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Scotty Bowman, the most successful coach in NHL history, never would have gone for it while leading the Montreal Canadiens to four consecutive Stanley Cups in the late 1970s.
When Bowman, 79, now a consultant with the Chicago Blackhawks, participates in scouting meetings run by his son, Stan, the club’s general manager, a frequent attendee is Jay Blunk, the Blackhawks’ senior vice president of business operations.
A business executive in a hockey meeting? In the tradition-rich environment of the NHL, this is practically unheard of — except in Chicago.
This is the Blackhawks’ way.
It helps to win, and the Blackhawks have, but staff communication is also credited for the franchise’s success.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
It’s also a culture that, while not fully unique among North American sports franchises, is new territory for the NHL.
“There’s still a lot of resistance from the traditionalists in the NHL about opening doors between the business and hockey offices,” said former St. Louis Blues CEO and MSG Network President Michael McCarthy, now co-chairman of Manhattan Place Entertainment, a New York-based production and creative services company. “I applaud the Blackhawks for taking it further than any team has in the NHL.”
“Hockey teams just don’t do what the Blackhawks are doing, at that high a level of transparency among the staff,” said NBC NHL analyst Pierre McGuire, a former NHL assistant coach and scout, including under Scotty Bowman with Stanley Cup-winning teams in Pittsburgh in 1991 and 1992. “Hockey people are fearful of news leaks.”
For the Blackhawks, it’s happening as the team is performing at a historic level on the ice. The combination has the club’s TV, online and ticket-sales metrics all shooting high as well.
This era of transparency for the Blackhawks began in 2007, when Rocky Wirtz took over as chairman of the franchise following the death of his father, Bill, who had owned and operated the Blackhawks as club president for 41 years.
“Dad left us on the 26th of September, 2007,” said Wirtz, who beyond the Blackhawks is president of the Chicago-based Wirtz Corp., which owns real estate, beverage, insurance and financial companies. “But well before I became chairman, I’d seen the silos at the Blackhawks. Unless you were the owner, you couldn’t get near the people in the hockey department. I felt that had to change.
At Rocky Wirtz’s urging, McDonough instituted the concept when the owner hired him in late 2007, after McDonough had spent 24 years as an executive with the Chicago Cubs. As president of the Cubs from October 2006 to November 2007, McDonough had a more traditional structure in place at the MLB club.
“We couldn’t do it at the Cubs,” McDonough said. “Everyone has their ways of doing things. You need ownership’s support, and Rocky was a big believer in it.”
Before Wirtz and McDonough took over, the Blackhawks were one of the worst teams in the NHL on the ice, and attendance and other business metrics matched. Turnstile counts at the United Center were as low as 5,000 for some games. Fast-forward to today, and times have changed for the franchise in virtually all regards: on the ice and on the balance sheet (see inset story).
The system in place in Chicago was particularly beneficial in this shortened season.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that having our hockey office work hand-in-hand with the rest of the staff, and the entire group having a strong working relationship with our players, enabled us to be efficient and successful when the lockout ended,” Wirtz said.
With the Blackhawks, there are no boundaries. When the team’s advertising agency, Ogilvy, asked for direction in devising the Blackhawks’ marketing campaign for this season, head coach Joel Quenneville met with the agency to share his vision for the club’s style of play and lend insight into some of the team’s top players.
Stan Bowman joins Blunk at pitch meetings to prospective sponsors, and the general manager has dinner with current sponsors before several games each season. Additionally, top sponsors travel with the club on its chartered aircraft for all of the team’s road trips. The norm with most NHL teams is one or two such trips, maybe as many as a half-dozen in a full season, but certainly not every trip.
Terry Jenkins, president and CEO, USA, at BMO Private Bank, which has sponsored the Blackhawks since the season before Rocky Wirtz became chairman, said the increased opportunities to take clients on team road trips have been invaluable to his company.
“Our clients are affluent, so going to sporting events near home or far away is not a problem for them,” Jenkins said. “But actually traveling with the team — going on the charter, riding on the bus with the players, having dinner with Coach Quenneville — now that’s a big deal to them. The Blackhawks give my company, and our clients, an experience that’s beyond belief.”
