Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
Shetellia Riley Irving has never been afraid of her voice. Her former roles in the entertainment and media industries kept her surrounded by distinguished role models who helped her shine; however, listening to her talk, it is obvious that she was born with a magnetic personality. It’s evident what her stepson, basketball superstar Kyrie Irving, sees in her as a businesswoman. And when Riley Irving—the only Black woman currently representing an active NBA player—accepted the offer to become his agent, they both “won the championship,” she says. Riley Irving has taken on her new role with poise and prominence (and most importantly, she places Kyrie’s best interests at center court).
“I think the only or the biggest weight on my shoulders was the fact that there were so many other people watching to see how well I did this,” Riley Irving says. “Because if I do this, right, it opens the door for so many other Black women. And we get a chance to have more than a seat at the table.”
Her previous position played a major role in the development of her business acumen. She sees the distinct connection between being the vice president of ad sales at Black Entertainment Television (BET) and being an agent for one of the most celebrated NBA players in the league.
“BET really gave me a compass for understanding the art of negotiation and really being prideful,” says Riley Irving, who spent 13 years at the entertainment conglomerate. “We also learned to be a voice for those who don’t have a voice.”
“As the years passed, I began to better understand what it meant when colleagues would say, We are the voice for the people that cannot speak on their behalf,” she says. This was often referring to being able to make space and advocate for Black consumers who were not being treated fairly in terms of “the way they spend, in comparison to how often they are disrespected in their purchasing power,” she says. And so it was important for Riley Irving and her colleagues to be able to stand up for them at BET.
She says that seeing her colleagues command the room regardless of what was going on forced her to learn to own it too.
”I never felt in any way that being a woman, being a Black woman, being a family member of Kyrie was an issue for me, because I would just walk in and say, Listen, this is what I don’t know,” she says.
Her confidence started to take form when she knew that she wanted to work for a radio station—and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She secured a position as a salesperson at 1010 WINS on 100% commission, and from there she became part of the team that launched Power 105.1, a New York City contemporary radio station. Eventually Stu Fenston, her former boss and mentor at the station, advised her to spread her wings.
“It was between BET and Hot 97,” she says. “Stu said to me, ‘Try BET. TV is where I think the next trajectory is for your career.’ I ended up going to BET, and the rest is history.”
Over the years, the news has been riddled with stories about athletes being taken advantage of when it comes to contracts and deals. But Riley Irving’s advocacy and negotiation expertise made for a smooth transition from the entertainment industry to sports. Because in many negative instances, she says, it’s more about a transaction and less about how this affects you, as the athlete. She tries to focus more on a deal is the right move for an athlete and their family, asking: Does that contract really make sense for you? Yes, the numbers are huge, and the numbers make sense, but are you and the opportunity jelling?
Kyrie, whom Riley Irving affectionately refers to as her bonus son, approached her about two years ago to have a conversation about athletes and the sports industry. He said, listen, I really need your business acumen. I recognize that while I am being an artist and a magician on the court, it’s super important to make sure that I have somebody behind me that really understands the whole scope of business. That way I can just concentrate on being a basketball player.
But there’s a line that exists for Riley Irving when representing people she loves, where she can be overly protective or very hands-off, says Riley Irving, who has known Kyrie since he was 8 years old.
“It’s really about being super honest with each other and super transparent. … We had that conversation and I said listen, we will have to look at this through clear-colored glasses and make sure that you understand I’m not going to always be your cheerleader,” Riley Irving says.
Riley Iriving and Kyrie’s father, Drederick, are no longer married. Yet he wholeheartedly supports the two’s business partnership. “‘You’ve got me for life’ is what Drederick told me. That’s the commitment that we made to each other,” Riley Irving says. “We learned to communicate and collaborate, but we just started with that foundation, that we have each other for life.”
Riley Irving asked Kyrie to think about their talk for 48 hours—her time rule for all major decisions. He took a little longer. “I didn’t pester him, and he didn’t pester me,” she says. But she called again and said he was in, so she started to help and give her until eventually he asked her, Have you ever considered being an agent?
“It was really the furthest thing from my mind,” she says.
Kyrie’s instinct about Riley Irving was right on point. Each move she makes is an opportunity to not only advise Kyrie, but also to teach him.
“It’s not about me shifting him or him shifting me. It’s really about us walking in this partnership together and learning from each other,” she says. Working in tandem allows the optimal groundwork for aligning Kyrie with the best business opportunities.
“We’ve built trust and consistency,” Riley Irving says. “I don’t want Kyrie to come back two years from now saying ‘I signed this really bad deal and it didn’t make sense,’ because he didn’t understand it, or it was just about a money grab. That’s something that we’re really being intentional about, especially in the things that we look to align ourselves with.”
Riley Irving is holding space for the next generation of Black female agents and women who dream of being in her same position.
“I think that there’s enough feast at the table for hundreds and thousands and millions of Black women to be able to sit down and represent athletes in a way that we know best.” She says that she initially rejected in the world of radio and was told that “Madison Avenue isn’t ready for a person of color.” But she succeeded nonetheless thanks to a combination of resources and networks that she continues to emphasize in her work today: “How do we kind of go in together? Hey, I know this athlete, I’m friends with them. Can you and I work together on a deal? Let’s be more creative about how you can enter the space.”
It’s about hustle and being prepared, she says, then the opportunity will come to you. Often people tell Riley that she was “lucky enough” to end up in her role, but it’s not about that, she points out. Kyrie could have chosen anyone, but he was looking for the business acumen that she has to lead and direct him.
So when she has conversations with potential leaders, she asks them to think about questions like: What’s your plan? How are you going to be in those right places? How do you align yourself with different sports agencies, different trainers, and different coaches? How do you start to have conversations that put you in that environment where you can potentially sign a player? These are the steps, she says, that can lead to personal success and realizing a dream like she did.
Bryna Jean-Marie is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.