The following ran on New Jersey Newsroom on Friday as well…
It hasn’t been the easiest of winters for the owners of the New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia 76ers, at least on the court and the ice. The Sixers have spent the season dumping salaries, name players and expectations in exchange for a run a free agents and high draft picks, while the Devils continue to dance with a distant playoff spot in what has become an extended dry spell for a team looking to retool under Lou Lamoriello. Still even with finishes out of the playoffs, ownership continues to find ways to engage with fans to have the best experience possible while at the game, and try and bring in new brands that are looking to get in on the ground floor of what will be a steady rise back up both on the hardwood and on the ice.
This weekend for example, the Devils will stage a massive celebration around the 20th anniversary of their 1995 Stanley Cup Championship team, replete with a whole list of fan experiences, auction items and activities all designed to not just remember the past, but to get the fans more engaged about the current brand, In many ways because of the efforts, the Devils are more brand relevant today despite their on-ice issues in and around New Jersey than they were when they were toting Cups around the parking lot of Brendan Byrne Arena, and that relevance is in good part to the ownership changes that have occurred since the Prudential Center became the home for hockey in New Jersey.
Similarly, the Sixers have made no bones about the fact that this year was almost a write off, trying to cultivate young players, amass draft picks and clear salary cap at an almost unheard of rate to build for the future. They too have gone out to embrace the past, like staging a Wilt Chamberlain celebration, in order to give the fans some little extras while keeping their core involved with the hope of the future.
David Blitzer, the co-owner with Josh Harris of the New Jersey Devils, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Prudential Center in Newark, spent some time this past Wednesday at the Leaders in Sport Conference at the Times Center in Manhattan talking about the two teams, their business and the culture ownership is trying to build both in South Philly and along the Hudson
A Penn grad who grew up in Scotch Plains in Union County, NJ he was clear in showing his desire to rebuild and keep the teams where they are and to build the organizations from within. “I’m a huge believer in culture, in putting together a team moving in the same direction and the same values,” Blitzer told John Brennan of The Record. “We want new ideas – we want people arguing about things, not to have to tiptoe on everything you do. We want people to say, ‘I disagree with that, [Devils and 76ers CEO] Scott O’Neil,’ I disagree with that, David, or ‘I disagree with that, coach. Across the organization, we think conventional thinking is not what leads one to ultimately sustainable success.” The idea of ‘that’s how we’ve done it,”‘ – that’s not a good answer. We want to hire the best people, and we’ll pay them.”
One thing it doesn’t look like the owners will pay for is the other arena in the area, the Izod Center, which recently announced it will close its doors rather than be the second arena in the area. “I grew up there,” he said when asked about the former Byrne Arena. “I think it sort of ran its course, just literally the depreciation in sense of how long the building has been up.”
The time has certainly not lapsed on the Prudential Center, which he called a great showplace for North Jersey on a day when the US Gymnastics Championships were added to the schedule for 2016 as well, again making it one of the busiest arenas in North America even with the competition of places like Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden, and for now Nassau Coliseum.
Blitzer also touched on one of the hottest topics in sports, gambling, and where it may, or may not end up in the sports landscape as New Jersey wages an ongoing battle in the courts to have law overturned that prohibits sports betting outside of Nevada. Both the Devils and the Sixers were first adopters in taking on an online poker site as a sponsor, and earlier this year New Jersey became the first NHL club to bring in a daily pay fantasy partner to test those waters as well. “I have felt for a long time that ultimately – gaming, let’s call it, in sports – should be regulated and taxed,” he said. “I just feel like more information – I actually think one of the arguments against [full legalization], the ‘integrity of the sport’ question – that having it more out in the open rather than sort of being underneath the floor will actually enhance that [maintaining the integrity of the league] rather than degrade it. That’s been my view for a long time. When it comes and how it comes, I don’t know.”
This past weekend at the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference MLB commissioner Rob Manfred admitted that baseball will take a look at the options on gambling as well, but will also follow the proposal that NBA commissioner Adam Silver has put forth, with a federally-mandated program vs. a state by state approach which many feel would be unmanageable and fraught with issues.
“That’s a whole different question, what the business model eventually looks like,” Blitzer added. “But clearly if one is providing the content, should they at least be ‘in the value chain,’ let’s call it. That’s something for people to argue about in ‘x’ number of years. But I’m sure the leagues will be some part of the value chain.”
He also chimed in on the growth of sport abroad, both for the NBA and the NHL. “I truly believe that the NBA has the ability to be the highest-growing international business over the next decade,” he added. “Managing that growth is not easy. It’s very different managing a business in Asia or Europe than it is in America. To manage that in the right way, on a variety of continents, is going to be interesting. I think they will succeed.”
Success in the conventional ways fans are used to has been hard for both of Blitzer’s teams this winter. He was both understanding and optimistic of the future of both franchises regardless of the long road this year and from a business perspective, looked to the future as he spoke of the use of Virtual reality, enhanced digital opportunities in arena, and even the Sixers widening their footprint more into NBA-less New Jersey through their new practice facility in Camden.
“This is not an easy business but it certainly has been fun and I feel we have both franchises headed in the right way as parts of the community and as successful businesses, it will just take a little more time and patience, but we will get there,” he added. Hopefully this cold winter for both teams will be replaced by long runs in the future, with the businesses now righted and the leadership in place to turn the corner next season and beyond.