When Annelie Schmittel was growing up in the small town of Zell, Germany, her father always thought she would work in sports.
Schmittel, on the other hand — who was a high jumper in college at Winona State University in Minnesota — was pursuing a degree in broadcast journalism and was on a path to becoming a foreign journalist or news correspondent.
Schmittel also never thought her one year of studying abroad as a high school foreign exchange student in Black River Farms, Wisconsin, would turn into 14 years in the United States, and lead her to become the Sixers VP of player development.
“This is part of this whole thing now,” Schmittel said, “being able to show other people or young girls or industry leaders in sports and other male-dominated fields that, if the Sixers can do this, and open up this kind of opportunity to a female, there is no reason that they shouldn’t.”
Like many who grow up playing sports, when she stopped competing, she realized how much she missed that environment. While completing her master’s degree in sports management, she started to realize she could help athletes.
When Schmittel started her research in college athletics, it was when Twitter had just started to become a thing. And Schmittel started to see a lot of her student-athletes tweet things that shouldn’t be in a public forum.
Whereas most colleges and coaches wanted to simply ban their athletes from using social media, Schmittel was focused on how to use it properly — how athletes could use their own platform and their own voice positively.
Schmittel dove into her research, on the quest for expertise that could set her apart from all of the former male athletes that were usually chosen for player development positions.
Once she got to the University of Florida to earn her Ph.D., she was interested in crisis communication — what happens when athletes get in trouble and how can they repair their image?
After months of emails and meetings and uncertainty, Schmittel landed a job in player engagement with the Raiders. That same year the NFL had just transitioned away from hosting the rookie symposium and teams took control of their own programs.
Schmittel helped build the curriculum for the Raiders so the players could learn more about things like finances and social media usage. She organized trips to places like Facebook headquarters, so they could gain a deeper understanding.
All of this prepped her for when she would stumble across the Sixers job posting. Despite not looking to leave the Raiders or the NFL, the Sixers intrigued her.
You are always looking for teams that are going through change, that are innovative by nature. How much the Sixers were investing in the people that work here and the culture and the types of people that they bring in … I felt like it was a place where the leadership felt really strongly about player development and the role that it plays, not only off the court [but] on it, and that’s unique and impressive and exciting.
It was more than just Schmittel’s experience in the NFL — though that was a big part of it — that put her above the rest of the 550 applicants.
“I’ve been in the NBA for 12 years, and that was far and away the most important hire I’ve ever done,” said Alex Rucker, executive vice president of basketball operations. “At its core level, player development is about relationships and trust, being able to work with people in an intimate way. This is stuff we really, really care about and we’re passionate about, so how do we work together? Because that kind of an ecosystem often creates friction and can become an adversarial thing, simply because we care so much, and her ability to navigate that in a really safe and positive way is really interesting.”
While with the Raiders, each program was tailored to the teams’ needs and what they felt like the player needed at that point in their career, something she’d like to do here.
“It’s not a player development program for the Sixers,” Rucker explained. “It’s 17 different player development programs for 17 athletes and they are wildly different, and our ability to win championships almost relies entirely on those 17 individuals …
“And that’s Annelie’s core strength really, is seeing the bigger picture and everyone’s role within it.”
And what about that whole being a female in a male-dominated industry?
When I took this job, I didn’t even consciously think about what having a female in this position, what kind of attention that alone could cause. And I say this often, I look forward to the day, when a female gets a position, any job, whether it’s in sports media, or in a sports leadership position or in any male dominated field, where it is no longer ‘Wow, they hired a woman,’ but the stories become they hired the best person for that particular job.
But on the flip side, it’s been really humbling and exciting and mind blowing, how many messages, I’ve received from young girls or from dads saying, ‘Hey, I’m raising a daughter and I just want you to know that you are a role model, and I would like to know what I can do to raise my daughter so that she can get a role like yours.’ So if me being in this role can help a young girl at home or somebody that is on this path working towards pro sports or collegiate sports, or any male dominated field, if they can see me as an example and say ‘OK, this is somebody that did it, so I can do it too.’ Then, that is awesome.
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