| Chris Maza
It’s 1:30 on Friday afternoon.
At the Springfield Thunderbirds offices in the bowels of the MassMutual Center, there is a quiet, but active buzz.
The Syracuse Crunch is in town. More than 4,500 people are expected at the MassMutual Center, including dozens of different groups.
Fresh out of a meeting with members of the Springfield Police Department about a promotion for the Ride to Remember, Executive Vice President Nate Costa is debating with a couple members of his staff on the longest name they’ve seen on the back of a hockey sweater, wondering if they can fit the full phrase “Ride to Remember” on a jersey.
Also in front of him is a calendar with which he’s been trying to piece together a plan for next year’s schedules in advance of the Governor’s Meeting at the All-Star Classic weekend in Allentown, PA.
As he sits in his office, the voices of Account Executives Katie Force and Frank Grimaldi can be heard. They’re making calls, some to ticket holders to make sure they have everything the need and some to prospective new buyers.
It’s indicative of the duality of mindset the small, but intrepid Thunderbirds front office crew must maintain on a game day – one eye on success for the evening to come, another focused down the road.
Embracing a long view – not just for this season, but for the next – is a mentality that Costa is preaching to his young staff and one he feels is starting to take hold.
“What I’m trying to instill in this organization and this market is a new mentality,” he said. “I think now that we’ve found some initial success, they’re starting to buy in more and more, but what I want is to make sure that success carries over.”
Costa, who broke into the league as in the ticket sales sector himself in San Antonio and spent six and a half years analyzing ticket trends around the American Hockey League as vice president of Team Business Services, explained the league sells 80 percent of their packages for the following season during the current year.
“If you don’t take advantage of that time, statistics will say you’ve lost about 80 percent of your selling season,” he explained. “We really have to maximize the time we do have in front of our fans before April 15, our last regular season game. At that point, we won’t be in front of them nearly as much and we won’t be as topical, so how do we maximize our time now for next year?”
Single game ticket sales are up more than 100 percent from the Springfield Falcons’ last season before relocating. But translating fans in the seats this season into future sales and continued success is all about creating an experience. Creating opportunities through group sales is one way to make that happen, Costa explained. That all starts with the sales staff and they have been in high gear for hours now.
As Force and Grimaldi make calls, Matt McRobbie, another account executive, is on the road talking to representatives at local schools, like Minnechaug Regional High School, whose band he’s booked to offer live entertainment from the stands.
“Matt has 600 or 700 tickets sold tonight, so when he looks up and sees that group, he sees he’s having a real impact on a game night experience and I really think that’s starting to click with them,” Costa said.
Costa also credited Force with creating a number of opportunities for dance troupes, gymnastics schools and martial arts studios to conduct demonstrations at games.
“We’re contacting high schools and saying, ‘Be a part of our game night. Be a part of our pro experience here,’” he explained. “I’m trying to educate them to go after the business and tell them there’s nowhere else they can get essentially a free commercial. This is a free testimonial for your business.”
Elsewhere, Dave Jones is getting ready for a youth hockey game that is taking place before the Thunderbirds drop the puck. It’s an involved project that includes everything from music to the PA announcer introducing the players individually to even the kids having a nameplate above their locker for the game.
“It’s the little touches that make it great,” Costa said. “He’s done a great job of building a real pro experience for the kids. It’s a cool thing they can’t get anywhere else.”
Meanwhile, Luke Pawlak, manager of Game Presentation and Creative Services, is going over his plan for tonight’s game. It’s a lengthy spreadsheet outlining all aspects of the evening’s events, a laundry list of all of the things he has been compiling through the week. Pawlak was part of the previous organization’s team, so he has things pretty well down pat, but he’s not resting on his laurels. He’s always trying to come up with the next big thing.
“We’re always trying to figure out creative things,” Pawlak said. “Minor league sports as a whole is about creating an experience. In my area, the game almost comes second.”
In Costa’s vision, it’s an integral piece of the equation.
