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Next Woman Up: Tameka Rish, SVP of Fan and Associate Experience for the Atlanta Falcons

Tameka Rish_3

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:

Tameka Rish, Atlanta Falcons

Position: Senior Vice President of Fan and Associate Experience

The Atlanta Falcons are honoring the 50th anniversary of hip-hop with a celebration in Week 12. What are some of the highlights of the event that you're most looking forward to?

Hip-hop [in Atlanta] started in the 1980s, and Mojo was Atlanta’s first hip-hop artist. Over the next 20-30 years, Atlanta has had a very prominent space in the global growth of hip hop. So So Def Records is celebrating its 30-year anniversary this year. T.I. is celebrating the 20th anniversary of his "Trap Muzik" album, and a lot of others have milestones they are celebrating at this time. For us to extend an invite to all of them to be part of this event was very important.

There are going to be some incredible things at the event. The coolest part for me is bringing all of these artists together who probably haven't been in the same room all at once. It's a moment in history that we get to honor the significance of Atlanta and the artists who represent Atlanta, along with a community that supports the Falcons, win or lose. Most of these artists' careers were either born here or grew here, and this group has been together throughout the years. Jermaine Dupri has been a big part of our organization since our first Super Bowl appearance in the 1998 season. And this season, we've had several artists perform, including Jeezy at our home opener. They are here with us every week, and we want to take this opportunity to celebrate them on as big a stage as possible.

If you're not in your seats by 12:30 p.m. ET, you're going to miss one of the coolest moments of the game. In the pregame show, we plan to bring each one of those artists out onto the field wearing a No. 50 jersey with their name on the back. T.I. is also going to lead our players out onto the field, and that will be when our first performance begins, and there will be a total of eight different performances throughout the game. The only downside is it is Thanksgiving weekend, so some of the artists we wanted to be here are unable to be because of commitments elsewhere. Lil Jon is one of our longtime favorites and is always there for us, but he had a prior commitment. We have not intentionally left anyone off the list. The Atlanta community is fiercely loyal to each other, and we really care about each of these artists.

Can you provide some background on how the 50th anniversary of hip-hop game came together?

We knew the anniversary was coming and that a lot of our artists were celebrating anniversaries as well, so we knew we wanted to do something important. As I started looking at the schedule in May, there were two things that worked really well for this event. The first being it's Thanksgiving weekend, which is a time of homecoming. Atlanta is home for these artists, so what better way for us to celebrate the holiday and how thankful we are for them than to do it at this time in the season? It's also a time when most artists, who are in high demand because of the 50th anniversary, are more available because they don't do a lot of performances over Thanksgiving. We wanted to respect their calendars to get as many of them in attendance as possible. The second layer of this is we're playing our biggest rival, the New Orleans Saints. We love that rivalry and lean into it.

As we started working on the event, I had ideas and visions of what this could be, and I had hoped we could get 40 to 50 artists to show up. As of [five days before the event,] we had 128 artists -- 90 solo or group acts. Though there is an entire group out there that supports the artist community, whether it's managers, promoters, DJs or others, we had to cut it off somewhere. We understand and value everything that everyone does at the core of Atlanta's hip-hop community, and we are very excited to watch this come to life.

Tameka Rish poses with Big Boi, left, and former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, right. (Photo courtesy of Tameka Rish)
Tameka Rish poses with Big Boi, left, and former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, right. (Photo courtesy of Tameka Rish)

It sounds like there will be a great turnout. Is there anything else you'd like to add about the event?

To execute something of this scale, there are a lot of people across the Falcons organization and community to thank. We have had people in the artist community help find artists who haven't performed in years to be part of this. Internally, you think of this as an entertainment play, but it has to be a collective effort. I have spent a ton of time with our security and parking team because the arrival of that amount of people and executing it seamlessly is important. Some of the things we're doing within the show required working with our legal and finance teams, so we've spent time with them. An event of this magnitude requires organizational buy-in, and our leadership and everyone across the board has been supportive of this event and what it means to the city and our culture. We want to do it right and do it well.

This is an all-hands-on deck execution, so while I'm the one doing the interviews, there are so many people involved. I have a list of about 120 individuals to send thank-you cards to, because without each of them, this wouldn't be possible.

You've been in the league for nearly two decades, but how did you get your start in a career in football?

I got my start at the University of North Carolina in football operations as a student videographer. They gave me a quiz on football, and the first question was: Where is the line of scrimmage? At the time, it felt like the assumption was that women had zero knowledge of the sport. I think we've come along way.

I got a new boss shortly thereafter, and he was incredible. He fully embraced me as a talent and a person. I recorded every game and practice for all four years I was in school, and by the time I graduated, we had an all-female student staff -- a lot of them admittedly were my friends, because you hire the people you know. But it proved that women could do jobs that typically men had. There were a couple of coaches who saw me as a contributor and a teammate, including Carl Torbush, who just passed away. He was the first head coach I worked for, and he showed me what real leadership was like and that I could be respected.

I then decided to go to graduate school at the University of Georgia and worked for Rodney Garner, who was the head of recruiting and defensive line coach. He was one of the top recruiters in college football, and I had a desk in his office for a year. I learned so much from him, and he was very strategic about recruiting the entire family of a player. I understood recruiting to be a class in psychology -- like, how do you make the player's entire family feel important, and how do they feel they belong in your program?

