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NFL’s Natara Holloway on the Madden NFL 21 x HBCU Tournament Finals, Working With HBCUs, and Diversity – The Esports Observer


On Feb. 6, the inaugural Madden NFL 21 x HBCU Tournament Finals will come to a conclusion, crowning one of 16 participating students from 15 schools the champion and rewarding them with a $5K USD cash prize (third and fourth place will receive $2.5K each). The original plan was to have this competition conceived by Electronic Arts, the NFL, and tournament organizer Nerd Street Gamers take place in conjunction with Super Bowl in Tampa, but the ongoing pandemic put the brakes on all in-person activities.

Instead, the event will be played out virtually among a total of 16 players from Alcorn State, Bowie State, Claflin University, Delaware State, Florida A&M, Fort Valley State, Grambling State, Jackson State, Kentucky State, Lane College, Morehouse College, Norfolk State, Prairie View A&M, Virginia Union, and Winston Salem University. The final two rounds of the finals will be broadcast on the Madden NFL Twitch channels on Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. EST.

The event is part of the NFL’s ongoing HBCU Initiative which works with conferences and schools to foster relationships with HBCUs across the country through educational initiatives, events, internship programs, mentoring, and career paths to bring people of color into the NFL and NFL-associated businesses including partners, sponsors, and teams.

To get a sense of how organizers felt about this first-ever HBCU-focused video game competition, The Esports Observer spoke with Natara Holloway, vice president of business operations and strategy at the NFL. Holloway is a bit of a trailblazer at the NFL, having begun her 17-year career there as an internal audit manager, climbing the ranks over the years and serving in multiple executive roles. As part of her job in business operations, Holloway is overseeing HBCU initiatives like the Madden NFL 21 x HBCU competition.

When asked about what was originally planned for this inaugural event, Holloway acknowledged that the NFL had some grand plans, but erred on the side of caution to keep students safe.

“We clearly wanted to have this tournament at the Super Bowl, which would have been fantastic, but obviously with the pandemic going on, we wanted to make sure that the players were safe and that we did this in the right way, and so we were not able to hold it in Tampa. We are holding it concurrently with the activities that are going on with Tampa, so it still has that Super Bowl feel.”

While COVID-19 shut down any plans to add some pageantry to the finals, Holloway thinks that the silver lining is that the NFL has learned a few things that can be applied to future events. “This was our first year in doing this activity with HBCUs, so I think that this time, not trying to plan a live event and the actual tournament allowed us to make that better for next year.”

Holloway also said that feedback on the overall competition has been overly positive from HBCUs and conference commissioners; there is a real appetite to do this event again next year and in years to follow, and hopefully in the way the NFL wanted to do it in 2021.

“We have gotten a lot of excitement specifically from the conference commissioners,” she said. “I was finding out that not a lot of commissioners at the collegiate level are getting into esports and gaming. It’s a different part of the college. And so they’re actively looking for ways to engage with other parts of their universities, and so this has been a really good bridge builder for them at their actual school, as well as with us. This partnership has been really truly exciting and I think we would be remiss if we did not do this again in some form or fashion.”

As for the number of schools that participated this year, Holloway said the NFL was happy with how things progressed, but that, this being a brand new initiative, everyone is still learning, and there is always room to improve in the years to follow. 

Ultimately, the Madden NFL competition is part of a grander initiative to expose HBCU students to careers in sports business – not just at the NFL, but in connected industries.    

“We’ve had a partnership with HBCUs for years, and we are really getting more active in how we expose students to the various careers in sports. We have a career football forum and for this whole season, we’ve been doing virtual sessions with different parts of our organization and our clubs, so that HBCU students can understand what roles there are at the league office and with the clubs. We have even had some of our vendors and sponsors participate in those calls.” 

Speaking more broadly about the NFL and the makeup of its workforce, Holloway says there has been a strong and ongoing push for diversity.  

“This year we have the leadership of our new chief diversity officer whom we just brought on over this past season. And you’ll see that over the next few months, there are going to be a number of new reports about how the increases [in diversity] have happened. Progress is slow. Are we where we want to be? No. Everyone is clear to point that out to us, but we are making so many strides and I’m very proud to be on the team that is at the front lines of that, and specifically, on the football ops side, we’re doing a number of initiatives that are bringing access, opportunity, and identification for people of color to the league.” 

Finally, Holloway offered some advice to people of color looking to work with the NFL or in the sports business industry, in general:

“I often give advice around just being aware that this is a business; it’s beyond just the game [of football]. This is a highly networked industry, so getting networked, coming to events, participating in our sessions, are the kinds of things that not only give you exposure to people who are in the business and want to help others get into the business like myself and others, but it also allows students to see what opportunities are there.” 

This content was originally published here.

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