The women of the NFL

Little has been written about 3rd overall pick Gerald McCoy’s selection of a female agent, Kelli Masters, to co-represent him in his professional career. That’s right, Kelli will be working alongside Ben Dogra of CAA in championing the affairs and contract for the coveted defensive tackle.

This is a noteworthy accomplishment. There are only a handful of women with high-level jobs in the NFL, and most have worked long and hard to get there.

I recently finished a contract for my client A.J. Edds, who was drafted this year in the 4th round by the Miami Dolphins. The negotiation went smoothly and professionally, but there was one small twist. The Dolphins’ negotiator was a woman, something rare by NFL standards. In over twenty years of negotiating contracts, it’s only the second time I had dealt with a woman on a contract.

I grew up with 3 older sisters, so I was taught (and sometimes coerced) at an early age to respect women.
In my many years of working as NFL agent, I can’t say I have run across very many women in the field, and it’s obvious why. This industry is a testosterone-filled boys club. Thus, it’s extremely hard for women to break into the ranks of the NFL, but it can be even more difficult climbing the ladder once they are in. Even when we had two female owners in Georgia Frontiere and Denise DeBartolo York, it didn’t result in an easier track for females at the St. Louis Rams or San Francisco 49ers.

Whether you are male or female, it’s hard to make it in the sports business, period. It’s even harder to get your foot in the door with the NFL and peripheral businesses. It’s close to impossible if you are a woman.
So, for the women who are fighting it out in the pits with agents, male owners, coaches, GMs, players and other males who sit at the top of the NFL food chain, I commend you for your tolerance, drive and mettle. We know that it’s harder than you let on to your peers and the public. Keep up the great work, as you are all incredible trailblazers forging a path and setting an example for those who aspire to follow in your footsteps.

Here is a snapshot of the women currently paving the way for the young ladies who aspire to work in football.

Kelli Masters

As I mentioned above, Kelli has really put herself on the map this year by representing a top draft pick, but she has been building her career for quite some time. An attorney and former athlete herself, Kelli began by representing Olympians in 2004 and has since very successfully parlayed that experience into the realms of the NFL and MLB through her firm, Kelli Masters Management. Her quiet confidence and media-shyness make her a true class act.

Dawn Aponte
As the Senior VP of Football Operations with the Dolphins, Dawn oversees the team’s salary cap, player contracts, and budgets. Having earned her law degree from New York Law School, completed a masters degree in Finance and Management, and been certified as a CPA, Dawn positioned herself for success early on. She spent nearly 15 years working for the New York Jets, several years in the NFL offices, and some time with the Cleveland Browns before joining the Miami staff this year. Her extensive experience and drive have made her one of the top females in the business, and one of only a couple to make it without utilizing family connections.

Kristen Kuliga
Also beginning her career with a law background, Kristen joined Woolf Associates in 1994. She made her mark on the industry in 2000, when she became an NFLPA certified agent and began representing QB Doug Flutie. The first female agent to rep a major NFL star, Kristen negotiated Flutie’s contract with the Patriots, his $33M deal with the San Diego Chargers, and later managed his post-NFL broadcasting career. Kristen currently represents a handful of NFL players and, after running her own firm, K Sports and Entertainment, for 8 years, has joined forces with several other industry experts to launch Altus Marketing & Management, a full-service sports and entertainment marketing and management firm.

Amy Trask
As CEO of the Oakland Raiders, Amy is not simply a gatekeeper. She is truly owner Al Davis’s right-hand man. Widely regarded as the most powerful woman in sports, Trask began her career with the Raiders very early on, as an intern while still in law school at the University of Southern California. She prides herself on having climbed up the ladder to where she sits today, working alongside an NFL owner to manage every aspect of running a team. Amy is not a successful businesswoman who happens to work in football – she is an NFL executive in every sense.

Katie Blackburn
NFL fans had a rare opportunity to watch Katie at work on last year’s Hardknocks series on HBO, where she tackled the challenge of getting first-round pick Andre Smith into training camp. As the daughter of Cincinnati Bengals GM/owner Mike Brown (and granddaughter of the team’s founder, Paul Brown), Katie certainly had some advantages when it came to getting her NFL career started. In no way, however, was her Executive Vice President position simply handed to her. A Harvard Law School graduate, Katie is a tough negotiator who is also well-versed in the ways of the football industry, and it is her hard work and knowledge that have poised her for success in the NFL.

Linda Bogdan
Sadly, Linda passed away last April at the age of 61. However, in her lifetime, she opened a huge door for women in the NFL by becoming the league’s first female scout. Daughter of Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson, Linda asked her father for an official scouting position after occasionally assisting the Bills for several years. She was, as she said, “tired of too many 2-14 seasons.” Though, like Blackburn, she did take advantage of her family connections, it was her love of football and tenacity that earned her the title of VP and Assistant Director of College Scouting.

Rita LeBlanc
Yet another woman to prove herself worthy of a job attained through family connections, Rita is the granddaughter of Tom Benson, principal owner of the New Orleans Saints. Having begun her NFL with internships in high school, Rita immediately entered the industry after college. While managing the New Orleans VooDoo, an AFL team also owned by her family, Rita was recognized as the top executive in that league. Soon after, she went back to work for the Saints, where she currently serves as the Executive Vice President. At the young age of 33, she is already poised to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps by succeeding him as the principal owner.

These women and others making their way through the NFL ranks deserve a great deal of recognition for these massive accomplishments. The men who identified their talents and hired them despite possible criticism from short-sighted peers (e.g. Doug Flutie, Gerald McCoy and Al Davis), should also be acknowledged for their open-mindedness. Let us hope this trend continues, and that we will have the best minds, whether they are male or female, leading our industry.

Note: Special thanks to my Marketing Manager/Client Liaison, Diana Klochkova, for her assistance with this post.

Follow me on Twitter: @jackbechta

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