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Volume 22 No. 11
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Forum: Golden Knights’ approach to storytelling a plot to follow

One of the most refreshing stories last year was the unique and compelling game presentation of the Vegas Golden Knights.

What made the dynamic thinking of the first-year franchise so noteworthy was the commitment to dramatic storytelling to entertain and attract an audience — so desperately needed in today’s cookie-cutter approach to game presentation.  If there is an element of the sports experience that needs a  significant reboot, it’s game entertainment.

I love the nontraditional approach of a pregame narrative centered on a hero — the Golden Knight — battling an opponent on the ice. The presentation includes thundering music, on-ice projection and medieval storylines. It deserved the praise it received because it was so different, so new. Teams have taken notice and used it as motivation to enhance their own offerings.

It didn’t surprise me that this novel approach was driven by a former executive at the WWE, Jonny Greco. The Golden Knights’ vice president of entertainment production acknowledged that he earned his storytelling chops from his five years at the entertainment organization. “At the WWE, they preach story constantly,” Greco said during a presentation at the National Sports Forum in Las Vegas. “There are the good guys and the bad guys. We have used that sentiment in our storytelling. When the Columbus Blue Jackets come to town, if we are making them the bad guys, we are making the Knights really, really good guys. That generates great stories.”

His team focused on developing dramatic  characters to tell a good rooted by his four principles — or E’s — of great game presentation: Educate, Entertain, Enthuse, Evaluate. In talking about the popular tales that went viral and include a medieval castle, Knights fighting and over-the-top pyrotechnics, Greco noted that the first-year franchise had a significant challenge to overcome. “Coming to the entertainment capital of the world to serve a fan base that could already see world-class shows forced us to think differently,” he said. “We went all in with our storytelling and all in with our characters.”

He admitted he wasn’t sure showcasing a Golden Knight with attitude in violent battles would pay off, but the organization felt it was a risk worth taking. “You have to be willing to fail and take big shots,” he said. “You have to be really dynamic in your stories. Yes, it’s corny. It’s weird. It’s strange. It wouldn’t play in a lot of cities.” He also conceded not all of their pregame stories played well on Twitter, but he wasn’t worried. “Some people didn’t like our shows — ‘that doesn’t fit with hockey!’” he acknowledged. “But those people weren’t the 18,000 people in the venue. We were creating it for the fans in the venue and we could tell by their reaction they loved it. If you spend a lot of time worrying too much, you’re done. You have to be able to take criticisms and critiques on Twitter, but don’t forget to sit back, watch and listen to the fans.”

He stressed the game operations group didn’t use any extra time for their pregame storytelling. Instead it was time not being utilized that they felt they could take advantage of, a good lesson for other teams. Going into year two, Greco said his team didn’t feel more pressure to amp up their presentation after such a successful debut — as for many of their fans, the story is still new and for others, it feels fun and familiar. “We had to try all these weird things to develop traditions. We didn’t know what our traditions were going to be at the Knights. Now we have a few.”

What’s next for the team? “I am fascinated by those drone light shows,” Greco said. “They are cool, fun, safe and weird enough for what we do.” The organization acknowledges last year provided the perfect combination of a team entering a market with a blank canvas to tell a story to a rabid fan base and amazingly went to the Stanley Cup Final. It’s pretty simple to look good in that scenario, but Greco confessed it is harder to build something sustainable. “It’s easy to tell great stories when you’re winning. But it’s different when you’re losing. When you are losing, fans are going to remember how you made them feel. That’s what will bring them back. That’s what we’re striving for.” 

A strong reminder for all organizations  to bring a fresh and nontraditional approach  to game presentation and entertainment.

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.