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. This interview was conducted by Angela Torma, director at NFL Films. Without further ado, we introduce:
Kim Pegula, Buffalo Bills
Position: Owner and President
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Did you ever think you'd have a career in football and become an owner?
No. That was never on my list. I didn't even know that you could be that. I don't even know that I even knew how that all worked. Just going to games as a fan and eating the popcorn and the hotdogs and listening to the music and enjoying the game. When I met my husband (Terry Pegula), he was a season ticket holder for the Buffalo Sabres, so we'd go to a game. But the idea that we would be intricately involved in running a team certainly was not something that, at a young age or even as I was older, that I really thought would be a reality. That's something that other people did. Not us.
And what was the process of becoming an NFL owner?
We had already owned the Buffalo Sabres and, at that time, the league had a rule: If you wanted to be an NFL owner, you couldn't own another professional team in a different market. For us having already owned the Sabres, the Buffalo Bills were the only football team we could've bought at the time within the NFL rules. They no longer have that rule, but at the time, we did. So when Mr. (Ralph) Wilson passed away, we said to ourselves, "Well, when do you ever get a chance, especially with the rules that we had? When would we ever get a chance to be part of an ownership where you could own an NFL team in the market that we're already in?" The timing was right there.
One thing that I always like to tell people is … On paper, it says that my husband owns 50 percent. It says I own 50 percent. We had been married for -- oh my goodness, I don't know -- close to 20 years at the time when we bought the team. But when it came down to it (and we were asked), "How do you want the paperwork to work out?" And my husband's like, "Oh, no. We'll just go 50/50." I didn't think anything of it. We've been married for so long. This is kind of how it goes. And I didn't realize the impact that would have, because when people find out that you're 50 percent ownership, they see you as really having ownership.
I wasn't just the wife of the husband who bought the team. It was like, Oh, no. They both own the team. I didn't appreciate how important that was because I just took it for granted because it's my husband and we always did things together. So that was pretty cool to see that. I told my husband, "Oh, you were way ahead of everybody! All this female empowerment. You had that in the bag a long, long time ago. You saw it coming." But I do appreciate that now when I hear and talk to other women who see this as a true triumph, especially in sports and especially in football, that my husband had the foresight to actually share that whole experience with me in a really legitimate way that actually has some meaning behind it.
After purchasing the Bills, what are some of the things you wanted to change within the organization? And were you able to accomplish them?
Well, honestly, they don't give you a manual. They don't give you a playbook. I wish there was a playbook where you could draw up like kind of the path out of success. Certainly winning in sports is always at the top, and it's the hardest thing to do, but winning, I think, really is always there in the front of your mind. How to win the next game. How to win not just the Super Bowl but a winning season. And so, I think it's hard when you first become owners because it's kind of where you're looking at it through that lens.
We, the Bills organization, had been around for close to 60 years when we bought the team, so I never felt like, Well, I have the answer. Just 'cause now we own the team, I have the answer. I know what to do now. It was never like that because, obviously, they've been around for a long time and had success of building a winning team. So the first few years were just more about sitting back, learning, just being part of the league itself. It's complex. It's big. But it's very small at the same time.
There was no lightbulb that went off. But I felt like your name is a really a big part of the brand of the sport, and Buffalo being a smaller market felt like really the only way we really needed to embody it. And Mr. Wilson being the only owner before us, we felt like how do we make this our own organization? How do we make this our own team in our own way that represents our family and the future of our family? And that was to really get involved, and that's when I really took over more as a president role. I still get the perks of being an owner, but now I gotta do the work, as well, which was new to me. But I will tell you I've enjoyed it so much because I've learned so much about the league, about business, about the people, the engagement.
Being involved, knowing, being in the conversations, being in the weeds -- sometimes probably too much in the weeds -- but being in the weeds, I think has really given me an excitement and an appreciation for this business, for the game and the sport itself that I don't know I would've gotten just sitting up in my suite watching games every week. It's been a great journey. I just still am very excited about it, so I hope I never lose that excitement. I really don't.
Can you explain what you do as both a co-owner and team president?
My husband is at one end of the hall and I'm actually on the other end of the hall. He wanted to be closer to head coach Sean McDermott and to Brandon Beane, our GM, and then I was more on our finance side and our operations side. So we're on each corner, and I think we, being a husband-and-wife team, that's all we know. That's all I know.
As I mentioned earlier, when we would go to a hockey game, I'm like, it's all about the food and the music and the mascot, and just the whole experience of everything, so I always just gravitated towards that. Whereas my husband's like, OK, sit in your seat. Don't go to the bathroom. Watch the game. Like, just what's happening on the field, on the ice -- that is what he's focused on. The play and the calls and things like that, so we just always gravitated towards getting different things out of the same game. When we started at the Bills, we just automatically gravitated towards that; then I would fill him in on some of the things that are going on on the business side. And he's been so super 'cause he would always want to include me in all the football things. So I'm not calling plays, believe me. I'm not deciding who we're drafting. But to be in those conversations, to be in the draft room, to be in the postgame meetings or any situations when you talk about a player, having us both in the room is important.
