Increasingly women are visibly breaking barriers in the NFL, just look at Katie Sowers’ record-breaking role in the Super Bowl as the first woman to coach one of the teams taking part.
But the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive assistant coach isn’t the only one. Behind the scenes, women are making waves like never before.
Maria Gigante, the Vice President of Events for the league, is one of those women. Having worked on Super Bowls in the past, now she is focusing on bringing the NFL to the UK.
For International Women’s Day, she spoke about her career, how things have changed and what her boys think of their mum’s job.
How did you get involved in the NFL?
I started out as a receptionist and I did three office moves with the league. I just had an interest in sports, my brother worked for the league and my family was very involved in the NFL, so it seemed like a natural fit.
I got my first big break when I assisted a woman who worked for one of the department VPs. She wanted to start doing more, so I ended up working for the VP of the department as an executive assistant. He gave me the chance to do some Super Bowls and I got the bug for events and just gradually moved around to this place.
Have you seen more women come into the NFL in your time?
There are very strong women in the NFL that I look up to and admire that are great in their positions. The mentors I’ve had coming up in the NFL have been mostly men. I never got held back because I was a woman and I always felt there were opportunities for me.
Who were those strong female role models for you?
Sara Levinson was the president of NFL Properties when I started, and everyone was up in arms that there was going to be a woman coming in to run part of the league but she was great. She was really down to earth. She made really tough changes and whilst she was an aggressive and strong leader she was a soft woman and she was great with giving advice.
I remember when I was at the league and I was an assistant and she didn’t need to talk to me, but she came and took me out for coffee and spent time with me. She showed me that you can be powerful and be a force, but you can still have that vulnerability and have that motherly touch. That’s something I feel is unique to a woman and what we bring to companies.
I would also say Dawn Aponte who is currently NFL’s chief football administrative officer in the league. I met her when she was with the Miami Dolphins. She’s an attorney by trade but she gets involved in player salary negotiations so a tough business.
She’s a mum of four and her husband stays home and is raising the kids, which is similar to my situation. I have two boys, but they primarily live with their dad in the US because I took the opportunity to come out here. She’s always been supportive of that decision. She’s always made me feel good about being a mum but also having a career.
How important is it to have women in those high up roles?
I think it’s important. There are a lot of men and you have to accept that. It takes a lot to come in and be a woman and to be strong in this company because of the stereotype of it being a male-dominated world.
What I’d say to any woman is take a chance. I never felt like I didn’t have an opportunity. I work in football and I run games and I’ve never had an issue walking into a team and having them respect what I say or listen to me. I think it’s a great opportunity for any female to come into the business.
What has been your career highlight?
I accompanied the former presidents George Bush Senior and Bill Clinton after Hurricane Katrina. The NFL relocated the New Orleans Saints game to New Jersey, and they played at the Metlife Stadium and it was a massive fundraiser for the victims.
I was able to work with those two former presidents. That was just amazing to be given the opportunity as a woman to take care of two former presidents and to be with secret service and to take them around the stadium.
What’s the most difficult challenge you have faced?
I think it’s the work-life balance which you’re going to get anywhere. It’s a really demanding world in the NFL. You can say it’s just a football game but these guys live and die by what happens on the field on Sunday. So, we have to be perfect because they have to be perfect.
The challenge is knowing when to switch off and when to say no. Sometimes you have to realise there is a problem you can’t solve, working in events that’s part of the job. Sometimes you have to give people bad news and it’s those type of challenges that I find tough because I expect perfection from myself. I don’t like when things can’t be fixed.
What do your family think about your job?
I was just back in the United States with my oldest son who’s 13. His teacher sent me a note to say she wanted to see me. I asked my son why that would be, and he said ‘because I talk about you all the time. I talk about your job and how you’re my favourite person in the whole world and she wants to meet you.’
And I walked in there and she gave me this massive hug and she said ‘I’m so happy to meet you, you have a wonderful boy, he really loves you. He really loves what you do.’ That makes me feel better about the fact that I am away from them so much and it is tough.
Those situations give me perspective about why I do it and that I’m not doing it for the wrong reasons. I know my sons are having a good experience growing up and learning that you can be a strong woman and be a mum and have a career and you can still have a good relationship whilst living away. So, I hope I’m setting a good example.
What’s your proudest moment with NFL UK?
It was probably our first game at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last year. That was a true labour of love. Seeing it being built from the ground up and knowing the NFLUK office especially had such a big role in making it successful. So that was a real proud moment. And of course, the first game at Wembley in 2007. That was amazing and I still remember that day.
What personal ambitions do you have for the NFL in the UK?
I’d like to see us play a full season of games in the UK. That’s not to say a franchise but just a full season. I know we can do it and I think that would be a challenge for me personally but it’s the one thing I want to do.
What advice would you give to women wanting to reach high jobs within the NFL?
Be true to yourself and don’t get discouraged. Don’t look for excuses for things not to work. It’s a very tough corporate environment, whether you’re a man or a woman. I’ve always felt you get rewarded for good work, so don’t be intimidated. You have to have confidence in yourself or no one else will. There are opportunities here so don’t be intimated by anyone else who says differently.
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