Janet Duch was always an athlete. She played basketball and volleyball at Paramus Catholic High School, and then the latter at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where she studied mass communications and journalism. When a stress fracture in her lower back ended her career, she turned hardship into opportunity and dove into sports marketing.
“I mean, I couldn’t cope. I was an athlete my whole life,” she said. “The fact that I wanted to be in sports but couldn’t play anymore…I married the two, and it became a passion and then a career.”
The passion took her to Madison Square Garden, where she was most recently senior vice president of marketing for the New York Rangers and the New York Knicks; and to three years as senior vice president of marketing and communications at third-party premium hospitality start-up On Location Experiences, which creates exclusive events like pregame parties with NFL legends and celebrity chefs alongside the SuperBowl, the Pro Bowl and the draft.
Now, her passion for sports has taken her back to the team side and her biggest role yet: president of the region’s XFL professional football team the New York Guardians, which will play at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford come February.
Duch had her work cut out for her when she was appointed in April. As employee No. 1—well, 1a or 1b, in consideration of Head Coach Kevin Gilbride, whose appointment was announced at the same time as hers—she has had to staff the entire business side of the team: marketing, sales, public relations, community and fan development, content, and event operations.
After seven months, her staffing task is complete. The final employee, employee No. 21, starts Dec. 1.
“Being in start-up, we’re looking for talent that understands the marketplace, understands this community, understands the mindset of sports fans and consumers in this area just to have that advantage of that expertise while we’re kind of running to get to market,” Duch said. “We’re the 16th professional sports team in the area. It’s finding our voice, developing our awareness, our education of what this game is, where we’re playing, with consumers that are busy. There’s a lot of sports and entertainment in this area. How do we set ourselves apart?”
Not specific to the Guardians, the XFL platform will build the fan voice into everything it does, said Duch. Advisory boards, focus groups on the game and game experience, and an online portal where fans can vote and share their feedback on things they’d like to see throughout the season — it’s “a little bit of a different approach to the sports industry,” Duch explained, and something she expects to be the XFL’s fabric.
“It’s the relationship you have with your fans,” she said. “You constantly want to hear what’s working, what’s not working, what improvements you can make, what ideas they have of being a part of the game day experience. They’re your ambassadors, they’re your passionate fans. Why not continue that relationship to better the business?”
This is the XFL’s second coming. It’s a wholly-owned subsidiary of Vince McMahon’s Alpha Entertainment, headquartered in Stamford, Conn. A previous iteration of the league in 2001 lasted just one season, eventually billed as “a bold challenge, a fearless experiment and ultimately, a spectacular failure” by Charlie Ebersol, director of the 2017 ESPN special This Was the XFL and son of then-XFL partner Dick Ebersol.
There’s reason to believe it’ll take off now, though, according to Duch.
“There’s a lot of research done saying 40 million fans want more football, that the professional and college season is not enough — they want football,” Duch said. “We’re going to be playing and providing football in a time of year that is historically not a football season.”
The 12-week XFL season, from February to April, will offer five home games, five road games, and two weeks of playoffs. Mega media partners have committed to broadcasting XFL games: ABC, ESPN, FOX and FS1.
“Imagine that broadcast power of distributing the content and the game for the next 12 weeks,” Duch said.
In the two-plus months leading up to their inaugural Feb. 9 game against the Tampa Bay Vipers, Duch and her team are laser-focused on building relationships with local businesses and corporate partners. The sales team will invite corporations and local New Jersey businesses to its Jersey City office to cultivate relationships over power lunches, and they’ve also been tabling at local events to make their presence known. They’re looking to co-create programming within the stadium with local businesses that want to reach the Guardians audience of casual sports fans, avid football fans, and families.
“We purposely put our office in Jersey City to build those relationships with Jersey brands, knowing that we’re playing in MetLife Stadium and operating in Bergen County on the football side,” Duch said.
“Whether it’s hospitality, whether it’s partnerships, whether it’s events, whether it’s local bars and restaurants and being a good community citizen, I think there’s many opportunities for Jersey businesses to partner up with us and we’re excited to work with them.”
The Guardians practice facility is in Waldwick, and its training facility is in Mahwah. The Mahwah Sheraton Hotel, which will house the players, signed on as the Guardians first local partner. Other operational components, like transportation, also necessitate local business partners.
And for businesses looking to entertain clients at a sporting event, the Guardians will open suites at the stadium and are even putting seats on the field for an up close and personal experience.
One in eight
Contrary to popular belief, Duch said she’s never the sole woman in the sports business board room. In the XFL as a whole, out of eight teams there are two female presidents (and, as she noted, two African-American male presidents). At the Guardians, her head of PR, head athletic trainer, and assistant strength and conditioning coach are all women. The team she built is 60/40 male/female, she said, though not necessarily on purpose.
“I was just seeking the best talent out there. Again, as a start-up, we were looking for those who had understanding of the marketplace, the mentality of our fans, the community, the footprint, and the best talent,” Duch said.
As a successful woman in a male-dominated industry, she does get tapped to speak at women-centric events, like the NJBIZ Women in Business Symposium on Dec. 17 at the DoubleTree Hotel in Somerset. Duch will deliver the event’s keynote.