Carlie Irsay-Gordon needs to leave the office at 2 for her oldest child’s birthday party. Flexibility, she says, is a perk of working in the family business, one of the reasons she moved from Chicago to Indy several years ago. It’s hard to find the kind of cake-and-eat-it-too freedom elsewhere that she has in a front-office spot with the Colts, the team her late grandfather Bob acquired in 1972. But it’s the future, not past history, that makes Irsay-Gordon intriguing. Smart. Young. Female. If she were a draft pick, scouts would crow that these attributes—downright freakish among the league’s rich-white-man power-elite—make her a potential franchise player. Even though Irsay-Gordon shares a vice-chair/owner title with her two younger siblings, Casey Foyt (yes, that Foyt) and Kalen Irsay, the Colts seem to have faith that the eldest sister is a star in the making. Last year when Jim Irsay, her father, served a six-game suspension after pleading guilty to a DUI, Irsay-Gordon stepped up to become the youngest executive—and lone woman—to run the day-to-day operations of an NFL club. And it’s highly doubtful the Colts played rock-paper-scissors to make that choice.
She has since slid back into her regular role with the team, and although the Colts won’t say Irsay-Gordon is the heiress apparent, the 34-year-old certainly carries herself like she’s in charge.
“Do you want to ask questions,” she says, “or should I just talk?” She doesn’t wait for the answer. “I’ll just talk.”
Here, 11 things about her that you need to know:
1. The Irsay gene is dominant.
When she laughs, Irsay-Gordon looks and sounds a lot like her old man. The laugh? Dad’s self-amused chortle punctuates sentences with an unspoken Duuuddde. Hers is the lite version. For both, to reach the end of a thought plays as a pleasant, amusing surprise. “I can ramble,” she says. But it’s not without substance. She appears to be a deep and thoughtful thinker—a seeker. And maybe even a little silly, someone who can make a comparison between
the NFL and toothpaste and kind of nail it. More on that later.
2. She was almost Dr. Irsay-Gordon.
Before she came to work for her father, Irsay-Gordon was studying to be a clinical psychologist in Dallas and then Chicago. “Ugh, I was so close,” she says. “All I needed was to put in my training hours and take my boards, and I could call myself a doctor.” She didn’t, though, partly because she was a new mom while going through grad school and partly because working with patients who had severe disorders was beyond what she had envisioned for herself. “Ultimately, I found that I couldn’t work with a patient if I couldn’t empathize with them, couldn’t align myself with them. And if I couldn’t do that, I felt like I wouldn’t be the right person to help them. Plus, I remember constantly thinking, When am I going to be able to get home to see my daughter?”
3. If the NFL doesn’t work out, she’s got a backup plan.
“I think, one day, when I get older and less busy, maybe I’ll have a private practice with very low-maintenance clients I can just talk to,” she says. Irsay-Gordon loved the therapy part of her training but is the type who likes to dabble in a little bit of everything. As an undergrad at Skidmore College in upstate New York, she majored in religion and minored in geology, which, on a practical level, doesn’t make sense. Theoretically, though, it’s a solid, liberal-arts-y move. “My problem has never been What am I interested in? My problem is that I’m interested in everything, and that I want to learn everything, and that there are only so many hours in a day.”
4. She knows the importance of dealing with dirty laundry.
This is kind of the family’s Jock Strap Theory of Experience. And it’s rooted in a story that might bend a wee bit apocryphal. When Jim started out with the Colts, he was a ball boy who picked up jock straps in the locker room. Aside from the fact that this is a spectacularly unsanitary practice and possibly the athletic-supporter version of walking five miles to school in the snow, the job is, in theory, a character-builder. “That’s something my sisters and I didn’t have,” she says. “Our ‘locker room’ was the ticket office, working with our season-ticketholders and cold-calling potential customers. Along the way, I picked up some pretty solid customer-service skills.” But not jocks.
