Women and the NFL: Dr. Jen Welter and the Boston Renegades

Women and the NFL - Jen Welter and Boston Renegades

As a WISE Boston member, I get to attend some really cool events. Generally these events feature awesome women from the world of sports. Not to brag (I totally am), but in the past few years I’ve met Jackie MacMullan, Kathryn Tappen, and Dara Torres.

The list got bigger last month when I got to meet Dr. Jen Welter.

Jen Welter WISE Event

For those of you who don’t know who Jen Welter is…have you been living under a rock? In 2015, Jen became the first female coach in the NFL when she was hired by the Arizona Cardinals as a linebackers coaching intern. Prior to her NFL coaching gig, she played running back for the male Indoor Football League’s Texas Revolution. She was also a linebackers and special teams coach for the Revolution.

Yup, she’s a total badass.

Jen was featured on a panel about women, sports, and leadership, along with Amy Huchthausen, the commissioner of the American East Conference (NCAA Division I), and Janet Judge, a sports lawyer. Shira Springer, a sports columnist for the Boston Globe, moderated the event, which was a benefit for the Boston Renegades, the city’s women’s professional football team.

WISE Event - Harpoon Brewery - Women and Sports

The event took place at Harpoon Brewery, which is in the Seaport District in Boston. I loved how intimate the event was – ticket sales were limited, which meant that everyone had the opportunity to network with the panelists, members of the Renegades, and the WISE board members.

The panelists discussed everything from leadership opportunities for women in the industry to the obstacles that women still face in the world of sports. I really enjoyed when they shared their personal experiences and the changes that need to happen going forward.

WISE Event - Harpoon Brewery - Panelists

I got the chance to speak with Ben Brown, who is the Strength and Conditioning coach for the Renegades. He explained the history of team and his experience as a coach. Ben was super generous with his time and it was hard not to get excited about women’s professional football after seeing his enthusiasm.

Several Boston Renegades team members were at the event as well. The team’s quarterback, Allison Cahill, who is pictured below, spoke for a few minutes at the end of the panel.

WISE Event - Harpoon Brewery - Jen Welter and Boston Renegades

Before the panel started, there was time to network and grab beer samples. I’m not much of a beer drinker, but I did try the cider and enjoyed it.

WISE Event - Harpoon Brewery Tap Handles

The soft pretzels were amaze-balls. I don’t know what they put in the cheese dipping sauce, but I wouldn’t be opposed to having more of it in my life.

WISE Event - Harpoon Brewery Soft Pretzels

My favorite part of the night was when I got some one-on-one time with Jen after the panel. Not only did she take a picture with me, but she gave me some really great advice.

WISE Boston - Harpoon Brewery - Boston Renegades - Group Photo

The Renegade’s first home game is this Saturday, April 16 at Dillboy Stadium in Somerville, MA. Tickets are $10 at the gate.

For more information about the Boston Renegades, check out their website.

– Michelle

Women and the NFL: Beth Grossbard

Beth Grossbard - Women and the NFL

When a person introduces herself and says, “I love football,” I’m intrigued. When she starts an email with, “I love football so much I just made a movie about it,” she’s really got my attention.

Beth Grossbard is an executive producer and her latest film, “Love on the Sidelines,” premieres tonight on the Hallmark channel. The movie is a romantic comedy about a quarterback who is sidelined with an injury and hires a female personal assistant who knows nothing about football. It starts Emily Kinney (of “The Walking Dead” fame), John Reardon, and Joe Theismann.

Beth Grossbard - Women and the NFL

“I read the script and I loved it,” says Beth, a self-described die hard football fan since the age of six. With an impressive list of made-for-TV movies, including “The Christmas Shoes,” Beth was ecstatic to become involved in a project that combined two of her loves – football and storytelling through film.

Growing up in Miami during the height of Dolphins mania, Beth remains a Dolphins fan to this day and partially credits her love of the game to a neighbor she had during the early part of her life. The neighbor was George Young, a former NFL executive who was the GM of the Giants and won the NFL Executive of the Year five times.

“George instilled in me a great knowledge of the game,” says Beth. “When we watched games together, we would mute the TV and listen to the play-by-play on the radio since he thought it was better.”