I tell people we're always very diverse 'cause having those two voices instead of just one, I hope it helps Sean and Brandon, as well, because they get a complete picture from ownership on different topics that we can help guide them in.
Having that presence, me being in those rooms, whether we're talking football or we're talking marketing. Like I said, that is a credit to my husband wanting me being there in those rooms, in those conversations from Day 1.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
The best part of my job is people -- and the most challenging part of my job is people! It's just the relationships, the ever-changing landscape. Things move so fast and quickly sometimes in sports. Everything from before when my husband and I were interviewing with the league, one of the biggest things that they were concerned about was our connection to gambling, sports gambling with one of the security checks, background checks that they want to do. And now we're trying to formulate a strategy around mobile sports betting in the state of New York and across the league.
We are a smaller market in terms of size and population, so how do the little guys keep up with all this change? And then, how does that translate into winning? And not just winning for one year but long-term sustainable winning – there is the cap, obviously -- when there are some restrictions. How do you find the resources to make sure that you're hiring the right coaches and the staff, and paying the QB, and things like that? I think that's really changing 'cause one thing always connects to another, so you can't just always separate one thing from the other. Then keeping up with that pace.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I don't think I've achieved it yet. Well, I know I haven't achieved it yet. But I will be proud when my kids, my family are able to be that next generation. I'd love to be able to hand it off in the organization -- both on the field and in business -- at a point where they're not only proud but get it to where they are a part of that. To put it in their safe hands for the next generation of fans and beyond 'cause my husband and I will be long gone. But to get it to a place we're confident that the legacy will continue and it'll continue to be a family-owned organization. And that we're here for a long time and have an impact.
Who are your mentors and how have they helped guide and influence your career?
I'm not using this as a cop-out or the easy way out, but I honestly have to say my husband because, as I mentioned before, he has always been such a supporter for me no matter what challenges or what new ventures I wanted to work on. He has always been there, always has wanted -- and never shied away from -- me being in the room, whether or not he wanted me to be in there or I asked to be in the room. And this doesn't apply to just sports. I'm just talking about ever since we've been married. He has always had a big trust in me and allowed me to fail so many times. He just said, "No, you got this," even when I didn't.
So I think he has really probably been my biggest mentor. He started his own business, so I think that entrepreneurial spirit certainly had an influence on me and being involved in business and building the staff around him. He was always somebody that always had an open-door policy, and I think, I hope, that's kind of how our staff feels -- like they can come to me at any time about things and that I'm approachable and not leading from just the top down. That I'm immersed in different layers throughout the org.
How has the industry shifted for women since you entered the league?
I think it has still a long way to go, but it certainly has changed tremendously. When I first came into the league, there were other women in the owners' room: Dee Haslam with the Cleveland Browns was there; a lot of daughters; Martha Ford of the Detroit Lions, now her daughter, Sheila Ford Hamp. So there was some of that representation, but certainly in football itself, too. Kathryn Smith was our first full-time female coach. Having worked with my husband, like I said, taking for granted that females in work environments were welcome just because that had been my experience. I took that for granted. When Kathryn became our coach, I walked by her desk 100 times a day. She was part of our org, so when she got promoted to quality control coach, I really didn't think anything of it, but then it blew up like crazy when it got announced. I realized how important it was and I realized where it happened and that I was taking it for granted that women in football could be a norm. So it has changed tremendously. And from Kathryn on, we've always had a female coach on our staff, whether through internships or year-long fellowships.
From there, it's been great to see it really blossom. Now we've got females in our athletic trainers. We have them in our equipment room. We have them in our strength and conditioning, in our sports science. Now it's getting to be a norm. You go downstairs and you'll see females around, and it's not just the one. Back when Kathryn was here, she was the one female. Now, it's more normal, and our coaches, our players are interacting with them because they're doing their jobs. They're making our players better. They're helping us win more games. And that respect and mutual acceptance is now a norm.
I think that's great to see, and we've seen that throughout the league. There's been a lot of clubs now that have females, multiple females within their orgs, in football especially. … We've come a long way. I think the pipeline still needs to be really built up, but it's great to see that we're getting a lot more women and it's, like you said, being a little bit more of the norm vs. the exception.
As one of the most powerful women in the NFL, what would you say to females considering a career in football?
Come. Come in. We need you. We want you. I certainly think nowadays with the number of positions that females have been in, that there is certainly a place for them and that they are welcome now, so don't be afraid to go down that route. It doesn't mean that it's gonna be easy, doesn't mean that it's a free pass because you check the boxes of a diverse candidate or a minority. It certainly doesn't mean that. It might actually mean you have to work harder, but embrace that. I think our fanbase is 50 percent female, so why wouldn't we want females in football? And if you add value, if you can help players win, help them recover, help them in whatever way, if you are part of something that helps improve the org, the team, that's all that they are about.