To keep all 80 of the team’s staffers informed, “Blackhawks Daily,” an in-house newsletter, arrives via email at 9 a.m. every weekday, providing updates on everything from team practice times and transactions to a list of groups attending the next game. The team has a mentoring program in which top executives, including Stan Bowman and Blunk, take younger staffers to lunch and meet with them regularly. Purposefully, neither of Bowman’s protégées is on the hockey staff.
Elements of what the Blackhawks are doing can be seen across sports. Several NBA franchises in recent years have moved to a more open organizational structure. Among those clubs are the Indiana Pacers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Charlotte Bobcats.
Orlando Magic executives also have taken steps to combine the business and basketball side of the franchise. Every other Tuesday, Magic General
Martins also routinely participates in scouting and other basketball operations strategy meetings.
Each offseason, both the basketball and business operations executives jointly attend budget presentations from each department, where each respective budget is discussed and debated.
“Whether it is a senior leadership meeting or an operational meeting, there is a continual process where everyone is involved,” Martins said.
In baseball, the Detroit Tigers may not match the Blackhawks’ level of transparency, but having David Dombrowski as president, CEO and general manager makes the flow of information easier.
All for one (from left): assistant general manager Norm McIver, executive vice president Jay Blunk, vice president and general manager Stan Bowman, president and CEO John McDonough, vice president and assistant to the president Al MacIsaac
Photo by:CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
But in the NHL, the notion of the club president’s right-hand executive attending scouting meetings or the coach visiting the ad agency would meet the same reaction those older scouts with the Oakland A’s had for Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” methods. Among NHL clubs, there is communication but scant cross-over between hockey and business departments. Many exist almost as two separate entities.
In New Jersey, for example, general manager Lou Lamoriello runs the Devils and senior vice president Richard Krezwick runs Devils Arena Entertainment. The sides communicate frequently, but Krezwick’s executives are not in Lamoriello’s hockey meetings. Each group has its own public relations staff.
“There’s still a sanctity about the hockey operations process,” said McCarthy, who left the Blues last May after a change in ownership. “In St. Louis, we went close to the edge of transparency between departments but didn’t take it as far as the Blackhawks. Our business people weren’t in scouting meetings.” McCarthy let out a slight laugh. “We weren’t ready to cross that line,” he said.
“They’ve fully integrated the management team — business and hockey,” Collins said, via email. “There are lots of ways to do it, so one isn’t necessarily better than another. But when a club like the Blackhawks establishes winning as its most important objective and executes every decision — big and small, hockey and business — with that goal front and center, the results can be impressive.”
When the Blackhawks make a roster move, McDonough wants to be educated on the reasons why that move is being made so he can share the explanation with the staff if Bowman is unavailable. This way, everyone is on message when speaking with media, sponsors and fans at crucial moments.
“I’m a big believer in it,” said former Calgary Flames General Manager Craig Button, now an NHL analyst for TSN and the NHL Network. “The business has become so big, and with social media now, there are so many implications if everyone is not on board and pulling in the same direction.”
The daily in-house email newsletter keeps team staffers in the loop.
Stan Bowman’s transition to this approach was made easier by having degrees in finance and computer applications from Notre Dame and spending the first five years of his career in business before joining the Blackhawks in 2000.“I know it would be strange for many of my peers, but it wasn’t difficult to buy [in],” said Bowman, who was assistant general manager in Chicago under Dale Tallon before his promotion in 2009. “Around the time I was named GM, John and Rocky met with me and talked about our philosophy. Their main point was, ‘The way to be profitable is not to cut costs but to drive revenue.’ So we work together. We do things for a reason. We do a lot of research. We explain our approach to each other. It’s working.”
McDonough implemented the culture change immediately upon joining the Blackhawks, but it took two full years — and some firings and new hires — before it was running smoothly.
“John set the direction as soon as he got here, but not everyone ‘got it,’ and they aren’t here anymore,” said Blackhawks senior executive director of marketing Pete Hassen, a former executive with the Buffalo Sabres and Delaware North, the parent company of the Boston Bruins. “John had to make some tough decisions. When I came here in 2005, there was no access to ownership, and everyone was in silos.”
