Women are rising up the ranks throughout professional football, earning positions of power in a space that for too long was ruled almost exclusively by men. We're seeing more and more women breaking barriers in the sport, but what are the stories beyond the headlines? Who are the women shaping and influencing the NFL today? Answering those questions is the aim of the Next Woman Up series. While the conversational Q&As are edited and condensed for clarity, this is a forum for impactful women to share experiences in their own words. Without further ado, we introduce:
Katie Blackburn, Cincinnati Bengals
Position: Executive Vice President
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I know you've been around football your entire life, but can you discuss how you got involved in the business?
I do remember the very first thing I ever did with the team was in high school. I was literally handing out player rosters to the media at training camp. I was lucky, because once I started working with the team, I would get to sit in with my dad (owner Mike Brown). Back then, some of the player negotiations were done over the phone, so I could only hear what he was saying, not the entire conversation, but I had some involvement in that at an early stage. I went on to work in the ticket department and the finance department after that.
After law school, I worked at a law firm for a couple of years. Finally, one day, I was told if I wanted to come work for the team full-time, I could do so. To me, that was a no-brainer. I loved working at the law firm, but it was an easy decision to make that jump.
When you officially joined the team after law school, what was your role?
Well, the organization was much smaller then. I had a legal background at that point, so I was involved in contracts, player negotiation items and some secretarial work on the corporate side. I definitely grew more into the player negotiation part of it, but the great part for me is I've always been able to be involved in a lot of different aspects.
As an executive vice president, you probably wear a lot of hats. Can you describe what you do?
We oversee and interact with pretty much every department within the organization. But I also stay involved on the player side with player negotiations, the draft and things like that.
I'm curious about the process of player contracts and negotiations. What is it like to be involved in that area?
I like numbers and the salary cap side of things. Putting the pieces together and trying to make sure that everything is working. On the negotiation side, it's a fairly straightforward process. The rules of the draft have changed, and player contracts are simpler, which is nice, because who wants to start off in a confrontational manner? It's much better when everyone can start on a positive note. I think that's a big plus for both sides on the draft side of things.
What is your favorite part of the job?
I love the job because there is a competitive aspect to it on the football side. I love the sport of football, and there's no question that's the most fun part. But there's definitely a business side, too, so you have to operate it in a way that's responsible. I like the variety and different parts of the job and making sure we're all going forward.
And what is the most challenging part of the job?
If I'm going to honestly answer, it's when the team isn't doing as well as you want, because, of course, that affects a lot of areas. That's the most challenging. But even in the challenging times, I think we've done a good job of pushing forward. My heart and soul is in it.
When you look at your career as a whole, what are you most proud of?
I feel like I've tried to interact with everyone in this business, whether it's people in the league office or agents or anyone else, in a positive manner that's going to benefit all sides. I try to look at the overall good and try to get results that make sense for everyone. I'm just proud to be part of the Bengals. It's been a family business, and now my girls, Elizabeth and Caroline, are working here now and doing great things.
What's that like for you, watching your daughters working in the organization?
It's been amazing. They have so much more confidence, and they handle themselves really well. It's fun to watch them step in, and they've worked around here in high school, too. But I love that they want to take action and implement their ideas. I'm impressed with what they've done in such little time, and I'm really proud of them.
Talking more about female inclusion around the league. How have you seen the NFL change in that aspect over the years?
Oh, there are a lot more women involved now. It's awesome. There's no reason women shouldn't have always been given the opportunities. Even the areas where some say it would be more difficult -- coaching and that sort of thing -- you are seeing more women in those roles, and it's absolutely amazing. ... Football is a great sport, and I'm glad to see more women getting involved. On the ownership end, it's been interesting to see the number of female owners running the different teams. I find that really amazing, and they're all doing great jobs.
Do you have any mentors who have helped you along the way?
My dad. I've always worked with my dad from the time I started. I would say my mom is my mentor, too, just in a different way. But my dad has a history in the NFL that goes back through his dad (founding owner and Pro Football Hall of Famer Paul Brown). It's just such a long history, and he understands what has happened, why things have happened in certain ways, and at the end of the day, my dad is probably one of the most well-intentioned people. He's always doing things for the right reasons and looks at what's in the best interest of the NFL. I feel like there's a lot to learn from the way he's done things.
Along these lines, is there specific advice he's given you?
He's always looking at the long-term and not just about the short-term, and he's always been about the big picture. That's something I try to do.
What would you say to other females who are trying to get their start in an NFL career?
If you are interested, you should absolutely pursue it. NFL teams are not large organizations, and it might be tough to get that first opportunity. But there are a lot of great opportunities; you just have to keep at it.