Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula has helped build two teams and understands the role diversity plays in shaping the future of an organization.
Pegula, 51, who was born in South Korea and adopted by an American family, is the first female president of both an NHL and NFL team. She’s the president of Pegula Sports Entertainment and a co-owner of both franchises with her husband, Terry, 69. Because of this, Kim has a distinct voice in the NFL. She serves on two NFL committees: business ventures, and Super Bowls and major events.
She has helped oversee a turnaround by the Bills, who have two playoff appearances in the past three seasons, and has also faced criticism in her role with the small-market Sabres.
In the wake of a report by The Washington Post that revealed allegations by 17 women of sexual harassment and verbal abuse that left the Washington Football Team organization reeling, ESPN sought perspective from prominent female executives within the NFL.
In her own words, as relayed to ESPN’s John Keim, these are Pegula’s thoughts on the importance of diversity and working to improve an organization’s culture, gleaned from her experience with the Bills and Sabres:
Why diversity matters
When people ask me why diversity matters, I tell them to spend a week with my husband and me. Terry and I are diverse in age (18 years), ethnicity (white/Asian) and a variety of other traits (I like chocolate/he likes vanilla). But those differences, when combined, are our biggest strength. They’ve gotten us through 27 years of marriage, raising three kids and leading multiple businesses. It’s served us well having two owners to look at situations differently, hear different points of view and bring different ideas to the table. Sometimes we arrive at the same answer, sometimes we don’t, and sometimes we are both wrong. After all, no matter how diverse we are, we are both still human.
During our last Bills coaching search [after the 2016 season], when we interviewed Sean McDermott, Terry took notice that Sean was a two-time National Prep School wrestling champion. To me it was a nice anecdote, as I was not familiar with high school wrestling. Terry said, “I don’t care that it was back in high school, if you have the discipline to be a champion wrestler at any level, train and perform for what may amount to mere minutes to an audience of probably just your mom and dad — those traits will serve you well as a coach.” I would have missed that perspective if Terry wasn’t in the room.
Two owners of professional sports teams aren’t what many would think of as an example of “diversity,” but I’ve come to appreciate the impact that our unique version of diversity in thought, experience, gender, race and age can have on an organization.
I recently shared with our staff how we rate as a diverse workforce and it was far from where I believe we should be. While we have a lot of work ahead of us, we are taking deliberate steps to be a better and more diverse organization. We’ve started by listening to and learning from our Black employees at staff-wide town halls and facilitating Diversity and Inclusion Luncheons, seeking to create open dialogue across our companies to empower our employees to change our process and policies to better reflect our fan base and our country.
Diversity matters, quite simply, because the world we live in is diverse. Our fans are diverse, our players are diverse, our ownership is diverse, and we need that diversity of thought and background reflected in our organizations as we try each day to become better.
It starts at the top
We’ve all heard the phrase that culture starts at the top. I’ve certainly seen how being both a minority and a female owner in the NFL has positively affected the Bills. Before Terry and I bought the team in 2014, there were 30 full-time female employees of the Bills, and only three of them were in football. Many of those positions were in administrative roles. Currently the Bills have 50 full-time female employees, including five full time and 10 interns on the football side, dedicated to working directly with players in key roles. I can’t take all credit for the growth, but I do believe a female presence in football meetings, representing the organization and being visible as a key decision-maker, is beneficial.
Stephen A. Smith suggests that diversity should be prioritized in the NFL amid discussions of racial justice.
But let’s not forget that the men in our organization have to play an important role in advancing women within predominantly male industries. At the Bills, it started with Terry encouraging me to participate in football meetings — from postgame discussions, to draft interviews and scouting meetings. It’s continued with our head coaches, who have consistently provided opportunities to women in coaching like Kathryn Smith [in 2016 with Buffalo she became the first woman to serve as a full-time NFL assistant], Phoebe Schecter [a full-season intern] and Callie Brownson [now chief of staff for the Cleveland Browns]. Now women are a part of the equipment staff, sports performance, athletic training, nutrition, player development and player personnel departments. I like to think that including women across all areas of football has made it feel like more of the norm than the exception to our players and staff.
The league has also added the support that helped bring women to build our team. The NFL has a champion in Samantha Rapoport, who in her role as senior director of diversity and inclusion for the league has been instrumental in connecting women whose passion is to work in football with clubs looking to add skilled women to their staff. The NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum at the NFL combine was one of her initiatives that connected coaches and GMs across the league with women looking for face time with key decision-makers. I had an opportunity to speak with these women this past year, along with Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Darcie Glazer Kassewitz. The women wanted to know, “How do I get my foot in the door?” My advice to them was to build relationships and networks, not just with women but also with men and to make the most of opportunities such as this forum.
While there is still a lot of room for improvement, I’m encouraged to see the progress women have made in football. In the four years since the forum began, 97 women earned opportunities with the NFL, college football and the Alliance of American Football as a direct result. This is proof that when ownership, club executives and the league work together with focused intention, real advancement can be made.
It’s the little things
My experiences in a male-dominated sport have been wonderful, for the most part. But there are moments that have been — let’s say — unique. I’ve been mistaken a few times for a fan or a game-day worker, having been questioned and asked for my ID or credential in team areas — and I’m guessing it’s because I don’t look like a typical NFL owner. I think about the times I have been labeled as the “black widow” when changes were made in our organizations. Yet Terry was right there making the same decisions with me, but he has never had such a negative accusatory label attached to his name.
“Our fans are diverse, our players are diverse, our ownership is diverse, and we need that diversity of thought and background reflected in our organizations as we try each day to become better.” Kim Pegula, co-owner of the Bills and Sabres
Last year at this time, the Bills went to South Carolina for a joint training camp practice with the Carolina Panthers. I asked all the women working camp to join me at a local establishment. I wanted to make sure that we were supporting them as an organization and wanted to pick their brain on how we could be better in that effort. I knew my experience in an ownership role was going to be different than the experiences other women had at the club.
One of the key trends I heard that night was that women working in a predominantly male environment just wanted their work and effort to be seen as more important than their gender. They noted that it can be scary being one of the few women in the room, especially for new interns on their first day, but seeing other women in the room and being warmly welcomed by the club — specifically the football department — helped ease their nervousness and made them feel accepted.
That night, I often heard it was about the little things. They expressed that they did not know how to dress for away games because the team travel memo only outlined a dress code for men, but that it wasn’t a big issue and they were embarrassed to even bring it up. After we returned to Buffalo, I brought this to the football staff’s attention and it quickly got resolved. It wasn’t an intentional exclusion, it just hadn’t been thought of. It wasn’t a big change, or one that took much effort, but it went far to acknowledge and accept women as part of the team.
When I asked a current second-year intern what challenges she faced working in football, she said, “How to adapt my approach to so many different players in one setting.” This is the same answer I have heard from many other men, some who have been coaches for a long time, so I know that in many ways we’re not so different after all.
People forget that football as we know it is not just about the X’s and O’s. It takes multiple groups of people on and off the field to put on a game that millions watch each week. So there is plenty of room and roles left to welcome more diversity into the football family, and I’m encouraged by where we’re headed.