan, and eventually as a lawyer, in a competitive, largely male environment. Ricketts remembers women in law school forming a study group, encouraging and supporting each other. In the years since, this dynamic has played out for Ricketts through her work on a local and national level.
In addition to leading the Cubs’ charity efforts and creating youth programming, Ricketts in 2012 cofounded LPAC, the first queer women-focused super PAC that endorses and supports candidates who are committed to LGBTQ+ and women’s equality and social justice. She has also served on the boards of the National Leadership Council for Lambda Legal, a nonprofit for LGBTQ+ civil rights, and EMILY’s List, an organization that works to elect Democratic pro-choice women.
“I’m very aware of the unique position that I’m in,” Ricketts said. “I’m happy to say it’s not as unique as it was 10 years ago, but for women in professional sports, it still just feels like a trickle and it’s such a slog to get more. But I do feel like we’re slowly building momentum. The people in these roles, the impact that it has is immeasurable, and so I feel that responsibility.”
A big project awaits Ricketts and the organization through Cubs Charities. They are set to build an urban youth academy to house some of their sports-based youth development programs for boys and girls. The project is expected to be officially announced in the near future.
The academy will feature sports fields, including at least one indoor infield, and a community center. It is expected to be built in an area of Chicago that needs investment but will draw youths from across the city.
“We really strive to be the best, and in the case of Cubs Charities, it doesn’t just mean in the way we conduct our business or our staff,” Ricketts said. “It’s not just for the sake of being the best but to show the impact you can have and to be a model for other teams. We want to be the team that other teams look to and say, ‘Let’s go talk to the Cubs and see what they did because they’re doing it right,’ in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Ricketts has seen strides in the diversity of the Cubs front-office personnel with just under 40% of them women, noting, “We should be at 51% in my estimation.” She wants to do more — including working with Major League Baseball to encourage more equity in the sport. Ricketts, a mom of three, sees this as an area she can grow into because of the visibility of professional sports.
Behind the scenes, Ricketts has been trying to affect change. When the Cubs were searching for a new play-by-play voice for Marquee Sports Network last year, Ricketts nudged the higher-ups at the network to talk to women for the position. Beth Mowins was ultimately brought on to call a handful of games. During Cubs board meetings, Ricketts, often the only woman in the room, has made clear they need more women and people of color in these roles.
In her position, Ricketts says questions must be asked as to why women can’t be recruited to stay in — or even get in — the organization, noting the need for an environment and culture that helps them rise to the top.
“My personal mission and my personal belief is that we need women in positions of power and leadership. We all need it, not just women need it, but as a society, as a planet.” Ricketts said. “Because if we don’t have women in positions of leadership and power in sports, in government, in politics, in education, in business, then we forfeit.
“We forfeit what we can be, what we can achieve individually. We forfeit what we can achieve as a gender. But we’re all forfeiting what we can become and what we can achieve as a community and as a society.”
Being part of a family ownership group can bring more individual scrutiny, particularly when differing politics are involved. While her immediate family members are notably Republican, Ricketts, an executive committee member of the Democratic National Committee, doesn’t feel she needs to make it a tit-for-tat situation on a public level.
She does, though, feel compelled to have conversations with family members to understand where they are coming from and have them understand her perspective “at least how they speak about things and how they look at things, to take that into consideration, how to see things from someone else’s shoes.”
“When you have a larger family of means and they’re all doing a lot of things, they’re all trying to impact the world for what they feel is the greater good of everybody,” Ricketts said. ”And you own a baseball team together and you have that visibility, there’s attention between being known for what you do and what you’re about and sort of being lumped in with the family as a whole. I would want to be known for what I do, what I’ve accomplished.”