Since Rocky Wirtz became team chairman, the staff has tripled in size. McDonough brought in Sutera to run the newly created human resources department, completely revamped the public relations staff and hired a new finance director, T.J. Skattum.
Fans are buying in, too; the Blackhawks were on pace to sell out for the season.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
The club president is also a realist.
“It helps to win,” McDonough said. “I’ll be the first to tell you that the best marketing idea in team sports is winning.”
But in addition to the victories, staff communication is credited for the franchise’s success. By including the hockey operations and coaching staffs in marketing decision-making, events like the annual Blackhawks Convention during the summer and the in-season party for season-ticket holders at Chicago’s Navy Pier get the enthusiastic endorsement of the hockey side, including the players.
“It’s pretty simple, if you think about it,” Stan Bowman said. “We’re a team that’s able to operate near the salary cap ceiling because we draw sellout crowds every night. It’s the fans and sponsors that make this whole thing go. My staff and our coaches and players are well aware of this. It drives us to want to work with the business side so we can stay a cap team.”
In the NHL, the public relations director is the rare conduit between the general manager and the office staff. The PR person works for the GM — announcing player transactions, for example — but is peers with the business staff. It’s not uncommon for a ticket-sales representative, in markets around the league, to attempt to gain a crumb of insight from the PR person about the GM’s plans to improve the team before the trade deadline or the annual free agency period. Such efforts, usually, are unsuccessful.
There’s no need for that additional work in Chicago. The privileged information is shared across the staff directory.
“Before the trade deadline, our staff will have an idea of Stan’s course of action,” McDonough said last month, ahead of the April 3 deadline.
That’s the case even in today’s age of social media, when — as McGuire stated — most teams would be worried about leaks.
“There has to be trust,” said Blunk, who worked with McDonough for 22 years at the Cubs before joining him at the Blackhawks. “As a staffer, whether you’re in ticket sales or customer service or sponsorships, having information is an invaluable tool. You don’t want to give it up.”
Said McDonough, “In five and a half years of doing it this way, there hasn’t been one betrayal of confidences. My feeling is that you can’t approach this in a paranoid state. It goes back to the hiring process. Candidates for jobs here are told that whatever you learn about the hockey team stays here. Everybody has bought in to the philosophy.”
Even Scotty Bowman, the iconic coach.
“My father has always progressed with the years,” Stan Bowman said. “He was a different coach when he had his last Stanley Cup team in Detroit 10 years ago than he was with the Canadiens 40 years ago, when he ruled with an iron fist. Times change. He understands what we’re doing here. He’s also seen that we’ve been successful.”
Staff writer John Lombardo contributed to this report.
Aside from 10 years of labor peace, one of the legacies of the NFL’s 2011 lockout will be that it allowed Kansas City Chiefs Chairman Clark Hunt to step out from the shadow of his father, Pro Football Hall of Famer Lamar Hunt. As an American Football League founder and the man credited with naming the Super Bowl, Lamar Hunt was larger than life.
However, that 2011 Chiefs season was forgettable at 7-9, and last year’s 2-14 season included the horrific murder/suicide of Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend. Within five weeks, Hunt not only cleaned house, but he also replaced his top football executives earlier than any other NFL team, installing longtime Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid as the Chiefs’ 13th head coach and John Dorsey, who’d spent 22 years with Green Bay, as the team’s new general manager.
“What you’ve seen from him this year is leadership at its best — making tough decisions when they need to be made,” said Dorsey, adding that he’d spurned four job offers before accepting the Chiefs position. “This franchise is the closest thing to the Green Bay Packer model culturally, and the ownership is so sound that everyone I trust in the league told me I had to take this job.”
Clark Hunt: "One of the things last year taught me was the need to be prepared for the unexpected."
In his office above the Chiefs’ training facility, just two weeks before making the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s NFL draft, Hunt, 48, spoke with SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Terry Lefton about the Chiefs’ renaissance and the overall state of the NFL.
■ Last season the Chiefs had two wins and just an awful off-field situation. It’s hard to believe any season could be more difficult.
