Anyone looking for a good brawl at the meeting between the heads of the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks Jan. 15 was out of luck. Apart from a few convivial jabs, Luc Robitaille and Michael Schulman were largely on the same page when it came to the particular challenges of growing a hockey franchise in Southern California.
“We battle each other on the ice, but off the ice, we’ve got to work together,” said Robitaille, president of business operations for the L.A. Kings. Watch the Video
Schulman, CEO of the Anaheim Ducks, agreed. “The Kings’ willingness to expand the sport in Southern California is why the Ducks exist.”
Sponsored by the USC Marshall School of Business and the Sports Business Institute. (SBI), “The Business of Hockey” event brought together the leading executives of both Southern California hockey franchises for a candid discussion in front of a sold-out crowd of about 250 students, faculty, industry members and fans.
The conversation – the first in a series of planned “Business of Team Sports” events – was moderated by David Carter, SBI executive director and associate professor of management and organization. “The event was lively and very well-attended. Everyone behaved themselves and enjoyed the discussion. You never know with hockey fans,” he laughed.
Carter was only half joking. The Kings and the Ducks share a passionate fan base in Southern California – an unlikely toehold for a cold-climate sport until the Kings’ acquisition of Wayne Gretzky galvanized interest in the region in 1988. More than two decades later, that interest continues to rise. “Since 2006, there’s been an eight percent year-over-year growth in league revenue, shocking everybody, and our national revenue has grown at an even higher rate – closer to 25 percent,” Schulman said. “We keep surprising ourselves.”
The franchise’s ability to sustain those numbers was a central topic of the discussion.
“Where do you see revenue growth within your franchise?” Carter asked Robitaille and Schulman. “Where’s the upside?”
Robitaille had a ready answer. “I would say TV,” he said. “Our game is still a ticket game” – The stadiums are already almost full.
“We’re at 95 percent capacity,” Schulman concurred. “In L.A. there’s not a lot of room left in bringing people through the turnstiles.”
TV could be a growth market, the executives agreed, because seeing a hockey game televised makes for a different fan experience. While the numbers suggest more people are watching the game on TV, Schulman noted that new technology could be used to make the game even more TV-friendly. “It’s a fast game. It’s a confusing game, and there are not enough time outs to explain everything. We are working hard to make the TV experience better,” he said.
Whatever the strategy, both Robitaille and Schulman agreed that growing the fan base and future player pool in Southern California will require the franchises to step up and hook young kids. “The ages between four and eight are a prime market for us,” Schulman said. “You get those kids on the ice, and they are going to want to continue playing and watching hockey.”
Still, in the land of sun and surf, finding facilities where kids can learn and practice their ice skating remains a challenge. “Land in Southern California is too expensive to build ice rinks,” Schulman pointed out. Instead, the franchises are putting their weight behind bringing in an elite triple A league for talented high school players (there are currently 41 high school teams in the region, mostly in Orange County). “The idea is to bring scouts here instead of having to leave the region to go where they are,” Robitaille said.
In perhaps the biggest development, Schulman announced that Southern California will soon have its own minor league teams. “We’ve been working on this for four years now,” he said. “There will be six new cities and six new teams. Those people who see minor league hockey are going to want to see major league hockey. It will expand further from there and help grow hockey in California.”