Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Analyzing the Predators Front Office Moves

As a hockey fan in the off season, the focus is often on what is happening with with additions and subtractions to the roster. The advent of free agency is often viewed with the same eagerness as Christmas morning for a bright eyed young child. The direction and the competitive level of a team, positive or negative, can be altered by off season activities.

What often happens in the front office of a hockey club can make as much difference toward winning and losing as what happens with the players. Bring in the right front office personnel and a franchise can take on a new focus and drive that can change the results on and off the ice. The opposite is also true.

The Nashville Predators have made a pair of front office moves that bode well for the future of the team, not only on the ice but in the community, and have tangibly demonstrated the commitment of the owners to making the team a centerpiece of the Nashville sports community.

Jeff Cogen has been hired as the CEO of the hockey club and Sean Henry has been hired as President and Chief Operating Officer.

Cogen comes to the Predators from the Dallas Stars, where he was President.

 Henry arrives from the Tampa Bay Lightning after serving as interim CEO and the team and St. Pete Times Forum arena Chief Operating Officer since 1999.

Current Predators President Ed Lang will be leaving the organization.

The significance of these moves is twofold.

Start with the departure of Lang. He arrived with the Predators from day one and has served in various adminstrative roles until moving into the President's role in 2007. Lang's background was with former owner Craig Leipold at S.C. Johnson and Company in Racine, and he was heavily involved in assisting Leipold with the bid for the Predators franchise and was one of the organization's first employees.

Ed Lang represented the legacy of the organization, the ties to the past ownership and the sense of the history of the franchise in Nashville.

Now he, and that sense of history, that legacy, is gone.

And that is a good thing.

Don't misconstrue that last statement. I have met Ed on several occasions and he is an astute businessman and a consummate gentleman. Nashville hockey fans owe a great debt of gratitude to Craig Leipold and Ed Lang for getting the NHL into Nashville and for establishing the team here.

In the early years, the team was very oriented to driving attendance through the doors. Gate receipts were vital to the survival of the franchise, and there was heavy emphasis on putting butts in the seats. That emphasis, while necessary and successful for the short term, was not optimal for making inroads into the Nashville business community and building relationships with sponsors for the long term.

Now thirteen years into building a presence in this market, the team is faced with the same dilemma that was present in the first year of existence; more individual ticket sales as the main source of revenue than corporate sales and sponsorships.

The absence of significant corporate support has subjected this franchise to the whims of the individual ticket buyer, which can ebb and flow for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the state of the local economy.

Building a solid- and consistent- base of corporate support not only ties the business community to the success of the Predators but also stabilizes the revenue streams from year to year.

And this is where, from a purely business perspective, that the departure of Lang and the arrival of Cogen and Henry are good for this team, at this time, in this market.

The second significant aspect of this front office realignment is that two individuals that have had significant success in growing hockey in non-traditional markets are now in place to provide leadership, energy, and maybe even a jump-start to move the organization to the next level of performance off the ice.

Their experience in building a hockey franchise in southern, "non-traditional" markets will be invaluable to the long term financial growth of the Predators revenue streams from sources beyond the individual ticket holder.

This means, obviously, selling more tickets and putting more happy butts in the seats at the Bridgestone. Happy butts spend more money AND they come back to the arena multiple times. More than that however, it means making the Predators "first in mind" when businesses in the Nashville area decide to spend their marketing and advertising dollars.

First in mind means cultivating relationships with the business community. Deep relationships, not just speaking relationships. As much as I appreciate Craig Leipold for bring NHL hockey to Nashville, the fact remains that he was an absentee owner. Sure, he had a condo in downtown Nashville and he jetted in for most games. But Craig was never a "Nashvillian". He never developed those deep local ties that would endear him to corporate sponsors, and consequently, the burden of that process fell to Ed Lang.

And we see how that has turned out.

Local ownership has made significant improvements and inroads in this area. The local owners, however, have to have not only proficiency but energy and perhaps even a touch of aggressiveness from the people that are running the day to day operation.

Welcome Messrs. Cogen and Henry.

At first blush, Predator fans should feel good about these two gentlemen helming the operation. Both of these executives understand what it takes to run a hockey club from the business side and this is essential for a frugal organization like the Predators. Perhaps most importantly, though, is the fact that they understand the essential dynamic between the business side of hockey and the on-ice product. Cogen said it best in his interview with Pete Weber after the announcement of his hiring. Paraphrasing, he said that if they operations side of the business can generate more fan support, more business support, then there is more money to support the product on the ice.

Cogen understands the long term development of a franchise cannot be sacrificed for short term revenues. When he arrived in Dallas, there was one sheet of ice in the entire city. As he leaves for Nashville, there are 14. The Stars organization knew that drawing young kids into the game would draw in families and generate interest from broad sectors of the community. This takes a vision for the long term direction of the franchise and the time and commitment to see that vision through.

The owners have stated that they want to make Bridgestone Arena the premier entertainment venue in the United States. Sean Henry has a track record of operating an arena profitably and successfully. Under his direction, the St. Pete Times Forum was one of the busiest and most profitable arenas in the U.S.

Think that the downtown business community would like to see the Bridgestone Arena busier? And be one of the premier entertainment venues in the country?

Just as adding a key component to the roster can move a team to the next level, adding key players in the front office can do the same. Fans look to management to see what kind of message is being sent by the players being added or let go.The same holds true for front office personnel.

Predator fans should look at these front office moves and take away a sense of commitment from the ownership group to really make this franchise work at an optimal level in this community. This is a commitment by the ownership to bring in the front office talent that will generate more community support for the Predators and will begin to develop even deeper and more meaningful bonds to the Nashville business community.

Predator fans should also know that talent in the front office, just like talent on the ice, can move around to where the prospects for success and the the quality of life are the best. These men chose Nashville. There is something here that is positive and attractive, both with the organization and the city. Their sense of the future for this organization was one of growth and success.

We welcome you in to Nashville, gentlemen. Make yourself at home and get to know us. I think you will like us.

And, once we get to know y'all, I am certain we will like you too.

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