Buffalo Bills owner Kim Pegula: 'Women don't have the same access to experience as men'

Kim Pegula and her husband, Terry, have been co-owners of the Buffalo Bills since 2014. Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

When Kim Pegula and her husband, Terry, purchased the Buffalo Bills in 2014, she became one of a handful of female owners in the NFL. The Pegulas also own the Buffalo Sabres.

We talked to Kim about her perspective on the challenges women face in a male-dominated industry, and what women can do to position themselves for future inclusion and success. We also asked her about the Bills' hiring of Kathryn Smith, who is the first full-time female coach in the NFL.

This interview has been edited for length.

espnW: What are some of the challenges you've faced being a woman in the male-dominated sports ownership world? Are you treated any differently than your husband?

Kim Pegula: Football is itself is so male-dominated because all of the scouts, coaches and even the general manager played football, so they've been around it all of their lives. It's hard coming into an organization when, as a female, you don't have that experience. That's the hardest part for me. The business side of things came easier. And I was pleasantly surprised, coming into the NFL, to see quite a few women involved either at the league level or higher up, or even just ownership.

As for Terry and I, all of the other owners and the league itself treat us both equally. They encourage me to be more active and to get involved in committees. [Laughs] Actually, they ask me more than they ask Terry.

espnW: Is there a pipeline of women for coaching roles?

KP: I don't know of a pipeline offhand, but I think the NFL and every team is a little bit more conscious now because of Jen Welter being the first assistant coach for Arizona, and now with Kathryn [Smith] being hired here in Buffalo. I think there's more awareness of that now.

When Rex brought up hiring Kathryn, we said, "OK." Not because she was a female, but because she already had the knowledge and the experience, and she was a good fit. She put herself in a position to advance, and Rex wasn't afraid to go that way. I think we're going to see more of that as the league continues to evolve.

Kathryn just seemed like the obvious choice. It didn't dawn on me, because as far as I was concerned, Rex was hiring her because she was the best qualified and someone he thought would be the best fit for the job -- not because she was a woman. But then my phone started blowing up and that's when I realized that, yeah, she was a female coach and the first official one. And it's great. She's handling it like a champ and that's all we can ask of her.

espnW: Will the recent Rooney Rule announcement help elevate women in coaching roles (as opposed to front-office roles)? How can women get into more operational roles?

KP: I think the Rooney Rule is great because in sports, we get stuck in the tradition of what we've always done. So, the Rooney Rule made people open up to diversity. I do think it will help. But at the end of the day, it's about production. Those types of initiatives are great for opening doors, but it's going to be up the individual to produce and maintain those positions.

"Do I think we're going to have a female head coach someday? It's going to take a while to get to that point." Kim Pegula, co-owner of the Buffalo Bills

Like any industry, it's about networking and who you know and putting yourself into situations where you can create an opportunity. The more women can do to build experience and a skill set in a particular area, the better their chances. I don't think it does anyone any good just to hire someone because they are a female. They have to have the qualifications and skill set to substantiate the hire, and make the gender a non-factor -- that's the best thing women can do.

espnW: What's the biggest thing holding women back in the NFL, in team offices, at the league level, or in coaching?

KP: I think it's lack of experience. Women don't have the same access to experience as men do growing up. There's flag football for girls, or you hear a story about a girl playing youth football, but in general we don't have the experience to qualify us to get in the coaching door or top-level management. It's going to be hard to climb that ladder because of that. I can't speak for Kathryn, but she took advantage of her opportunities, focused on a particular area, and she knows her football. It didn't happen overnight for her.

Do I think we're going to have a female head coach someday? It's going to take a while to get to that point.

espnW: Is "the state of women in the NFL" on your radar, or something you think about? If so, what kind of difference do you try to make in your day-to-day life?

KP: From a league perspective, the female market is a growing one. As a business, you are always focused on where your growth is and where you can have the biggest impact. I think the league and every team is looking to grow that market and sustain it.

As far as saying, "Hey, this is what I want to do for women," and that's my calling card, I have not focused on that because I'm still so new to this. But I do think it's important. There's a lot more access now that allows women to get involved in sports that we didn't have back when I was growing up.