Vikings Chief Operating Officer Kevin Warren has overcome great odds, including nearly losing his life in an accident at 11 years old, in order to rise to his current position, the highest-ranking African American executive in the NFL.
Warren recently was featured in a Sports Business Journal article in which Abraham Madkour spoke to Warren about the childhood experience and wrote that he has since “emerged as one of the most powerful voices on diversity and inclusion efforts.”
Madkour’s feature on Warren was the first installment in a series of profiles for SBJ’s 2019 class of The Champions: Pioneers & Innovators in Sports Business. Warren was one of six individuals inducted this year. Madkour wrote:
Over the years, Warren has been an inspiring and influential executive to numerous young people in sports. He’s commanding and direct, yet empathetic. He focuses on altruism. But experiencing the fragility of life has left him clear-minded, consistent and focused. And it’s always about focusing on the day.
“When I wake up, I am so grateful,” Warren told Madkour. “I live and focus on the day. Today. So many people live their life writing to-do lists for tomorrow or next week. I write mine for today, because tomorrow may never come. And I made it my life’s mission and journey to help as many people as I can. Because I see every day as another day to do something great.”
Madkour delved into the life story of Warren, the son of two educators and youngest of seven children. The profile follows Warren’s journey to the Vikings, where he started in 2005 as executive vice president of legal affairs and chief administrative officer.
It wasn’t going to be easy. The Vikings were in the bottom five in league revenue, financially challenged by an outdated venue with a strict stadium lease and were often targeted for relocation. The franchise was seen across sports as an underperforming operation.
But under the [Wilf Family ownership group] and Warren, that’s all changed — both on and off the field.
After 14 years under the Wilfs, the Vikings sit firmly in the top quarter of the NFL in overall revenue and are far more respected across the league. For Warren, it starts with support and resources from the Wilf family.
Madkour highlighted the “altruistic spirit and mission-based culture” developed under Warren and the Wilf family.
“Our group works really hard,” Warren told Madkour. “We’re very demanding, but also very charitable. We launched our Minnesota Vikings Foundation in 2017. We created a women’s platform, Vikings Women. We were the first NFL team to host an LGBTQ symposium in 2018. We have created an Innovation Leadership Rotational Program for young people who cannot normally break into sports a chance to get into sports. We have a robust internship program. I wanted to make sure that we created an environment where everyone could feel comfortable.”
Below are additional excerpts from Madkour’s feature:
Warren on taking his leadership role seriously:
“A leader should be an example. People should look at a leader and say, ‘It is really hard to do all the different things that they’re doing, and in a manner that they’re doing it in.’ That’s something that I aspire to do. A leader shouldn’t be someone that people in an organization say, ‘There’s nothing special about them. They are someone’s favorite or they got there because they knew the right people.’
“So many times leaders underestimate the power of their presence, the power of their words, and most of all, the power of their actions. People should look at us and say, ‘It’s amazing what that person does on a daily basis.’ A true leader does it all with style, grace, class and always remembers to send the elevator back down to pick someone else up. That’s what a true leader is.”
Warren on imploring those in sports to “think bigger and broader”:
“We in the sport business need to understand that sport is bigger than sport. This is a powerful platform, as it allows us to be change agents in politics, education, race relations — when done correctly. We need to be very thoughtful and use sports to propel positivity in our society, empower young people and be inclusive. Diversity and inclusion in sports is critical. How do we make the staffs of sports organizations look more like America? Are women and men in sports paid similarly? Are women running sports organizations? Are people of color running sports organizations? The true leaders in this industry are the individuals who are asking, ‘In 2035, in 2050, what does this deal look like?’ ”
Warren on future ambitions of holding an ownership stake in a big four franchise:
“Young people in sixth grade could look and say, ‘This guy did not grow up with any family money. He got his education, paid his dues, worked hard for 30 years, kept his head down and helped people. And he was able to eventually own a piece of a team.’ That’s the American Dream. That’s where my head is now. To have an opportunity, no matter how small that may be, to have a piece of a team, and to know that I have earned that opportunity and can add value.”