Jen Kavanagh, Senior Vice President of Marketing & Media for the Philadelphia Eagles, talks about her path to sports, and the organization’s successful Girls Flag Football League
Jen Kavanagh never envisioned a job in sports, though it always sounded fun.
“I didn't ever really think that that was a possibility for me,” she says. “I believed you had to play sports, or had to have been a sports management major and gotten a great internship.”
But in 2018, when the Philadelphia Eagles organization was looking for a new head of marketing, “they wanted somebody with media DNA,” she says, someone who understood content development, community development, and how to most effectively harness technology platforms.
Kavanagh, who had spent a decade and a half working in digital media and brand-building, primarily in reality television, ended up being the right fit: "It was less important that the person in the role come from sports, and more important that they understood the nature of the environment that we were working in.”
Because of her own non-traditional path to a career in the sports world, Kavanagh encourages women hoping to find a similar role to stay open-minded and flexible.
“Not all career paths are linear! There are all kinds of doors and pathways into a dream job,” she says, adding that, more and more, she sees firsthand the benefits of a staff with diverse work experience: “Because their backgrounds are different, they’re really able to make interesting contributions right away.”
As the Senior Vice President of Marketing and Media, Kavanagh leads, among other things, development of the Eagles brand; oversees original content (like streaming series and podcasts); and runs the team's digital platforms. She also oversees community relations, the department responsible for launching Eagles Girls Flag Football — a league organized around the mission to lower the barrier to entry for girls in football.
In the spring of 2022, the Eagles kicked off the league with 16 teams, and just two years later, will return this season with 92 teams. As part of the flourishing league, Kavanagh and her team are also helping to remove another barrier to entry for girls in sports. According to research, girls who didn’t have access to sports bras were more likely to quit sports or not join a team to begin with, so the organization is providing free sports bras to all the athletes.
Below, Kavanagh talks to PEOPLE about the booming flag football league, plus the advice she gives to young women aspiring to join the industry, and how sports are actually similar to reality tv.
What exactly does your job entail? It sounds like a lot of moving parts.
It is, but they all work together and that's the good thing. Several groups that I oversee work together to accomplish the ultimate end goal, which is to grow our fan base and deepen our engagement with our fan base — not just here in Philadelphia, not just on game day, but all around the world.
One is the Eagles entertainment team — they are comprised of all of our content, production and social. So they're the ones that are creating the original series that you see on YouTube that people fall in love with, because we bring [fans] inside the team and inside the locker room and meetings, and give them all the access that they're looking for to feel as connected as possible.
I think sometimes people have a tendency to look at sports and see a single dimension of it, which is that sports teams are all about winning championships. But in addition to that, you have to stand for something beyond the final score. So your values, in addition to your commitment to winning championships, matter almost just as much.
And so, whether that's supporting girls and their aspirations in sports or caring about the environment with our Go Green program, or dedicating our efforts to the autism community, all of those things matter because people are not one-dimensional. We are sports fans and we are fans of, "fill in the blank". So we take the opportunity to connect with people around their values and other common interests as much as we do football; we really like to be as multidimensional about that as possible.
And just speaking of [my background in] reality shows, let's face it, sports is a reality show in many ways, right? It's about competition. It's about passion. It's about making memories, it's about creating generational bonds. It's entertainment. It's about relationships and music and fashion and food.
And Taylor Swift.
I love that you brought that up because, look at the Kelce documentary, Jason Kelce and Kylie Kelce. If I had $1 for every person who wasn't a sports fan, wasn't an Eagles fan, and in most cases was a woman, who reached out to me to tell me how much they love that documentary and now, love Jason and are following Jason and Kylie. And that's really because there's so much relatability in their stories. It's not that different [from reality TV] at the end of the day.
I believe Eagles fans to be among the most passionate of all fans. How do you harness that passion for good?
Moving here [from New York City], one of my earliest memories was walking around Center City, and I was blown away by the fact that the presence of the Eagles was everywhere around me. It was in every market I went into, it was in every restaurant window, it was in every Wawa.
And that wasn't the case in my prior world —the shows that I was working on, I didn't see the presence of those shows everywhere that I went in my daily life. So I immediately understood the importance of the team to the community, and that it was really part of the DNA of the city.