Fast forward several years, and Beth was thrilled to have the “Love on the Sidelines” script, written by Judith Berg and Sandra Berg, the nieces of ex-NFL coach Sid Gillman, land in her lap. Getting the movie to the screen proved to be a challenge, however, as there wasn’t much interest in a film with professional football providing a backdrop to the story line. Finally, after seven years, and the support of Hallmark executives who shared Beth’s appreciation for football, the film was given the green light.

Love on the Sidelines - Hallmark

One of the highlights for Beth was getting to work with Joe Theismann, the former Redskins quarterback and Super Bowl Champion. Finding someone to play the role of Owen Holland, the father of the injured quarterback, was a challenge, as Beth knew she wanted to bring in a big NFL name and scheduling could be a problem.

“Joe read the script, loved it, and said he was in,” says Beth. “He was the most incredible human being, an amazing motivational speaker, and better than any therapist.”

Getting Emily Kinney to play the female lead was also a win for Beth.

“When you tell me I can’t do something, I will do it,” says Beth, who was originally told the odds of getting the actress for the project were slim. Kinney plays the role of Laurel Welk, an aspiring fashion designer who doesn’t know anything about football. When Laurel takes on the role of personal assistant to QB Danny Holland, the “fish out of water” situation allows Kinney to exercise her comedic chops.

“Emily has impeccable comedic timing,” says Beth. “She also has this really great vulnerability about her as an actress.”

 Judith Berg and Sandra Berg, the nieces of ex-NFL coach Sid Gillman

Laurel’s love interest, Danny Holland, is played by John Reardon, who worked with Beth and Hallmark before and was quick to sign onto the project. John was a quarterback in college and considered going into the CFL before pursuing a career in acting. According to Beth, it was great to see him enjoying himself so much with the opportunity to be back on the field and in the huddle.

Love on the Sidelines John Reardon

John wasn’t the only one thrilled to be on the field, as some of Beth’s favorite days for filming were when they were filming the football scenes. Most of the extras in the film were real football players from the UBC Thunderbirds, who went on to win the Canadian college championship.

“It was a thrill to have a real quarterback, real receivers,” says Beth. “Just wonderful to be on the field.”

Although she’s found a lot of her success with Christmas-themed movies in the past, Beth hopes that more football movies are in her future.

“I’m a passionate football fan,” she says. “Football is in my blood.”

“Love on the Sidelines” premieres on the Hallmark Channel on Saturday, January 16, 2016 at 9/8 Central. Photos courtesy of Beth Grossbard / Hallmark.

– Michelle

State of the Female NFL Fan: 2015

State of the NFL Female Fan 2015

Where are all my ladies?

It’s the question NFL teams should be asking themselves, with women making up about 45% of the sport’s fan base. We’ve featured what some individual teams have done here on The Snap through our Women and the NFL series, but today we’re taking a “big picture” look at women’s initiatives across the league as of November 2015.

Through our research, we identified areas where teams are doing well and where teams are making progress for female fans.

For those of you who are wondering, our research was primarily composed of extensive Googling. The most reliable information came directly from the team’s sites, but we pulled in information from other sites if relevant.

Let’s start with some good news…

State of Female Fan - Mom's Safety Clinics

Most teams run their Mom’s Safety Clinics in cooperation with USA Football, the sport’s national governing body, which leads game development for youth, high school, and other amateur players. We were honestly surprised this number was not at 100% and we are predicting that this type of event will be around for the foreseeable future.

State of Female Fan - Official Fan Clubs

Fees for the fee-based fan clubs range from $40-$100 and usually involve team swag and access to exclusive events. It’s important to note free fan clubs usually charge a fee with some of their events. Also, we want to point out that teams without fan clubs for women still hold events for women. Speaking of events…

State of Female Fan - Events

We love the fact that about half of the league hosts Football 101/201 or annual Ladies Nights. Football 101/201 events generally cater toward women and include the opportunity to run drills on the field and participate in game Q&A with team personnel. Ladies Nights can offer player interaction, shopping opportunities, panels, facility tours, and refreshments.

We would like to see the numbers for the other events (training camp, community service, health and wellness, and tailgating) increase. We understand that not all of these events will appeal to women in different markets, but they are a great opportunity for teams to show their creativity with their female fan bases.

State of the Female NFL Fan - Events by Division

We thought it would be fun to break up event statistics by division to see if there were any trends. We did not include Mom’s Safety Clinics in this event count – only the team events in the “Hey…Can We Get An Invite?” image. Kudos to the AFC South and the NFC West.

