Thursday brought a sigh of relief at the NHL offices as the sale of the New jersey devils were announced. The league would not have to go through the pain and brand stagnation that was experienced when no buyer could be found for the Phoenix Coyotes, and some new, enthusiastic blood was being brought into league ownership. That’s the good news. The sad news was closing of a chapter in the history of the Devils with the sale of the team to Philadelphia 76ers owner and investment moguls Josh Harris and his group, because Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek, from a marketing standpoint was a plus for the league as well.
From a brand standpoint it should read well for the outgoing owner in many aspects. While the short-term financial status of the club is what brought about the sale, Vanderbeek’s passion to build and invest in the franchise on the business side, in many ways matched the building that Lou Lamoriello had created on the on-ice side. The two built an overall competitive brand in a major market that many thought could never support a viable NHL team, and in an arena that is state-of-the art and in many ways is still in its initial stages of helping lead a resurgence of business in Newark.
Now the story of the Devils as a brand today is certainly not without its large financial warts, and it is because of the financial burden now upon the team that Thursday’s announcement came along, but there is no doubt that the franchise of today is more established and has more potential for success than the one that Vanderbeek purchased in 2004.
Those Devils of old were highly successful on the ice, but were a large group of faceless players not known in any way by the casual fan in the New York area, playing in an arena (what started as Brendan Byrne, changed to Continental Airlines, and ended as the Izod Center) that was devoid of personality and amenities needed to help make the team more viable from a business perspective. They won on the ice but continually lost at the box office, in broadcast ratings and in the business battle with all the other franchises in the tri-state area.
Vanderbeek, a success on Wall Street with a passion for hockey, saw an opportunity to grow the Devils brand beyond the 14,000 fans it had, and give the team its own home, which ended up being the Prudential Center in Newark, the first completed arena in the building renaissance that has gone on in the region in the last 10 years. The team made the move, created a showplace that was fan-friendly, respective of tradition and encompassed all that was good- not about hockey- but about New Jersey. It certainly was not easy, and many scoffed at the idea of hockey in an urban environment like Newark, but the organization made sure that every experience for fans was a positive one, and the franchise took more shape than ever before.
The team became markedly more about New Jersey, with a style and a personality that reflected a growing audience of casual fans who knew more about the players now through their work in the community than ever before. The Devils implemented digital and social media platforms to expand their footprint to the top of the NHL, and found ways to incorporate new brands into the game experience. All the while “The Pru” became more of a known and accepted destination for all events from a New Jersey suburban crowd that became used to train or car trips to Newark; something that was unheard of before the arena and the team took hold there. The building around the arena of new businesses may not be meteoric, but it is steady, with new projects expanding the arena footprint each month.
For sure the Devils are not a night in and night out sellout, especially in these challenging times and with a team that has missed the playoffs two of the last three years, with a Stanley Cup finals run sandwiched in between. However the nights of 12,000 crowds are well gone, and the amount of Devils recognition in the state is well beyond anything it was in the Meadowlands.
The new owners, who might get some backlash from their Philly ties about owning a team just up the turnpike from the rival Flyers, will have some big financial hills to climb and need to face the financial challenges over keeping an arena and a team moving upwards in a market where the landscape is more challenging from a venue perspective than ever before. However, from a brand recognition standpoint they are getting a product in more solid hands than what was there when Vanderbeek and his partners took the reins, and they have a progressive and marketing savvy organization that understands its place in the larger community in the state, playing in a solid and strong state of the art facility. It will be an intriguing new chapter to watch the sport in the Garden State, as one passionate owner exits and a new group begins for the only pro franchise that calls New Jersey…and New Jersey only…its home.