ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — There are rewarding corporate headquarter jobs and Damani Leech had his share across the sports landscape for nearly 25 years.
The PGA, the NCAA, the NFL. People go to college for a long time, as Leech did, to work in such prominent sports administration roles.
Problem was, Leech was and always will be a football player. A three-time all-Ivy League defensive back who had 20 interceptions at Princeton from 1994-97. It’s not the sweat and toil he missed working in a sports administration office. It was the adrenaline rush one only gets while competing for victory and trying to avoid the failure of losing.
And so Leech left the even-keel corporate sports world to throw himself into the highs and lows of leading a single team, the Denver Broncos, as their new president.
“When you’re at a league or you’re at a headquarters you don’t lose, but you also don’t win,’’ Leech said in a sit-down interview Monday with 9NEWS. “And I’m a competitive person. I want to win. I want to be emotionally invested in building something and having a chance to win and be successful. And that’s what’s really intriguing about working with a club.’’
He is the fourth Black team president hired by an NFL club in the past two years, following Washington’s Jason Wright, the Ravens’ Sashi Brown and the Raiders’ Sandra Douglass Morgan.
“I’m No. 4, I’m not No. 1, which is a statement in and of itself in that I’m not the first,’’ Leech said at his introductory press conference in the Broncos’ main auditorium. “What you’re seeing is the league is beginning to evolve in areas of appreciating diversity, equity and inclusion. As I talked about me standing on the shoulders of giants, I think that’s within this organization. When you look at black executives across sports, also I stand on the shoulders of giants, those not just in football but across other leagues, professional and collegiate, many of whom have been mentors to me and have reached out to me as this announcement has taken shape to really congratulate me. I really appreciate that and therefore understand the duty I have to really pay that forward to the next generation.”
After graduating from Princeton, Leech took a gradual structured path to Broncos president, where he will head the team’s business and stadium departments. He first interned with the PGA, got his Master’s at Indiana, then spent more than 17 years with the NCAA working primarily as director of baseball and football. Then he spent nearly 7 years at NFL headquarters in New York, most recently as one of the leaders of the league’s international department.
“His understanding of how the league works and the relationships that he's built across the league working with all 32 organizations, it's going to be invaluable to us,'' said Greg Penner, the Broncos' new owner and CEO. "He’s been involved in growing a part of the NFL and understanding how to grow businesses is important.''
It was presented to Leech that basketball is the most global of American sports and baseball is huge in Latin America and Asian countries, but football, for all its recent inroads, still pales next to mighty soccer outside the United States.
“My experience with NFL International was twofold,’’ Leech said. “One, surprising. There are certain markets around the world where football is incredibly strong. Mexico, they’ve been playing college football since the 1920s. Obviously we know about Canada and the CFL. Japan they have a strong college and semipro system. Germany is really strong. So there are certain markets where I was really taken aback by how strong it was.
“But there were other markets where it was more of a challenge with our sport. What shines through, though, is the brand. The shield. People know the (NFL) shield. They know the logos of certain teams and they know certain players. And we capitalized on that. That was part of the reason why we said, “We’ve got to put our teams out front here internationally and give them a chance to grow their fan base and connect directly with the fans.”
The Broncos were selected to play Jacksonville in London this season on Oct. 30. As the Broncos’ team president, Leech said he will not meddle in football operations or decisions made by general manager George Paton although business can help a football team win.
“I got a chance to connect with George throughout the interview process and we have a shared bond of playing football at a collegiate level, and knew both weren’t playing on Sundays, and talked about how we wanted to get started in careers and really started basically as interns ourselves,’’ Leech said. “And we really bonded over that and have a shared vision for wanting to build a successful program that wins on the field.
“Our no. 1 focus is on winning. I’ll work with George, we’ll have candid, ongoing communication. We’ll also have very structured times where we need to sit down and talk about how things are going. But make no mistake about it, George and coach Hackett are going to be responsible for football. They are picking the players, coaching the players, drawing up the plays. I’m not doing any of that.
“My responsibility is to grow the fan base – deepen the relationship with the ones that we have, grow the ones that we don’t. Help our players and our club be really strong, solid members of our community. George and I both understand those things have to work in tandem to be successful as an organization. He believes that, I believe that. I really think we’re going to do really great things together.”
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