| Chris Maza
SPRINGFIELD – The ice is melted, the boards have been removed and players have long since left to head home for the offseason.
But for the Springfield Thunderbirds’s front office team, this is the proving ground.
After what has been heralded by most as a successful start for the franchise in its inaugural season, Executive Vice President Nate Costa and his team are now tasked with building upon their accomplishments to build a sustainable future for the team.
If the early returns are any indication, they are headed in the right direction.
According to Costa, citing metrics used by the American Hockey League, the Thunderbirds have been one of the most successful franchises in renewing season ticket packages and selling new packages, ranking in the top-10 in both categories and laying a sturdy foundation for the 2017-18 season.
Eighty percent of last year’s full-season ticket package holders have already renewed and the franchise has already sold an additional 100 full packages to new clients. Lower-level seats between the blue lines, for example, are nearly all claimed.
“For this franchise in this market, this is a really good number, especially now. It’s only May,” Costa said. “We have already eclipsed the number of season tickets we had sold all of last year. Anything we sell from here on out is going to be growth, which is going to set us up for success.”
Those gaudy numbers, he said, were the result of an aggressive sales strategy through which the sales staff engaged fans and offered promotions for two solid months during the 2016-17 season.
“The teams that are most successful selling season tickets and renewing season tickets start their process when the season’s happening,” Costa explained. “We put a lot of incentives out there. We’re going to hold our pricing – we’re not going up in pricing. We’re grandfathering people who were Falcons season ticket holders into their original price for one more season and we had a bunch of giveaways at the end of the year focused on selling tickets to keep the momentum going.”
The early success is terrific, but the staff isn’t resting on its laurels.
Vice President of Corporate Sales Chris Thompson recently sealed substantial deals for next season while the ticket sales team has been actively reaching out to community groups about the six guaranteed home dates that were recently released and touting the “experiential assets” the team offers to groups, which were entirely were sold out last year.
All of the opportunities that lay in front of the team put in perspective how impressive their efforts to cobble together a successful first-year campaign.
“We’re getting out in front and having conversations because this is the time of the year we didn’t have last year and this is why it was so challenging for us in October and November to sell,” Costa said.
Indeed, the Thunderbirds were well behind the eight ball when they launched their efforts to revitalize hockey in the City of Homes after the Springfield Falcons were sold and moved to Tucson, AZ.
It wasn’t until late May that a group of local investors led by Paul Picknelly learned their bid to purchase the Portland Pirates and move the franchise to Springfield was approved by the AHL Board of Governors and the Florida Panthers announced their affiliation agreement.
It wasn’t until June that Costa was introduced as the executive vice president and he was able to begin assembling his team, which included only a handful of holdovers from the previous Falcons front office and numerous young faces who were new to the Springfield market.
The Springfield Thunderbirds moniker and logo wasn’t developed until mid-June.
“Getting a late start, coming in from the American Hockey League, I knew it was going to be a challenge to get bodies in the building and create a brand from scratch,” Costa recalled.
“Luckily I had the playbook. I don’t say that to be conceited. It was my job. I was paid to be an expert at AHL business operations and to get out and share ideas on how to run a successful AHL business. It was exciting say, ‘OK, I’ve been talking about this stuff for a very long time. Can it work?’ And I knew it would if we put in the work.”
And work they did with the staff “exceeding expectations in pretty much every area of the business,” according to Costa.
The MassMutual Center, which saw an average of just over 3,100 fans come through its doors for the final Falcons season, had an average of 4,664 people in the seats and on the concourse in the Thunderbirds’ inaugural season.
“We had a number out there as a target we wanted to accomplish, but if you had told me we were going to increase attendance 50 percent, I would have loved it, but I don’t know if it would have been realistic,” Costa admitted. “I’d been with the league for seven years and I had seen it firsthand. Teams need a full year. You’re looking at Worcester at the ECHL level and they’re taking two full years to get going. We did it in a matter of months.”
The vision for the franchise was built upon four pillars – sales and marketing, game operations and game experience, community outreach, and social media – each of which, Costa said, contributed to the initial success.
“We put a lot of sweat equity into this. Every single person in this office did. I can’t take credit for a lot of it. It was a vision of mine, but these guys were the ones who put it in place,” he said.
He added the team had to craft a different message to the city about hockey than what they had heard before.
“Unlike in some other markets that have never had hockey and there’s excitement for something new, we didn’t just open the doors and have people were come down and filling the building just because we were there. We worked at it really hard. Initially, I think there was skepticism. A team left for the second time in something like 20 years and I think there was a lot to overcome,” he said. “I think in the past, at least from what I gathered, there was always that air, that sense that, “If people in the market don’t support us, then we’re out of here.” But right from the get-go, from my perspective, we had to have a positive message to tell.”
In building that message, there was a strong ally that helped in convincing the community to invest in the team – its new ownership group, which now has ballooned to 30 partners.
“It really started with Paul and the rest of the ownership group,” Costa said. “All of these guys stepped to the plate, not to make a ton of money, but to do what’s right by the city and keep the positive momentum of what’s going on around the city going.”
Once in the door, what Costa described as a “carnival-like” atmosphere with a full slate of promotions and new wrinkles like live music on the concourse before games on Friday night, family-friendly pricing and concession deals like $1 hot dogs, soda and popcorn and discounted draft beers all helped build a relationship with fans that has propelled its ticketing momentum heading into the offseason.
“That’s something we took pride in,” Costa said. “We knew we can’t always have control over the play or the roster, but we can have control over the setting and the tone that we set in the building and I think we did a great job of creating an atmosphere that people could appreciate.”
The product on the ice that had its share of obstacles to overcome itself and managed to navigate its way through them.
While the team missed the playoffs and finished with a 32-22-9-2 record, Costa credited the players with staying competitive from start to finish. The Thunderbirds posted a 19-16-2-1 record at home, ending the season on a five-game home winning streak and posted an 8-2-0-0 mark in its last 10 home games. Few teams were involved in as many close and one-goal games as Springfield.
“I think Florida was challenged this year. Up top they had a lot of injuries early and they pulled up a lot of our better players early on. We had the youngest team in the league and [Head Coach] Geordie [Kinnear], being a first-year coach, did a fantastic job keeping these guys engaged,” Costa said. “He had some significant challenges with the roster early on and to get back to .500 the way that they did this year I thought was a huge accomplishment.”
Improvement in the win-loss record would be preferable, but Costa said the style of hockey that was on display is a benefit to what he and his front office staff are trying to accomplish.
“It was an exciting brand of hockey. They played tough, they played fast and they had each other’s backs and in this market, that’s a brand of hockey that resonates with people,” he said.
What also resonates with people in the area is hard work and dedication to the community. Those are values Costa said are going to be vital to the Thunderbirds’ future. With the team that has been assembled, he foresees that future will be bright.
“If we hold true to what I know has been successful in other AHL markets, hockey will thrive here.”