By ALAN SNEL
Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee isn’t the only architect designing a future for Las Vegas’ NHL expansion franchise.
VGK President Kerry Bubolz is building for the future too — and his blueprint includes strategies to lure youthful fans who will be much younger than the prospects McPhee has signed up for his future player rosters.
Bubolz faces one of professional team sports’ most fascinating marketing challenges. He’s trying to build a sound foundation for a new NHL club that will rely on cultivating a new generation of fans in not only a classic sunbelt market of transients but also in a town of 40 million annual visitors who can choose from dozens of competing high-powered entertainment options.
But Bubolz will be ready.
When the Golden Knights launch their inaugural season in less than 100 days, Bubolz will have 14,000 season ticket equivalents already in his back pocket, with many of those falling in the multi-year category.
And even with a solid season ticket base, the former Cleveland Cavaliers president of business operations has already mapped a game plan to build a fan foundation that will go beyond immediate ticket sales.
The strategy’s centerpiece is the team’s impressive new $30 million practice facility along Pavilion Center Drive near Red Rock Resort. Bubolz is counting on thousands of young kids being transformed into future Golden Knights fans when they play in youth hockey programs in a building equipped with 10 youth locker rooms.
To get locals to feel the exhilaration of blade on ice, the team has also invested in buying 600 pairs of skates that will be available during open skate time periods at the facility, which will include two sheets of ice.
To formalize their relationship with young hockey players, the Golden Knights are partnering with the Nevada Storm to create a new youth travel program called the Vegas Jr. Golden Knights.
“We want to get a stick in their hands to get them exposed to the game,” said Bubolz, who worked in southern NHL markets for the Dallas Stars and Carolina Hurricanes. He came to Las Vegas from the Cleveland Cavaliers after the NBA team won its league championship in 2016.
The Golden Knights have also purchased 5,000 youth hockey sticks, including 3,000 that have already been given to kids, Bubolz said.
Other southern NHL markets such as Nashville, Los Angeles, Dallas and Arizona have also followed the youth marketing strategy, Bubolz said. It’s a page out of the NHL marketing handbook.
“With kids, you’re planting the seeds,” said Sean Henry, president of the Nashville Predators, which lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals last month.
With that philosophy in mind, Bubolz said an 11-game ticket plan has been developed to appeal to families. (There’s also a 22-game ticket deal, too.)
And kids will get to games via a Golden Knights partnership with a (soon-to-be-named) hotel-casino sponsor, which will work with the Clark County School District to get tickets in the hands of good kids who work on wellness and show good behavior, Bubolz said.
Besides investing in youths, Bubolz is also trying to get fans and sponsors to invest in multi-year season ticket deals and sponsorship agreements.
There aren’t three more pleasant sounding words to a sports business executive than “contractually obligated income.”
In Bubolz’s words, the “vast majority” of the season ticket commitments are in the three-year to 10-year range, and the same can be said for premium suite and sponsorship deals.
For example, the Golden Knights cut a deal with The D hotel-casino in downtown Las Vegas that will last for six years. More hotel-casino sponsorship deals are on the way. (LVSportsBiz.com will go out on a limb and guess that MGM Resorts International, which owns half of the arena that will host the VGK, will be one of those sponsors.)
The season ticket, suite and sponsorship deals all have staggered time frames so that the team isn’t left in a financial lurch when the agreements end, Bubolz said.
An NHL sunbelt team that can be compared to the Golden Knights is Nashville (even down to the team colors. The Predators like to stress its gold and the Knights have that color right in their name.) To try and keep opponent fans from taking too many seats in Nashville, the Predators sold tickets to only fans who lived in zip codes in the team’s market, said Henry, the Preds prez.
Henry, who was also former chief operating officer for the Tampa Bay Lightning, put it this way: “I don’t know if you can bank on tourists to sell tickets. You have to build your home base. We needed to develop Lightning fans and Predator fans. And we need our own fans to buy the tickets.”
But Bubolz said he’s not too concerned with tickets falling into the hands of non-Golden Knights fans at T-Mobile Arena.
Noting the arena holds 18,000 for hockey, and that 14,000 are already sold to VGK season ticket holders, Bubolz said half of the balance will be earmarked for group sales. That will leave about 1,200-1,500 single-game tickets in the secondary ticket market and there’s no great harm if some of them are bought by fans of the other team, he said.
“To push them out the door creates the wrong message,” Bubolz said. He noted the “heritage” fans from the older teams could also teach the newer fans in Las Vegas a few things about the sport of hockey.
LVSportsBiz.com has witnessed local Vegas fans wearing logo gear of both their old team and their new Golden Knights club — at the same time. For example, after the NHL awards/expansion draft event two weeks ago at T-Mobile Arena, there were fans wearing Penguins jerseys and Golden Knights caps.
With that in mind, Bubolz envisions Las Vegas hockey fans who are adept at sewing to create jerseys where one half of the jersey show their favorite team they grew up with and the other half shows the colors and logo of the Golden Knights.
Bubolz predicts the two visiting teams with the most fans at Golden Knights games will be the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Black Hawks. He said the Penguins and the Toronto Maple Leafs will also have lots of fans in the arena when those teams visit. And so will the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadians and Los Angeles Kings,he noted.
Bubolz also does not plan to market the team around one recognizable star such as goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the team’s most well-known expansion draft choice plucked off the roster of the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins.
In Cleveland, Bubolz’s former NBA team boasted basketball’s most well-known superstar — LeBron James. But the Cavs did not build its marketing plan around James, Bubolz recalled.
And the same will go in Las Vegas, where no one player will be singled out for extra promotional gain.
“We’ll be team oriented. We won’t lead with one guy,” Bubolz said. “We went out of our way to have a team approach in Cleveland. We want to build a culture around team. You can’t win with only one player.”
Contact LVSportsBiz.com founder/writer Alan Snel at asnel@LVSportsBiz.com