State of Female NFL Fan - Women's Association

It didn’t seem right to forget about some of the biggest female fans – team employees and the female family members of team employees. There is not a ton of information available for these groups, so we’re assuming they do a lot more behind the scenes.

State of Female Fan - Lifestyle Sites

The Buccaneers also have a section on their site devoted to Red, their women’s fan club, which includes info about their upcoming events, as well as some great behind the scenes posts and media from Casey Phillips, the team reporter. The Patriots have a Lifestyle section on their site. While some of their content is fun, there is definitely room for improvement, especially in comparison with what you see from the Colts and Cowboys.

We like to give credit where it’s due, so we’ve decided to sort the teams into four tiers based on the extent of their activities for women.

State of Female Fans - Tier One

State of Female NFL Fan - Tier Three

State of Female NFL Fan - Tier 3

State of the Female NFL Fan - Tier 4

The plan is for us to complete this assessment on an annual basis.

If you would like to see some of our underlying data, shoot us a note through our Contact page and we can send you our handy-dandy Excel spreadsheet.

– Michelle & Val

Women and the NFL: Crush – The Denver Broncos Women’s Fan Club

Denver Crush Fan Club for Women

Marketing for the NFL, and sports leagues in general, is really quite unique when you think about it.

While the teams are competitors, their individual marketing departments never have to worry about converting fans from other teams. (For example, no matter how excellent their ad campaign / promotion / event is, the Jets are never going to win over a Patriots fans. Along with things like getting a face tattoo, I’m gonna file that under my “when pigs fly” folder.)

However, transforming local non-fans to avid fans and keeping them connected throughout the year are responsibilities of the team marketing departments, and in my opinion, are key tactics in the mission to grow their female fan bases.

With women making up approximately 45% of the NFL’s fan base and the percentage of female fantasy football players jumping from 20% to 34% in the last year, it’s easy to see why NFL teams should care about the female demographic.

The fascinating thing is not all teams are taking the same approach when it comes to marketing towards their female fans. Today, we’re continuing our Women and the NFL series with a look at what one AFC West team is doing.

Denver Crush Night Out 3

The ladies you see above posing with the Lombardi trophies are some lucky Denver Broncos fans. After speaking to Marisol Villagomez, the Broncos Manager of Fan Development, I learned all about the opportunities like this Lombardi photo opp that Broncos fans have through Crush, the team’s fan club for women 21 and over.

Similar to other female fan clubs, Crush started as NFL 101 and 201 events for women. Held in the fall, the educational sessions were open to a limited number of women and taught the fundamentals of the game. In August 2010, the team officially started Crush as a fan club and held their inaugural Crush Night Out in October of the same year.

Since then, Crush Night Out has become the group’s signature event, giving female fans an opportunity to get autographs and pictures with players, sample food from local restaurants, shop, and watch football demonstrations at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

This year’s Crush Night Out will be held on Wednesday, October 7 at 6 p.m. (Tickets can be purchased here.)

Denver Crush Night Out 1

On the surface, the event seems pretty similar to the Purple Evening we attended last year with the Ravens, but after talking to Marisol, there are definitely some differentiating factors.

“It’s a night for ladies with a splash of football,” said Marisol, which is the complete opposite of how the Ravens Purple night was described to me by the Ravens staffer I interviewed. (When it comes to events like these, I don’t think one marketing mindset is better than the other – it was just something I found really interesting because it speaks volumes about how fans react in different markets.)

One of the other interesting things that Marisol mentioned is that they have experimented with the size of the event over the years. In 2013, the team welcomed over 2,000 fans to the event, but now the attendance is being capped at a smaller number in order to keep the experience more intimate. Marisol also pointed out that by limiting the number of attendees, it reduces the amount of time spent waiting in lines.

Denver Crush Night Out 2

With Colorado consistently ending up on healthiest state lists, it’s no surprise that the Crush Workout series has also been a big success for the team.

Earlier this year in May, Crush hosted a boot camp workout series. Over the course of four Thursdays, women interacted with Broncos strength and conditioning trainers through a series of boot camp activities, including learning about the gym equipment, nutrition, and various exercises.

