Interview transcript: Stephanie Pemberton, Vice President of Marketing at the Indianapolis Colts

Liz: Welcome to the show Stephanie

Stephanie: Hi, how are you Liz?

Liz: I am very well, how are you?   

Stephanie: Good, thank you.

Liz: Oh good. Thank you so much for joining us today.  I’m really excited for our listeners to hear more about what it is that you do.  Now, from what I’ve read you have had an incredible career will the colts; tell me about how this came around for you and how the organization has changed during your time.

Stephanie:  So, I guess as far as a how it all started, I had kind of decided that I wanted to pursue a career in sports pretty earlier on in my college career.  I was majoring in Communications and minoring in marketing and so as I was looking at what I wanted to do with that degree I think one of the things that I liked about the degree was that I thought it offered a lot of options as far as directions that I could go.  I had evolved as a sports fan as a child growing up in Indiana.  Being born and raised here, obviously I had developed a fandom for our local teams and things like that.  So, I kind of developed an interest in sports but I think I was intrigued by the business side of it.  

When I started my college career, I really started kind of very early run working towards setting myself up to be in a position where I could eventually get an internship. I did a lot of internships prior to working in sports. I was very involved on campus, trying to build my resume.  I was actually able to first land an internship with our University’s Athletic Department.  They had a pretty robust internship program and so I was able to secure an internship there, while actually in school.  

So, it was a 15 to 20 hour a week commitment.  So, after class or before class, I would go do office hours and then on the weekends or week nights we would work at a lot of the different athletic events.  So, whether that was a football game or basketball game, a soccer match we would work a lot of different sporting events and help from the staffing standpoint.  I think that internship really solidified that, this is what I wanted to do, and this is what I wanted to pursue as a career.  I loved every minute of it.  Although it meant that I was missing out somewhat on the social side of the college experience.  Instead of being able to tailgate at the football game, I was actually getting up at 6 a.m. and going and working in the games but I loved every minute of it.  So I think for me it really solidified that this is what I wanted to pursue.  Through one of my classes at Purdue, I actually was able to meet someone that worked for our women’s professional basketball team here in Indianapolis.  He had a summer internship available; so, I applied for that, interviewed and was selected to do that.  I had shared with him throughout my internship; when he would ask: Where do you want to land?  What do you want to end up doing? I had shared that my ultimate goal was to work in the NFL.  It just so happened that my internship was winding down that he had gotten a call from a friend of his that worked at the Colts: Saying that they had something fall through with their season long intern and that they were looking for an intern to fill that gap.   

So, he asked me if I was interested and I said absolutely.  So, I actually ended up canceling my classes for that semester so that I could go work full time for the Colts in an internship.  I ended pushing my graduation date back 6 months so that I could do that.  It ended up being one of the best decisions for me because when I finished-up my internship with the Colts, I continued the same contact with them and they reached out to me in a April before I was getting ready to graduate and said: Hey we’ve been approved to kind of expand our community relations department and we would like for you to come in at an entry-level capacity with the club starting in May when you graduate.  Obviously, I was flattered and decided to jump at the opportunity.

So that’s really how my career got started and then I would say overtime it’s been a combination of; a lot of hard work and dedication and giving it my all and focusing on each step of the process and each step of the journey.  That combined with just good timing, honestly, where at key points in my career there were opportunities for advancement within and opportunities that I was able to grow within the organization.  So it was definitely a combination and that’s why I always tell students who are looking to get into sports, you could be super qualified have a great resume but if there aren’t any jobs available, unfortunately, it has to be a combination of timing and being in the right place at the right time, I guess and having the right skillset.  