5. Jim sounds like a pretty cool dad.
No one forced Irsay-Gordon to come to work for the Colts. She did that on her own, initially making the drive from her home in Chicago to Indy several times to work events during the 2012 Super Bowl. “If I didn’t want to do this, I think he would totally understand,” she says. Mommy-blog footnote: “I was driving back and forth with an 18-month-old. She got carsick pretty much every time.”
6. He seems like a pretty cool boss, too.
Jim is only 56 and, despite past struggles with prescription pills and alcohol, doesn’t appear to be relinquishing control anytime soon. He’s the capo dei capi, but not a micromanager. That’s a trait Irsay-Gordon admires and hopes she emulates. “He’s given us a lot of responsibility and lets us go with it,” she says. This is why the temporary transition from Jim to Carlie last year was seamless. “It wasn’t necessarily anything new,” she says. “Plus, our people are very good at what they do. Pete Ward, our COO, has been here forever. [Coach] Chuck [Pagano] and [general manager] Ryan [Grigson] are both great. To be able to rely on that kind of talent and experience was a fortunate thing for us all.”
7. The fan support blew her away.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Jim for six games last season, which meant the Colts owner was pretty much banished from anything Colts-related. “It was so hard for him to miss those games,” she says. “It was hard for us to see him miss them.” Irsay-Gordon won’t say much else about that time, except that it was a distressing episode for the entire family (Jim spent a few weeks in a rehab facility) and that it made her grateful the team wasn’t located in, say, tabloid-friendly New York. She and her family were inundated with emails, phone calls, and letters. “When you go through a difficult time and hands reach out to you instead of slapping you in the face,” she says, “it’s just a very good feeling.”
8. She likes that you fans are really passionate. Really.
To her, part of what makes the NFL a wonderful business model is that people don’t think of it as a business. It’s kind of sneaky-great that way. But that can also lead to people getting sort of possessive about something that, in actuality, only a very small group of people own. “People, they inculcate it,” Irsay-Gordon says. “I mean, they think it’s theirs. That’s why, in some ways, when we left Baltimore, people took it so personally. They felt like it was their team that we were taking away from them. But that’s the hard part. At the end of the day, on some level, it has to be about business. Sometimes people forget that.”
9. Here’s the toothpaste thing.
This is an analogy that Irsay-Gordon has test-run on friends. It all comes together at the end—or at least it’s out of the tube by then. “I always compare [fandom] to going to the store and getting your favorite toothpaste,” she says. “And you get there and you buy the toothpaste and go home and brush your teeth. And you’re brushing your teeth, and you’re like, ‘This toothpaste is not the same as the last time I had it. Something’s different.’ Are you going to throw it on the ground and scream and call the Crest company and freak out on them? It’s only in our business where we make a decision and have to think, Okay, there are going to be some people who are NOT happy about this. And they’re not going to like it so much that they’re maybe going to call us on the phone and scream at us. To me, that’s the power of our brand. Obviously, toothpaste is something that you need. I consider us to be a luxury brand. It’s purely discretionary. You don’t need to go to a football game.”
10. But then again, football is a helluva drug.
Even Irsay-Gordon admits it’s hard to separate business from pleasure on game days. “Oh, yeah—we get totally psyched up,” she says. “And then we get mad when the team’s not doing well. We all do.” For instance, it was tough when Peyton Manning came back to Indy last season as a member of the Denver Broncos. “It felt kind of weird,” she says. “We wanted him to do well, but … .” Players, coaches, owners—they come and go, but professional football is like one big (rich) family. “Even though we’re competing like hell with our cohorts on Sundays,” says Irsay-Gordon, “we’re friends with most of the owners.” (Cough. Patriots.)
11. She thinks the best part about football is teamwork.
To Irsay-Gordon, that means good communication, whether it’s between employees on the business side, on the football side, or on the field. She says she can always tell when the team is clicking on Sundays. “Seeing that is pretty magical. When it happens, it’s, like, whoa! And when it doesn’t happen, you feel like your eyes are bleeding.” There’s a slim margin between winning and losing, especially in a league where the teams have essentially the same amount of money to acquire talent. But, as she rightly points out, “it doesn’t hurt to have Andrew Luck.”
This article appeared in our September 2015 issue.