According to Marisol, a different demographic of women showed up for the summer yoga workout series held in the field house. Led by CorePower yoga and featuring Broncos players, the yoga events were capped at 200 attendees. What I thought, by far, was the coolest thing, was that participants got exclusive Broncos yoga mats. (According to Marisol, even the players asked if they could take the mats with them.)

Denver Crush Workout Series

The exclusive yoga mats are just one example of how Marisol’s group caters to female fans. In addition to realizing that fans loved getting exclusive swag for attending events, they noted that Broncos female fans really loved shopping. (I realize that how obvious this statement sounds, but let me explain.)

In a world where teams can be very easily criticized for their approach to women despite their good intentions, it’s not easy to find inclusive events that appeal to fans at different ends of the fan spectrum. (You know, the spectrum that measures a fan on a scale of “doesn’t care at all” to “needs counseling because no one should be that emotionally attached to a sports franchise.”) One thing that really appealed to all women of Broncos nation just happened to be shopping, which is why shopping is a key component of Crush Night Out and why the team hosted a shopping night in December exclusively for Crush members.

(If wearing Broncos gear wasn’t so heavily frowned upon in Massachusetts and Peyton Manning didn’t deliver heartbreak on a silver platter during games I was emotionally invested in, even I would have been tempted to check out what swag they were selling for 30-50% off. It’s not my fault I look so good in navy blue, but I digress.)

Player involvement is also a key component of any Broncos event and in order to create the best experience possible for the fan, Marisol looks to involve players who have a genuine interest in attending.

Appealing to all types of fans was something that Marisol kept coming back to throughout our conversation.

“It’s really important to make sure you are meeting the needs of every group,” she said.

Describing the fans as passionate, she shared stories about the range of women her group needs to appeal to with their events. There are women who blew her away with their football knowledge during a film session event led by Broncos alumni. There are also women who made their picks in the team’s Weekly Pick ‘Em challenging based on team colors. (With a mom who picks her fantasy football team based on the players’ smiles and finds success with this method, I’ve learned not to judge when it comes to making choices for these types of things.)

The challenge for Marisol and her co-workers not only lies with appealing to all female Broncos fans, but maintaining the fan engagement year-round, which pushes the group to be creative with their events.

“It’s an amazing feeling to see so many women who are committed to this brand,” said Marisol.

Even though I can’t say I cheer for the Broncos all that often (unless there are playoff implications), I will admit that I got warm fuzzy fan feelings (and quite frankly, some jealous feelings as well) hearing about what the Broncos are doing for their female fans. Sensing that they value this demographic, I’m excited to see what is to come from this franchise.

 

For more information on Crush, check out the links below:

Website: http://www.denverbroncos.com/fans/crush/

Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/BroncosForWomen

Thanks again to Marisol who took the time out of her day to answer my questions about Crush. It’s always great to chat with someone who shares my enthusiasm for discussing the female football fan.

All photographs in this post courtesy of the Denver Broncos.

– Michelle

Women and the NFL: Dani Klupenger, St. Louis Rams Reporter

Women and the NFL: Dani Klupenger, Rams Reporter

Sometimes simple moments in life take you by surprise. For Dani Klupenger, the 24-year-old who started as the in-house reporter for the St. Louis Rams in April, an NFL practice field spurred one of these moments.

“I was standing on the practice field, looking around, dressed down, and was like, why do I feel so comfortable? I’m at an NFL practice and I know everyone here. It was just a really cool, surreal moment.”

As someone who is at the beginner of career, Klupenger is a perfect fit for the team with the youngest average age in the NFL. She displays a blend of genuine enthusiasm and appreciation when she talks about her job. Add in her down-to-earth personality, and it’s really fun to listen to her share her experiences as she navigates her new role.

“I’m still so young in my career that everything is still exciting and everything is a first for me. I hope that feeling never goes away. Right now, I’m like a kid on Christmas,” she says.

Don’t let Klupenger’s age and cheerful smile fool you though – she’s worked hard to get where she is today.

Dani Klupenger - RamsAn Oregon native, Klupenger attended Stony Brook University where she played basketball in addition to earning her degrees in Journalism and Business Management. After radio and TV internships in college, Klupenger spent two years working for the University of Tennessee’s Athletic Department doing just about everything that they could throw at her, from hosting and reporting to producing and editing multimedia for over 20 sports teams. During this time, she also worked as an analyst and reporter for the SEC network.

So, did she always know that she wanted to be in sports journalism? As it turns out, not really.

