Sunday, June 25, 2000

Bengals going to the heir

Katie Blackburn, Mike Brown's daughter, is preparing to take over team

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Katie Blackburn can throw a spiral 25-30 yards.
(Glenn Hartong photos)
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        The contract talks for Bengals running back Corey Dillon had dragged on for 10 hours when club vice president Paul H. Brown slipped away to buy burgers for other exhausted — and hungry — team executives.

        Team president Mike Brown had been in and out of the meetings all day. Katie Blackburn — Mike's daughter, Paul's sister and the Bengals' executive vice president — stayed in the room to continue negotiations. Mrs. Blackburn was the constant.

        That one glimpse tells much about the woman in line to become only the second female CEO/president in the National Football League. Already, her will and bloodline are unmistakable.

        Mrs. Blackburn is the only woman in the 31-team league whose job description includes contract negotiations. She is the Bengals' in-house expert on the NFL's complicated salary-cap structure, and her grasp of it amazes coach Bruce Coslet. She handles the club's radio and television networks. And she played a major role in lease negotiations with Hamilton County officials for Paul Brown Stadium.

        Mrs. Blackburn, 34, is a woman in the boys club that is the NFL. But don't mention it.

        “I don't focus on that issue,” she says.

Father and daughter converse during mini-camp at Spinney Field.
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        Like her father, she's a lawyer by training, and words often come only after internal deliberation.

        “In my mind,” she says, “if I'm thinking about being a woman, I'm not thinking about the task at hand.”

        This weekend, the club is moving from Spinney Field into its new offices at Paul Brown Stadium. The Cincinnati Bengals' future has arrived. And Mrs. Blackburn is the person who ultimately will direct it.

        “It's now to the point that she runs quite a lot of what we do,” says Mike Brown, 64, who has been in charge since his father, Paul E. Brown, died in 1991.

        Katie Blackburn, whose life parallels her father's in many ways, is his successor.

        “Yes, that's the plan. She's older (than son Paul). That's a big reason,” Mr. Brown says. “She's very able, quite smart and very determined.”

Her father's footsteps
        That determination showed itself early in life.

        Mike and Nancy Brown used to live in Glendale, and Mr. Brown, who still jogs, liked to run at the Princeton High School track.

At the stadium named for her grandfather.
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        He took Katie to the school one afternoon, he says, to give his wife a break. They also had a toddler, Paul, who's now 30, at home.

        “I told her, "Now stand here and wait for Daddy,'” Mike Brown says of the daughter he calls Pumpkie.

        But she literally followed in his footsteps.

        “Now, it doesn't sound possible, because she wasn't more than 5 years old, but she ran a mile,” Mike Brown says. “She never stopped.

        “That's when we started to see her strong, competitive will.”

Old school, new sport
        Katherine “Katie” Brown Blackburn grew up on football, and sports have always been part of her life. She has a strong arm and — while wearing heels and a skirt — can throw a football in a tight spiral 25-30 yards.

        She played tennis at Cincinnati Country Day and graduated from high school when she was 16. With a September birthday, she started kindergarten at age 4 and skipped second grade.

Jogging with husband Troy at Spinney Field.
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        Then she followed her dad (class of '57) to Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., where, like her father, she earned a varsity letter. Mike was quarterback for the football team. Katie played women's ice hockey.

        “I played goalie,” says Mrs. Blackburn, whom coaches recall as one of the smallest women on the team, all of 110 pounds. “It was a fun spot.”

        A goaltender had graduated, and there was only one goalie left on the team. Mrs. Blackburn volunteered to don the pads.

        “She had not had much hockey experience, if any,” says the team's assistant coach, Bob Ceplikas, now Dartmouth's deputy athletic director. “But she was persistent and determined to contribute to the team. We needed a second goalie to run practices in an efficient way, and Katie stuck her nose right into it.”

        What she lacked in brawn she made up for in brains.

        “Brilliant,” Mr. Ceplikas says. “She soaked up the tactics of the game like a sponge. We had players who were much better skaters, but Katie was able to help point things out and did it in such a way that didn't offend any one.”

        Mrs. Blackburn hasn't worn skates since leaving Dartmouth. “Riding on buses was not my best thing,” she says.

The family tree
        Katie Blackburn, after going to law school and working two years for a Cincinnati law firm, joined the Bengals front office in October 1991.

        It's the same career path her father took into football. Mike Brown has a law degree from Harvard University and practiced law in Cleveland for five years before helping his dad form the Cincinnati Bengals.

        He also has no fears about handing her the keys to the family business.

