Next Woman Up: Maria Rodriguez, International Content Manager for the Pittsburgh Steelers –

  • September 21, 2022

Original Content Editor, Talent Development
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:
Position: International Content Manager
How did you get your start in a career in football?
Sports have been a big part of my family, and it’s something that, to this day, binds us together. I grew up in Honduras, so we mostly got together to watch soccer. It’s always been a part of me. My brother, Luis, played soccer in high school. When I graduated from high school, I came to the United States and went to Texas Christian University, where I had the opportunity to work a Formula One event. They were hiring students, and my friends and I decided to do it just for fun. I immediately fell in love with the environment and the energy. That was the first time I kind of got that spark and knew I wanted to work in sports, but I didn’t have a clear vision of what that looked like.
At that time, TCU had a great football team and it was such an exciting time to be a TCU student. Students had free tickets to every home game, and I took advantage of that. I went to every home game, even when my friends didn’t want to go. That was another time when I realized wanted to work in sports. One night after a game, I looked to see if TCU’s athletic department was hiring. They had a few open positions, and within a week, I applied for and accepted an unpaid internship to work spring football and women’s soccer. That was my very first extended experience working in sports and I did that for about a year.
After my sophomore year, Pittsburgh Steelers executive Omar Khan gave me the opportunity to intern during training camp. I ended up working three summers for the Steelers while in college as a training camp office intern. I went to Latrobe every summer and absolutely loved it. It was so much fun, but I also remember seeing how competitive it was and how tough it was to get into the sports industry. To be honest, I didn’t think I would earn a full-time opportunity with an NFL team, so I didn’t even try after I graduated. After three months of being unemployed after graduation, I heard from the Steelers, who were looking for a Spanish content intern. I wasn’t sure what that opportunity really looked like at the time, but Spanish is my first language. I applied, interviewed and got the internship. I’ve been here ever since.
How has your job expanded since getting hired as intern to what it is today?
The Steelers knew through social media that they had a big following in Mexico. They had hosted some football clinics and done community work in Mexico before my internship in 2017. My role started out as somewhat of a project, finding ways to engage and connect with our Hispanic — and for the most part, Mexican — fans. There wasn’t clear direction at first, so we started by launching social media accounts in Spanish and creating team-related content on our website, translating articles and things like that. It really expanded from just Spanish to international and from one or two social platforms to around four different platforms in Spanish and seven total international platforms. We found fans were engaging more through social media. Now, it’s no longer just about planning and creating content for these accounts — it’s about engaging with them in person and planning events in their countries in an effort to build relationships with people in our international markets.
I was drawn into the work. It was so exciting to see the growth, and at the same time, we were working with the league and its initiatives with NFL China. Through that program, I worked with an agency to help create unique content for their accounts and engage with fans there. We’ve even brought some fans from China to a game in Pittsburgh. We have looked into tapping into other markets through social media to see where a lot of our fans are located, and we’ve started to invest in Germany more as we’ve seen more potential there.
It’s natural for me to connect with people from other parts of the world, having lived in Honduras before moving to the United States. We’ve grown so much working with agencies in Mexico, Germany and China, and now with the International Home Marketing Areas program (IHMA), the NFL has grown a lot bigger internationally and we’re doing a lot more in these markets now.
What a fun experience. Can you explain what the IHMA changes mean?
This is the first year NFL teams had the option to apply for international marketing rights. Our fans in Mexico have always been a priority, so there’s not a lot that is different. But because we now have IHMA rights in Mexico, it allows us to increase those efforts through business and partnership opportunities and have a bigger presence there.
Have you been on trips to Mexico with the organization, and what do they entail?
The Steelers had been doing football clinics in Mexico for several years before I was hired. When I joined, I covered and promoted those events on social media. We always did community work, met with the media and had a day for fans. They were quick, fun trips, and I went on four of these trips before the pandemic. Then, of course, all travel went away.
As we try to get back to some sort of normalcy, we knew we wanted to go back to Mexico on a smaller scale this year. We planned our trip around the draft with smaller events for fans and media in Mexico. We brought running back Najee Harris along to Mexico City, and he announced the team’s fourth-round pick live during the 2022 NFL Draft. It was great to get back in that market again, and test out traveling and hosting events post-COVID before going back to do something bigger. Najee was so excited to experience Mexico, and he and a lot of our players have bought in to growing and connecting with our Hispanic fan base. It’s very special.
What would you say is the most challenging part of your job?
The most challenging part is also my favorite. I came into an entirely new role at the Steelers, so there hasn’t always been structure or one way to do things. It can be frustrating learning as we go at times, but that’s also the great part. The IHMA has really opened a lot of doors and there are so many opportunities, but we’re navigating everything for the first time. I wear a lot of hats and figure a lot of things out, but at the end of the day, though, I get to set the structure for what we do and how I go about my work. The same goes with my teammates in Pittsburgh. We stay connected with everything and figure it out as we go. There is so much to learn.
It’s also challenging to genuinely stay connected with our fans in the international markets because cultures are so different. We need to stay true to who the Steelers are and our values as an organization while adapting to our fans and who they are in their own cultures.
I can imagine how challenging that would be. Can you explain what you do on a day-to-day basis?
My daily work started very in line with the NFL calendar, but that has changed completely over the last few years as we’ve done more in Mexico. For example, we started to work on our April draft event in November. In OTAs, we were already working on in-season events in Mexico. You always have to be looking ahead while staying present.
I work mostly with people outside of the United States, which is very interesting. It’s important for me to stay connected with what we do in our facility because that reflects what we do internationally. I work a lot with the Steelers’ social media, public relations, marketing and sales teams. I get pulled into different departments here, but for the most part, I’m in constant connect with people from agencies in different counties.
Do you have any mentors who’ve helped you along the way?
A lot of people. I am very blessed to have a lot of people who care about and love me. I’ve had a lot of people who have given me good advice, who see my potential and point out my strengths when I have doubt. They have also been there through my struggles and helped me through in those moments, as well. From my parents, my siblings and other family members to my friends, coworkers and a lot of strangers I’ve met along the way. Specifically, though, it’s my brother, Luis, because he’s the one who I’ve learned the most about sports from and who I talk about sports, the industry and my career with the most. Also Omar Khan, who opened doors at the Steelers for me.
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of being patient. I’m in my sixth season with the Steelers and I have seen my growth pay off. It’s not an easy industry and I’m proud to be here. I am one of the veterans in the building, and it’s very cool to see and help and be a guide with new interns who come in each year.
I came into the Steelers joining a very solid group of women. I have never had the feeling that I’m in a male-dominated environment — even though there are more men than women — because the group of women that I joined have been with the team for a very long time. They are an incredible group of women, and I’m very grateful for them.
What’s next in terms of things you want to accomplish?
I’m very grateful to be where I’m at right now. I want to continue to see my growth and continue to be a pioneer in all the international efforts within the Steelers organization and NFL. Being part of the NFL’s global expansion is so exciting and there’s so much opportunity. As I continue, I just want to do at least half of the things others have done for me to be here today — helping anyone, especially women and Hispanic women like myself, get into the building.
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