“I always liked to dress up and be girly, so I really thought E! news [and] the red carpet were where I was headed,” says Klupenger, whose background as an athlete changed the course of her career. “I have been around sports my whole life and I was very comfortable with my knowledge of most sports. I felt like it was a natural fit.”

From watching Klupenger’s interviews (check some out here), you can tell her comfort with and understanding of athletes has shaped who she is as a reporter. Her natural affinity for talking to people also plays a big part in how she handles her responsibilities.

“As far as being a reporter, I’m probably one of the most curious, if you want to call it nosey, people you might ever meet, but I think that that’s helped me. I love learning how people got from Point A to Point B in their life. I find myself doing it with my friends. I’m always the one asking all of the questions when we’re catching up. I love to talk to people. Being able to use sports as an outlet and a medium to get to know people and share their stories so the people can relate to them and sports icons aren’t so untouchable – that’s what I want to do.”

Making Rams players more relatable is something Klupenger does on a regular basis, as she gives Rams fans an insider’s look at their favorite players on the team’s broadcast and digital platforms. In addition to sideline reporting, she also hosts the weekly “Rams Nation” television show and will soon tackle hosting duties for the “What the Hekk” radio show with Rams Pro Bowl punter Ryan Hekk.

“Being a sideline reporter is what gets my adrenaline going and that’s what fills that void of being an athlete for so long. Finding the story, changing the story on the fly because something else happened – that stuff is awesome,” says Klupenger, who attended her first NFL game as a sideline reporter.

As fun as the sideline can be, her favorite medium of storytelling is the short feature. Some of her proudest career moments so far have come as a result of her features, which have been played on ESPN and the SEC network. Klupenger credits her collection of journalism and multimedia skills, including editing skills and behind-the-camera experience, with getting her where she is today.

After making the jump from college sports to professional football, Klupenger admits she had initial concerns with the transition and how the players would react to her.

“I’ve never worked in the NFL before and I was really nervous because I came from college, where they are roughly my age. Now I’m going to walk into the locker room full of grown men. Are they going to talk to me? Are they going to work with me? Are they going to want to give me any insight into their life?”

Luckily, the guys in the locker room have made the transition easy for Klupenger.

“They’ve been great. I brag about this locker room to pretty much anyone that will listen to me – they are awesome guys. I have yet to have anyone turn down an interview. Even when they are tired or don’t really feel like it, they still come around.”

Dani Klupenger - St. Louis Rams Reporter

The Snap: What’s your typical workday like?

Dani Klupenger: Typically my work day does start at 9. That’s the only thing that I can tell you that’s pretty much set usually. As far as how late I stay, that’s all over the board. We’ll do anything from writing scripts for any of our shows to web content to filming those shows and web content. I do one-on-ones after practice – it’s just a one-on-one interview with whatever player I decide that day that I want to talk to. […] I edit for the Rams, so that takes up a big chunk of my time too. If I’m going to do a feature – I just recently did one on Brian Quick and him coming back from an injury and I edited that whole thing – that takes up time too because it’s a very meticulous process. […] On top of that I MC / host any of the events for the organization, whether it’s a cheerleading event or the Rams front office doing something to interact with the community. It’s really cool to be their go-to person to show up at events and cover them. You never know what the day is going to throw at you, which makes it exciting.

 

The Snap: What’s your advice for people who want to get into sports broadcasting?

Dani Klupenger: My number one advice for people who ask me that is learn everything – learn how to write, learn how to shoot a camera, a bunch of different cameras, and learn how to edit. If you have people skills, the interviewing will take care of itself.

 

The Snap: Let’s talk football. Obviously the big stories for the Rams are a new quarterback and returning pieces of a great defense. Going into the regular season, what other stories should we be on the lookout for to come out of St. Louis?

Dani Klupenger: You nailed it with two of the biggest story lines, as far as our defensive line is considered and Nick Foles, but I’ll give you a little bit of offense and defense. On the offense, we’ve got a really, really talented wide receiver corps and running back corps. Obviously we don’t know if [RB] Todd Gurley is going to play in game one. He just started team activities, but is still non-contact, so I think it will be really interesting to see how the running backs group emerges as a position with Gurley and [Tre] Mason both being able to dominate in that role. Our wide receiver group looks really good. Brian Quick had what I’ll call a car wreck injury last year at Kansas City with his shoulder. He’s coming back. That’s a group that’s just really locked in and focused and I can tell that they’re ready to do really big things. Sometimes you can just tell in an athlete when they seem a little bit more driven.