“When we were getting started here, we talked about game experience and game presentation so much that he probably could have had a feeling that he wasn’t doing a good job in the past. That wasn’t the case at all,” Costa said. “We haven’t changed things that drastically, I just don’t think enough people were exposed to it. The stuff we’re doing now, he’s taking what he’d done in the past to the next level.”
Building the outline of the game began as early as Monday so by Tuesday he was already well on his way to creating the content for the arena, including the video board and the music. The theme for the night’s game against Syracuse is Country Night, which required an extra element.
“I don’t listen to country music,” he admitted. “So during the week, I had to learn a bunch of new country songs and find music videos to incorporate during the game.”
By Thursday, he’d already written scripts for the PA announcer and in-game promotion announcers, created the outline for the production team, and had been assisting the social media department with marketing materials.
Earlier in the day he posted league-mandated rundowns of the on-ice promotions that will take place during the game around the arena. Everyone needs to know what’s going on, including the coaches and the officials.
But like most in the office, he’s also dividing his focus. After making sure everyone would be prepared for the night’s offering’s he’s looking ahead. Earlier in the day he helped Digital/Social Media and Marketing Manager Peter Bottini shoot a video spot with goaltender Mike McKenna to promote Ric Flair’s visit to Springfield. A white wig and “Nature Boy” robe still sit hang his office after being donned by the Thunderbirds netminder.
Pawlak looks at them and smiles, saying, “McKenna’s an old pro when it comes to this stuff. He loves it and he’s so good at it we got exactly what we needed in about two takes.”
Now he’s building promotional materials for the upcoming Pink in the Rink night to benefit Rays of Hope.
He fires off a rough draft. Five minutes later, Costa is in his doorway. He has some suggestions.
Down the hall, Ryan Smith, Thunderbirds manager of Media and Community Relations and Broadcasting, has already prepped his materials for the incoming NHL scouts, league officials and media. It’s pages and pages of information.
“Any of the green initiative people in your reading audience would find me one of their mortal enemies,” he jokes.
He’s also been working in tandem with Bottini on game day posts and previews of the matchup for social media and the website.
“I try to make sure our ticket links get on the Internet in as many places as possible. Right now I have our ticket link on our Instagram profile, in about three different places on Facebook and it’s gone out twice over Twitter today,” Bottini explained. “It’s about making it as easy as possible for the casual fan who’s looking for something to do tonight to buy tickets. “
It’s the team’s greatest tool in creating walk-up and Internet-based sales, integral for building a base for a new franchise.
“Ultimately what we do on a web and social perspective is more sales-centric and ticket-centric than it is the hockey side of things,” Smith said. “That’s what we’ve come to realize works with this particular market. What people want to see in a market like this is a lot different than a place like Hershey where they’re so in tune with everything going on with that team, whether it’s players or storylines, because they’ve been an established single entity for such a long time.”
The digital and communications aspect is one of the few with a direct focus on game night on this day and that’s the product of weeks of advanced planning to make sure the Thunderbirds are consistently at the forefront of the public’s consciousness.
“Peter and I, we try to be two to three weeks out in advance of things. We have all of our radio advertising already done and have things lined up on the website,” Smith said. “We’re always evaluating on off days how we can ensure that people can’t go a day or two without having us on the brain.”
Bottini added, “This stuff is new, so basically for the first year almost we have to sort of cram this down people’s throats on social media so from now on they know if the Thunderbirds are at home on a Friday, it must be a Friday Four-For-All.”
It’s about two hours before game time now and Pawlak goes for a walk. He’s heading to the arena to make sure everything is all set, starting underneath with the promotional station where the team’s interns, ice crew and mascot assemble, then working his way around to ensure that all of the game outlines are properly posted.
He works his way upstairs to evaluate the concourse and to ensure the various tables – ticket sales, chuck-a-puck, raffles, etc. – will be set up appropriately. All the while, he’s also looking ahead to Saturday, another home game, hashing out scripts and schedules for that contest and its promotions in his head.