So, I was able to grow within our community relations department for several years and then got an opportunity to expand my role into more of a marketing role about six or seven years ago.  So now, I started out as a Director of Marketing and again just had the opportunity to expand my role even on the marketing side.  So, it’s been an exciting journey for me.  I feel very blessed to work for my hometown team but also for an organization that is a family-owned business.  I think that it has values and mission statements that align with my personal values and how I believe that work should be done and kind of doing things the right way and aligning with my values.  I think that combined with the opportunities that have been there for growth, is why people will say: What has kept you there for so long? I think it’s that competition; there’s been opportunity to grow but I also feel like this is an organization that I admired even as a young child.  I think that the way that they do their business and the way that they go about their business; the family that is running the business and own the business is something that I personally believe in and align with from a value standpoint.  I think those two things combined have been big factors in keeping me here.  The fact that I really enjoy the opportunity to work in sports.  So that’s kind of how I got here.  What was your next question?

Liz: Obviously you are in a very high position.  So, what’s a typical day looks like for you?  

Stephanie: One of the things that I’ve always loved about sports; I wouldn’t say that there’s ever a kind of a typical day and again I think that’s one of the things that drew me to sports.  It’s just that it is a very dynamic atmosphere.  So, with each day, there are new things that maybe weren’t on your radar the days or the week before but there’s also things that kind of happen over time; bigger projects and larger-scale events and things like that, that you can work towards and see it comes together over time.   I think that a combination of being able to have that dynamic environment where things are changing, and you have to sometimes react to what’s happening; but also you get an opportunity to really plan and be a part of some pretty significant projects and initiatives as an organization; is one of the things that I enjoy.  

The interesting thing about sports that I’ve learned over the years working in it, is that it’s very different from a lot of other Industries.  Fan behaviors and everything are just different from other consumer brands and how they would approach their business.   I think that a perfect example of that is that we were all wrapped up and ready for the season back in August and then our quarterback decided to retire, and no one saw that coming.  That wasn’t on our radar.  We weren’t building a business plan around that.  So being able to kind of quickly adjust and then we were ramping up for the regular season.  So quickly adjusting and just doing a small kind of reset and then going full force with plans and everything that we had worked on up to the season.  So again, if you are used to an industry where everything is three to five years out, there’s not much kind of day that is highly impacting your business; then Sports can be a pretty significant change for that, from that.  I think that, that’s one of the things that I really enjoyed but as far as a kind of what a day to day look like, I think some of it depends on the time of year.  Obviously during the season, we are very much kind of in execution mode.  So, we are much more in a go mode at that point but as we wind down to the end of the year and start; we’re trying to really turn the play two 2020 and start working on business plan and kind of setting up the framework for what we want to accomplish for the 2020 season.  

So, during the off-season there’s a little bit more kind of planning meeting strategy development, evaluation of the last season, looking at data, utilizing year-end recaps and then setting goals for the next year.  Then really in April thing start to ramp up again.  We have the NFL draft and then you go into training camp and then obviously to seasons here.   So, I like to say that there really is no off-season.  The NFL has done a great job of creating a 365-day sport where fans are truly engaged throughout the entire year.  Therefore, we at the local level really try to create that same sense of year-long engagement with our fans.  So, between large temple events that we have as well and the day-to-day events and programs that we have going on.   We have our brand out in our community and a part of this community 365 days a year.  So, marketing for us as far, has a kind of the overarching roles and responsibilities.  

We have several departments that feed up to marketing and that would include our events department.  All of our large-scale events, whether that’s a concert that we do; whether it is a 5K run; whether it’s our training camps that we put on.  Then our game day, obviously, is our largest event that we put on.  So, we have that events department that does a lot of our large fan events including having a significant role on game day.  

We have our community relations department which is where I kind of started and that is more the philanthropic arm of the organization.  So, they’re the ones that are working with our players, our coaches, our owners and our philanthropic work in the community.  Our mascot program and our cheerleading program are both part of our marketing arm.  Again, there’s 365 days a year programs.  

Each of the departments does over 300 appearances every single year and they have several programs that they run as well.  Our youth football department; is again another extension of the marketing arm, and really is focused on growing the game of football at the youth level and continue to invest back in the game at the youth level.  We also as a department oversee all of our ticket marketing, all of our brands marketing and then all of the premium items and affinity clubs and things like that.  Also, fan clubs; we have loyalty programs; so, or department is responsible for those as well.

Liz: Sure. Of all the different projects that you must get involved in, or that you’re being involved with over the years; is there like a particular one that you are still proud of today?

