Matt Higgins, the New York Jets' executive vice president of business operations and close adviser to owner Woody Johnson since he arrived in 2004, has announced today that he is leaving the Jets.
"I'm really proud of what we've been able to accomplish over the last eight years," said Higgins, who told the Jets' business staff at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center this morning that he's departing to explore new entrepreneurial opportunities. "In many ways we've transformed the franchise. We built a state-of-the-art stadium and an amazing practice facility, and we've created a culture of deep fan engagement and transparency, a culture of innovation.
"I think we've got some of the best people in all of sports working in this building and I'm honored to have worked with them all these years."
In an email to the staff, Johnson said, "The business side has made tremendous strides under Matt's leadership, helping the team earn a reputation as one of the most innovative in all of professional sports. ... His judgment and guidance have been instrumental as we have transitioned to a new practice facility and new stadium while raising the profile of the team."
Higgins said that late this past season, he informed Johnson of his plans. He declined to go into detail about his business opportunities. "I'll have more to say about that in the near future," he said. "Right now we've been working closely on planning an orderly transition."
As part of that transition, Bob Parente, the team's senior vice president of programming and media production, will oversee the Jets' business operations on an interim basis until a successor has been determined. Parente will be under consideration by a search firm that will recommend a list of candidates as Higgins' permanent replacement to the Jets' chairman and CEO.
"With more than 30 years of experience, Bob's a Jets lifer who knows our team inside and out — I think he's been with the Jets since Matt was 2 years old," Johnson told his business employees. "He's always somebody we've relied on and I have 100 percent confidence in Bob, his judgment and his hard work."
"Matt has never settled for being second-best or the status quo. He's a tremendous mentor and leader," said Parente, who began with the Jets as an intern in 1974. "We all work for the greatest sports organization, the NFL, and for one of the New York franchises in the greatest city in the world. I'm proud to work for the New York Jets and to be leading this organization through this transition."
Higgins' "Vigor and Vibe"
Higgins, who at 37 can still qualify for a few more "40 Under 40" awards, one of which he earned from Crain's and another from Sports Business Journal, has brought a particular kind of vigor and vibe to the Jets during his time in the EVP's office. One element of his approach has been his and the team's embracing of social media.
"I believe too often in sports that when someone says something that creates a controversy, the blame often falls on transparency, which to me is a copout," Higgins told newyorkjets.com. "At the end of the day, we've made sure everyone in the organization is ready to deal with the media. I'm really proud how we've taken transparency to a whole other level, and thanks to Woody, that will endure a long time. That manifests itself in our passionate following in social media, on our Website, and the way our fans touch the team."
Since starting their aggressive approach to Twitter during head coach Rex Ryan's first minicamp in May 2009, the Jets are closing in on 300,000 followers and are No. 1 in the NFL for total Twitter following for the second year in a row, with a 176 percent increase in followers vs. the prior year. And the team has more than 1,142,000 likes on Facebook, which increased by 134 percent in 2011 over the previous year.
In a few career stops prior to joining the Jets, Higgins, a native of Queens, N.Y., and a childhood fan of the Green & Whtie, used his Fordham law degree and newspaper experience — he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize while at the Queens Tribune — to become, at 26, the youngest press secretary for the New York City mayor's office. He handled press relations for Mayor Rudy Giuliani before and after Sept. 11, 2001.
From there he became chief operation officer of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, responsible for overseeing the building of Lower Manhattan in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
From Indy to Israel to Foxboro
Higgins rolled his love of the team and politics into one of his most memorable experiences for a week last January.
"I'm fortunate to wear many hats at the Jets. Those two hats became one a year ago," he recalled. "We went to Indianapolis and beat the Colts in the playoffs — a great game. We came back home, got on a plane and flew across to Israel, where we spent the better part of that week with Mitt Romney. I remember sitting alongside the Dead Sea with Woody, tweeting about the Jets. Then we came back home, got on a plane for the short flight to Providence, went to Gillette Stadium and beat the Patriots.
"I can't imagine a more amazing week that embodied the best of my job here with the team."
Higgins also reflected on his ongoing friendship with Curtis Martin, the Jets' superlative running back vying next month for the second time to gain entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"I didn't get to spend time with Curtis until his last day with the team before he announced his retirement in 2006," he said. "We talked about what he was going through, what he'd say. From that day forward we've formed a special relationship. He's one of my closest friends, a life mentor. I'll take that with me as one of my best memories here with the Jets.
Higgins has brought his incredible energies into a few important pursuits of his away from the stadium and practice facility. He battled and beat testicular cancer, and he "gained 65 pounds, lost 65 pounds, ran two marathons." Along the way, he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for testicular cancer services and autism research.
Now he'll be be throwing his considerable energies into new endeavors. But he'll be leaving some of his influence behind with the Jets as well.
"What I'm proudest of is that I believe we pride ourselves in having created a culture where employees are free to push the envelope and forge new ground," he said. "We don't always get it right, but that doesn't stop us from trying to reinvent ourselves and innovate. All of that unleashes tremendous potential and opportunity."