Over the summer of 2019, SB Nation interviewed several women who currently hold or have previously held leadership positions within the NFL to find out more about them and the work they do. This Q&A series highlights the powerful women who have dared to shake up one of sport’s biggest boys clubs. First up in the series was ex-Raiders CEO Amy Trask, followed by the Dallas Cowboys’ executive VP and chief brand officer Charlotte Jones Anderson.
Hannah Gordon is currently the Chief Administrative Officer for the San Francisco 49ers. She began her work with the 49ers back in 2011, when she was hired as the team’s director of legal affairs. She then became the vice president of legal and government affairs in 2015, then general counsel from 2016-17 before getting moved to her current role. Some of her responsibilities include overseeing community and fan engagement projects — like Women of the Niners and 49ers PRIDE for LGBTQ+ fans — as well as legal and strategic communications.
Author’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
SB Nation: Your career path is pretty unique, in that you actually started your career in journalism and PR before attending Stanford Law School. Tell me a bit more about that.
Hannah Gordon: For me, [my career] really started in college at UCLA. I was really homesick and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and watching Hannah Storm host the halftime show during the Lakers’ run for the championship that year — I love smart, funny people and conversations, and I enjoyed the repartee that she was facilitating and I thought, “That seems like such a cool job, how do you do something like that someday?” And I started looking into journalism.
While I was in college I interned for the Raiders in PR, and as a production intern at Fox Sports West. After college, I went to the NFL Players Association for the 2003 season, and then from there went into the PR world and did media relations at Cal for football, track and swimming from 2004-05.
At that point, I had gotten accepted to law school at Stanford and I wanted to get experience at an agency as well, so I did a six-month stint at Octagon, doing the PR for their football class of clients. In law school, I went back to the Raiders as a law clerk, then went back to a firm after school.
SB: You also worked as an attorney for the NFL during the 2011 lockout, which sounds super interesting!
HG: I was with the management council working on player contracts, salary caps, and CBA. It was the best possible time to be there as a young lawyer because it was the last uncapped year. And then trying to get a new agreement, the CBA expiring, getting to learn from really amazing senior attorneys in terms of outside council, and getting to track the bid ask of every CBA negotiation.
In the midst of the lockout I was called by [president of 49ers Enterprises and executive vice president of football operations] Paraag Marathe to come [to San Francisco].
SB: In your current role with the 49ers, you oversee quite a bit, including legal, public affairs and strategic communications, and community relations. Describe what all your job entails.
HG: It’s pushing forward every business initiative that we have through the function of legal. Because anything you’re doing as a business, whether it’s season ticket agreements or suite agreements or sponsorships, all of that is a relationship between two parties and in business it always involves an agreement.
The second part would be serving every 49ers fan in our larger community, whether or not they are customers. And for me that’s sort of what connects all of our other functions. So whether its our public affairs department, our foundation that educates and empowers Bay Area youth, our community relations department which hosts the themes that you probably see in games in terms of bringing out cancer survivors in October.
That part of my job is about how do we serve everybody who is a constituent of ours. They may or may not be a business partner of ours, but we still want to have a connection to them.
SB: You also oversee fan groups, like Women of the Niners (WON) and 49ers PRIDE for LGBTQ+ fans. How did inclusiveness become such an important part of your job?
HG: I was fortunate enough that fan engagement was one of the departments that I was tasked with about two and a half years ago. And as we looked at “how are we serving underserved demographics of fans?” whether that’s kids — we have a strong kids club — or women fans or LGTBQ+ fans. I wanted to make sure that we created unique experiences for all those different people and that they felt like they were a part of the 49ers family and that they know that they’re valued by us.
For one, we really just looked at it in terms of what we were doing now, how could we continue to scale that, and upgrade that, and make it something that they feel a sense of ownership in. And it really is respectful of the fact that these are some of our most avid fans.
In terms of PRIDE, that just for us felt really natural. We’re the San Francisco 49ers, we should be leaders in terms of progress within the NFL and making sure that everybody does feel included. That’s just part of our brand and our culture.
SB: What’s a typical day of work like for you?
HG: It usually starts at 6 a.m. I try to hop out bed, come into the facility, get a workout in because we actually have a gym and classes that we do for employees. So I do that at 6:30, go home, shower, come back. Then it’s meetings most of the day. I think probably all of us that’s how our lives work, and then at 5 you realize you have like 200 unread emails, so you spend two hours getting through those. And then you actually need to start getting real work done and knocking out agreements and stuff like that.
SB: What are some of the more challenging parts about your job?
HG: Anytime you have a tough season, it really does wear on everybody in different ways. Obviously, it doesn’t wear on folks on the business side the same that it does a player or coach. But you’re deeply invested, and I think that that can be challenging.
SB: As an NFL front office employee, you’re asked a lot about how it feels to be a woman in a male-dominated industry. Is that question something you’re tired of being asked or do you embrace it?
HG: I think that that’s always been a hard question for me because I always worry about being put in a box of “Oh you’re the female,” and I think there’s always a risk that once you are pigeon-holed that way you are not able to continue to grow into future, larger leadership roles. So it’s always a question that, to be honest, makes me a little uncomfortable.
But at the same time, like most experiences in life, it can be both really great and at times, fine. Oftentimes I forget in part because I’ve spent my whole career pretty much in this business, so I don’t really have any reference points for what it would be like not to be in a male-dominated industry. For me, this is just life, right?
And I think for a lot of people that’s actually the case because when you think about other industries — whether it’s finance, law, construction, or politics — once you get to that upper echelon, it’s probably male-dominated. That’s the world that we continue to live in, so I don’t know that my experience would necessarily be tremendously different from other people.
SB: There are a lot more women in the league than there was back in the day. How inspiring is it to see that?
HG: I do think one of the things that’s exciting to see over the last 20 years is I see so many other young women supporting other young women. It’s not that it didn’t exist before, but I love seeing our scout Salli Clavelle, and our coach Katie Sowers, and our trainer Laura McCabe all getting together and supporting each other.
A couple weeks ago, we took all the training interns out, and I’m seeing so many more young women in the field and they’re there to support each other. Not to be exclusionary of their male colleagues, but I think that there’s a real power in that because none of us want to be that only woman who’s in a certain room. That’s not the goal — the goal isn’t “Oh, look I made it and you didn’t.” The goal is everybody who has a voice who has something intelligent to contribute to the conversation, we want everybody at the table.