I think another group that is really interesting is the defensive backs. We just lost E.J. Gaines, who started 15 games last season at corner. He had a foot injury and is out for the year. That was a really big loss for cornerbacks, defensive backs in general. I just did a big feature on them yesterday. I’ve never seen a group with so much – forgive me for lack of a better word – swagger. They do not back down to anybody. It’s fun to watch them in games. I honestly wasn’t really paying attention to DBs all that much because I was so close to our defensive line, which is what everybody was talking about. Lately I’ve been so intrigued by the DBs and the way they’ve come together, it’s like a, “You’re not gonna mess with our group” mentality. I think that they are going to surprise a lot of people.

 

Dani’s Instagram: https://instagram.com/daniklup

Dani’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/daniklup

Dani’s Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/daniklup

Pictures courtesy of Dani Klupenger.

– Michelle, who officially recommends following Dani on social media, even if you aren’t a Rams fan, because she’s awesome

Women and the NFL: Shavannia Williams, Heels & Helmets Founder

Shavannia Williams - Women and NFL - Heels and Helmets

One of the things I’ve never talked about on this blog is how much my football knowledge has helped me in my career. Now, I won’t bore you with the details of how I spend my 9-5 (well, usually longer) each weekday because I like you too much, but I will say I’ve got a position in the corporate world and the ability to talk football has helped me more than I would have imagined.

The nature of my job is that I work with a lot of different people on various teams, both men and women. Early in my career, I managed to end up on teams with a lot of guys. (So. Much. Testosterone.) Additionally, a lot of my client contacts have been men, and seeing how most of them live in the Boston area, it’s not a matter of if they will talk about sports, it’s a matter of when. The ability to discuss current events in sports allowed me to be included in conversations that I otherwise would have been left out of had I not invested some of my time on ESPN.com. Sure, I may not know a ton about other sports, but being able to trade fantasy football tactics has helped me establish myself in some male-dominated environments.

So where am I going with this?

I wrote about my sports/career story because the sensational woman who I am profiling today totally gets the importance of this connection. In fact, she spends a significant amount of her time devoted to it.

I couldn’t be more excited to include Shavannia Williams, founder of Heels & Helmets, as part of our ongoing Women and the NFL series.

Before I start telling you all the things that make Shavannia a rock star, I have to admit that I’ve been sitting on this post for quite some time. She graciously took time out of her day back in January to talk about her career path and her business and I am so appreciative of the time she’s given me to complete this post.

Besides being incredibly patient, Shavannia is many other things – she’s an entrepreneur, a marketing expert, a writer, and a sports fanatic, just to name a few. In short, she’s a boss.

I came across Shavannia and her Heels & Helmets site one day when I was researching women that had been included in an NFL Women’s Apparel ad a few years ago. This was an experience she was chosen for not because she was worked for the Detroit Lions, but because of her blog. So how did Shavannia become a sports blogger? It actually all began with a request from another female professional.

“A friend and professional woman in DC asked me to explain some football analogies. She had been in meetings and didn’t get the analogies men were using. She had witnessed women who understood football easily engage with men in meetings and get their point across,” said Shavannia.

After explaining some basic concepts, the friend asked Shavannia to write an article about the subject for a website that was a portal for professional women. The article turned into four posts and the friend encouraged Shavannia to start a blog. The timing wasn’t great for Shavannia, as she had just launched her own marketing firm, but six months later she found herself starting the blog.

Heels & Helmets may have started with the idea of explaining football concepts, but it has grown substantially since then. The site also includes posts on professional baseball, basketball, hockey, and golf. The diversity of the site is really quite reflective of Shavannia’s background.

Shavannia received her B.A. in Sport Management and Communication from the University of Michigan. During her time in Ann Arbor, she worked for the Michigan football team and completed various internships, including time in Atlanta as part of the 1996 Olympics. After college, she honed her skills in marketing/communications positions, with some time on the Hill working for Senator Clinton. Then the Washington sports world came calling, as Shavannia went to work for the Wizards, and then for the Washington Sports and Entertainment group, which gave her the opportunity to work with the Capitals, Mystics and the arena owned by the group. From there, Shavannia became Director of Marketing for the Detroit Lions and Ford Field and worked in public relations for the NCAA 2009 Men’s Final Four.

