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Through committee work, Kim Pegula earns respect of fellow NFL owners

ATLANTA – At times, it can dampen the spirits. Kim Pegula sits in a conference room, looking up at a video highlighting the best of, say, New Orleans. Or Miami. Or Los Angeles.

That was the case last Wednesday at the Whitley Hotel in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood.

"This is the most depressing part," she told Derek Boyko, the Buffalo Bills' vice president of communications, as they stared at the many selling points that would seal New Orleans' bid for Super Bowl LVIII in 2024.

Pegula was in a session of the NFL's Super Bowl and Major Events Advisory Committee during the league's spring meeting. Boyko was getting a firsthand look at how the Bills' co-owner and president, along with fellow committee members, go about choosing cities to host events such as the Super Bowl, the NFL Draft and the Pro Bowl.

"Why is it depressing?" Boyko asked.

"Because it just makes you realize that (Buffalo) can't get (a Super Bowl), when they show the amount of infrastructure – from hotels to airports to (mass) transportation – that some of these cities have," Pegula said. "I don't think we would qualify for even getting a draft." Nashville received that honor for 2019 this week. New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Dallas were previous draft cities.

But being part of an NFL ownership committee means local interests must take a backseat to those of the entire league. As with her seats on two other league committees – Business Ventures and NFL Foundation – Pegula must see a much larger picture with the goal of benefiting all 32 clubs.

Kim Pegula, Buffalo's first lady of sports

According to team owners with whom she shares committee assignments, Pegula represents herself and the Bills exceptionally well.

"If every owner in the league was as operationally proficient and knowledgeable as Kim is, I think we would be in a stronger place," said Jonathan Kraft, president of the New England Patriots and son of Pats owner Robert Kraft.

Jonathan Kraft also is a member of Business Ventures, which deals with revenue-generating activities outside of the league's broadcast deal with the television networks. They include merchandise, national sponsorships, ticketing, rules governing each team's ability to market within its specified territory, and other money-making opportunities that don't involve the digital space.

Pegula is especially proud to be a part of this group, because "that's like the meat and the heart of the league as a business. Who are our national sponsors? How are we growing the game? Who are our (corporate) partners? To me that's important that as ownership, we not only know what's going on at our own club, but that we have an interest and understand what's going on at a league level."

Three committee memberships put Pegula at the high end among ownership. Her primary motivation to be so involved at this level was enhancing her ability to develop a stronger understanding of the NFL and the process of building relationships with other team owners. She felt that was particularly important given that, with their acquisition of the Bills in October of 2014, she and her co-owner husband, Terry, are still relative newcomers to the league.

"We come to these meetings and we sit in assigned seats, so the engagement sometimes isn't much more than just the pleasantries and then league business that we're there for," Kim Pegula said. "So these committees allow me to, then, engage more in detail and have more contact with other owners and other people at the league that I wouldn't normally have not being on them."

What does the NFL's willingness to include her on three committees say about Kim Pegula?

"She's well-respected," said Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill, also a member of Business Ventures and Foundation among other committees. "She's obviously very intelligent. She works hard at trying to bring fresh ideas to the league, to the committees, making sure the ideas that are being floated around have been well thought through. Her voice is one that people listen to. I think she comes from a perspective of making the league and all of our properties more fan friendly, so her input is greatly valued."

"Kim is a consensus-builder, has great business experience and she really adds to the discussion," Jacksonville Jaguars owner and Businss Ventures chairman Shad Khan said. "She has a lot of experience in different industries and she brings that thinking and point of view to the forefront. Then, once a decision is made, she stands behind it. It’s evident that committee members value her in every respect – as a person as well as for her insights and experience. On business ventures, typically as various agreements are expiring, we ask ourselves, ‘How do we make them better? Who are our prospective partners? How do we value the financial end of the partnership?’ Kim has great perspectives on all of this.”

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From there, she makes the radical shift to the NFL Foundation, which creates and guides programs such as "My Cause, My Cleats," where players don cleats decorated to reflect a charitable cause to which they have a personal tie and auction them off as game worn. Cancer awareness, salute to the military, "Play 60" and other youth-oriented programs also are part of the foundation's agenda, as is striving to make football safer for youngsters.

"Fans want our league to represent issues and causes that are important to all the fans," Pegula said. "And that's another way of growing our fan base and being part of our communities. That is one committee I enjoy being on because it's the grassroots part that engages future fans and our community."

"Western New York is clearly very important to both her and Terry," said Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II, another foundation committee member. "They've evidenced that pretty strongly by the commitment they've made up there, but it always comes through in terms of the conversations she's having in these committee meetings. On the foundation board, we're dealing with a lot of different community projects in a lot of different communities around the country, and she clearly has a commitment to making sure we're participating in community activities and giving back to these communities. And, in particular, her interest in Western New York always comes through."

NFL Foundation chairwoman Charlotte Anderson, daughter of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the team's executive vice president and chief brand officer, calls Pegula's rapid ascent in league committee involvement "amazing."

"I think, one, it speaks highly of her commitment and value not only to her own team but also her value to the league as a whole," Anderson said. "I think it speaks a lot to the values that she has that surround the game. And I think it speaks a lot, of course, to her intellect and to her wisdom, but also to the strategic thinking that she has to want to move the league in the right direction.

"I think she has an incredible passion for what she does, which, to me, is the most important thing. She believes in the ability of this game to affect community and affect people. And I think when you take a step back and understand that, yes, we play the game and we all play the game to reach the Super Bowl, that we have a purpose that is far greater than the actual goal of holding up the trophy. And when someone enters the room at the league and has that same perception and vision of what our game can mean and do for community, then you’re inspired by their passion but also thankful that you’ve got someone to join your team that believes the same things that you do. And I think she certainly exemplifies that."

But it goes beyond Pegula simply making herself available to take a seat around a conference table several times per year or jump on one of the conference calls each committee has.

It's also about the genuine effort Pegula pours into each of her committees. That has gotten noticed, because it isn't the case with every participant.

"I think she puts the time in," one league owner, requesting anonymity, said. "There are other people who act like they do, but don't really put the time in or care to understand. She works it."

Another noteworthy quality Pegula brings is representation from one of the NFL's smallest markets. That matters, because a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work, even if it's the way things are done with the game itself.

“It’s a very welcomed viewpoint," Khan said. "For example, the idea of selling sponsorship and tickets in small markets is much different for the Jaguars and Bills than in most NFL cities. National revenue is more important to us. And, maximizing local revenue is crucial.

"Kim represents all teams, as I do; the NFL is a partnership. But small-market viewpoints are very valuable and important for the league overall, so again her perspective is embraced.”

So, too, is being a female voice in a male-dominated business.

Pegula is the only female on Business Ventures, one of two on Super Bowl & Major Events (along with chairwoman Katie Blackburn of the Cincinnati Bengals) and one of three on the foundation (along with Anderson and Susie Spanos of the Los Angeles Chargers).

"I think it's really important," Bidwill said. "I've seen statistics that our fan base is 46 percent women, so I think it's really important to have (female) perspectives on every subject, and she brings it."

Said Rooney, "I've been around the NFL all my life and down through the years, there weren't very many women participating on committees or even inside of owners' meetings. And so now we've come to the point where it's kind of the opposite, where it's a little bit unusual now if we have a meeting where there's not female participation. It's changed and it continues to change, and I think people like Kim are setting a great example for the contribution that women can make to the league and are making to the league. And it's good to see."

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