SBJ/October 30 - November 5, 2006/This Weeks News

NHL punches up its club services

The NHL has increased its emphasis on shared business practices among teams, tripling the staff of its club services division and upping the number of visits those staff members make to each team.

The league’s club services department, renamed following the lockout in 2004-05, will act as a single source for collecting and sharing information on such things as ticket pricing, marketing initiatives and promotional efforts, all designed to increase team and league revenue. In the past, teams largely were left on their own to determine and maximize such areas.

“Being in the league office, we have the benefit of a view of all 30 clubs,” said Susan Cohig, group vice president for club services and until recently the department’s only employee since the lockout. “Teams don’t have that. Hopefully, from that 30,000-foot view we can say, ‘X team has gone through the same thing. Let’s see how they addressed it and see if it can help you.’”

The NHL says its ramped-up club services division won’t be modeled after the NBA’s similar effort. But, the NBA’s team marketing and business operations department, created to help its franchises maximize ticket and sponsorship sales, stands as a template.

The NBA first began its club services effort two decades ago, evolving into a department that collects highly sophisticated data and shares best practices. Each team is assigned a liaison from the league’s team marketing and business division to help facilitate best business practices.

The NHL’s effort is part of a push to improve communication — and revenue — on all levels since the lockout.

Cohig has added two employees to the club services department — called club marketing before the lockout — and more will be added in the future, though Cohig could not specify how many. The league also has retained Declan Bolger, a former executive with the Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Capitals, as a consultant.

Like the NBA, the goal of NHL club services will be to work more closely with teams, lending personal expertise as well as best business practices from other clubs. More emphasis also will be on sharing internal resources, such as the technology expertise of NHL.com.

Clubs will be asked to share successful strategies
that could help others grow their business.

“Ideally, the league can play a role in looking out for everyone’s interest,” Cohig said. “An important part of that is information gathering.”

New to the staff are senior manager Nicole Allison, formerly in the Phoenix Coyotes’ ticketing office, and senior director Laurie Kepron, who served as senior marketing director in the league’s Toronto office.

They’re part of a staff whose initial task will be reaching out to teams. In the past, league representatives were not able to visit every team during the season, but Cohig said her department now will visit each team at least once a year and some teams multiple times.

Beyond increased travel and personnel, the league also has invested in technology. This week the NHL will announce a deal with StratBridge, a Cambridge, Mass.-based software company that will provide the league with its StratTix technology. Teams will be able to use the technology to identify, in real time, who customers are, where they’re sitting and if they’re part of a group or a promotion.

The Boston Celtics, one of the first teams to implement the StratTix technology, saw group sales double.

Teams are excited about the prospects of the technology and the expanded team services department.

“We’ve seen what the impact of [a team marketing department] can be in the NBA, and we’re incredibly supportive of the NHL adopting all or part of what they do,” said Bernie Mullin, who oversaw the NBA’s team business operations before becoming president and CEO of Atlanta Spirit LLC, parent company for the NHL Thrashers, NBA Hawks and Philips Arena. “It clearly impacts positively on the bottom line and with positive [return on investment].”

Sharing business practices has helped the NBA set record attendance the past three seasons, but it was not instantly embraced by teams, according to some team officials. Concerns about competitive secrets and exposing weaknesses were prominent. Today, though, the league’s teams use the shared practices and sophisticated data collection to their advantage.

“Ultimately,” said Phoenix Suns President Rick Welts, “the teams were won over by results. Done right, it’s not telling teams how the league would do it, it’s identifying what is working well at teams and making sure that the 29 other teams have that information when they are looking at the same issue. We are making better decisions because we are making them with better information.”

Cohig hopes for the same.

“As teams in our business, we’re competitive on the ice,” she said, “but we’re all working to grow our business off it.”

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