So yes, it only makes sense that Heels & Helmets expanded beyond the gridiron.

These days, Shavannia runs SW Group, a marketing firm she started focused on using media, events, technology, and sports to help organizations grow. It’s a natural fit with the work she does with Heels & Helmets, which now hosts events, including corporate workshops where Shavannia educates women on the fundamentals of sports.

“I’m proud that I could take an idea like a blog and grow it into an organization that has partnered with Fortune 50 organizations, [but] it’s really the feedback I get from people that I consider my biggest success. I’m very pleased when a woman contacts me and says I used this during the interview process as a way to break the ice or talking about sports gave me a way to follow-up with client,” said Shavannia.

Shavannia Williams (1)

From chatting with Shavannia, it became quite clear that the intersection between sports and professional development is where Shavannia thrives. She told me a story about a workshop she did for Kilpatrick Townsend law firm. After the workshop, Scottie Graham, who played in the NFL for six years and served as the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) Director of Engagement, came up to her and said, “Shavannia, I’ve been around football all of my life, and I never would have explained blitz the way that you did. […] You can help our players explain their work and transition into corporate America.”

Although word of mouth has been a main source of growth for Heels & Helmets, support from men like Graham has played a role as well.

“Men in my network really saw the power in this. There were men in leadership positions saying that I have encouraged ladies to do this, but your approach makes a difference,” said Shavannia.

Educating men has also been part of Shavannia’s initiatives.

“I have conversations with men to help them understand how to better explain their strategies to their teams, assuming that not everyone clearly understands sports terminology. They need to recognize that not everyone is going to understand ‘blind side’ or ‘left side’ and that it’s important,” said Shavannia.

So what’s next for Heels & Helmets? In short, Shavannia’s goal is for it to become the premiere organization in professional development and coaching using sports. She’s also developing initiatives to start working with younger girls in order to help them develop business skills and some of the soft skills that are learned from sports.

If Shavannia’s story inspires you, you should definitely check out the #GirlPowerPlay Twitter networking sessions she hosts on Wednesdays.

For more information about Shavannia and Heels & Helmets, visit heelsandhelmets.com or follow them on Twitter.

Photos in this post courtesy Shavannia Williams and Heels & Helmets. 

– Michelle

Women and the NFL: Melissa Mahler, Co-Founder of ProPlayerInsiders

Women & The NFL (1)

Melissa Mahler wears many hats as part of her career, but first and foremost, she’s a storyteller.

From her days as a news anchor to her role as a business consultant and now as a woman on a mission to share a unique take on the human experience through her website, storytelling has been a consistent throughout her life.

“There’s no shortage of good stories, but the challenge is to tell them in a way that has impact versus just providing information,” Melissa told me in late November, when we had the opportunity to chat about her career and her athlete-driven site, ProPlayerInsiders.com.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with ProPlayerInsiders, the site gives an insider’s look at the lives and lifestyles of NFL players. The site contains some news and analysis, but what sets it apart is its focus on the players’ personal lives and involvement in the community. Posts are written daily by a collection of athletes and experts on a variety of topics. Their YouTube site contains player interviews, including this gem of a baby-faced and beardless Andrew Luck:

Melissa, as ProPlayerInsiders’ co-founder and editor-in-chief, is responsible for many of the player interviews that end up on the site. Well-spoken, yet down-to-earth, Melissa has the traits of a great storyteller and it’s easy to understand why players and their families open up to her. Developing that trust has been imperative to the success of her site and creation of her NFL network.

“We work with the NFLPA (National Football League Players Association) for certain ideas and we work with the league and the teams as well, [but] most of the relationships come from the players and the wives. Each person that you connect with, your goal is to be true to the story, but to have that trust in the relationship as well,” said Melissa.

The “trust factor” which Melissa frequently referenced during our call, led to ProPlayerInsiders’ recent domestic violence series, which was published as the NFL headlines were exploding with players’ transgressions this past fall. The idea for the series came about a few years ago when Melissa interviewed Johnna Janis, who made the documentary Invisible Scars, and former NFL player Al Chesley, who had been sexually abused as a child. A friend encouraged her to continue with the topic.

