Nick Nollenberger, a native of Santa Cruz, California and San Jose Jr. Shark alum, is the radio voice of the San Jose Barracuda, AHL affiliate of the San Jose Sharks. A alumni of the University of Arizona, Nollenberger is also the host of the Barracuda’s official podcast Cuda Confidential.
Hello, Barracuda fans! Long time no talk. I hope all is well. With the NHL draft on tap tonight (Friday), and the conclusion of the AHL Business Meetings in Charlotte on Thursday, I felt it was only appropriate I’d begin penning my weekly summer blog.
I’ve talked about it before, but modern professional sports never really stop. What do I mean by that? The offseason is merely a figment of speech to indicate the end of one sports year and the beginning of another. Technically July 1st free agency marks a new season but we all know it begins as soon as someone hoists the Stanley Cup and in some instances, even earlier than that.
As we saw this week with the re-signing of Erik Karlsson and the trade of Justin Braun to the Flyers, things can happen in a hurry. Heck, Joe Thornton in the most Joe Thornton fashion ever said he’d be back for a 21st season by jokingly saying during the NHL awards in Vegas, “I’ll probably play another ten years. We’ll wait and see, but I’m thinking five to ten right now. I got nothing else going on.” Thornton has also added since the conclusion of the Sharks season that’d he only play for one team and that’s San Jose. So, we can all but pencil #19 in the Sharks lineup in 2019-20.
In my mind, the departure of Braun affects three major areas. First, it gives the Sharks some much needed cap space as they look to re-sign unrestricted free agent Joe Pavelski and restricted free agents Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc. Meier and Labanc are all but a lock to be in San Jose next year because the Sharks can match any offer another team makes. Pavelski presents a few more challenges when you factor in his age (34) and the sensational season he put together last year (75 GP 38+26=64). Doug Wilson is a wizard with these things as we all know and I expect he’ll lock up his captain for years to come. Second, it gives the Sharks some draft capital that they needed badly. With large contracts, you need cheap labor and young players provide that flexibility. The major acquisitions of Evander Kane and Karlsson over the last two years has forced Team Teal to trade picks, leaving them with only a handful of selections in the first three rounds over the next three years. The Braun departure will allow the Sharks to pick in the second round this upcoming weekend, plus, they added a third rounder next year, replacing the conditional third rounder they sent to Detroit in the Gus Nyquist trade. Gems can be found in the second round and beyond. Just look at some of the stars of this year’s Stanley Cup Final (Zdeno Chara [3rd RD], Patrice Bergeron [2nd RD], Brad Marchand [3rd RD], Jordan Binnington [3rd RD], Colton Parayko [3rd RD], Ryan O’Reilly [2nd RD]). Last, it raises a lot of questions on the Sharks back end. San Jose arguably has three of the top 15 d-men in the NHL, but who will be the other three in San Jose’s top six (or even seven) going into next year. Brendan Dillon is under contract for another season and Sharks rookie of the year, Radim Simek could be 100% by October. Tim Heed and Joakim Ryan are the big question marks. If one or both return, there’s your six and seven. If one does not, it opens the door for the likes of a Jake Middleton or Nick DeSimone. Ryan is restricted while Heed is not. Can a young guy who is coming in this season push for an NHL job? Say, a Mario Ferraro. And the Sharks could explore the free agency market, too, but that will most likely require more money. Only time will tell, but one thing is clear, young guys are going to get a very strong look this offseason from the Sharks brass.
I’ll have a full development camp/draft blog coming next Friday but this week I wanted to talk about what I learned from the AHL business meetings and what I thought could be some great things to do in San Jose.
Quickly before I talk about Charlotte, I wanted to give my two cents on the Karlsson signing. The annual value is no surprise. Drew Doughty was previously the highest paid defenseman in NHL history and Karlsson is considered in his same company. If it wasn’t San Jose, someone was going to pay him that money. The Sharks have aspirations to win a Stanley Cup and in order to do that you’ve got to have elite players. People have asked me casually over the last month or so if I thought he’d be back. I’m sports fan at heart so like sports radio host do on a daily basis, I too like to banter about scenarios and financial figures. I repeatedly said you’ve got to re-sign this guy. Blue chip players are rare... guys who are talked about in the same breath as the great Nick Lidstrom or even Bobby Orr are even rarer. That’s Karlsson and that, in my opinion, is why the Sharks made the financial commitment to him. They believe and I agree, that Erik Karlsson increases their chances to win a cup dramatically. The Sharks were two wins away from reaching their second cup final in franchise history and Karlsson was only on one leg for most of the playoffs. It was a major priority, clearly, to re-sign him and I think it was a great move to do so.
