Finding Freedom: How 2021 Became a Catalyst for my Evolution (Part 1)

by | Jan 4, 2022 | Reflections

This past year was one of the most challenging years for me professionally. As I reflect on 2021 I am amazed at how much I grew as a person and as a creative. I entered last year with a new job, new goals, and a renewed excitement about being a designer in the sports industry. I had no idea that the challenges that were coming would completely transform my confidence and my mindset. I knew that as last year came to a close, I wanted to document my journey through 2021 — not just for myself, but for an industry of creatives who have their own unique challenges who, I hope, will find at least one part of my story encouraging or comforting.

1st Quarter

Wanting Something Different
At the end of 2020, I found myself in a place where I was steadily losing passion for design and it was getting harder and harder every day to wake up and make the 30-second commute from my bed to my computer downstairs to begin working. By this time, I had been working for the Kansas City Royals for 2 seasons and we had been working from home since March due to the pandemic. I was lucky enough to work with an amazing creative team during my time there and was able to really sharpen my design skills. Even though I grew up going to Cincinnati Reds games, baseball was never really a sport that I could see myself working in long term. I got to work on great projects, but my interest level in the sport itself just wasn’t there and I felt like I had accomplished all that I wanted to in my time there and in Kansas City in general. It was time for my next step. It was time for something different. 

Back to the NFL
My first job in sports was as a seasonal graphic designer for the Kansas City Chiefs. Ever since my time there ended, I knew I wanted to be back in the NFL at some point in my career. When I saw the graphic designer job posting for the Denver Broncos, I knew I wanted to apply. Not only had I met and networked with a few of the Broncos designers at MLC Connect in 2019, I knew they created great work. After a discussion with my partner, who had lived in KC her whole life and was ready for a change as well, we decided together that I would apply and that Denver could be great for us! 

The application and interview process was one of the most extensive and challenging processes I had ever been through and the entire process was done virtually due to the pandemic. My first interview was with the Graphic Designer, Creative Services Manager, and the Senior Director of Marketing. While I was a little nervous at the beginning, I left that interview feeling pretty confident. I made it to the next phase which was a design test that consisted of clipping out an image, designing a logo, laying out a magazine spread, and designing campaign collateral for both print and digital. All work that I would be doing on a regular basis if I was hired. I remember basically locking myself in our basement for three days trying to make sure I got everything completed on time while still creating high-quality work. 

After they reviewed my design test, I was asked to do another interview with a larger panel of individuals from departments all over the organization. After that, I had a one on one with the current designer at the time, Kristian, to make sure we clicked well. It was about a week before Christmas when I got the call from the creative services manager, Cassidee, that I had landed the job! This news was the early Christmas gift I had been hoping for. Now that my partner and I had the news, it was on to planning out the next chapter of our lives. 

Second Quarter

New Beginnings
I accepted the designer role with the Broncos at a salary range that was less than what I had initially asked for. Since salary conversations with HR took place before my initial interview, I knew that if I actually landed this job, I would be faced with the question many of us in the sports industry are faced with – “Is it worth it?” As you progress within any career, you really start to understand your worth and the value you bring to an organization. For me, season tickets, free gear, or company perks will never replace actually getting the salary that I deserve. Are they nice benefits? Sure, but I had a lot of internal struggle with accepting a position where I knew I was being underpaid. In the end, I knew the Broncos would be a great next step for me and I would be working with an incredibly talented design team, be back in the NFL, and have a real opportunity to bring my style and influence to a team that was ready to try something different. I also knew this position would help me expand my range as a creative since I’d get to do a little photography for the marketing department as well. 

Even though the world was still in the midst of a pandemic and Broncos employees were all working from home, I was asked by HR to move to Denver by my start date at the beginning of February. This put my partner and I in a tough spot financially and emotionally since we thought we were going to have more time to move and get settled. While we knew Denver was going to be a significantly more expensive city to live in than KC, I don’t think we were quite prepared for just how much more expensive it would be. Even though my new salary was significantly higher than it was at my previous job, it might as well have been a lateral move given the cost of living here. We came out to Denver for a week in January to look at places and luckily the day before we were going to head back to KC, we found a place north of the city that we decided to sign a lease for, but it would be quite some time before Denver actually felt like home.  

The Dream Team
When I finally started with the Broncos at the beginning of February, I hit the ground running over the next few months working on multiple projects that included creating the 2020 community report, developing a logo and look for a new diversity and inclusion event, designing and building the company intranet, and pitching my ideas for the next season’s campaign look. 

A quick background on how we are structured here: 

Currently, The Branding Iron (also known as marketing creative services and our department) handles all print-related materials including three publications, all signage requests, stadium banners, and presentations. We also handle brand approvals, create the look for the season campaign, logo creation, and design all sponsorship-related items. There is a separate Digital Media department that handles all website and social media related design requests. We also have the Thundervison team who does all the video production and animation, and finally, we also have an in-house print shop. All of these departments are separate and located in different areas of the stadium or at the training facility.