So the first thing you feel is this deep sense of responsibility: This really means something to a lot of people and it has for many, many generations, so I can't mess this up.
Two, I felt this is a marketer's dream come true. You come into a place and a circumstance where there's this base of people who are so incredibly passionate about what you're doing; it's kind of yours to lose.
And then you learn over time that you do have this responsibility to always make sure you're taking into consideration the fans who are the lifeblood of what you do, but be prepared to go on the ride of peaks and valleys with them. Win or lose, there's gonna be some sentiment out there that our fans are actively expressing. The enemy really is apathy, not them being upset.
Those are all things I learned to embrace early on; even when they're upset with us, that's still passion expressed differently, and the lack of that would be much much worse.
On a high level, how do you approach keeping fans engaged throughout the year? Is there a major difference between in season and offseason?
The storytelling piece around the team is an ongoing activity that never stops. It's just a matter of what we're telling stories around. In season, things are more focused on game day and things related to the season itself. The offseason presents an opportunity for us to dig more deeply into who the players are when their helmets are off. Where do they go in the offseason? What are they doing? What opportunities do we have to showcase their personalities, tell more stories about things that are happening in our community?
People are surprised to learn that the offseason in many ways for our teams can be busier than the season itself, because it's when we do all of our reflection on the season prior: What really worked, what do we want to change? What did we learn? Then you've got to start building out and planning for that. So once we get to the season, it's somewhat of a turnkey endeavor, because all the work and planning had been done prior.
Tell me about the Eagles Girls Flag Football League — how did the league come to be, and why is it important to you?
I give a lot of credit to the community relations team, which has been leading our youth football initiatives for a long time. They observed what was happening in girls sports here in the community, and had conversations with local athletic directors.
What we realized was, there was a need and there was an opportunity. We had the ability to facilitate more opportunities for girls to play the sport, to create this opportunity for girls to play flag football, and we're going to help be the organizers of it with the goal to ultimately be having the sport sanctioned.
The interest was such that we found ourselves in a situation where we were almost two years ahead of schedule in terms of the number of teams that had signed up.
As part of the initiative, the organization is distributing 30,000 sports bras to girls in need in the Philly area. Why?
During the process of starting the league, we realized that there was this barrier to entry. We've created all of these opportunities for girls to play, but those opportunities don't really exist if there's a barrier between the girl and the opportunity. And we learned specifically, the barrier was access to sports bras, and it was really kind of a mind blowing moment.
It's very easy to assume that the equipment needed for kids to play is abundant and available, but when you look at equipment, in the case of a boy versus a girl, it is different. Sports bras were not considered or deemed essential equipment; therefore, when you go to kick off your season and pick up your uniform, it didn't include that thing that you need to play confidently and play competitively.
On top of it being a need that existed in the community, it was also a need that wasn't easy to talk about. There wasn't a high level of comfort in discussing this as a need, and so we realized we needed to help de-stigmatize this issue, too.
To create the FLY:FWD sports bras, we’re working with an existing partner called Operation Warm, an incredible nonprofit that also makes coats and gloves for kids who are in need.
What impact has it made?
The feedback has been incredible. I've been able to see firsthand the impact that this has had. When we do our Jamboree in the spring, and the girls all come to pick up their uniforms, you can really see that level of confidence goes up dramatically.
Once we knew we had a good model for this and that we were creating some impact in the community, we thought, how do we take this beyond just Philadelphia? Because the goal is to make sure that 100% of girls who want to play sports in the country, and the world, have access to them.
So that began conversations with other professional sports teams, now that we had a model in place, to say, if you want to do this, we've made it pretty turnkey for you. So come on board and do this in your community.
Are there any aspects of your job you particularly love?
So many, but I would say the best part about my job is giving people access to experiences that money can't buy. We as an organization regularly have the ability to execute experiences for people that are easy for us, but ended up being the best day of that person's life, or a day they will never forget.
It's astounding to me that at a game I can bring a family down on the field to experience pregame warm ups and they'll write me back and say that was the best moment we've had as a family. And that blows me away.
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