More than 16 months after buying the St. Louis Blues, Tom Stillman begins his first full season as majority owner of the club when it opens its 2013-14 season on Thursday at home against Nashville.
After getting through the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Stillman’s excitement was apparent throughout a recent interview.
|“I feel like our window to be a contending team has opened,” Stillman says.
In the 2011-12 season, prior to Stillman’s purchase, the Blues lost $20 million. NHL teams last year, with the lockout, played only 48 regular-season games, so while the Blues have not disclosed how much money they lost last season, Stillman has set a goal of cutting St. Louis’ losses by $10 million this season.
He believes the team is on pace to meet that goal.
The Blues were 15th in the NHL in attendance last season, averaging 17,901 fans at 19,000-seat Scottrade Center. According to information provided by the Blues, the team sold 1,700 new season tickets this summer and renewed more than 90 percent of its season subscribers. That rate is on par with other NHL teams but up from what the Blues did last year.
Beginning this season, the Blues decided not to make four games available for single-game public sale: the team’s home opener, its home finale against Detroit, and a pair of midseason games with local rival and defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago. In recent seasons, Blackhawks fans were crowding Scottrade Center, negating the Blues’ home-ice advantage. To purchase one of those games this season, fans are required to buy at least a three-game package.
“The point of bundling some games was not to pick on Hawks fans,” Stillman said. “It was to reward Blues fans that are dedicated to us. They deserve the first shot of filling their team’s arena with Blues fans. The reaction from our fans was very positive, which is what I care about.”
Stillman, who is also the chairman and CEO of Summit Distributing, the second-largest beer distributor in Missouri, said sponsorship sales this past offseason were the highest in the club’s 46-year history. In August, Anheuser-Busch renewed its sponsorship of the team for five seasons to market its Bud Light brand. According to an industry source, the deal is in the low seven figures annually. The Blues also signed a five-year renewal with its medical provider, St. Louis-based BJC HealthCare/Washington University School of Medicine.
Among new deals, Grey Goose and Jack Daniel’s signed three-year agreements to be title sponsors of the bars on Scottrade Center’s concourses
“The key levers for us — tickets, suites and sponsorship — are coming along pretty well,” Stillman said. “I’ve been happy with the progress.”
The NHL’s stated goal earlier this month to increase national revenue by $1 billion within three years was also welcome news for Stillman. “That’s extremely helpful for smaller-market teams like ours,” he said.
According to the owner, the Blues are hurt financially by a pair of existing, long-term deals. In 2008, the Blues agreed to a 20-year deal with a revenue-sharing clause with Levy Restaurants to manage concessions. The deal was front-loaded, with the team receiving lower pay in the final 15 years, starting with this season. The team’s broadcast agreement with Fox Sports Midwest, which runs until 2018, is also said to have included large advance payments.
Stillman, who characterized both deals as “very unfortunate for us,” said the Blues currently receive very little money from their TV deal.
“There’s not much we can do about [the deals],” he said.
But as he begins his first full season as owner, one thing Stillman does plan to do is take a step back and let his management team do most of the talking for the franchise. Bruce Affleck, a former Blues player turned broadcaster and later executive who has been with the franchise for 37 years, was named team president of business operations last year. In early September, Stillman brought back Brett Hull, the franchise’s all-time leading goal scorer, and gave him the title of executive vice president. Hull is expected to use his popularity in the market to help develop business.
Asked if he has developed a style of ownership over the last year, Stillman joked, “You can say that I’m style-less. I don’t have a desire to be out front and, over time, won’t have to be. That’s why we have Bruce as president, Doug Armstrong as GM and brought back Brett. They can do most of the speaking for our team. The exceptions are for community projects or something with our loyal fans or one of our business partners. Then I’ll be there whenever I’m needed.”