The onboarding process I went through with Cass and Kristian was the most thorough I had ever experienced. It was quite impressive considering how it all had to be done virtually. I was most impressed with how well they had all of their processes laid out and how organized their file system was. I think given the rapid nature of our jobs, sometimes the importance of having a good process can fall by the wayside so it was great to feel like I was coming into something that was so well organized.  

The first few weeks after I started, the three of us went out to dinner to get to know each other better as a team. It was clear from the start that we were going to get along great, not just professionally as coworkers, but as friends. Ever since I started working professionally as a designer, I have struggled with the desire to make friends with my coworkers. I would show up, do my job and go home — all with a great attitude, of course, but that was it. I am not sure if that stemmed from coming from an entrepreneurship background where I was alone most of the time or from feeling like I had a hard time relating to the people I worked with. There was also something very isolating about being one of the only black women (or women of color) in many of the previous jobs that I held both in and outside of sports.  

There was something powerful about being on a team that consisted solely of women that motivated me to be the best designer I could be every day! The fact that my manager was a woman of color inspired me even more. All too often I have walked into spaces and hardly ever seen people of color in senior or management roles. It can make you wonder, ‘Is this a space I even belong in?’ As a person of color, it helps to see this because knowing someone else has done it lets me know that I can too. 

We continued to work well together over the coming months and finally started going into the office. I think we became even stronger as a team once we were able to collaborate in person. It felt great to be part of a team of more than just two! We had deep discussions about design, shared what inspired us, and exchanged solid feedback in the middle of our design processes. I struggle with imposter syndrome and I have come to find that many other designers do as well. Honestly, sharing a messy artboard with all of my thoughts and failed design attempts had always been a very vulnerable space for me. I had been fighting off the question of, ‘Am I really as good of a designer as people perceive me to be?’ for my entire career and I can’t imagine that will change anytime soon. 

30 Second Time-Out
Working in sports, we have the opportunity for our creations to be seen by millions of people, to influence well-known and admired brands, to have a front seat to all the action, and if we’re lucky, we get to play a very small part in having a championship ring of our own. There truly is nothing quite like working in sports no matter what part of the industry you touch. However, it seems there comes a point for many creatives in this industry, where we have had enough of being overworked, underpaid, and undervalued. We want more for ourselves and our families. We work in an industry that we love and are so passionate about that sometimes, doesn’t love us back in the ways that are the most meaningful to us. Because of this truth, I can’t say that I was all too upset about what was going to happen next.

Back to Back
I was really loving the work-life balance I was having at the Broncos so far. Most days, we were in at 8 am and out by 5 pm. We worked from home 2 days a week and there was enough of us doing the work so we weren’t spread too thin most of the time. We also did not work on social projects outside of cheer so there weren’t many times, if any, where we had to drop everything to accommodate an immediate request. I loved that. 

It was around the beginning of July when Kristian let Cass and I know that she had accepted a new job as a senior graphic designer for a tech company and would be leaving the Broncos at the end of the month. Now, I’m not even going to lie, I didn’t see this coming at all! While I was so sad for her to leave, I could not have been more excited for her new role…and her new salary to match! 

I want to take a moment and address something very prevalent in our industry. It can be difficult to find opportunities for upward mobility as a creative but especially for a creative in sports. So many times, our only option is to wait around for the opportunity to present itself for us to be promoted within our organizations, or to leave the organization altogether and go somewhere else. Not because we want to leave, but because our organizations may not do all that they can to keep us and show us that we are valued. So when we ask for more or what we deserve, we are met with all the “reasons” as to why our requests cannot be accommodated. Because of this, I completely understood Kristian’s decision to leave. 

During Kristian’s last week, we celebrated her and her accomplishments at the Broncos. On her last day, we were heading out to go to a going away happy hour for a different coworker when Cass called me into her office and asked me to shut the door behind me. That immediately sent a jolt of concern throughout my body. I nervously sat down and she told me that she had just put in her 2-weeks notice and would be leaving the Broncos as well. There was a long pause. I didn’t know what to say. I absolutely hate crying at work, but I cried, we both did and I could tell she felt bad especially since Kristian had left as well. We had grown close as coworkers but also as friends. She was the type of leader I’ve always wanted to be and I felt like I still had so much more to learn from her. After we made it through the tears, she told me that she had accepted a new role that almost seemed too perfect for her, and I couldn’t have been more excited for her and her family! While I was excited for their next steps in life, I knew that their exits meant that I would be running the entire marketing creative department alone and I wasn’t sure if I was up for that challenge.

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