HUNT: One of the things last year taught me was the need to be prepared for the unexpected in what we experienced on the field and off. With the player involved in the murder/suicide, well, that’s not something you can prepare for, but if you have the right kind of people, you make the right decisions in a timely fashion. I certainly won’t say that was a positive thing. It wasn’t; it was a tragedy. But our guys did a good job in a tough situation.
■ As bad as it was, last season did not have much impact economically, right?
HUNT: Down the stretch, we had a lot of empty seats, even though many were seats that were sold. It hurt us in that regard. On the sponsorship side, we have experienced strong growth there for three years — because of the new stadium (renovations) and the playoff team in 2010; the economy began to turn; and the team (that Chiefs President) Mark Donovan hired really started to produce.
Arrowhead Stadium has seen more empty seats of late, though many are no-shows and not unsold tickets.
■ Since January, you’ve brought in a new coach and a new GM. Now you’ve got the first pick in the draft, which might be an even tougher choice.
HUNT: There’s a certain amount of pressure that goes with it. I have full confidence John will make the right decision. It’s not a typical year where there’s a bunch of quarterbacks. I have told the guys that it’s great that we have the first pick, but I never want to have it again because ofwhat you have to do to earn it. There are no sure things in the NFL as it relates to the draft.
■ Will media rights fees increase enough to meet the NFL’s target of growing revenue to $25 billion by 2027?
HUNT: A lot of it will come from the continuing digital revolution. The National Football League used to be a product consumed on TV during the weekend. Now we have fans who want to stay connected to their favorite team seven days a week. When we started looking at digital content for the league, our focus was on streaming clips for fans. Now it’s on social media. The fans want to stay connected with us and interact with each other, so it’s incumbent upon us to provide the platform and the content that allows them to do that.
Things are changing so quickly on the digital front, it’s hard to predict where that goes, but it has been a dramatic growth area, and there’s a lot of opportunity remaining.
The growth of football overseas is important, and the league has made London the centerpiece of that initiative as we go from one to two games there this year. One of the things that excites me is that 30,000 people bought tickets to both games, which shows there might be a fan base if we can put a team in London. … I do think it is going to happen, but I don’t know if it will be a team or maybe a division based in Europe. If you want to think outside the box, that would help us with some of the travel dynamics. Certainly the Bills have been successful in Canada, and we’ve had a lot of success in Mexico. Those are the markets that are ripe. … Growth will have to come from international for the league to continue to grow like it has.
■ The various versions of minor-league NFL did well in Germany. Why all the focus on London and none there?
HUNT: Certainly, on our radar screen is how we are going to get back to Germany. For a lot of reasons, it made sense for the league to retrench and focus on the U.K., and London in particular. … The next opportunity in Europe is probably Germany.
■ Could you envision a time when the Super Bowl is played offshore?
HUNT: I sure could. In a lot of ways, it’s easier than basing a team in Europe. It’s one game; you’d have a two-week lead time. It certainly could happen.
■ Has ownership really addressed that issue yet?
HUNT: Not really. I don’t know if we’d have to have teams based outside the U.S. before we do that (with the Super Bowl), but you’d at least have to be pretty far down the thought process on that before you take that asset outside the U.S.
■ How vital is it to give fans the same connectivity in stadiums they’re used to elsewhere?
HUNT: Long term, that’s very important. Most stadiums, including Arrowhead, have tackled the (cellular) side of it, so you can text and make phone calls. Solving the wi-fi part of the equation is more difficult and more expensive. It’s something the league is very focused on. We need to give our consumers in seats at our stadiums the same digital experience they can have at home. That’s the decision consumers are making now: Do I stay home with my high-def TV and all my devices and follow the game like that, or is it better to be at a stadium?
I would argue that it’s better to be at an NFL stadium and be part of the communal joy of cheering on your team, particularly if you can be connecting with your friends and pulling up stats from around the league, so you can follow your fantasy team.
We have to make sure the experience at the stadium is as good or better than home.
So, the league is looking at providing content for fans at the stadium that you can’t get at home: locker-room shots, audio on the referee, and those kinds of things. Interestingly, the networks are supportive of that. We thought they might be upset at not getting that same content, but they’re not. It’s so important for them that our stadiums are filled, because that makes for such a better broadcast.
