Jan 28th, 2020
Hannah Gordon is one of the highest ranking female executives in the NFL as Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel of the San Francisco 49ers. On Sunday, February 2, her team will go head-to-head against the Kansas City Chiefs in Miami, Florida with the hopes of taking home their sixth Super Bowl championship. Over almost nine years with the Niners, Hannah has taken on initiatives like diversity in hiring, and fan clubs for both female fans and the LGBT community.
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Passionistas: Hi and welcome to the Passionistas Project Podcast. We're Amy and Nancy Harrington, and today we're talking with Hannah Gordon, one of the highest ranking female executives in the NFL. Hannah is chief administrative officer and general counsel of the San Francisco 49ers. And on Sunday, February 2nd, her team will go head to head against the Kansas city chiefs in Miami, Florida with the hopes of taking home their six championship in the Super Bowl. So please welcome to the show, Hannah Gordon.
Hannah: Thank you ladies for having me on.
Passionistas: What's the one thing you're most passionate about?
Hannah: People. I mean, I guess that's kind of a big answer, but if I had to pick one thing to be passionate about, it would be people. And that's why I do what I do because I love working with people and I like observing people.
Passionistas: So how does that translate into what you do?
Hannah: Well, the great thing about what I do is I get to work with every person at the 49ers pretty much every sort of group. And that ranges from our players to our janitorial staff, to our engineers in the stadium, to our sales groups to the groups that I lead, which would be community relations, the foundation, youth football, the museum, risk management, legal, public affairs and strategic communications. And so I think both the experience of leading a team as well as the experience of getting to work with a lot of different people who come from different sort of subcultures. I think oftentimes if you come from a certain type of work. So for example, I worked for a law firm early in my career and in a law firm you kind of have mostly one type of person, lawyers. And it's much more interesting to be on the world where there's lots of different types of people.
Passionistas: Were you a football fan growing up?
Hannah: No, I was not. I was a fan of Barbie dolls and fashion and I thought I would grow up to be a costume designer or something of that nature. And then I discovered that I didn't have a lot of patience for sewing, which sewing requires a lot of patience. And I also wasn't happy with my skills artistically. And so I started focusing more on things like journalism. And when I got to UCLA where I went for undergrad after growing up in Oakland, I really fell in love with sports there. So that was for me, kind of the beginning of me falling in love with football was just being there. I was quite homesick and started watching a ton of football and basketball on television and it was really seeing Hannah Storm host the halftime during the NBA playoffs my freshman year, that I thought, Oh, you know what, that looks like a really cool job. People connection again, you know, you get to sit around with people and talk about sports. And that seems really cool. How do I learn more about that? And so that's how I kind of got into journalism at UCLA and covered the football team there. And once I was in football, then, you know, it was over for me.
Passionistas: Talk about that journey from it being over for you to getting to the 49ers.
Hannah: From UCLA falling in love with football. I had to figure out, all right, how do I stay in this? After I graduated from college? So I started doing internships. I interned my junior year for the Oakland Raiders as a PR intern and that was my first Super Bowl. Um, so this is actually my third Super Bowl that I'm going to. I was very blessed that I was a training camp intern for them, but because I was from Oakland, I would come home on holidays or long weekends and work for them. And then when they made it to the Super Bowl, the Super Bowl was in San Diego and this was back when there was no Pro Bowl was an in between. So there was only a week between when you won the conference championship and you had to play in the Super Bowl. And so they won the AFC championship and they called me and they said, get in the car, drive to San Diego.
And I said, Oh my gosh, but I have class tomorrow. It's the Super Bowl get in the car. So I worked that week. and it was a great experience. It didn't end, obviously the way that we wanted to, but but it was an incredible experience and I did a lot of other internships. I interned for Fox sports West. After I graduated from college, I worked at the NFL players association, which is the players union, creating digital content for their website at a time when people were really just starting to figure out what digital content was. I don't even think we called it digital content though. We just called it the websit, but, but it was creating a lot of new content that they had never had before. From what I called at that time player journals, which were sort of what we would now maybe think of as like an equivalent of like social media or a blog or a vlog type of situation, to a DJ contest.
I did players of the week awards and after I'm working there, I went to the university of California at Berkeley where I worked in their media relations department. And handled football, track and swimming. And then while I was there, I applied to law schools and after I got into law school, I decided to take six months to go work at a sports agency. For those of you who remember the movie Jerry McGuire, I was sort of, exploring that route of being a sports agent. And then I started law school at Stanford and while I was at Stanford, I went back to the Oakland Raiders as a law clerk. Then I worked after law school as a lawyer at a law firm. And then I ended up at the NFL league office in New York for a couple of years. And from there I was recruited to come to the 49ers and this is now the conclusion of ninth season here.
Passionistas: So were there a lot of opportunities for women at the time when you first joined the 49ers?
