We sat down with Gina Antoniello at the XFL office in Jersey City. She is the Head of Communications for the New York Guardians of the XFL, an American professional football league launched in February. In this role, Gina is the primary architect of the communications strategy, overseeing both business and football communications. At the same time, Gina is an Adjunct Faculty member at Columbia University and is also pursuing a Ph.D. in Sport Management at Troy University, focusing on athlete activism and social justice in sport and society. Read on to hear about her incredible journey in the sports industry and how her experience as a first-generation American and college student inspired her activism for equal access to higher education.

Tell me about the excitements and challenges you face leading communications for the XFL.

What’s interesting is we are not only launching a team, but also an entire league. The XFL is a single entity league which means that all of the teams have the same owner, and therefore work in tandem to leverage and combine resources horizontally. The newness of it is both exciting and challenging… it just hasn’t been done before. I have been part of start-ups but to be a part of a founding team and have a hand in being a chief architect of a sports league’s brand requires a lot of creativity and hard work. Our staff started our business planning in a one-room office with just three people (I was employee number three), and now we are playing in front of millions of people on national television, and we are inviting in a new generation of Tri-state football fans to engage with the sport in a way that is unprecedented. It feels like the privilege of my career and my lifetime. For longterm fan avidity, we need to continue to earn their engagement. Locally, we have to make good on a promise that we will give back to our community and always be genuine in what we say, what we do, and how we deliver that fan experience every time.

How do you build an identity for a start-up league like XFL and particularly with the team under your purview, the New York Guardians?

It would be a losing battle to tell New Yorkers who they are and what they care about. What we are trying to do is align our brand with the values of this region. When I think about what it means to be a New Yorker, I think of the courage of first responders, the ability of our people to thrive in constant hustle & bustle, and even the magnificent displays of humanity during our darkest times. Those people are our ‘Guardians.’ Now, if we can deliver a team that embodies those sentiments and then invite our fans to co-create that story with us, we’ll see our fanbase grow. This team is for everyone: it’s for football fans, but it’s also for anyone who wants to be a founding member and support a homegrown team right from its birth.

“Stories of athlete activism dominate the sports pages today, and yet this activism decrying social injustice is not a new phenomenon.”

There has been a lot of debate about the role of athletes in speaking out on controversial topics or in protest of injustice, like what we have seen with Colin Kaepernick. Your line of research revolves around this topic in your doctoral studies. Could you share some of your thoughts?

Stories of athlete activism dominate the sports pages today, and yet this activism decrying social injustice is not a new phenomenon. The economic, political, and social impacts of this activism on the business of sport, both domestically and internationally, are undeniable. These movements, demonstrations, and controversies engulfing leagues, players, and fans will not end anytime soon. Through my research and work as a practitioner and educator, I hope to further understand and analyze current social justice issues and related athlete activism strategies to develop newer, different, and possibly more effective strategies to reconcile the interests of the stakeholders in the business of sport.

On a personal level, I believe athletes and entertainers should continue to speak out and champion the social causes they are passionate about. They not only have this incredible platform to do so, but I believe that they have the right to express their opinions on the current issues that devastate the society they partake in.

We are seeing women in executive roles in the sports industry now more than ever. As you continue to build on over a decade-long career in sports and take on leadership roles, are you seeing more women break through that ceiling in the industry or are there still barriers?

I am very optimistic about where we are ascending as a society and how those values relate to normalizing and welcoming women into ‘non-traditional’ roles in the sports industry. Women should absolutely have more seats at the table. Many of my female colleagues have had the benefit of male allies and female pioneers who have empowered us and fostered our growth. Over my career, I’ve had incredible mentors who have opened doors for me, while helping me better understand and develop my passions and skills. Mentorship is so important–and to me, it is one of the ways we will see more women and those who have been generally underrepresented in the industry achieve these roles.

I think viewers also have a responsibility to hold the sports industry accountable. How can casual sports fans like me make a difference?

First and foremost, I think it’s our duty as sport managers to offer programming that can engage casual viewers and bring them in as a part of the fabric of our fan experience. One of the barriers of fandom is the high cost of tickets and the ancillary spending that comes with attending a sporting event. What I value so much about the XFL is that we have the opportunity to make our game accessible and affordable so that potential fans aren’t priced out, as we are seeing happen with other leagues. One of the ways fans can make a difference and enjoy sports at the same time is by supporting social responsibility causes and events that teams align themselves with. Many teams host cause-related events in tandem with their games to benefit nonprofits and bring awareness to social causes. Engaging with and supporting teams that are making an effort to give back is a great way to stay informed, make a difference, and do so while enjoying great entertainment!

What is something you are proud of?

I am proud of my family’s humble beginnings because our story is such a central part of my identity and has dictated and inspired so much of my path. I am a first-generation American and first-generation college student. My dad is from Italy, and I was raised with the understanding that education is paramount because the generations before me didn’t have the access or the opportunity to receive higher education. My parents made it known to me from a very young age that I was going to college. It just became an unquestionable truth to me and I didn’t fully understand the significance of that privilege until much later. Oh man, when I think about what they went through to make sure I had those opportunities, it’s really overwhelming. They sacrificed so much for me. I’m so grateful. 

As I continue to pursue my education, I have this surreal and weighty honor of being a pioneer of sorts. That higher education in a sense opens a door that my entire family had stood on the other side of until my first degree was conferred. In true ‘American Dream’ fashion, these new levels of education are our “Declaration of Independence,” a passport to opportunities beyond our greatest hopes. Having this duality and perspective, I believe that education is a right. I have hope that we will find ways to bridge the opportunity gap in this country and make higher education accessible to all.

“To me, power is the bravery to have a kind heart and manifest compassion for others in a world that doesn’t always reward that type of courage.”

What makes you powerful, and what does power mean to you?

To me, power is the bravery to have a kind heart and manifest compassion for others in a world that doesn’t always reward that type of courage. Oftentimes, it feels like people in general lack empathy for those who are suffering, and yet everyone we encounter is likely facing their own battle that we would never know about. To harness that understanding and approach others with compassion and kindness is powerful. That’s the power that I hope to continue to strengthen.

What is something that brings you power when you need it?

The ultimate power dress! I love wearing a timeless and simple black dress. When I put on a black dress and heels, I feel like I am ready to conquer the world. This dress I am wearing today is a super stretchy and comfortable ruched piece from Susana Monaco. I’ve had it forever and try so hard to maintain it so that I can get another few years of wear out of this one!

Note: By the time this interview will be published, the XFL canceled its regular season due to the coronavirus and is preparing to come back in 2021. Read the statement here; it advises that all players will be paid their base pay and benefits.