  • Title: Executive vice president, Cincinnati Bengals. Expected to be chosen to replace her father, Mike Brown, as club president when he retires. One of 16 Bengals co-owners and one of 13 board members.
  • Born: Sept. 25, 1965; Cleveland.
  • Home: Indian Hill.
  • Family: Husband, Troy Blackburn, is Bengals director of business development. Children Elizabeth, 7, and Caroline, 5.
  • Education: Cincinnati Country Day, 1982; Dartmouth College, undergraduate degrees in math and economics, 1986; University of Cincinnati law school, 1989.
  • Job experience: Worked for two years for law firm Taft, Stettinius and Hollister before joining Bengals in 1991.
  • Community Service: Board member United Way & Community Chest, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Cincinnati.
  • Heroes: Her parents, Mike and Nancy Brown.
  • TV show: “I liked Party of Five for some reason, but it's gone,” she says. Monday Night Football, which she watches as both a fan and talent scout, “but I usually fall asleep before it's over.”
  • Reading: About halfway through Mitch Albom's Tuesdays With Morrie. Likes popular fiction.
        “She's quite capable,” Mr. Brown says. “She's less confrontational than my father and I, and, in all honesty, that's where the future is going. Already, around here, a lot of people go to her — not me — out of choice. She has a pleasantness about her, a feminine quality that is superior, and the ability to make people feel comfortable quickly. Things, budgetary and otherwise, get done more smoothly and easily with Katie.”

        Her mother, Nancy Brown, says, “Katie's more open to consensus, where Mike is more self-directed.”

        For her part, Mrs. Blackburn appears ready and willing to take the bad with the good, but for her father, the bad has recently outweighed the good. As the Bengals compiled the NFL's worst record in the 1990s, some fans followed talk radio's lead in calling for Mr. Brown to resign as general manager.

        “I respect my dad for getting through the tough times,” Mrs. Blackburn says. “He has been in the business long enough to know the media can be extremely critical at times. He hasn't let it beat him. To my dad's credit, he has let it all fall on him. He's not one to point fingers. I don't know if I have that same quality.”

        Like his father before him, Mike Brown tried to steer his children away from football — but not because of the potential for media criticism.

        “All his life, he felt football was a stepping stone to something bigger — not only for his players, but for him,” Mr. Brown says of his father. “He saw football as something fun, something you did younger in life, not altogether serious. He thought of it as a dead end.”

        Mike Brown wanted his daughter to be a lawyer or go to work for a corporation.

        But, “from the time she was young, Katie was taken by football,” he says.

        She sat in with her dad and grandfather on player contract negotiations when she was in high school. As a law school student, she made calls to player agents.

        “I'm a football fan,” Mrs. Blackburn says. “It's fun. It's exciting to be a part of something you like. I like being able to work with my dad.”

  • Her famous grandfather, Paul E. Brown: “I thought the world of him as a grandfather. There was an awareness of who he was in football as I got older. He had a presence. He got people's respect. When he said something, you did it.”
  • Her father, Bengals president Mike Brown: “My dad has done a great job. The winning will come. People seem to forget he was here when we went to the Super Bowl. Yes, my grandfather had a lot to do with that, but so did my dad. He has accomplished a lot.”
  • The 2000 Bengals: “I'm looking forward to getting a fresh start with (quarterback) Akili (Smith). We have solid people throughout. Every year, there's a team that seems to come out of nowhere, and every team thinks they can be the one. The difference between winning and losing is so slim.”
        The Bengals are a family business. Mrs. Blackburn and her brother, Paul, who evaluates college players, are the third generation. Her husband, Troy Blackburn, is the Bengals director of business development and was the club's front man on stadium construction. Her uncle, Pete Brown, is a vice president who supervises the annual draft of college players.

        Katie reminds Mike Brown of his mother. His children are named after both sets of their grandparents, Paul and Katy Brown and Paul and Katie Huston.

        “I see my mother's soothing quality in Katie that held my father in check and stabilized him,” Mike Brown says. “This is a small business, and there seems to be a tendency to exaggerate your ills, woes and challenges. My father would do that. I do that. And to the degree I would help my father settle down — what you would call venting — Katie does that for me. She is very patient.”

        At the same time, there's no mistaking that Katie Blackburn is Paul Brown's granddaughter.

        “Katie has his competitive spirit. She has an intelligence that compares to him,” Mike Brown says. “But to compare anyone to him is asking too much. He had the ability to make something out of nothing and to fashion it into something new and different. That opportunity no longer, at least in this business, presents itself.”

Blazing trails
        But Katie Blackburn is something new in the football industry — a woman.

        She says being part of a football family got her in the door. But she's determined to succeed on her own now that she's there.

