How to Thrive in a Male-Dominated Industry
Kelli Masters, a sports agent and founder of KMM Sports, shares her insights on the topic.
“One of my earliest memories is of my dad using diagrams to explain football plays,” says Kelli Masters, founder of KMM Sports. “I was probably three years old.” Still, the now-star agent, who represents a well-rounded roster of professional athletes, never intended to find a career in sports. In fact, her path couldn’t have been any less direct. After studying broadcast journalism, Kelli worked at CBS during what happened to be a transformative, tumultuous time for both professional sports and broadcast journalism—the OJ Simpson trial. Kelli was tasked with following the trial for work and, in the process, fell in love with law. She went to law school, got her degree and started working as a litigator, where she quickly found a passion for nonprofit law.
This, finally, is what brought her full-circle back to football—a player approached her to help him with his foundation. “It brought to my attention what it really means to be a professional athlete these days,” says Kelli. “I saw what athletes are capable of, the impact they can have both on and off the field and what it takes to do what they do.” She became certified as an agent by the NFL Players’ Association, a stamp of approval which requires graduate degrees, litigation experience, an exam and a seminar. “When I walked into the seminar, I was so nervous,” recalls Kelli. “I didn’t see a single other woman.” This feeling—of walking into a room filled entirely with men—would become familiar very quickly. Today, she walks into every (male-dominated) room with well-earned confidence. After five years as an agent, Kelli became the first woman ever to sign a first-round NFL Draft pick. Her client, Corey Nelson, is a Broncos linebacker who helped the team win Super Bowl 50. Over Super Bowl weekend, she hosted an event in San Francisco to celebrate the women in football. “I want to encourage more women to get into the industry,” she says. (Cheers to that!) Kelli shares what she’s learned about breaking stereotypes, embracing her femininity and holding her own in a room full of men.
1. Find your purpose
The best way to thrive in a male-dominated industry is to simply be good at your job; if you’re doing something that’s truly what you’re meant to do, you’ll find a way to be good at it. When young women ask me for advice about getting into the industry, I always tell them that loving sports and being drawn to the glamorous lifestyle of professional athletes doesn't necessarily mean that it’s your purpose to be an agent. Those are rewards, not purposes. Really dig deep to determine what you’re passionate about doing, because once you find that, you’ll be willing to sacrifice and overcome roadblocks.
2. Expect sexism in unexpected places
When I was first starting out as an agent, I was surprised to find that the NFL scouts, managers and coaches, who were all men, were not so resistant to (or even surprised by) a female agent. It was the players I was trying to sign and their families that were more skeptical. All their lives, they’ve dealt with male coaches, referees, trainers—the parents didn’t think a woman was capable of representing their sons. In order to get my first clients, I had to defend myself constantly and fight hard to get in front of players.
3. Learn from other women in similar situations
When I first became certified as an agent by the NFL, I reached out to Kristen Keluga—the founder of K Sports and Entertainment and the only other female agent I knew of—and Mary Fallin, the lieutenant governor of Oklahoma at the time. Other women who have faced similar hurdles will be able to give you honest insight. Mary’s advice, in particular, stuck with me—she told me I’d have to work twice as hard to get just as far as the men. Harsh? Yes, but she was right, and I’m glad I was prepared.
4. Stick it out
Ultimately, the only way for me to overcome the stigmas working against me was to be persistent and prove people wrong. After five years as an agent, I broke through the barriers (gender-related and otherwise) by signing a first-round draft pick. It put me on the map, because it was proof that I was as capable of doing this job as a man could be.
5. Embrace your femininity
I’m feminine, and I always have been. I was an athlete growing up, but I also did pageants! I don’t have any reason to hide that. I dress appropriately and professionally, but the key is really in how I carry myself. I’ve cultivated confidence in my ability to do my job very well, and I handle myself in a way that conveys that. Look for ways in which being a woman can work for your benefit. A man or a woman can do my job equally well, but there are certain feminine qualities that give me an edge. For one thing, women are powerful advocates and we have a tendency to be nurturing. I do so much more than negotiate for my players—I protect them and guide them throughout the many roles they have as professional athletes, on and off the field.
6. It’s about who and what you know
You need to teach yourself and constantly be learning. Being knowledgeable will give you the confidence it takes to walk into a room where you may be the only woman, and hold your own.
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