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Next Woman Up: Maria Gigante, VP of United Kingdom Operations for the Jacksonville Jaguars

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Women are rising up the ranks throughout professional football, earning positions of power in a space that for too long was ruled almost exclusively by men. We're seeing more and more women breaking barriers in the sport, but what are the stories beyond the headlines? Who are the women shaping and influencing the NFL today? Answering those questions is the aim of the Next Woman Up series. While the conversational Q&As are edited and condensed for clarity, this is a forum for impactful women to share experiences in their own words. Without further ado, we introduce:

Maria Gigante, Jacksonville Jaguars

Position: Vice President of United Kingdom Operations

How did you get your start in a career in football?

I started in the league in December 1993 through a family connection. There was an opening for a receptionist position, and I was just getting out of school and didn't have a ton of experience. I got that job when the NFL office was at 410 Park Avenue in New York, and I worked my way up through the organization from there.

I worked in retail licensing at the time and sat in what they called a fish bowl, with my responsibilities being to help people get into the building. The woman who sat next to me was the assistant to the vice president of the department and she was looking to move on, so she passed me work, and within two months, I was able to go to my first Super Bowl with the league in Atlanta.

That's when I got more involved in the events side of retail licensing -- like trade shows, Super Bowl and Pro Bowl -- and I was able to officially work for the VP of the department. He gave me a lot of opportunities to lead projects and events, and I found myself on the international side of the business. My first assignment was a trade show in Monte Carlo. Then I started to do preseason games, so I worked the preseason series games in Tokyo, Mexico and worked across Europe in the 1990s. There were so many different opportunities along the way to build upon my event knowledge and the inner workings of a football team and what it requires when traveling. I was able to make connections with a lot of people around the league and gain experience working with the different teams in international markets.

I was sitting in New York on the events team and running the London games from there when we first launched the International Series. I traveled back and forth, and that was certainly manageable when it was one game. But once we began doing multiple games, the league made me an offer to live in the U.K. for two years to get things set up and work with the league's U.K. office. It was an expat deal and at the time -- my two kids were very little, and I was divorced. I was uncertain as to what the right thing to do was, but I made the leap and my kids actually stayed behind. I was able to split my time between the U.S. and U.K. After the two years, the league asked me to extend for another year. Then in 2017, I officially moved and was an official U.K. employee.

The league had been working with the Jaguars after the pandemic to look at what it would take for a team to operate a game in the U.K. I was liaising with Kelly Flanagan, a former Jaguars executive, at the time and leading that work for the league. Once we got through the first international game in 2021 after the pandemic, Kelly made me a really good offer to come work for the Jaguars in my current role and really start something from the ground up. That's what attracted me most about leaving the league and going to work for a team. There was no preset model of how to do things. There was an opportunity to take the position and shape and built something that the team was able to deliver. It was similar to the position I had with the league, but it's fun to be on the team side, having done the league stuff for so long.

Can you walk me through what being the Vice President of U.K. Operations entails?

When I was first offered the position, the definition of my role was to successfully deliver the game -- to develop a relationship with Wembley Stadium, get the contract done and make sure the first game we played was a success. As we were going through that, I got to understand more of the business and everything else the club did in this market. I think there is this preconceived notion that the business is really structured around this one game each year. I feel the opposite. The game is a big part of what we do, but the business is structured on everything outside of that game, with the ability to activate and be successful in the market 365 days a year.

We have an extensive grassroots program, which is probably the largest delivery of flag football in Europe. We have over 90,000 kids playing JagTag and extensive programs underneath our Union Jax Club. There is so much more to what we do than just deliver the game. To me, that was the most exciting bit.

The Jaguars played back-to-back games in the U.K. this season, making them the first team to do so. What were some of the challenges of that? What were some highlights?

The majority of the football operations and logistics for anything team-related in the U.K. is done within my team. We work closely with our football department in the U.S. and lead the charge for the team arrangements. I'd say that was the most challenging part, making sure there was consistency even though the team played the first game at Wembley Stadium and the second at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. That and differentiating the fact that we ran the first game -- a home game for us -- and being the away team for the second, which the league ran. We navigated the dynamic of having the ability to deliver a game like we would do in Jacksonville, with all of the rights and bells and whistles, before taking a back seat to our game at Tottenham because the Buffalo Bills were the designated team. I found that to be a bit challenging.