“At that point, everyone was still focusing on the headlines – the sensation,” said Melissa. “But the real goal is to be in a place where, 12 months from now, as a society we’ve moved forward and we’re not just having the same conversation.”

When I spoke with Melissa, she had completed four roundtable discussions on the topic and had plans for six more. (Check out this discussion on the role of the NFL and other institutions in response to domestic abuse, which includes NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith.)

Melissa MahlerBeyond some of the impressive names that Melissa has worked with, the connections that she has made with other women was one of the things that stuck out to me during our conversation.

“Women don’t play the game, but there are a lot of really strong and amazing women that are the significant others of the players that we all follow. That’s been great for a couple of reasons – one, you can meet other really great women and two, it’s just a different insight. […] That’s been really inspirational for me.”

From talking to Melissa, you can tell that ProPlayerInsiders started out as a bit of a passion project for her. For someone who has accomplished quite a bit in her career (Did I mention she has a law degree?), you get the feeling that the inspiration she draws from these people is the driving force behind her busy schedule.

The Snap: Why did you decide to start ProPlayerInsiders?

Melissa Mahler: Sports was one of those things that I had never really focused on, but it was in the background growing up. I was a cheerleader and had done a little bit of track. My family has a history in sports on the baseball side of things. My great-grandfather was just inducted into the minor league baseball hall of fame and then my grandfather was a sportswriter with a love for baseball too.

From growing up in a little bit of a media family, the thing that was interesting to me was the media, more from news side of it. What became really interesting to me was people and telling stories. The idea of ProPlayerInsiders didn’t really come about from a place of “I’m a big sports fan and I follow the NFL.” It came about from looking around and seeing people and saying, “Wow, that’s such an amazing story, but why didn’t you hear about that?” There wasn’t a lot of focus on a way to tell stories that were about what the players and their families were doing, more than just reading a press release. If I were a sports fanatic, the site wouldn’t have come about in the same way.

 

The Snap: Has there been anyone that you’ve met in your years of doing ProPlayerInsiders that had an impact on you?

Melissa Mahler: There has been a lot of them and it’s hard just to pick one person. One that surprised me was Ike Taylor. A few years ago, someone had set up the interview with Ike and it was at a time when his contract was up. It was unclear at that point whether he would stay a Steeler or not. Anybody who knows about Ike’s career knows that he wanted to stay a Steeler until he retired. The thing that was interesting and impacted me was that his moniker at the time was “Face Me Ike” and we talked about what that meant.

He had viewed himself as the underdog throughout his career – throughout high school, college. In sharing his story about growing up, he wasn’t saying “feel sorry for me,” but it was very real. He and his brother grew up with a single-mother, seemed pretty poor, moved around. One of the things he said was, “I had clothes to wear and food to eat.” And then he said jokingly, “Not really the kind of clothes a 13-year-old would want to wear, but I had clothes.” He had so many stories about what he overcame and he wasn’t telling them in a way of “oh hey, look how bad my life was” but it was raw and funny and serious at the same time. When we hung up the phone, I just sat there because I was really moved by his story and the way he told it.

 

The Snap: Do you get the time to watch football?

Melissa Mahler: Oh yeah, I have it on all the time. I don’t watch all day long on Sunday, but I do watch some of the games. This is because I do need to take a break. It’s hard for me to watch and not be thinking that someone should be tweeting that. It’s hard sometimes to switch off and watch for pure enjoyment.

 

The Snap: What are your future plans for Pro Player Insiders?

Melissa Mahler: One is to expand our coverage into other sports. We’ve done a bit more with NBA players and we want to share the stories of other athletes, other than the NFL, which has been 90% of our focus. We created ProPlayerInsiders and didn’t put football in the name because we planned to expand. Also, technology is another big thing for us – adding new platforms for distribution. We also want to continue to get feedback, asking the fans and other people about what might be interesting.

 

I can’t thank Melissa enough for taking the time out of her day to chat with me (the girl who says in the first five minutes of the call, “I stalked you on LinkedIn” *face palm*) and share her story. Thanks also to our mutual friend, Chrissy Carew, who introduced us. (If you haven’t read Chrissy’s story, you can do that here.)

For more information about Melissa and her ProPlayerInsiders team, visit ProPlayerInsiders.com or follow her on Twitter @Melissa_PPI.

Melissa Twitter

Photo in this post via ProPlayerInsiders.

– Michelle