Indianapolis Colts Vice Chair/Owner Carlie Isray-Gordon talks curiosity, confidence and content.
Carlie Isray-Gordon is a rarity in the sports arena: a female owner of an NFL team.
Currently in her sixth season as Vice Chair/Owner of the Indianapolis Colts, Isray-Gordon is a third-generation owner of the club, representing the team at NFL Owners Meetings since the age of 23. The organization has had some thrilling highlights under the watch of the Isray family. For example, claiming victory in Super Bowl XLI, finishing the first decade of the 2000s (2000-2009) with the highest-winning percentage of any team in the NFL, and winning a 45-44 victory over Kansas City in the first round of the 2013 playoffs — the second biggest comeback in NFL playoff history.
But if it sounds like it’s been all play and no work for Isray-Gordon, it turns out owning a football franchise is not dissimilar to running any other organization. Except, you know, just a little cooler.
Play to win
Talking to Isray-Gordon is like talking to your best friend about why they love what they do. Her references swing between sports and music, clinical psychology and the thrill she gets when she hears people talking about The Colts at the grocery store. But through every story flows a tale of leadership, a thread that explains how essential teamwork is — not only on the field, but behind the scenes.
“When you’re in the business of people — and a football team couldn’t be more that kind of business — there are so many different personalities, environments and variables you’re up against all the time, that it’s imperative to have a growth mindset, both for the players and those behind the scenes,” she says. “For me, that means hiring people who are curious and have confidence, who want to work together, to grow together. Who aren’t satisfied with doing ‘OK.’ They want to be the best.”
While it is generally understood that everyone, no matter their field, wants to do better than “OK,” for an NFL team, mediocrity is a form of quicksand. If a team has a “meh” season, it changes their position in the draft, which knocks them down a peg. Currently, each club receives one pick in each of the seven rounds of the draft and the order in which they pick is determined by their standing at the end of the season.
And so it becomes clear why curiosity and confidence are the enticing pick.
“Curious people are more inclined to take risks,” explains Isray-Gordon further. “They will say what they think or share a point of view without fear of being wrong, and this is incredibly helpful when you have to make tough decisions — these are people you can lean on. And confidence, whether a brash swagger or quiet resolve, is an integral trait for a leader. But leaders also have to have the ability to inspire people to believe in themselves and the way of doing that, can take many guises.”
By way of example, Isray-Gordon relays a story about how Peyton Manning — considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time and who played for The Colts from 1998 to 2010 — was a perfectionist. This trait brought the watermark up for everyone around him; if you didn’t rise to his level, he shut you out. In contrast, The Colts’ current quarterback, Andrew Luck, has a very different, but similarly resonant technique using calm resolve.
“Another good example is our head coach, Frank Reich, who has a really good blend of modesty and confidence,” says Isray-Gordon “He’ll go through all of the probabilities of a play call and if it wasn’t right, he’ll own that. We had a situation similar to that in our week four game against Houston. With 27 seconds left in overtime, we were facing a fourth down on our end of the field. Frank could have punted the ball, which most likely would have ended the game in a tie. Instead, he went for it, sending a message that he has confidence in our players.”
The Colts weren’t able to execute the fourth down play and eventually lost the game on a last-second field goal. Later when asked why he didn’t just wait when he could have tied, Reich reportedly said, “Because we didn’t come here to tie.”
“To me that was the right decision,” says Isray-Gordon. “We play to win.”
Come one, come all
It is no secret that entertainment companies — NFL teams among them — are in a battle for consumer attention. The on-demand options for content today are unprecedented, both in terms of what there is to watch and how. There is also a ton of what Isray-Gordon calls “freemium content,” which means consumers no longer have to “pay to play.” All of this has made the old metrics for measuring engagement veritably obsolete and as a result, it has become important to find additional revenue streams.
“We have massive buildings to maintain, buildings that support the city and state by employing people and bringing business to the area when there are games,” says Isray-Gordon. “One of the revenue streams we’re looking at is sports betting (which is being legalized in many states). There are billions of dollars being made on our games, which is basically people profiting off of our intellectual property. I think there’s a way where we can do that better and make it safer.”
More than just having an economic impact as an entertainment entity, the NFL affects communities philanthropically. Since 1973, for example, the NFL Foundation has represented all 32 teams and contributed more than USD430 million to charities and youth football programs. More than any other sport, football has been known to raise young men out of rough neighborhoods, taking them to heights they may not have otherwise reached.
“Team sports have always been a way for people to come together to celebrate around something,” says Isray-Gordon. “We take a lot of pride in our team. It’s a source of pride for the entire community and with fans from all walks of life, we’re a place everyone’s welcome.