        “She has accomplished everything regardless of her gender and family name,” says Amy Trask, who, as the CEO of the Oakland Raiders, is the first female chief executive in the NFL. “She is professional, dedicated and committed to the advancement of her franchise. And Katie is of the same mind I am: The last thing a woman should do is to make gender an issue if she doesn't want other people to.”

        There are two female owners in the NFL: Georgia Frontiere of the St. Louis Rams and Denise DeBartolo-York of the San Francisco 49ers. Other ranking female executives are Jeanne Bonk, chief financial officer of the San Diego Chargers, and Linda Bogdan, a corporate vice president of the Buffalo Bills and daughter of team owner Ralph Wilson.

        But Mrs. Blackburn is a female pioneer in the field of player contracts, several agents say. She's the only woman who's got a seat at that table.

Tough negotiator
        Mike Brown credited his daughter with the early signing of top draft pick Peter Warrick and the contract extension that makes tackle Willie Anderson the richest offensive lineman in football.

        The success of those negotiations doesn't mean she's weak.

        “No, she's tough, quiet tough,” says James Gould, Mr. Warrick's agent. “She's not pound-your-fist-on-a-desk tough. She's intellectually tough and do-your-homework tough.”

        Mr. Gould is based in Cincinnati, and his son and one of Mrs. Blackburn's two daughters play soccer together.

        “She has these family values about her,” Mr. Gould says. “In an age when conglomerates are buying up everything, she holds onto that family tradition. Yet she understands that partnerships between players, their agents and the team are very important.

        “We went out on a limb and said publicly that Peter wanted to to sign early. She could have used that against us. She didn't. She read the situation well and made it work.”

        Richard Katz is another Cincinnati-based agent who also represents another new Bengals player, free agent signee Vaughn Booker.

        “She's astute and she listens,” says Mr. Katz, who teaches sports law classes at the University of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky University. “Katie has lectured for me. She knows what she's talking about.”

        The Dartmouth College math and economics major plays down her skills.

        “A lot of it is numbers,” Mrs. Blackburn says, “and I'm comfortable with numbers. With this system, there's a framework, and you work within the framework.”

Corporate citizen
        Besides her work on contracts, Katie Blackburn is making her mark on the team in other ways.

        As a board member of the United Way & Community Chest and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Cincinnati, she is connecting the Bengals to the community and using players' appeal to help the organizations.

        Building on the NFL's long association with the United Way, Mrs. Blackburn has forged a relationship between the Bengals and United Way agencies. The Bengals now lead the NFL in giving per employee to the United Way campaign, and Bengals players also are tops in the NFL in personal appearances for United Way groups.

        She chose to be on the Boys & Girls Clubs board.

        “I love kids,” Mrs. Blackburn says.

        Bob Wallace is associate executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs. “She makes the meetings, which is no small feat,” he says.

        Mrs. Blackburn also is in her first of two years as chairwoman of the agency's annual fund-raiser, the Steak & Burger Dinner, which contributes $100,000 annually to its budget.

        She got former Bengals wide receiver and TV personality Chris Collinsworth as the guest speaker this year. In the past, she asked former quarterback Jeff Blake to put on a clinic at the Kenton County boys club in Covington.

        “In her own soft-spoken, self-effacing way, she has helped us to raise our profile,” Mr. Wallace says. “She wants what's best for the community.”

In a divided world
        In Katie Blackburn's former Spinney Field office, a McDonald's Happy Meal toy — a dinosaur puppet — sat next to a thick binder titled “NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement 1993-2003.”

        Nancy Brown watches her granddaughters when the Blackburns are working.

        “That's the one drawback,” Mrs. Brown says. “You raise her to be a part of the business and to get a good education without thinking about her having children. That's the hard part for her. She is such a wonderful mother. Then you see her as an executive. She lives in a divided world.”

        Mrs. Blackburn says: “No question my kids are my top priority. I hope I'm a good mother.”

        She tries to take a week off at the end of June and gives herself entirely to her girls.

        “We go swimming, we play tennis, we play with their friends,” Mrs. Blackburn says. “I drive my mom and Troy nuts. I love to play with kids.”

        Her daughters, Elizabeth, 7, and Caroline, 5, have a better understanding of football than their mother did at their ages.

        “I was always asking when was it time to go home,” Mrs. Blackburn says.

        So the Brown family could have another generation of women at the Bengals' helm.

        For now, though, Nancy Brown is excited about her daughter's future.

        “I look for Katie to take what she learned from her grandfather and father,” Mrs. Brown says, “and to surround herself with good people, and, as a woman, turn the boys of the NFL on their ears.”

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