“That way I’m only dealing with last-minute add-ons so I might be able to sleep in a little tomorrow,” he laughs. “I’ve been here since 8:30 a.m. and I probably won’t get home until after 11 p.m. Anything I can do to get ahead a little is a big help.”
Back at the office, there’s a bit of a lull. Smith is going over his notes for the night’s broadcast.
“By the end of the night, these sheets will be absolutely covered in chicken scratch,” he jokes holding up several pieces of paper with notes already jotted on them.
For Smith, the radio broadcast is another chance to reach an audience that might attend a game.
“I try to keep a story of a flow going for the game,” he said. “I try to maintain a common theme and one of the ones I’ve kind of threaded through the season this year is that almost every single game has been close. I’ve always tried to be more anecdotal than numbers, numbers, numbers. Other than a select few people, you’re not going to find a lot of people dying to hear about statistics.”
One cubicle over, Bottini is geotargeting the Thunderbirds’ Snapchat filter. Essentially, he explained, it allows Snapchat users to add team-specific graphics to photos they take on the social media app that they wouldn’t be able to use anywhere else.
As he finishes, Danny Baxter, one of the team’s photographers, comes in. He and Bottini sit down and start hashing out their plans for the next segment of the team’s video segment, “The Future.”
This week’s production presents an interesting twist – defenseman MacKenzie Weegar is getting in his car after the game on Saturday to head to Allentown for the All Star Classic as the team’s representative. Bottini will be following along, also leaving immediately following the game on Saturday. In addition to getting video footage, Bottini will be assisting Weegar on the social media side as Weegar would be taking over the team’s Twitter and Instagram accounts.
Other than that, the office is eerily quiet.
Until dinner arrives. It’s almost like a starting pistol – everyone realizes it’s almost showtime.
It’s now 5:30 in the evening. Things get real in about half an hour.
Pawlak gathers a few things and makes his way toward the booth, the perch from which he’ll be coordinating everything from a game day perspective.
Pregame starts at 6 p.m.; that’s when things really start to get going for me,” he explained, pointing out the list of videos, music and sponsored elements on tap for when fans start coming through the door. He’s also trying to coordinate some last-minute on-ice details. There’s a group of 100 kids coming to sing as part of the pregame festivities. Somehow they’ve got to fit them all on a carpet.
Smith is heading out to make sure everyone is all set with media credentials and that he has all of the last minute details for his broadcast ready before he, too, heads to the booth.
The sales staff is busy on multiple fronts. That troupe singing on the ice is part of a group sale that needs to be attended to. Meanwhile, the ticketing table on the concourse is being set up to offer service to any and all ticket holders.
“Our sales staff is very active during the game with our season ticket holders and with our individual buyers to make sure their experience is pleasant,” Todd McDonald, director of Ticket Sales, explains. “If it’s not, we have the opportunity to find that out now. We have to listen and react.”
High above the ice next to the press box, Bottini is meeting with his staff of interns, going over their list of “assets” – all of the things that need to be photographed or captured on video that night. It’s a big night. There’s a live band playing in the concourse as part of the Friday festivities. On the other side of the arena, there’s the Minnechaug band playing in the stands. Down on the ice, there are multiple groups performing before the game. Up in The Perch, Griffin’s Friends has a gathering. And that’s just to name a few.
All the while, Costa is taking a walk around the concourse. As he makes his way around, he stops to shake a few hands and a brief conversation with a couple of people, then moves along, only to get stopped again after just a few steps.
It’s no inconvenience; in fact, it’s what he’s looking for. Every conversation is a chance for feedback, an opportunity to learn how to serve this market a little bit better and how to make the fan experience even more enjoyable. That, he said, is how the Thunderbirds will thrive.
“Our business is sold on fan experiences. We’re only here as long as they are happy,” he said.
As the teams take the ice, he takes a look around the arena with a slight smile on his face. It’s going to be a good night. The players and fans are just now ready for puck drop, but he knows his team has been ready all day.
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