SBJ/March 26-April 1, 2012/Champions

Champions: Ed Snider, empire builder

Synonymous with hockey in Philadelphia, Snider still building legacy of sports, media and marketing

Photo by: CURT HUDSON
So many leading capitalists have worked with Comcast-Spectacor Chairman Ed Snider over his years in sports that the highlights of that list are rather daunting. On his way to assembling a collection of sports assets that includes the Philadelphia Flyers; Wells Fargo Center; a regional sports network; and a complementary arena management, food service, ticketing and sports marketing company, Snider has done business with empire builders like Howard Hughes, Charles Dolan and Pete Rozelle.

He has built two multipurpose arenas and is that rare creature within the world of sports: a team owner who made his money in sports instead of buying in after amassing a fortune large enough to allow such dalliances.

After almost 50 years working with some of the brightest minds in sports, media and marketing, Snider harks back to his father’s grocery store when you ask him where he got the temerity to insist that hockey would succeed in a town where ice was considered something used in a highball glass. At 10 years old, Snider had been working in his father’s grocery for a few years and had enough chutzpah, even then, to change the bread display on his own. His uncle said no, but his father overruled, letting the young Snider take the initiative. “My father always allowed me to use my own mind for important things at a young age,” said Snider, inside his office atop the Wells Fargo Center on a recent afternoon. So perhaps that day in the grocery store was the start of Snider refusing to listen when people said “No way.”

“For most people in business, when a door closes, they move on,” said Joe Cohen, chairman of HTN Communications, a cable television pioneer who worked for Spectacor, Snider’s original arena management company, before becoming chairman of the Los Angeles Kings in 1993. “That’s just the opposite of Eddie. Once he starts on a project, he just won’t go away.”

An outsider from Maryland, Snider made Philadelphia one of the NHL’s model franchises. Earlier in his career, as vice president of the Philadelphia Eagles, he navigated politics adroitly enough to assist in getting the city to build Veterans Stadium, and then he suggested at just the right time to the mayor that an arena in what was going to be the new football stadium’s parking lot would make a lot of sense.

Across pro sports, there are no purists like hockey purists, but after taming politics in the most parochial of America’s big cities, standing up to the demands and doubts of the owners of the NHL’s original six franchises seemed easy. But it wasn’t. Early on, at least one banker fell asleep during Snider’s pitch for a loan for the team, and one infamously told Snider that “soccer will never work” in Philadelphia.

The 2012 Winter Classic was played at Citizens Bank Park. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (far left) posed with Snider and others.
Photo: COURTESY OF ED SNIDER
But Snider pushed on. After building the Spectrum, he experienced another challenge when the roof blew off the building with eight games left in the Flyers’ 1967-68 inaugural season. The disaster instantly created a cash crunch, since the team did not have funds to repay ticket holders. But again, Snider forged ahead, and six years later, his Flyers were raising the Stanley Cup under the Spectrum roof — the first expansion team to win the NHL championship.

“When I started to get interested in bringing hockey here, there were six teams in the NHL and all played to capacity,” he said, “I was young enough to think there was no way it couldn’t work.”

Snider, elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988, was neither an entrepreneur nor a marketer by training, though he recalls organizing his University of Maryland fraternity brothers to sell Christmas trees and Easter flowers. Still, he’s sure entrepreneurship is more DNA than MBA. “It’s an instinct,” he said, noting his grandfather pushed a fruit cart through the streets of Kansas City. “It’s just part of you that can’t be taught.”

A CPA by education, Snider found early on that while there was a ceiling on earnings working for others, either as an accountant or at his father’s grocery business, there was no ceiling when it came to working for yourself.

Sayings from the chairman

From employees and friends, here are some of the refrains Ed Snider can be heard saying around the office:

1) “Fish stink from the head.’’

2) “Ain’t no one monkey spoils the show.”

3) “That’s not the deal I cut.” (“When he really wants to give us a hard time,” according to Comcast-Spectacor President and COO Peter Luukko.)

4) “Don’t be afraid to make a profit and move on.”

5) “If it’s too complicated, we probably shouldn’t do it.”
— Terry Lefton
He got into the music business, placing overrun 45s — the surplus of records — that cost pennies at grocers and other retailers and selling them at an increase, 19 cents apiece or six for a buck. He was young in what was then a very attractive business, music, and he was doing well. Then he tried to take it national, and “it overwhelmed me,” he said. In the aftermath, the company was sold and a family friend got him into the Philadelphia Eagles organization in 1964 as the team’s treasurer. He eventually became vice president and led all non-football operations before setting his sights on hockey.

Everyone who has worked with Snider says he’s fiercely bright and a quick study. Leo Carlin, Eagles director of tickets and client services and a 52-year employee of the NFL club, remembers an early meeting when he and several team employees were waiting for Snider to finish a phone call and approve ad copy for tickets to the next home game.

“He grabbed the paper, drew up the ad he wanted, and he never stopped talking on the phone,” Carlin said. “It was better than anything we’d drawn up.”