Just be clear, these thoughts are strictly my own and don’t include the feelings or opinions of any Sharks management members.
Let’s move on. Every summer the American Hockey League conducts their business meetings. Last year it was in Des Moines, this year in Charlotte, the home of the 2019 Calder Cup Champion Charlotte Checkers. These events are planned far in advance so it was only a coincidence it happened to be in the city of the champs.
The meeting provided a lot of productive dialog between teams. Idea sharing, networking and more. Rarely are we afforded the opportunity to see what promotions, or ticketing strategies other teams executed and found great results. It’s also an opportunity for the league to dish out some business awards.
What also made the week a little more special was it allowed myself to return back to where my professional broadcasting career began out of college with the Kannapolis Intimidators (Single “A” Chicago White Sox) of the South Atlantic League. Kannapolis is a small town about 25 minutes outside of downtown Charlotte. So, it brought back some fun memories.
Charlotte is a beautifully clean city with a southern charm. It was hot and sticky, there’s no doubt, but the town delightfully mixes old brick-style buildings with a modern skyscrapers.
The meetings kicked off on Tuesday with a keynote speech from Vegas Golden Knights President and COO Kerry Bubolz. Don’t worry he didn’t mention game 7, but he did talk about the unorthodox approaches they’ve taken to grow the sport we all love in one of the most unlikely of locations. Kerry spent several seasons in Cleveland with the Monsters so he has an intimate knowledge of the AHL.
More so than their unique twist on promotions and marketing, I enjoyed Kerry’s passion more than anything. He’s known for greeting fans upon arrival and a willingness to try just about anything. He repeatedly mentioned sports being a people business and setting the pace. There’s no doubt about that. His energy was contagious and well received.
Here in Charlotte for the annual @TheAHL Team Business meetings! pic.twitter.com/SbrNa7xop4
— San Jose Barracuda (@sjbarracuda) June 18, 2019
Here in Charlotte for the annual @TheAHL Team Business meetings! pic.twitter.com/SbrNa7xop4
Successful teams execute great promo nights and there were several that stuck out. The Cleveland Monsters pulled off their biggest attendance game in franchise history when they celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. The promo included astronaut inspired jerseys, Nasa moon exhibits on the concourse, astronaut meet and greet, bobblehead and more. The result, more than 15,000 people in the building.
The meetings covered a wide range of topics including merchandise, marketing, advertising strategies, ticketing strategies, giveaways, AHL TV, brand identity.
The highlight of the meetings for me came from Mike Forman, Vice President of Marketing and Brand Strategy for the Carolina Hurricanes. As an AHL club, in a major market, playing out of the same building as its NHL team, we recognize the challenges one faces and the unconventional approaches it takes to be successful. So, I found the Hurricanes approach intriguing.
Mike broke down his fans in three ways…
Non Fans (0-2 games per year)
Casual Fans (3-10 games per year)
Avid Fans (11+ games per year)
Caniac (22+ games per year)
So, how do you turn a non-fan or casual-fan into an avid fan or Caniac? There’s no one solution but he explained his team’s approach. It starts with making your product the “it” place to be. How do you do that? By finding out what makes your region special and unique. In North Carolina it’s not so much about selling hockey but selling entertainment and once you convince people on the that, the love for the game will follow. Around Raleigh there’s a large saturation of colleges. So, they made ticket pricing affordable to college kids, even during the playoffs. NC is also boasting a large military contingent so that became a big part of their focus. NC is also becoming a major tech region so they targeted people moving into the area. Last, they focused on what they thought was the regions greatest qualities and that was food, beer, and music. By combing these various genres along with a winning product and marketing luck/genius (Storm Surge and Bunch of Jerks) the result was over $3 million worth of new ticketing business and over a 90% season ticket retention rate.
I found it all fascinating stuff. While I don’t expect any players to be dunking basketballs or playing duck hunter on the big screen after a big win like the Hurricanes, we are formulating our promotional schedule for next season and I think there’s a lot on there that fans are really going to enjoy.
That’s it for me this week. Enjoy the draft and I hope to see you all at the Prospect Scrimmage on Friday at the SAP Center.