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Volume 22 No. 12
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Collins takes CEO role at On Location

NHL’s COO leaving league for experiential hospitality firm

John Collins is leaving his senior position at the NHL to run an experiential hospitality company that’s being restructured by Bruin Sports Capital and RedBird Capital Partners.

The longtime sports executive will be CEO of On Location Experiences, the business formerly known as NFL On Location, in a position that offers an equity stake in the company.

John Collins became COO of the NHL in 2008.
Photo by: MARC BRYAN-BROWN
Collins had been the NHL’s chief operating officer since 2008 and was with the league nine years in all.

It was during a conversation with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in recent weeks that Collins reached the conclusion that he had accomplished most everything he set out to do in hockey, from launching the Winter Classic and Stadium Series to new media and digital partnerships.

For weeks, he’d also been talking to George Pyne from Bruin and Gerry Cardinale at RedBird, the two owner-operators of the hospitality firm. They had been seeking a CEO and their focus had been on Collins for the last few months.

“If you work in sports, you know the name John Collins,” Cardinale said. “We spent a lot of time together; we had a lot of meetings about how we’ll work together. Ultimately, it’s a transformational move for us and it’s a transformational move for John.”

Collins will take over a company that started as an NFL initiative before turning over its operations to Bruin and RedBird in a unique arrangement that allowed them to recapitalize the business, while keeping the NFL involved with a minority equity stake.

Nearly all of On Location’s business has revolved around the Super Bowl, and that will continue to be a centerpiece for the company moving forward. But Pyne and Cardinale agree, along with the NFL, that On Location will have to expand beyond the Super Bowl and other NFL experiences if they expect to build a global brand. Such a viewpoint explains the name change to the simpler On Location Experiences.

“The name change is a natural progression because we’re building a global enterprise here,” Pyne said. “It made sense to have a more generic name.”

Collins, 53, will start with On Location in mid-December and be based in New York City.

“It’s not that there isn’t work left to do at the NHL,” Collins said, “but I do think after all this time working for leagues and owners, what Gerry and George gave me was the opportunity to have some skin in the game, to have partners with capital investing in the business, and to be a CEO.”

“I’m a brand guy. I’m all about marketing and sales, and it all starts with the fan. As I listen to Gerry and George and their vision for reinventing the whole hospitality experience, yet do it on a global level, it was an idea I just kept thinking about.”
John Collins
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Collins grew up in Queens and graduated from St. Francis Prep, the school that also produced Joe Torre and Vince Lombardi, among other famous alumni. After starting his professional life at Needham, Harper & Steers Advertising, where he worked on a multitude of accounts, he joined NFL Films in 1989. As Collins said, he was the “money guy” who went out and found funding for the many projects coming from Steve Sabol’s office.

“Working for Steve was like working for Walt Disney when he was running the company,” Collins said.

As NFL Films became more integrated into the league’s overall business, Collins’ profile within the ranks shot up.

He left for a brief stint at a startup called Broadband Sports but returned to the NFL in the early 2000s to run sales, marketing and programming at a time when the league was surging commercially. That led to the role of president and CEO with the Cleveland Browns and then to the NHL, where he rose to the No. 3 executive in charge and was integral in the NHL’s brand and business strategy.

While the NHL developed innovative new events and brands under his watch, Collins couldn’t shake a desire to work in the NFL space again. On Location provides that, and then some. The business will not only market hospitality experiences at the Super Bowl, but it will do more with the NFL draft, Pro Bowl and the international games in London.

While On Location builds out its NFL business, it also will begin to look for opportunities in other areas, such as college and international events.

“Everything is on the table,” Collins said. “It starts as a hospitality company at the Super Bowl, but that’s not where it’s going to end up.

“For me, I’m a brand guy. I’m all about marketing and sales, and it all starts with the fan. As I listen to Gerry and George and their vision for reinventing the whole hospitality experience, yet do it on a global level, it was an idea I just kept thinking about. And we get to start this relationship with an iconic rights holder like the NFL. It’s the best of all worlds.”

In many ways, Collins is taking over On Location during a startup phase, as it rebrands under new ownership. But it is starting over with the NFL as a partner and with rights to the Super Bowl.

During the recruiting process, Cardinale played to Collins’ eagerness to build a business from the ground up. Cardinale, who founded RedBird Capital, even invoked an old hockey phrase to appeal to Collins and describe the aspirations for On Location.

“We’re skating to where the puck is going to be, not where it’s been,” Cardinale said.

“That got my creative juices going,” Collins said. “I’ve spent the last 25 years working in a league environment where my job is to build value for owners. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that. Now, what Gerry and George have offered me is the opportunity to be a partner with them and build value in this new company around these iconic events.”