Where did that come from? Once again, we’re back in the aisles of Sol Snider’s grocery store, where Ed Snider also worked as its advertising manager once it became a chain. “Supermarkets are a business that work on around a 1 percent margin,” he recalls, before reminiscing about breaking down hind saddles of beef and watching chickens run around after cutting off their heads. “So it’s a business where you have to be sharp to survive.”

As for the origins of Snider’s marketing savvy? “Ed’s a fundamentally creative guy and marketing is all about creativity,” said Howard Baldwin, the Flyers’ original ticket manager who went on at 28 to found the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers (the franchise that would become the Hartford Whalers) and later owned pieces of the San Jose Sharks, Minnesota North Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins, where he won a Stanley Cup.

Snider’s diligence and vision, first in securing an NHL franchise for Philadelphia and later in building an arena that he had to rescue from bankruptcy early on, are legendary. Beyond building a great hockey tradition where there was none, Snider’s genius was in seeing how sports could be used to build, connect and support interconnected businesses. Now, every owner wants related media, management and sports marketing businesses. Snider was building a cable network before most people knew what cable was and followed that with one of the first regional sports networks. After being besieged by fellow building operators for advice, he saw the business opportunity and launched Spectacor in 1974, sold it, and started another in 2000, Global Spectrum, which is now second only to SMG (formerly Spectacor) in facilities management.

“Very quickly, Eddie came to understand that the box office potential was not limited to selling tickets in the building,” Baldwin said, “and he saw that before almost anyone else.”

Clockwise from above: The Flyers’ Stanley Cup banners hang on the concourse at the Wells Fargo Center; Snider poses with his U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame induction plaque; the Calder Cup was hoisted in Philadelphia when the AHL Phantoms defeated the Chicago Wolves in 2005.
PhotoS by: CURT HUDSON; GETTY IMAGES (2)
When you ask Carlin what he learned from working for Snider, there’s no hesitation in his answer. “Mostly that all things are possible,” he says, remembering back to the time with the Eagles and in building the Flyers. “Even then, Ed Snider saw all the connections, all the possibilities beyond the playing field.”

Consequently, as the growth of broadcast and cable television fueled the growth of pro sports and pro sports venues, Snider benefited handsomely. Now certainly that sort of prescience and foresight didn’t originate from within a grocery emporium. It has to be a quality you are born with, one that perhaps can be honed with experience.

“The two most intuitive guys I ever worked for are Ed Snider and [former Disney CEO] Michael Eisner,” said Tony Tavares, former president of Spectacor Management Group, who went on to run the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and California Angels for Disney, before running the Montreal Expos and Dallas Stars during their time as league-owned franchises. “Ed could hear a deal and instantly tell you what was right or wrong with it. Before everyone had a computer, he would scan a financial statement and tell you, ‘This doesn’t foot.’”

See, there’s still a CPA in there somewhere.

“Ed has this ability to simplify. Smart guys just know how to do that,” said Peter Luukko, hired by Tavares at Spectacor in 1985 and now a strong No. 2 to Snider as Comcast-Spectacor’s president and COO. “We have budgets for some of our buildings that are as big as dictionaries, and he’ll look at one quickly and tell me, ‘So if we can get X concerts and sell X suites, it’ll be a good year, right?’ He’s got a financial mind. That’s what allows him to be a disciplined risk taker.”

Through the years

Running a pro sports franchise for more than 45 years can give a person a fair amount of perspective for how business gets done. Here are some of Ed Snider’s favorite “That was then, this is now” points.

The Spectrum was the Flyers’ first home arena. Snider said it cost $12 million to build and was built in about 11 months. Because of bank acquisitions, the name Wells Fargo Center is the fourth moniker for the Flyers’ current home rink. That facility opened in 1996, cost $206 million to build, and the project took two years. And the workers’ compensation for the new arena was $13 million, or $1 million more than what it cost to build the original Spectrum.
    
Snider recalled that the permits and other city documents required to build the Spectrum were a booklet about an inch and a half thick. Before signing similar documents for the newer arena, Snider walked into his attorney’s office to find that they filled a conference table stacked almost to the ceiling. “Same lot, same city, same business.”

Snider said the most expensive ticket for the Flyers’ first home game in 1967 was $5 for the 7,812 in attendance. The most expensive regular-season tickets today (outside of club seats and suites) have a face value of $165; taxes and other fees bring it to $183.75 for an online order.

Probably the biggest change is how much more of the pie goes to the players. “I still see a lot of growth left in sports,” Snider said. “My girlfriend was showing me a live hockey game on her phone yesterday. But you [an owner] don’t get the advantage of most of that growth, because 57 percent of gross revenues go to players. It doesn’t go much to the bottom line anymore.”

— Terry Lefton
Ask Snider’s contemporaries how to describe his particular brand of indefatigability, and you’ll get an intriguing variety of responses.

Certainly, in the business world, he’s more like hockey enforcer Dave Schultz than Wayne Gretzky.

“You won’t meet many guys in sports tougher than Ed Snider,” said Tavares. “Not in an unreasonable way, but he is a tough guy.”