Stephanie: I think that there’s been some programs over the years that we’ve been able to build, that I am really proud of.  We have programs that l literally helped to start back when I was an intern, which we’re still doing today.  They have been involved and tweaked a little bit but being able to see things from literally start to now, where they’ve grown to, has been really exciting.  

So, one of the things for me, for sure, as an intern was that we had organized an annual blood drive that has now turned into the largest blood drive in our State every year.  It is also one of the largest ones in the country.   We’ve actually had other NFL teams come in and build a model around what we have done in that space.  So that’s certainly something that I’m proud of.  I have also helped to start a program called: Books for Youth that provides backpacks filled with books to Foster Youth.  We started that program back when I was an intern and it has now grown and evolved into something pretty substantial for us.  

So those are a couple of programs on the community side.  More on the marketing side, our events team has been able to create some new programs and events that I am really proud.  They have been very successful.  One of them is a 5K run that we have started shortly after I took over the marketing job.  It’s been really successful for us and just provides a great Fan Experience where fans get to finish their 5K run on the 50-yard line of our stadium.  It provides a really cool experience for them.  We have also started of kick-off concert that is used to kind of merge music with football and bring those two entertainment Industries together, for just a fun night of Celebration and getting people excited for the start of the Season.  

Those are just a couple of our larger events. The other thing that I would say that we’re really excited about is our training camp.  Our ownership has always believed that the training camp is an opportunity to share it with the fan and to give fan a very personal and up-close look at the organization and our players. So, we do a training camp that is site from our offices and make it free and open to the public; so, fans can come in for any practice and enjoy seeing their favorite players right there, up close and personal; closer than they would be able to get at a game even.  It really provides that sort of personalized, close knit connection with the team.  You don’t necessarily get that on Game Day.  Game Day is obviously more about the excitement of the game, the competition, the wins and losses and that broader experience.  

I think that training camp really provides a great opportunity for fans who may or may not have ever been to a game to really experience the team and engage with our brand.  So, we have built up a pretty significant footprint at a local sports park here in Indiana and have built one of the larger footprints in the entire NFL around training camp.  So that’s been a really exciting thing to see come together over the past couple of years. I think that it is something that we’re going to continue to lean into for the foreseeable future.

Liz: Yeah, sounds amazing.  Speaking of engagement, social media obviously is absolutely massive and is something that continues to grow.  What is more important for you guys?  Is it keeping your message on brand and informative or is it keeping it fresh and entertaining to get more engagement?

Stephanie: You know, I think for us, sports is unique because we do have fans from all different walks of life, all different backgrounds.  It is such a diverse fan base and I think for us we really strive to make sure that we have opportunities for fans to engage at every stage of their fan life cycle.  So as we think about our brand, we have a lot of different opportunities and we try to make sure that we have meaningful ways for fans at every age whether that’s a five-year-old seeing our mascot at their school or coming to a game with their parents or visiting training camp and running through football drills with their siblings; all the way up to our longest ten year ticket member who has had season tickets for 35 plus years since we moved to Indianapolis.  So, we really try to make sure that our brand has extensions that engage those fans no matter where they are in their life cycle.  As with any brand, I would say that we are keenly focused on making sure that our brand does stay relevant for the younger generation.

Obviously, consumer behaviors and the way that younger generations consume and engage with products and with brand is very different from how their parents maybe did.  With the evolution of all these digital platforms, and just the amount of content that is available to them and the amount of media messaging and everything.  It has just become more congested space and so I think for us, it’s just continuing to make sure that we are working to keep our brand relevant, fresh and on the minds as something that those younger fans still want to engage with and latch on to and keeping it relevant.  It certainly is similar to a lot of other consumer Brands.  Something that is definitely a priority for us and something that we’re really focused on as we look to the future and making sure that we continue to adjust and modify how we go about doing things and how we engage on the platforms that we use.  Also, the type of content that we create and everything to make sure that we are evolving as those consumer demands and behaviors evolve as well.  Does that answer your question?