Hannah: I would say yes, when I joined the 49ers cause it's only eight and a half years ago. Those things have, I've seen a lot of change even in the last eight and a half years. I was talking to a young woman who's the girlfriend of one of our players who's currently in law school, and who has some interest in sports agent work. And we were talking about, you know, early in my career, 15 plus years ago, and she was like, "Ooh, they weren't ready for you back then." And I started to laugh because I forget. I think it's very easy to forget when it's our own life, sort of how much things have changed and how historical that is to young people. I'm like, to me, I was like, Oh wait, I forgot. That's actually a long time ago. Um, and things really have changed.
But from her perspective, I also really appreciated that she had a lot of appreciation for people who came before her helping make that path, hopefully that much easier. So yeah, there has been a lot of change in the last 20 years that I have worked in the business. And, and probably the most rapid change at least in a visible way in certain parts of the business in the last five years, but that doesn't mean there's not still a long way to go. No different I think than every other industry in the United States where the, the area where there still needs to be progress is primarily at the very top. You're not seeing a lot of women in C-suite positions or most importantly in president, CEO type positions. But that's the case whether you're looking at tech or sports or pretty much anything.
Passionistas: One position that is making the news a lot right now is Katie Sowers, who's the assistant coach and the first female assistant coach to go to a Super Bowl. Do you have a lot of interaction with her?
Hannah: I do. I'm very proud of her. She's an awesome person. And when I was referencing that there's been rapid progress in the last five years in certain sectors. The business, that's really what I was referring to is the, the um, pipeline positions in the football side is where you've seen the most dramatic change in the last five years. And that's really because of a concerted effort to create that change league wide. And so you are seeing like for our club, when I started, almost nine years ago, there were no women in coaching scouting or athletic training roles. And five years ago we hired our first female athletic trainer and since she's been here, not only has she been just an incredible person for everyone to work with, but it opens more doors where ever since she's been here. We've had a full season female athletic training intern and at least one often to training camp, athletic training interns.
So again, creating more, more opportunity. And I think, you know, as the great job that she did that helps open the door. Then they, Katie joined us, I believe three seasons ago. And then two seasons ago we hired our first female scout. So we've seen in some of the roles that are not football roles, but are certainly, um, more adjacent to that part of the business, some growth as well. We have, we hired our first, um, on-staff female team photographer, uh, also about three seasons ago. And similar roles in terms of like team reporter and things of that nature.
Passionistas: And the 49ers is the first team in the NFL to commit to interviewing at least one woman inand one person of color for every business opening. And you've been a big part of that initiative. So why is that important to you personally?
Hannah: Well, I think it's important as a business that you have the best people. This is still a talent based, not only industry, but I would think pretty much any business business you're running, talent is, is at a premium and you're not going to get the best talent if you don't overcome people's unconscious bias. And so I was actually just talking with our Executive Vice President of Operations and President of 49ers Enterprises, Paraag Marathe who recruited me to come here. And I was saying that I still to this day often explain the business case for diversity to people in the same terms that he explained it to me many years ago, which is that it's really an arbitrage opportunity. So essentially you have a economic system that is not working rationally, which means if you are rational and recognize that there's a diversity gap, then you're able to actually get better talent than other people have because you're finding the talent that has been overlooked. And Paraag is actually being honored next week just before Super Bowl by the Fritz Pollard Alliance as their salute to excellence award winner for the year. So very, very happy for him.
Passionistas: So now you've risen through the ranks over the last eight and a half years. So tell us how your position has evolved with the team and your current responsibilities.
Hannah: I think the big change for me was learning how to go from being an individual contributor to being a team leader. That was a big, big shift in his daily responsibilities, and so starting out in purely a legal role and really as that individual contributor. I think one of the things that made a big difference to me was I was having trouble agreeing that I should be hiring more people to help before I started adopting other departments. Um, and somebody sat me down and was like, Hannah, you are never going to be able to grow as long as you always think you have to do everything yourself, like you have to learn to delegate. And that really, that really helped me, that really me see things in a new light. And once I learned to do that, it allowed me to keep growing and be able to take on more and more because there is, you know, only so many hours in a day. There's only so much one person can do. If you're focused on doing the work yourself
Passionistas: We're Amy and Nancy Harrington and you're listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Hannah Gordon. Don't forget to tune into the Super Bowl on February 2nd at 6:30 PM Eastern 3:30 PM Pacific on Fox when the San Francisco 49ers take on the Kansas City Chiefs. Now here's more of our interview with Hannah.
You also oversee fan groups like women of the Niners and 49ers Pride for the LGBTQ fans. So talk about those initiatives and why, again, why they're important to you.