There’s an understanding at the league level that we are in the entertainment business. The integrity of the game will always be first, along with player safety, but our fans want to be entertained, and with the changes in technology, anything that allows us to add to the in-stadium experience will be considered with an open-minded approach.
■ How far are we from making the NFL sidelines digital, with tablets instead of clipboards for coaches?
A difficult season turned tragic when linebacker Jovan Belcher killed himself in the stadium parking lot after police say he killed his girlfriend..
■ Naming rights and premium seating have not recovered from the recession. What’s the view here in Kansas City?
HUNT: Naming rights are something we pursued awhile back, but with the downturn in the economy, the timing just wasn’t right. That’s something we’ll probably circle back to. The special consideration here is that the name Arrowhead means a lot to our fans, and we’ll certainly take that into consideration with anything we do there.
As far as premium seats, that market has not recovered. I don’t know if it ever recovers to get back to the way it was before the recession. Fan preferences have changed somewhat. Still, if you have an exciting product on the field, it can help sell a lot of things.
■ Will the Super Bowl in New Jersey be a referendum on cold-weather, outdoor Super Bowls?
HUNT: It will be, whether that’s fair or not. I know people are going to remember the weather there (in New Jersey) when we get around to voting on future Super Bowls. I also think New York is a very special situation. If you are going to play a (Super Bowl) game in an outdoor, cold-weather market, it should be in New York.
What happens on the field will be memorable, even if the weather impacts that. I don’t think it will detract from the game at all, but I do think it will affect people’s perceptions of going to another cold-weather market. … Intellectually, you certainly shouldn’t base a future decision on just this year. Theoretically, it shouldn’t make that big a difference, even though it probably will. I would be open-minded to going north again, but I do think New York’s a special situation.
■ Assuming a friend had the requisite resources, what advice would you offer if he or she said they were looking at an NFL franchise?
HUNT: They’d need to be 100 percent in, because it is that involved and that big a business. One of the best things about the National Football League is that the owners are very engaged. … You also have to make sure that you have the right stadium situation. In today’s NFL, if you don’t have a modern stadium, it is very, very difficult. That’s not to say you couldn’t go in and get a new stadium built, but make sure you plan for that because you can’t be successful without it.
■ Other than your dad, were there any NFL owners you modeled yourself after?
Hunt recently introduced Andy Reid as the Chiefs’ new coach.
I learned a lot of my management style from my dad, and he was the epitome of a humble leader. There are not a lot of those. I often think about the humility he displayed in every circumstance. The folks who worked for him would run through a wall for him because they knew he would do the same. I want our employees to feel the same way about me.
■ As an MLS owner (for Columbus and Dallas), how do you feel about the proliferation of European soccer in the U.S.? It seems like there is a battle for the hearts and minds of soccer fans in America between the EPL and MLS.
HUNT: I’ve been told you can watch more EPL games on TV in the United States than you can if you live in the U.K., which is astounding. There’s huge growth of the (soccer) fan base in the U.S. You see it in the ratings for the EPL games, the U.S. national team games; every four years, World Cup ratings here set a new standard. We have a country with soccer fans that have a lot of options. Major League Soccer, to some degree, has benefited from the over-saturation of the market because it has converted a lot of people who weren’t soccer fans. The real growth for MLS audiences is coming from that 18-35 male demographic, whereas when we started MLS, we were certain soccer families would be our core.
■ What would you be doing, if not this job?
HUNT: I was a finance major in college and worked for Goldman Sachs for two years. I don’t know if I would be an investment banker, but I’d probably be somewhere in finance. People will tell you that I’m a numbers guy, but nothing like my dad. We’d frequently be sitting in meetings with him, and when large numbers came up and most of the room would reach for their calculators, he’d always figure out the answer in his head before anyone could punch the numbers into their calculator.
■ There are bigger businesses than NFL teams, but perhaps no bigger goldfish bowl. Is that something you can ever get used to?
HUNT: I had a chance to be around my father in the business for 15 to 20 years and I saw the constant spotlight that was on him. But it’s so different when the spotlight shifts from being on the person standing next to you to being big on you. It’s not something you can prepare for and it may be something you never get used to. With what’s going on as far as social media and the news cycle being about 30 seconds long, that fishbowl is getting even bigger every day.