Liz: Yeah, absolutely, thank you so much.  I guess with this role, you must have people come to you and say how this sounds like such a glamorous job, but I guess that could be quite a big misconception sometimes.  What actually are the biggest misconceptions about what it’s like to work in professional sports? 

Stephanie: That’s a great question. I think that these are the things that I often share with young people.  One of the first things that I would say is just that people see Sports and they see people getting these cool opportunities; whether it’s to travel with the team or being on the sidelines during the game and things like that.  Understanding what goes into that and that is there is a long process to get to that point.  It’s a lot of long hours.  It’s a lot of hard work.  You’re not always front and center, center stage, in the spotlight.  It feels like if you’re working in that industry, that because you’re working for this huge brand that everyone loves that you kind of get to be in that Spotlight as well.  You’re being okay with being behind the scenes and just working really hard, putting in long hours.  You have to do it because you love it and you believe in it.  I think even when we have interns come in and we ask them: What was most surprising about their internship, what did they least expect.  One of the common responses is just that: I didn’t realize how much hard work it was going to be and so that is one of the things that is surprising to people.  

I think the other thing is that depending on what industry you may be coming from but that’s just how dynamic it really is.  It changes so much from year to year; your roster changes, there’s player injuries you have things that are outside of your control as a marketing department.  

So, you have to be okay with that and continue to build strategies that aren’t necessarily just contingent on wins and losses.  You have to find ways to get creative and to continue to build your brand and build interest in your brand and obviously there’s a phrase: That winning cures all and I will say that winning definitely makes everybody’s job easier; not just our football side and football operations jobs but us as a marketing team and everything.  It makes it so much easier when you’re winning but I think the truth as an organization and as a staff is: What are you doing when you’re not winning and when times get tough?  You still have to put on a great show for fans.  You still have to give a hundred and ten percent and really buckle down and work even harder during those times.  

So, I think again for fans on the outside looking on the inside, they have these kind of images of: Oh, but you get to interact and work with these star athletes every day and really, I think that’s kind of a misconception.  We’re here to do a job; the players are here to do a job.  If you’re going to work in sports, you have to take your passion and your fandom and channel it from a business perspective.  You have to look at it like: This is a job and we’re here to do a job.

I know that you mentioned what it feels like to work in this industry as a woman.  For me personally, it’s been a tremendous experience. I feel very blessed because I work for an organization where our owner has three daughters that are very involved in the running of our business as well.  So, from the time I started, I have been able to have opportunities.  It’s never been about a matter of she’s a woman versus what a guy can do or anything like that.  I think I’ve been very fortunate because we have women in those leadership, ownership positions that has set a standard that we’re looking for the best people to do the role; whether that’s male, female, etcetera even on our football side now.  We have female trainers.  We have female nutritionist and we have just a much more diverse business both on football side and from an office side.   I think that continues to evolve and change as well.  

So, I know that unfortunately every organization is run a little differently.  People do have different experiences.  I certainly don’t want to speak on behalf of anyone else that has, maybe, had a different experience.  I can say personally, working for the organization that I do, and working in the NFL; I think the NFL office as well as been really proactive in this space and very supportive of giving women opportunities to advance and bringing them into those high-ranking positions to influence the games.  The reality is that almost half of our fan base are female and so it’s really important to make sure that your leadership team and your staff reflects the diversity that you have in your fan base as well.  I do think that we bring a different perspective.  

A great example of that is: A couple of years ago, we actually installed nursing stations at or stadium and again I know that there are other teams that have done that but there’s also teams that still haven’t done that.  I think having female leadership, having owners who are moms themselves and understand what it’s like to bring an infant to a game; or to be a nursing mom and wanting to experience a Game Day and the challenges that that could bring.   So, we have really worked make sure that we’re thinking about all of our fans and making sure that we’re trying to provide the best experience for them.  So, having that influence from the ownership level has been really great for us.  

We have a female fan club called the Blue ladies that we started years ago, that has over 600 women in it.  They are just avid fans of the team and love utilizing their fandom to connect with other women.  They go to away game trips, they have events that they do; they tailgate together; so, building that kind of connections even with other female fans has been really exciting to be a part of.  It’s something that we continue to lean into and believe in as an organization as a part of how we do business.

