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Volume 23 No. 24
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Veteran event producer laces up with NHL

Steve Mayer started at the NHL in December — not that you would have seen him in the league hallways much since then.

“I’ve been in the office two weeks total, maybe not even that much,” he said sitting in a conference room at the NHL’s headquarters in New York recently, fresh off visits to more than a dozen NHL teams along with trips to a board of governors meeting and a general managers meeting. “I’m getting prepared for what’s to come.”

Photo by: NHL
That “what” is the combination of two of the NHL’s most ambitious undertakings of recent years: the relaunch of the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto in September, and a yearlong celebration of the league’s centennial season that will begin Jan. 1 and extend an entire calendar year, dotted with events both new and familiar to the league.

Mayer was hired with the direction of those efforts in mind, along with directing the NHL’s established slate of

STEVE MAYER
TITLE: VP and executive producer of programming and creative development
AGE: 53
FROM: Union, N.J.
COLLEGE: Ithaca College
PREVIOUSLY: 20 years at IMG, where he last was executive producer and senior vice president of IMG Productions; got his start at the Sports News Network as a sportscaster before getting into production.

tentpoles. Leagues across sports have executives tasked with overseeing their events businesses, and the NHL has as well. But Mayer’s position, executive vice president and executive producer of programming and creative development, is a new one for the league, and its addition speaks to the importance the NHL is placing on its events business.

“Steve has got great vision and has a feel for what creates exciting and interesting content, whether it’s in events or for short- or long-form programming,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “With the amount of events that we do, and the opportunities we have on so many platforms, he can be the icing on the cake.”

A 20-year veteran of IMG Productions, Mayer most recently served as executive producer and senior vice president for that group. It was a job that gave him experience working with the NHL in production of Winter Classics, the NHL Awards show in Las Vegas, and events at the All-Star Game. He also has produced a number of variety shows, including Christmas in Rockefeller Center and the Showtime documentary series “A Season with Notre Dame Football.”

Bettman said it was the familiarity working with Mayer, as well as the league’s burgeoning pool of additional content and events, that made both he and the league approach Mayer to come on board.

And the hiring has become even more important since it was made — in the wake of two key executive departures. John Collins, the NHL’s longtime chief operating officer, left the league in November. In March, Don Renzulli, senior vice president of events, exited. Both played large roles in the growth of the league’s events and its overall business.

When Mayer was hired, he was slated to work alongside Renzulli while building out his own team. As things have played out, Mayer now oversees roughly 15 NHL staffers tasked with programming and production, and he also oversees the 30-person events department that previously reported to Renzulli.

Mayer is quick to credit the work both Collins and Renzulli did with the league, but he’s also excited for what’s to come.

“We’re going to look at everything creatively, and I think I bring a fresh set of eyes,” he said. “We’re putting some real brain power behind everything from a creative perspective, and we have the support from a budgetary standpoint, and from the commissioner, to make these things great.”

Some of those creative elements will be front and center at the World Cup of Hockey, where Mayer is tasked with creating ancillary events and curating the fan village that will run alongside the nearly two-week tournament.

“One of our goals is to make it feel like each day is different, and to connect hockey with all of these other worlds, whether

it’s music, food, fashion or e-sports,” he said. “Making those connections with our sport is essentially what we’re trying to do on a yearlong basis as well, so it’s really exciting for me.”

That idea bleeds into the centennial celebration, which will kick off in Toronto on Jan. 1 and then run through all of the big NHL events such as the Winter Classic (to be

The Winter Classic, NHL Awards and All-Star Game are events Mayer will now oversee.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES (3)
played on Jan. 2 next year), the All-Star and Stadium Series games, and to-be-announced new events.

“As we hit each point within the celebration, we’ll continue to announce things gradually so that the entire thing feels as if it has a sense of purpose and can further build excitement,” Mayer said.

Executives around the league who are working with Mayer note a larger perspective, as well.

“The opportunity now is even bigger, as the league can take the scope of these events to an even bigger entertainment level,” said Los Angeles Kings COO Kelly Cheeseman, who has been working with Mayer on plans for the 2017 All-Star Game in Los Angeles. “With Steve, and really this started with Don and John as well, the focus is bringing the event into a different scale of relevance beyond just the sport of hockey.”

Cheeseman and other Kings and AEG executives recently met with Mayer in Los Angeles, touring the L.A. Live and Staples Center area, brainstorming and planning out the event, which will also celebrate the Kings’ 50th anniversary.

“One of the things Steve and the league said that sticks out to me is having respect for the game and respect for the predecessors while at the same time turning these events upside down and really amplifying what they can be,” Cheeseman said. “These events are fantastic, but if they look the same way three years from now, fans will get bored. If we can get out in front of that, we can start to reach a whole new demographic.”

Mayer believes there’s a number of ways the NHL can look to build that excitement around the game and the league more broadly. Some of that will come in the treatment of the events themselves, with aims to build on the successes that Collins, Renzulli and others had over the years with the league’s big-events platform. But he also wants to expand the spotlight given to the league’s players. Getting that will involve additional pushes into the entertainment world, a space he knows well from his time at IMG.

“It’s never been the easiest thing, admittedly, but we’re pushing,” he said. “I think we have such great young players who are full of personality, so the ideal time now is to build these guys and let people know they’re out there. We need to work on the way that we as a league work with marketing and putting our players in unique opportunities so that people say, ‘Hey, I want to watch that game too not only because it’s Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but because Claude [Giroux] is playing and I saw him on “Jimmy Kimmel.” ’ ”

Another target for Mayer: shoulder programming. Last month, the league struck a deal with Showtime for a weekly documentary series that will chronicle the Western and Eastern conference finals as well as the Stanley Cup Final. The NHL is touting the effort, debuting later this month, as the first series that will nationally televise the pathway to a championship of a major North American sport as it unfolds.

“This is a world we want to live in, and the reaction around the league has been great,” Mayer said. “We have great partnerships here, but how do we create content for potentially other networks to hit more mainstream fans? That’s something we’re going to be looking at. I don’t know if the focus here has been on content like that.”

Continuing to create ways for fans to engage with the sport is a crucial part of the league’s growth strategy, said Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik.

“We have great content. Let’s share it with our fans and grow new fans, so if we can find ways of bringing that to the fans creatively and in an exciting fashion, I think it’s a win-win” Vinik said. “We’ve got good minds, Steve included, working on this, and we love our sport. [We] want to bring it to more of the world and want to bring it to more places, so I expect to see that over time.”

Mayer admits he didn’t know what to expect when he joined the league, nor whether his voice would be heard not only within NHL headquarters, but also across the league. But he said he’s been embraced since day one, and that has allowed him to set his sights on what he’s hoping to accomplish.

“When you start to lay out the schedule, there’s a lot of events — which now I’m very aware of — but it also gives me the ability to look at everything from a whole perspective,” he said. “While I was at IMG, I was always hired to do one event at a time. Now, my approach is, ‘How does this make sense as a series of events, as opposed to just one individual thing?’ — which I think will make a huge difference.”