Executive Q&A: Seattle Seahawks CFO Karen Spencer on Sports, Money and the NFL

Karen Spencer has been with the Seahawks for 27 years and is one of only six female CFOs in the NFL.

This article appears in print in the August 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Growing up, Karen Spencer wasn’t into sports. “I was not the least bit athletic,” she recalls. “I seriously failed jungle gym.” Against all odds and expectations, she joined the Seattle Seahawks as an accountant in 1991 and became CFO in 2009, managing the finances of the NFL team and First & Goal Inc., the Paul Allen-owned entity that operates CenturyLink Field, CenturyLink Field Event Center and the WaMu Theater.     

EARLY YEARS: I grew up in North Seattle. My dad worked at Boeing most of his career. During the ’70s, Boeing sold airplanes to the Iranian government and provided employees to teach them how to fly and maintain the planes. My father was one of those employees, so we moved to Tehran when I was 10 and we lived there for three and a half years. My mom had her teaching certificate. In Iran, she taught science at the Tehran American School. I loved our time overseas and we traveled extensively, including Switzerland, Russia, Greece, Israel, Italy and Spain.  

REACCLIMATING: When we returned to Seattle, I graduated from Nathan Hale High School at the age of 16, which I think was far too young emotionally. It took some rather poor choices on my part and a few major missteps before I finally graduated with an accounting degree from Seattle University.

SEAHAWKS: My brother-in-law is a CPA and was working for Arthur Andersen & Co., and he recommended me for a job with the firm. I was drawn to accounting and I enjoyed being around the young, bright, ambitious people who worked there. It seemed to be my calling, so I decided to major in accounting. The Seahawks were a client of Arthur Andersen and didn’t have much of an accounting staff at the time. The firm lent me to them [in 1990] to help with journal entries, bank reconciliations and other basic accounting tasks. My plan was to continue with Arthur Andersen upon graduation and embark on a career in public accounting. Plans changed when the Seahawks offered me a full-time position as a staff accountant [in 1991]. I could not pass it up despite knowing next to nothing about football. I have since learned a lot about football and the related economics, and have risen through the ranks to my current role.

ELEVATOR PITCH: Aside from the typical CFO responsibilities of establishing budgets, ensuring adherence to those budgets, managing cash flow and overseeing financial reporting, I also oversee the technology and business analytics teams. My role involves collaborating with many different stakeholders across all the departments that make up a football and stadium operations team on all things financial. I am a member of our senior management team, which is responsible for developing business strategies and making recommendations to our president, Peter McLoughlin, and ultimately our team ownership [Paul Allen].

SELF-EVALUATION: I prefer to listen than to speak. I think my collaborative, friendly and genuine approach has served me well. As much as we all like to believe we are effective communicators, I know there is always room to improve. I sometimes forget the value of sharing what I know with others.

FINANCIAL STEWARDSHIP: Locally generated revenue is what differentiates teams financially [because all NFL teams share equally the money from TV deals, licensing, etc.]. When Peter came on board in 2010, we were below average by most revenue metrics. He positioned us to take advantage of the team success that was right around the corner. He challenged everyone to find ways to grow revenue across all revenue streams — tickets, sponsorships, suite sales and retail. We experienced double-digit annual growth for several years running and we are now much more in line with where we should be, from a revenue ranking perspective.

OWNERS’ MEETINGS: It still feels rather surreal to be sitting in a room along with so many legendary NFL owners, but it is truly a privilege. As the CFO, I find it extremely beneficial to attend the meetings so I learn firsthand issues that drive the business of football. Topics include everything from league-level financial updates to broadcast and digital media updates, ownership transactions, injury prevention, playing-rule proposals, stadium security, legislative updates and fan engagement. I find it remarkable that so many high-profile owners with vastly different views are able to find common ground.  

WOMEN IN THE NFL: There are six female CFOs in the NFL. I cannot speak for other women in the league, but I don’t feel it has been more challenging for me because of my gender. The league encourages female participation at every level of the sport, including coaching, training and officiating.

MEASURING SUCCESS: When I know that I played a role in the development and delivery of a plan, or was part of a process where the outcome made my boss or the organization look good, I consider that success.

COMPETITION: We are ultimately in the entertainment business; our competition comes from all other forms of entertainment that vie for people’s time and discretionary spending. Even the in-home viewing experience is competition — TV ratings are important, but not at the expense of an empty stadium. Maintaining sellouts is critical and that is why we invest so much in the in-game fan experience and place so much value on feedback from our fans.  

LESSONS LEARNED: I have come to terms with the fact that it is OK not to be the loudest person in the room. It is often more important to pay attention to what other people have to say. I do regret not being involved in sports growing up. Early on, I missed out on learning the value of teamwork and understanding how powerful uniting for a common goal can be. 

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