Liz: It sounds amazing.  Sports, especially in the UK, like soccer for example have such a huge hearing.  Again, the rise of woman in terms of what you see on television, in terms of correspondence and that sort of thing is growing massively.  I think that it’s really positive that it is a more equal ground across the world now as well, so that’s really positive to see.  Now, obviously, I think you grew up seeing Colts and that sort of thing.  Have you ever been in a situation where you have become Star struck?  If you have, who was it and why?

Stephanie:  I don’t know if I’ve ever necessarily had many moments like that.  I think one of the moment that I do remember is my first game that I worked at as an NFL intern.  Being down there in the area where you do see the visiting team walking on and off the field.  It is kind of like that larger than life experience in the sense that you just realized: I’m here, I made it.  I did have that moment, my first game that I worked and the first time that I walked onto the field.  I just had that sense of awe and excitement and just: Wow, this is where I’ve worked so hard to be and now, I have this amazing opportunity.  For it was an internship at a time but to be part of this this team that I’ve admired, this league that I’ve admired and everything.  So, there was this moment for me, where it was like: Wow, this is cool.  For me, too, it’s been interesting to reflect on my career.  When I came here, the second year that I was here full time, we won a Super Bowl and they went to another Super Bowl a couple of years after that.  I think to have those kind of experience, so early on.  

We built a new stadium within three or four years of me starting here.  So, to start a career at such a high point of a franchise.  Now that I’m farther down the road, you look back and you reflect and just realized how special those moments were and how hard it is to get there, how hard it is to win every year and to get back to a Super Bowl and things like that.  Reflecting on just that special time for our franchise and for our organization and thinking about the players like Pate Manning that were here.

Again, when you came in, that was business and that was just normal for us.  Now reflecting, you just understand that players like that don’t come around often.  To be able to be a part of a time in our history that will go down as one of the best decades in the history of our franchise.  It doesn’t necessarily sink in when you’re in the middle of it but in reflection that’s something that I’m always going to be able to look back and say: Wow, I was able to be a part of that and to contribute to that decade in our history. So, I definitely think that’s there’s moments where you get to reflect, and you don’t get enough time often to reflect on where you have come from.  It’s always on to the next thing and you’re always thinking about where are we headed next? and what’s on the next horizon.  When I do have a chance to look back at pictures and videos of that kind of run that we had.  It was a pretty special time.

Liz: Yeah absolutely.  Moving away from the day job for a second, I also understand that you are a wife and a mother too.  How do you find balancing home and work life?  What has been the biggest struggles?

Stephanie: The struggle sometimes is just finding enough time for it all to fit in and making sure that I’m making my family a priority but also able to find the time that I need to focus on my career, and I think I’ve been very blessed.  My husband has been very supportive and helps to fill in those gaps when I’m working game days or staying late to work at an event or going in on the weekends.  He has been very supportive and has been there to make sure that our kids are taken care of and that they still have a parent.  

Having that good teammate has been really important to me and having someone that is supportive and able to step in and really play a significant role in parenting and helping to make sure that we have got coverage on pick-ups and drop off and all of that kind of stuff.  That has been really crucial; being able to find that balance.  I mean, it is a struggle.  I would say anyone that work in sports; that is probably one of the things they would say is one of the greater challenges.  It’s just finding the right balance because it is a demanding industry.  

Again, working for an organization that values family and understands the importance of family and everything like that is also very crucial.  I can’t say it enough that having other people working alongside me that are also working moms and balancing career and balancing family is important because having that kind of support team and that support network where you can understand the challenges.  We have a very team focused environment and so if someone has something come up with their family at home, there’s someone else that can step in and fill out and vice-versa.  