Finding out how to really take advantage of it was also a challenge. As an organization, we really wanted to maximize every opportunity. There was an overwhelming sense that everything needed to go well for the football team, so we knew we had to deliver and be successful. I would say winning both games in London then coming off the trip and winning vs. Indianapolis was the trifecta, if you will.

Having worked within the league for 30 years, are you at all surprised to see how the game has grown internationally?

Looking back to when we used to do preseason games in Tokyo, it was such a heavy lift and a strain to get the teams to agree. It was basically a 24-hour trip over there, and then there was housing the team, language barrier and time difference. You almost felt defeated before you got there. But once the teams got there and the wheels were in motion, you could see how it could be successful. Though I have worked on Super Bowls and Pro Bowls, I have always been more excited about the international opportunities because it was such a different thing. You saw the fandom grow, and fans embraced what you were doing. Nothing is taken for granted.

I guess I am surprised by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's ambition, especially having a regular-season game in Brazil next season. There were three games in the U.K. and two in Germany this year. We are so spread out, but at the same time, I truly believe it is the right thing for the league to be doing. Having seen it grow from those first preseason games, it absolutely makes sense that we're in this progression.

Focusing on the U.K. specifically, how do you see the league growing there?

I would love the Jags to be the team that truly becomes the U.K.'s team. Given the other NFL teams in the U.K. market, I believe we have a little bit of a leg up. It's certainly a market that can sustain a team, given how much the fandom has grown, the enthusiasm from commercial partnerships, and media partners wanting to do more with us. There has been great momentum, and we've seen a bit of a shift in terms of a team coming over and operating the game. We're seeing it's possible to be successful. If I had my wish, we'd be playing more games here, but of course, there is a balance.

I just want to see American football continue to grow in the market, and I'm hoping there are more opportunities to talk about everything else we're doing, like the grassroots programs, and to help the league grow the sport. That's really what the Jaguars are. We are at the forefront of what the league wants to do globally. We are supporting the league's growth of American football in the U.K., and we're proud and happy to be doing that because it's great for everyone, the owners and us as an organization.

It has been great to see how much the sport has grown. Now, let's shift to mentorship. Do you have any mentors who've helped you along the way, and what advice have you received from them?

I have had some really great bosses in my career, both men and women. When you talk about mentors, they are often people who have helped shape your career. One of them is Dawn Aponte, the NFL's Chief Football Administrative Officer. Dawn is another Staten Island girl, and though she has a different family setup than I have, she has been supportive. I had to do some very different things as a mom with my kids, and I know a lot of people judge me for that. In my gut, I knew I was doing the right thing and that was through conversations with Dawn. Also Sara Levinson, who was the president of NFL properties during my career. She is a mom, as well, and one of the first women to help lead the league. She pulled me aside a couple of times to see how I was doing and to see if I was getting the support that I needed. She has always been in my corner, and thankfully, I've come across a lot of people in the league who also did that for me. Recently with Kelly Flanagan, I really learned a lot from how she conducted herself in meetings -- always calm and approachable, and every word she said was thoughtful. She was a big reason I came over to the Jags.

And now paying it forward: What advice do you have for women interested in a career in football?

Don't ever think you'll be held back because you're a woman. As long as you do your job and do it well, you will get the opportunity. I didn't come from an Ivy League school or have the academic background some in the league had, but I worked hard, put in the hours and built up a reputation.

How have you seen the industry change for women since you began your career?

There is certainly a lot more opportunity and a greater emphasis on women in sports. It's not unusual anymore. You sit in a meeting now and there are three or four women in there, as opposed to earlier in my career when maybe I was the only one.

Lastly, what would you say you are most proud of?

The ability to be successful and be a mom to two great kids who have seen me grow up in my role. To be able to move to a different country and not lose that bond. They are now here with me, so to come through that and be on the other side, to me, that's the greatest accomplishment. We did it together. They have seen so much of the world because of my job. They understand it, respect it and want to be part of it.

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