The best way for a sports team to sell tickets is to win. That’s common knowledge. Fans want to support a winner. They want to celebrate championships, as if they won them too.
Which is why the New Jersey Devils have been such a puzzling franchise to follow from a business perspective. On the ice, they’ve been one of the most successful teams in the NHL for the past two decades. Off the ice, not so much.
“A Lack of Charisma Hurts Devils at Gate,” reads a New York Times headline from 1999.
“Empty Feeling for the Devils at Home,” reads one from 2003.
“The First-Place Devils Are Struggling at the Gate,” is from 2006.
Even their move to a brand new arena, the Prudential Center in Newark, in 2007 didn’t make them a hot ticket. At least, not compared to their Manhattan rivals, the New York Rangers.
Among the list of reasons/excuses presented:
—- The team is good, but boring to watch.
—- Newark is dangerous.
—- The club’s marketing is poor.
—- The tickets are too expensive.
Fast forward to the present and enter new owners Joshua Harris and David Blitzer, along with new CEO Scott O’Neil to run the club’s business operations. Former CEO Lou Lamoriello will remain in charge of hockey operations.
“This team has stood for excellence and we want to continue the excellence, so we don’t want to fiddle in what Lou and his staff have done incredibly well for their entire careers,” Blitzer said today. “I think the New Jersey Devils are the envy of 99 percent of the NHL from the standpoint of their performance on the ice. We don’t really want to change that.”
But they do, clearly, want to change the way the business is run.
Lowering ticket prices would seem to be a possibility, particularly for mid-week games against non-rival teams. When Harris bought the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers in 2011, the club announced dramatic reductions in ticket prices.
The fan experience could be an area targeted for improvement, too.
“When you have an arena and a team, you have more flexibility in terms of the fan experience than you do as a tenant,” Harris said. “Here we’ll have more control.”
SI.com’s Stu Hackel wonders something else about the new owners:
Will they want the Devils to become a more exciting product on the ice? Acquiring [Ilya] Kovalchuk and developing [Zach] Parise were rather groundbreaking moves for this franchise, which has rarely boasted elite offensive talent. Now those two players are gone and that could necessitate a renewed emphasis on defense, unless ownership suggests a change in direction.
So while Devils fans are rightly happy that the new deep-pocketed ownership group should mean fewer depressing stories about the team’s financial struggles, the business story will still be one to watch (if you’re one to watch those sort of things.)