So, I think that having that real team and supportive environment has been really important.  I would also say that having a family also helps to put things in perspective.  Wins and losses are kind of the be all, end all in this business but even after a bad loss, being able to come home and be around your kids, it definitely provides good perspective. It’s not the end of the world. There are bigger things that matter so don’t let one loss ruin your day or ruin your week; and really being able to separate those two and still being able to go home at be the best mom you could be for your kids and put on and have a good attitude.  Even though, inside, maybe you’re frustrated because you just came off a bad loss or whatnot.  It definitely helps to provide some good perspective and everything for me.  

The other thing that I would say: Coming up through community relations, one of the things that I have really appreciated is just the platform that sports provide to unite communities, bring people together, give people something to pull them out of maybe the day-to-day challenges that they’re facing every day.  That’s one of the things too that is so awesome about sports.  It’s that people can be going through a difficult time or having a rough day and the Colts, and our brand can help lift people up and provide that ray of sunshine, as cliché as it sounds.  I see it every day when we go out and whether it is our mascot going out and doing appearances or taking players out caroling at a kid’s hospital.  That’s one of the things that I love so much about sports.  It’s just the ability that it has to bring people together and to unite a community and to get everybody excited and rallying behind something.  To see a little kid who is going through chemo treatments that they get so excited when they see their star player walk in or signing autographs for them.  Those are the things that really make it often times worth everything that we put in because you really feel like the impact that you are able to have as a brand.  It just really humanizes everything.  I know again we have ownership and leadership that believes in that same power of sports and so we really continue to invest heavily in the community and giving back to our community and our fans.  They give us support throughout the year.  

Liz: Absolutely.  A final question; if there’s anyone who is considering a career in the business side of NFL or a sports organization, what kind of ticks would you give them to help them make sure that they stand out above everyone else?

Stephanie: So, one, if you are still in college, I would just say really build your resume.  Just having a Sports Marketing degree or having some class work or course work around sports isn’t enough.  Get involved on campus; weather is volunteering for your athletic departments, whether it is getting involved with student organizations.  Find opportunities to build your leadership skills, your writing skills and your communication skills because that is so important.  That will help make you stand out.  Being really active and utilizing the time you have in school to build your resume, to get some experience, is really important. 

I would also say that it is really important to try and get some experience in the sports industry.  Typically, with our interns, because most of them, our season falls during the school year, and most of them are recent college graduates.  They are recently graduated, and they come in and do a 9-12 months internship with us.  We do like to see some level of previous experience in the sport industry; whether that’s an internship with a minor league baseball team, whether it’s working for their college athletic team.  Whatever that is; whether it is serving as a volunteer at local sporting events.  We like to see some level of previous work in the sports industry and then really just work hard, have a good attitude.  

Like I said we have a pretty robust internship program.  The interns who stand out are the ones that come in every day with a great attitude, work extremely hard and are just proactive in how they approach things.  They’re not waiting around to be told what to do but they’re even thinking about: What else could I be doing to help my supervisor and to make their job easier.  They are being really proactive about how they approach their day today and not getting caught up in: Oh well, I’m just trying to use this position to get in front of the right people so that I can get a job here.  Focus on where you’re at and do the very best job that you can do where you’re currently at.  I promise you, people in those high-ranking positions will notice that.  That was one of the first pieces of advice that I got when I came to work for the Colts.  

Our leadership team is always watching, and they notice people that are here to do a job and to do it well and they aren’t worried about: Oh, am I going to be able to get on the field or am I going to be able to keep visibility in front of this person or whatnot.  They’re here to do a job and to do it really well.  They are willing to do whatever it takes to get there, and they have a great attitude.  I think not worrying about trying to be noticed but just do your job and do it well and trusting that the right people will notice and will see that.  I promise you that they will.  

I think sometimes that gets lost a little bit but now that I’m in a position where you’re watching and observing how people go about their business and how they do it; even those small interactions that you have with them, you are able to get a feel for those people right out of the gate.  So, I would definitely say that those would be some of the biggest pieces of advice that I would give folks. 

Liz: Amazing, it has been really lovely to speak to you today Stephanie and hear about life working within an NFL organization.  So, thank you so much for your time.

Stephanie: Yeah absolutely, thanks Liz for reaching out and certainly if you have any additional questions or follow-up; don’t hesitate to shoot me an email. 

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