Said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, “I’m not sure I would use the word tough. He is demanding. He seeks and expects excellence. He’s not demanding or tough for the sake of being that way. He just wants everything he touches to be first class. That’s the way he runs.”

But from Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, chairman of the NHL’s board of governors, the “tough” quality re-emerges. “Tough is a good word to describe him, but he also can see more than one side to an issue,” Jacobs said. “He’s usually a guy you want to take the temperature of well in advance of the [board of governors] meetings, because you know he’ll show up with data and arguments to back up his opinion.”

Adds Luukko, “Ed’s your favorite coach: demanding, but with you. People tend to view him largely on the Flyers, but really, he gets just as excited on a hard-fought food service, facility management or ticketing contract. He just loves to compete.”

Snider’s office is filled with more family than hockey mementos, and that commitment extends to his hockey family. “Nowadays, everyone wants to treat their players and their families well, but I can tell you that Mr. Snider was doing that 40 years ago when my father came to town, and it was unusual,” said Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero, whose father, Fred Shero, coached the Flyers to consecutive Stanley Cup wins in 1974 and 1975. “It was always a family, and that started with Mr. Snider. The brand on the ice has a certain perception, of course, The Broad Street Bullies, but off the ice, it was always about doing things the right way. Among players, the word on how the team traveled was always that there was first class and Flyer Class, which was better than first.”

Snider with stars of sports and show business. From top: Tennis star Bobby Riggs (second from left), Billy Joel, and Julius Erving.
Photos: COURTESY OF ED SNIDER
Accordingly, you’ll find Flyers alumni at every game.

Baldwin, who now owns the AHL’s Connecticut Whale, admits he modeled his Whalers on the Flyers.

“My idea was to make it so that when a player came, they didn’t want to leave, or if they did leave, they’d stay in the community — not unlike a really good college,” Baldwin recalls. “He created this family environment that is so lacking in other franchises.”

Now, at age 79, Snider has shown no signs of slowing and is as peripatetic as a man 40 years younger.

“He has more energy than most of us, and that was true 40 years ago,” Cohen said.

“When it comes to the Flyers, I still love to be involved. Love to be in the locker room after a game,” Snider said. “If I ever lose that, I will retire.”

Listening to the dean of NHL owners and a man who has owned a major American sports franchise longer than anyone outside of three NFL owners, it doesn’t appear that retirement is on Snider’s agenda, even though he will turn 80 next January.

“There’s a different challenge each year,” he said. “You aren’t looking for a 10 percent increase in volume or profit each year. It’s ‘Are you going to win the Cup or end up in last?’”

Off the ice, nearly 50 years in sports has given Snider the perspective of a connoisseur.

“A banker taught me early on not to look at a sports franchise only from a P&L basis,” Snider said. “You evaluate it like a great work of art: Hang it on the wall, it’s rare and unique, and it will increase in value because of that. It’s an asset play, and a tax shelter for some. And as a way of life, it’s better than owning a widget factory.”

The 1969 NHL draft and the Bobby Clarke backstory

Undoubtedly the best player move in the history of the Philadelphia Flyers was drafting Bobby Clarke in 1969. Clarke was the soul of the Flyers’ two championship teams in the mid-70s.

Heading into the 1969 draft, Clarke had led the WHL in scoring for three consecutive seasons. But the Flyers and every other NHL team passed on Clarke in the draft’s first round, in large part because he’d been diagnosed with diabetes, and there were concerns about how that could affect his play in the NHL.

By the time of the draft’s second round, Ed Snider stepped in. The owner overruled his general manager, Bud Poile, selecting Clarke in that second round, with the 17th overall pick.

It was an odd set of circumstances that put Snider and the Flyers in that position, even beyond Clarke falling in the draft. The Flyers were one of very few NHL teams with a full-time scout in Western Canada. That scout, former NHL center Gerry Melnyk, was there because he’d suffered a heart attack and retired to Edmonton — and Snider fulfilled Melnyk’s playing contract by making him a scout. Melnyk had seen Clarke play and, as Snider recalled, “knew he could be the best player on the Flyers right away.”

Melnyk and Flyers coach Keith Allen, who later became the team’s general manager, went to Snider between rounds at the draft to plead their case — and Snider went on to overrule Poile, selecting Clarke.

Immediately after, two of the original six NHL
Coach Keith Allen (right) helped convince Snider (left) to draft future hall of famer Bobby Clarke.
Photo: COURTESY OF ED SNIDER
teams made substantial trade offers for Clarke.

Bob Currier, the player the Flyers selected before Clarke, never played in an NHL game. Clarke played in 1,144 regular-season contests and was a 1987 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Poile, meanwhile, was fired as general manager before the end of that year. In retrospect, Snider says he should have done it earlier.

“I learned then that if I overruled a GM, I have to fire him then,” Snider said. “It means I have lost confidence.”

Clarke, after his playing career, served as the Flyers’ general manager twice. He also was general manager of the Minnesota North Stars and Florida Panthers. Today, he’s back with the Flyers as a senior vice president.

— Terry Lefton
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