Hannah: I'll start with 49ers pride, which is our newest fan engagement program. That is a program that's as you noted for our LGBTQ plus fans, but also for our allies. So it's not just for one type of person. Cause I think one of the things that really resonates with our fans is that we recognize that they look to see their values reflected in us. And I think as the team of the San Francisco Bay area, we very much do reflect the progressive values of this region. And so for us it was really natural to see, okay, where is there a part of our fan demographic that maybe historically hasn't been focused on or served in, in the overall experience of sports in America in the same way. Not that they weren't necessarily, enjoying being 49ers, but how can we even elevate that experience and create more community.
And so we launched 49ers Pride at a town hall that we did with the San Jose State Institute for the study of sport society and social change. And we had an incredible discussion around a lot of issues of gender identity and LGBTQ plus activism in sport there. And then we launched this fan engagement platform and the response was really overwhelming. The, the videos we received from people in tears just saying how much it meant to them that they'd been 49ers fans for their whole lives, that they'd never felt excluded by the 49ers but they also now really felt included in a way that they'd never felt before. And there was just overwhelming, like response on social media and emails and so many other things. We had over a thousand people sign up and that first week and we followed that up within in June, marching in the San Francisco pride parade. We had over 150 employees, family members, fans, all part of our float and had just the best time, so much fun.
And then this fall we did another event, bringing people together in person again to build community as 49ers fans and we did a away game watch party in the Castro, which for those who don't know is a historically gay neighborhood in San Francisco, and I'm pretty sure it's the first drag queen half time that I've ever heard of, at least sponsored by an NFL team, is awesome. So it's a really fun, cool, way for people to just celebrate and enjoy being 49ers fans and have a community.
And then you asked also about our women's official club. So WON: Women of the Niners is our official women's club. And that's something we've had for a long time. But we did rebrand a couple of years ago, to try to reach an even broader swath of fans. You know, we want to be reaching all of our fans, which very much includes the women who make up almost 50% of our fan base, and given what a kind of a big number that is, it's also a very diverse fan base. So we have women fans who are 14 years old. We have women fans who are 94 years old. We have women fans of every ethnicity, every socioeconomic background, and every level of fan ability. So we have extremely avid fans who want to see us breaking down all the X's and O's for them. And then we have casual fans who are interested in some of the storylines, some of the personal stories behind our players and their families and where they've come from, but who may or may not feel like they've gotten enough of an education in the game to fully enjoy and appreciate the game. And so we try to meet everyone where they're at and ensure that they both feel a part of the 49ers and that they're getting what they need to, to really, enjoy the game and be passionate about our team. So those are those two of our fan engagement clubs.
Passionistas: So what does your week leading up to the Super Bowl look like? What do you do next week?
Hannah: There is a lot happening. The team will leave on Sunday. All other staff and friends and family will leave on Thursday. There's a lot of preparation work that goes into a Super Bowl for participating teams. A lot of it is handled by the NFL. They make it as easy as they can on participating teams, but there's still certainly, our legal team has been cranking away on everything from hotel agreements, us travel agreements. When you have a travel party of about 2000 people that you need to get across the country and then move around in a city that's going to be packed with millions of people, it's a pretty intense experience. So there's a lot logistically that goes into all of that. It'll be, it'll be a busy week, but a really fun week. So the game is on Sunday. People will largely kind of be, you know, there's a lot of different events that happen in the couple of days, the lead up to the Super Bowl, but we're also very focused on, you know, we're coming there with a job to do and that's to win that game.
Passionistas: How do all the departments work together leading up to the Super Bowl?
Hannah: Everybody works together kind of regardless, because none of this happens without a lot of collaboration. So you've got folks from stadium operations who have already flown down to Miami to start setting things up. You've got folks from the football travel logistics side. We're also already there, our community relations team does a lot of support around the family members of our players. So there'll be hunting down early, making sure that we have daycare and resource centers and making sure everybody has all the information they need to have a really wonderful trip and celebrate their family member who's going to be competing on the field. So every it takes, I mean to say it takes a village would be sounded cliche, but it definitely takes a full, a 400 person organization to do it.
Passionistas: So what's the most rewarding part of what you do?
Hannah: I'll tell you two things that happened in the last week that I think sort of epitomized regardless of when we are in season. What's the most rewarding after the NFC championship? Seeing the faces of our players and coaches and staff who were so elated, that was truly rewarding. That's what you're working towards is that feeling of accomplishment and communal experience because it's also the, the feeling that our fans had in the stands. I think if you have not been to a football game in person, it's such a powerful communal experience that doesn't happen in a lot of other ways in American culture anymore. There aren't a lot of places where people come together in person and drop whatever is happening else wa elsewise in their lives or around them and have this incredible really community experience where you're having this shared emotion with 68,000 other people. Um, it's very unique. And so that is one of the most rewarding parts.