When I finished at Georgia, I knew I wanted to work in the NFL, and at the time, the Falcons' office was about 1/20th of what it is now, so there weren't a ton of opportunities there. But the Houston Texans had just started an expansion franchise, and someone at Georgia recommended me to a woman on the Texans staff. That's how I got my foot in the door. It was a role in customer service, and during that time, I realized I wanted to do more in a planning capacity, because that is one of my strengths. At that time, on the football operations side in the NFL, there still weren't a lot of women. There wasn't a lot of opportunity for me to dream of what there is today, and I think it's amazing to see where we're at now.

After that year with the Texans, I turned down a full-time job with them because I did ESPN's reality show "Dream Job" and was a finalist. That reignited my love for journalism, and the reason I started working in football in college was because I wanted to be Stuart Scott. After that show, I took a job at a sports talk radio station in Camden, South Carolina. The station had been off-air for a year, and you couldn't pick it up in Columbia, South Carolina, which is the largest metro area in the state less than an hour away. The Texans called me and asked me if I was sure about not wanting the job. I turned it down because I had to give this a shot. A few days later, I was trying to sell a spot in our radio show, and the man turned the radio on, and the signal didn't come in. It was then that I realized there was a difference in quitting and sinking with the ship. I called Houston back, and they had offered the job to someone else.

I had to move home, and it was really depressing because I had my dream and fumbled it. My brother hired me to mow lawns because I had to make money. I then developed a relationship with the Carolina Panthers and worked game days for them, so I drove three hours each way to do that. I also interviewed for a position with the Cleveland Browns and didn't get it. I then took a job with Octagon doing a mobile tour around the country, and I was on that program for two months when an opportunity in Atlanta opened. Ironically, I interviewed for the position in corporate sponsorships for the Falcons by a Coca-Cola machine at a hotel on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and we moved that mobile tour through Atlanta so I could do the in-person interview. I got the job a week later, and this is my 19th season with the organization. I was in corporate sponsorship for 15 years, and in 2020, they asked me if I wanted to take on all events. It was a scary challenge, because no one was doing events during the pandemic. But it has been absolutely incredible. They promised me they would support me, and they have.

Rish cites music as a key element of the fan experience. (Photo courtesy of Tameka Rish.)
Rish cites music as a key element of the fan experience. (Photo courtesy of Tameka Rish.)

What does your current role entail?

My current role is experience at its core, and that's the driveway-to-driveway experience for any event at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. I look at that as an internal consultant to see how we can get 1 percent better. I understand that we don't have to make wholesale change across the board. Looking at how we move the needle 1 percent a day is how we become an elite organization.

From an entertainment standpoint, I am over both game presentation and live events. I'm really proud to have two directors who are extremely collaborative, and a lot of the time, you don't know where one team stops and the other starts, because their teams are incredible at working together. I couldn't be prouder of those teams.

The fan-experience side is much more analytical, looking at surveys and listening to fans. One of our core values of the organization is "Listen and Respond," and we want to do that everywhere. The most frustrating thing you can do is listen and not have a response. We are our best when we are not only asking the questions but responding. We moved from the bottom quartile of the NFL in our “Voice of the Fan” scores to one of the top teams overall. We started with music. Our fans wanted our music library blown up with music from 1985 to 2005. At the time, 70 percent of the music we were playing was post-2010, so we flipped that equation. They say you plan the birthday party for the person having the birthday, not the person throwing it. We are the people throwing the party, and our fans are the people we are celebrating. Our audience changes from event to event, and we've changed a lot within our Falcons programming this year between our Salute to Service game, this weekend's hip-hop game and others. We are constantly trying to speak to different audiences based on what they have told us they want.

Turning to mentorship, do you have any mentors who have helped you along the way?

I definitely would not be where I am if not for a host of mentors, and a lot of those mentors have not looked like me. There weren't a lot of women above me to look up to in football, but I want to encourage other women in this space who are looking for mentors to find people -- men or women -- willing to be an advocate for you and who have the power and influence to do so. I have had a lot of incredible men in leadership positions willing to advocate for me, whether that was Carl Torbush or John Bunting, who helped me get the internship at the Texans. I took a responsibility to invest in those relationships, and I think a lot of times, people expect mentors to take them on rather than us working for that relationship. I've been blessed at the Falcons with a lot of great leaders around me, and there are so many people who have played a role in helping me get to where I am today.

What advice do you have for women interested in a career in football?

Don't give up. There were a lot of times I could've given up. I had some real hurdles coming into the industry at the time I did. My encouragement to people who feel like quitting is keep paddling if you're in the rapids. You'll get through it, and you'll look back on it as an important period of when you found your courage and strength.

And lastly, what are you most proud of?

The thing I am most proud of in my career is making my parents proud, as simple as that sounds. What I do on a daily basis can become routine at times, but for them, I'm still their child, and to see how proud they are of any accomplishment is incredible. My family sacrificed a lot for me to succeed, and the older I get, the more grateful I get for the upbringing I had and the belief that I could do anything. I don't take that for granted. The stuff we do is incredible, and to one day win a championship with the Falcons would be a great milestone, but what makes me most proud is to know I am a positive reflection of my family's legacy.

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