Women are rising up the ranks throughout professional football, earning positions of power in a space that for too long was ruled almost exclusively by men. We're seeing more and more women breaking barriers in the sport, but what are the stories beyond the headlines? Who are the women shaping and influencing the NFL today? Answering those questions is the aim of the Next Woman Up series. While the conversational Q&As are edited and condensed for clarity, this is a forum for impactful women to share experiences in their own words. Without further ado, we introduce:
Hayley Elwood, Los Angeles Chargers
Position: Team Reporter
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How did you get your start in a career in football?
I graduated from the University of California San Diego with a degree in communication. At the time, I didn't totally know what I wanted to do, but I have parents who are producers and eventually my dad became a news director at a local news station in San Diego, where I grew up. That environment and creative production was always in the back of my mind. I think I've always been drawn to it and I have always loved football. My dad grew up in Wisconsin so he's a huge Packers fan. My experience on Sundays growing up were Packers games in the morning and Chargers games in the afternoon, depending on the schedule. I went to a college without a football team, so I was drawn to the NFL.
After college, I was trying to figure out what I really wanted to do. I interned at EAG Sports Management, which had really high-profile NFL clients, just to kind of dip my toe into the sports world. When I realized I wanted to shift from PR and marketing to broadcasting, I figured I needed to put a reel together. So I ended up going back to school at Palomar College, which had an Emmy Award-winning broadcast program. My first sort of starter role was with Fox Sports Next, which later became 247sports.com. I realized they didn't have anyone covering the San Diego area. I pitched myself and sent in my reel, and I was hired for that football season. I thought it was cool that I had a Fox mic flag, like you would see Pam Oliver, Erin Andrews or Laura Okmin using on Sundays. I would go out to games and interview players about their performances and recruitment, and it ended up being super invaluable experience because I was learning a lot of what I do now. A lot of it was building relationships and maintaining them. I went to games in September and had to figure out how to keep in touch with coaches and athletes so I could track the players' recruitment as we got closer to National Signing Day.
In 2014, the Chargers had an opening for a contributing writer. I knew it wasn't an on-camera job and I never thought of working for a team before. I applied and was hired. Nine seasons later, I'm still here.
When did your role transition from solely writing to doing both writing and on-camera work?
When the team moved to Los Angeles in 2017, my role went from contributing writer to team reporter, which is a hybrid of a lot of different things. I still write but a lot is on-camera interviews for podcasts or shows. I had always talked to my boss about on-camera opportunities with the Chargers, so I think it was a natural fit when we moved into the new market.
What part of your job takes up most of your time?
The on-camera interviews. We have a series called Camera On and that has really ramped up this offseason with free agency and the draft. Any time we bring in a new player, that player is sitting down in the chair doing a one-on-one interview. That's probably the thing that takes the most time. I also host a series called Homecoming, in which I go to a player's hometown or college town and do a package feature. Over the last few months, I've been to Toronto and Miami for features.
What does your week look like during the regular season?
The NFL season is like a school year, so you usually know what to expect in some capacity. During the season, I attend press conferences, possibly writing off them or conducting interviews if they can be scheduled. On game days pre-COVID, and hopefully we're trending that way again, I sat up in the press box during the game before going down to the locker room to do interviews. The last few years, I have also done a podcast called Playmakers, which focuses on women in and around the NFL. That is usually a recording session on Mondays and Tuesdays and I post them on Wednesdays. There is a lot of planning and scheduling weeks in advance.
What is your preparation process for interviews?
That's a great question because that is the most important part of my job. It's a lot of tabs open on my internet browser. I used to be a diligent writer and took notes by hand, but I think working remotely has transitioned me into doing more on my phone and computer. It's a lot of research, looking up different articles and tweets, and I have a running document of factoids and quotes -- either from our Chargers PR staff, which does a great job of sending quotes around from press conferences, or other interviews on NFL Network and other media outlets. I make note of everything and stick it in my back pocket for when I might need it. It's an endless fact-finding mission, which is kind of fun.
When I do those Homecoming features, I have to learn about a guy pre-NFL. It's a lot of research from local papers or college clips and recaps. Sometimes it's even going back to high school coverage, which is the stuff I started out doing. It's a process that never really ends.
