Women make up just a fraction of professional basketball referees, coaches and owners. A St. Louis woman is doing her best to change that. Khalia Collier is owner and general manager of the St. Louis Surge, the region’s only professional women’s sports team.
In her eighth season at the helm of the team, Collier is also the newest commissioner of the Global Women’s Basketball Association, a league of five teams that creates a space for players to have careers beyond collegiate, amateur and professional play.
In running the Surge, Collier — who started the team at 23 years old, now 31 — makes a point to hire women for her front office and emphasizes education among her players. Every team member has a bachelor's degree, and about half of the team are postgraduates.
Beyond promoting education, Collier also connects the athletes with corporations and networks in the St. Louis region, so they can continue to play the sport they love and also pursue a gratifying career.
When it comes to support, Collier says she empathizes with the players — most of whom are between the ages 22 and 33 — when it comes to making family life decisions.
"Typically, women stop playing between mid-to-late 20s, because life either steps in or you're not making enough money," Collier said. "But now we are seeing women making a comeback; you see Serena [Williams] coming back, versus before, it was like, 'Oh, you had a baby — that's the end of your career.'"
As the pressures of starting a family may halt women's careers in sports, Collier feels frustrated when it comes to being one of a handful of African American women majority owners of professional sports franchises, but it does not discourage her.
"I feel lonely when I'm at sports conferences or when I'm on a panel and don't see nearly enough women that look like me," Collier said. "I have a responsibility to continue being a part of the evolution that's happening in the sports industry and to not only create more opportunities but showcase the ones that are available."
Under Collier's league leadership, she’s also giving women the opportunity to referee high-level games.
“Locally here, I’m identifying more women to officiate games. I hate paying three guys to officiate all-women's games. Like, it really makes me upset,” Collier said. “You want women to be able to officiate a high competitive game like this, but then you get a lot of women that don't have the experience. So if you don’t have the experience, you don’t get hired — but you don't have the experience, because you haven't had the opportunity.
"You're seeing it happen now at the collegiate and professional level. I'm getting more women opportunities to train and prepare at a high, Division 1, professional level," she said.
According to University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports' 2018 NBA Racial & Gender Report Card, about 14% of NBA referees were women during the 2017-2018 season. That’s 18 women out of 117 officials, many of whom were part time. This season, there are only three active full-time officials who are women.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Andrea Henderson: How did you get your start with the Surge?
Khalia Collier: I kind of got just roped in, and then I ended up practicing with the Surge because they needed a practice player and I'm still decent at basketball. And I ended up playing a game they played at a local high school here. It was just friends and family, and I remember thinking, “I could do this.”
And so I scheduled a meeting with the previous owner and just wanted to know what it would take to take over the team and what it would look like. And I had no idea what that would entail. That's when I made the decision that I would buy the team and just basically take on everything that was upcoming during the season.
Henderson: Have you always been interested in owning your own business?
Collier: I don't know if I knew. I would always have a hustle. That's what I knew as a kid, that I would always have something that I did. But everybody always tells you to just get a job. I can't say that was preached to me from my parents. It was more so “get an education and do what you love,” but it was definitely “provide for yourself” — but there's no playbook for entrepreneurship.
But I think it was probably a combination of both of my parents being entrepreneurs. So I kind of got to see it to where I was like: “Here’s your hustle. Here’s how you provide for your family."
Henderson: What is the key to being a successful entrepreneur?
Collier: So you see entrepreneurs that fade out, or they become serial entrepreneurs to where every year they're doing some different. And if you're doing something different every year, you're not even giving yourself enough traction to make it successful. They start over every year. I don't.
Henderson: How do you see black business owners and consumers supporting each other?
Collier: We’re seeing this big push, like how Serena Williams is now investing in businesses of color. But think about how long that wasn’t happening. We kind of complain about not having ownership, but we’ve got to also be able to take the risk to be able to do it.
So I feel like I’m in position the right way, especially to get women involved locally. No differently that the Blues or Cardinals have their ownership. You can say, “It’s ours.”
Henderson: What does success look like for you?
Collier: I don't know what success looks like, because I don't really feel successful now.
Like I don't know if that's going to be dictated by my bank account one day. That’s doubtful. I think it's going be purely by impact.
And did we actually accomplish what we set out to accomplish with the Surge? And that's create a women's franchise here in St. Louis and scale it across the country to where people see that this is a strong, viable sustainable league business opportunity. It's far bigger than myself.
This story is part of Sharing America Profiles — a series about women of color doing local work that highlights an issue of national importance.
Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.