And then the other most rewarding part is the work that I've been able to do over the last few years with everything that we do in the community. And about a week and a half ago, one of the events that we did was for Martin Luther King day. We went and did reading with kindergartners and first graders at an elementary school and the little girl who I was assigned to be her reading partner. Oh my God. Like that sweet little face. Like I just like that is the most rewarding part when you, when you, you know, because the reality is like, at first I was like, she's not gonna want to read with me. Like I'm not a player, but it then you're reminded anytime you're with children that they're excited just cause you're an adult just because you have taken an interest in them and that you are there to help them. And so for me, the community work that we do, the joy that we're able to bring to other people, that is the other most rewarding part.
Passionistas: What do you think is the biggest risk that you've taken professionally and how did it pay off?
Hannah: I would say the biggest risk I probably took professionally was when I took the job, sort of the weight in order to take the job with the NFL because I was, I made half as much money at the NFL as I had been making it a law firm. Um, so that's always more risky. Um, and in the process I had actually been laid off in the like wake of like bloodbath of 2009 when law firms, including the one I was at, laid off 20% plus of associates. Um, and so I, I made the decision after that that I did not want to go back to working in another soulless life sucking job. Um, and even though I knew that the job I'd had, I was very blessed to have and allowed me to pay my bills. It paid very well. It was very prestigious, but it didn't feel true to me.
And so I wanted to do something that I felt passionate about and I knew that I was passionate about sports and that was what I really wanted to be working in. Now deciding that I was going to pursue that in the midst of the worst economic recession since the great depression was, you know, maybe not the best idea. Um, but I, you know, I waited until I got the job that I really wanted and that took six months between the time I stopped working, the time I started again. And that was terrifying. But that is certainly the risk that paid off because here I am now. So do you think there's a particular personality trait that you possessed that's helped you succeed in your career drive? I am a relentlessly driven person. Um, and I think that, I mean, you guys talk to Lindsay who I've worked with and so one of the amazing things that Lindsay does is really help you, um, define your strengths.
And so I was able with her to be able, like I already knew that, you know, being relentlessly driven was one of my strengths is also one of my weaknesses, but being able to very clearly say, yep, you know, drive, finish, you know, command competition, like here, here are my strengths. So yeah, I think certainly in sports a lot of us are very competitive people as part of why we're attracted to sports. Um, but I, I would say that, yeah, focus, drive, competition, command. Um, those would be, and, and relating to people. I would say that that's sort of my, my strengths that have, have worked out well for the career that I'm in.
Passionistas: You mentioned career coach Lindsay Gordon who nominated you. She told us that you're really supportive of women who are working in male dominated industries. What are some of the ways you've given women your support?
Hannah: Probably mostly through mentoring others, but also through all of the policy changes that we've talked before from our diversity interviewing policy to the fellowship that we created here. That is a rotational fellowship that gets a young woman who's just graduated from college into verticals where women are historically underrepresented, um, like sales, like finance, like business strategy and analytics because that really helps kind of change the future of what the pipeline looks like in those fields where, um, the ascent to the top is much more rapid and, and is actually viable cause there's a lot of protocols where that's not viable. Um, so I'd say both policy-wise and then, um, I really, I love mentoring younger people and so, um, whether it's somebody who's asking to have coffee, um, or somebody who has either worked for me or whatever it is, um, I love, I love hearing just what's going on in their lives and seeing the excitement they have about whatever is kinda up next for them.
Passionistas: Do you have a mantra that you live by?
Hannah: I do not. I'm not really a mantra girl. I mean, I think they're lovely for like meditation and whatnot. But no, I don't have like three words that I live by. Although someone asked, I'm going to steal someone else's, someone asked our team reporter that question. And she was like, ''Oh, stay ready so you don't have to get ready. And I was like, ooh, I like that. Like that's a good just tip reminder for whatever you're doing. Stay ready so you don't have to get ready.
Passionistas: So what advice would you give to a young woman who wants to get into professional sports?
Hannah: Work really hard and work smart. So understand, and I say this to all young people who are looking to get into sports. The impression that you leave as a young person, um, is very important because this is a small industry at the end of the day and very relationship base. And so you want to be that first one in last one out. You want to demonstrate that work ethic, um, and your commitment to what your, your, your craft and what you're doing. And I also tell you when people, because sports is just an industry and it's not uh, a particular career, right? You could want to be a coach in sports. You could want to be a lawyer in sports. You could want to be a broadcast or in sports. And so you also need to have a commitment to whatever the craft is, the it is the you want to do in sports and to commit to being totally excellent at it because to make it in this business, you have to be the best at what you do.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Hannah Gordon. Tune into the Super Bowl on February 2nd at 6:30 PM Eastern, 3:30 PM Pacific on Fox when Hannah's team, the San Francisco 49ers take on the Kansas City Chiefs.
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