I'll say this, too: Part of being a good journalist, host, talent, etc., is being prepared. We have fantastic producers at the Chargers and we have a very symbiotic relationship. They know I'm going to show up to an interview prepared. Being self-sufficient is huge and sets you apart in this industry.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
I think most people would defer to the time and the schedule, but you know that going in. You know from the end of July to, and fingers crossed, the middle of February that you're overloaded and weeks are crazy. But I think the most challenging part goes back to preparation because you always have to be tapped in. I think part of that is finding that balance of not always watching your phone and the news, but it's all still very fun to me. If it ever becomes a chore, then it's probably time to move on.
Adding to that, when you look at an event like the draft, you don't know who your team is picking. I might have 20 minutes to fully learn about a player before you get him on Zoom for an interview. That's a challenge but it has gotten easier as the years have gone on because I know what study habits work best for me.
Finding a balance is challenging, for sure. Now, let's pivot and talk about mentorship. Do you have any mentors who have helped you in your career? And what advice have they given you?
In almost every job I've had working in sports, I have been hired by a woman. I think that's so cool. Denise White at EAG Sports Management, Nicoletta Ruhl at the Chargers and Lisa Estrada hired me at the Los Angeles Lakers when I hosted for them in 2015-16 -- that was Kobe Bryant's final season. It's been really cool to have eyes on so many amazing women as I've started.
In terms of mentorship, Alex Flanagan and Laura Okmin are two huge sources for me. I remember during my first season covering the draft with the Chargers, I was in the media center and Alex, who used to be a reporter with NFL Network and has since moved into the agent world, was in there. She was so welcoming and sweet, and we have stayed in touch ever since. When I had the opportunity to become the Chargers' preseason sideline reporter, it was a role that she had previously held, and she actually reached out to me asking to get coffee and discuss the ins and outs of that job. She didn't have to do that but that's just the type of person she is. Laura, who works for Fox Sports and runs her GALvanize program, does so much for so many. She doesn't have kids of her own but she has hundreds of daughters in this industry, essentially. I connected with her years ago when I was kind of at a crossroads, and she was such a great sounding board for me in my career and personal life, giving tips for how to do your job and navigate life. She is phenomenal and I will always sing those praises. Her program is helping to make it easier for younger women to come into the industry.
Do you have any advice for women who are interested in working in football?
This world is incredibly small -- on the business and football sides. Now that I'm going into my ninth season with the Chargers, there have been three head coaches and a countless amount of players, but the thing to remember is your reputation is everything and all you really have at the end of the day. If you're a hard worker who comes into work prepared, you're not only going to garner the respect of your peers and colleagues but you're going to get the respect of players and coaches, as well. If they move on to a different organization, it's important to maintain those relationships.
I also think just being a nice person goes a long way. It's a really small world and it doesn't matter if it's your boss or the elevator attendant at the stadium, it's important to treat everyone with respect. You never know how your paths may intersect down the road.
That has really made a difference for me. I have worked four Super Bowls for the NFL, and the only reason I got that job was because the Chargers played in London in 2018 and I helped host our in-game international content. I went out early and worked with people I thought I'd never see again in my life. That was October 2018. Then in January 2019, I got an email from one of the guys asking if I wanted to work the Super Bowl. I went, "What?!" I didn't even realize he remembered me, and now I work with him twice a year for Super Bowl and the draft, which is awesome.
What's next for you in terms of what you want to accomplish?
I've been so blessed to work four Super Bowls hosting for the NFL. That game is so special for a lot of reasons, and it's not lost on me that I get to play a small part in the biggest game of the year. Maintaining a connection to that game is important to me. Then I would also like to cover the NFL in a broader range and expand beyond one team to all 32. We'll see if that ends up transpiring, but I think that would be really fun.
And lastly, what are you most proud of?
I think I'm most proud of the work that I do and it translating into the person that I am. I'm proud of the preparation and the output but the fact that I have been able to work well with people over the years is most important. I think that goes back to my parents and the dinner conversations we had. With them working at local news stations, I learned from them that you never want to be the "talent" that when you leave the room your producers are talking about you in a negative manner. Doing things the right way has helped me continue to grow and I'm very proud of that.