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By Katie Fitzpatrick

What is most striking about Sarah Smith is not her impressive career as a young marketing executive, her success as a woman in the male-dominated world of sports, or the incredible speed at which continues to rise professionally. It is the humility she has when crediting her family and Irish upbringing for these achievements. 

As Director of Marketing for the Chicago Bulls, Sarah leads the Integrated Marketing, Brand and Fan Development, Creators and Communities, and Basketball Programming teams with a focus on building and cultivating the brand’s global fan base. A dual U.S.-Irish citizen with a deep appreciation for international culture, Sarah is uniquely suited to lead one of the most recognizable brands in the world, and demonstrates why she is the Marketing MVP of her hometown basketball team.

An International Upbringing
Sarah said she utilizes what she learned in her personal life - from her family and how she grew up - and applies that to what she does now. Her father, Rory Smith, is a native of Goatstown, Dublin. He met her mom, Mary, during a lad’s trip to St. Louis. The Smiths were engaged in Dublin, married in St. Louis and moved between Ireland and the Midwest before settling down in the suburbs of Chicago with children Adam, Shane and Sarah. 

“Being Irish was always something we talked about,” said Sarah of her childhood. “My dad did a good job of instilling that in us. We understood our heritage and we’d travel back in the summers and for weddings. We spent a good amount of time there to get to know our family. Ireland was very present in our lives.”

While Rory, one of five, is the only Smith sibling in the U.S., Sarah remains close with her extended family living across Ireland and England. These international connections shaped her early professional career and no doubt paved her path to becoming a marketing executive for Chicago’s #1 sports team.

From Champaign to Chicago to the UK and Back
Sarah graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism. She shifted to marketing and public relations and completed an internship at the U.S. Soccer Federation before landing her first job in 2011 at Allied Integrated Marketing in Chicago, where she served as a publicist for well-known movie studio clients like Lionsgate. 
In search of a new adventure, she moved to London in 2013 and was hired by Harrod’s, where she supported marketing initiatives within the corporate service department. “Harrod’s is an iconic brand in itself,” said Sarah. “It’s half tourist attraction, half luxury retailer, with a strong heritage in England and London.” 

While she enjoyed the experience and being near extended family and building friendships abroad, a job opportunity back home at the Chicago Bulls piqued her interest. Sarah began the interview process from England and officially started with the Chicago Bulls in August of 2015. Now in her ninth season, Sarah has worked her way up to Bulls management through a series of rapid promotions. Her work takes place in unexpected and exciting spaces both near and far from the United Center, as she fosters the Bulls brand beyond sports - to music, fashion, art and culture - within Chicago and across the world.

Crafting the Future While Honoring the Past
While the heritage of the Chicago Bulls remains unparalleled in the world of sports, much of Sarah’s work focuses on creating and sustaining strategic initiatives that strengthen the Bulls brand for generations to come. 

“We have a lot of history in our championships and our legacy,” said Sarah. “From a marketing perspective, while we respect that, we are very future-focused. How do we drive the brand forward? We are always looking for that balance – a balance of history but also being relevant where we are now. It is a unique and fun challenge.”

Sarah’s marketing efforts are designed to resonate with local and global audiences, regardless of wins, losses, trades or injuries. She cites an incredible statistic: “Less than one percent of our fans will actually come to a game at the United Center.” With this in mind, her team is constantly crafting initiatives that will engage fans, regardless of whether (or how) the Bulls are playing and regardless of where those fans are located. “The Chicago Bulls is such a global brand. We have fans across the world, and we get to harness that and build communities across the world.”

She continues to find parallels between the organization and her upbringing that have aided her in this process. For inspiration, it is no surprise that Sarah looks outside of U.S. sports to other brands, including European soccer clubs - she credits her dad Rory, an avid soccer and rugby fan, for this strategy.

A True Team Player 
The “tell” of a true executive, Sarah credits the extraordinary influence of her department to a talented and diverse marketing team. She said the Bulls intentionally hire professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds, which enables the organization to make more well-rounded business decisions.

“Working for the Bulls, we feel a great sense of responsibility to uphold the brand. It is very important to us to have those high standards, and we try to instill that in our team and lead by example.”    
In addition to her day-to-day responsibilities, Sarah serves on the board of the organization’s internal women’s empowerment resource group, which works to cultivate development opportunities among women in the office and throughout the larger world of sports. “It is important that girls see that you can work in sports,” she said. “The Bulls do a good job of fostering that sense of community - everybody is welcome.”

Most Valuable Player 
Sarah’s respect for the Chicago Bulls and her experiences is a testament to her leadership style and accomplishments – and, of course, her family. 
“My parents always did a good job of sharing stories and teaching us about our heritage. It was the right balance and the perfect combination.” Now that is a winning record!