SPRINGFIELD, MA – The Springfield Thunderbirds just completed their inaugural year in the American Hockey League a little over two weeks ago. The Thunderbirds had a young team on the ice as well as a young team in the front office. The front office worked hard day and night to make sure the MassMutual Center was full.
Thunderbirds Executive Vice President, Nathan Costa set out a plan. They did not deviate very far off the original plan in which to redouble their efforts on sales and marketing.
“Really engage within the community. Make the game night experience really engaging and we were able to do a lot of those things,” Costa said.
Costa put together the front office staff. Costa was able to get some of the people back from the Springfield Falcons organization and was able to add to that with a young energetic, passionate staff. This staff wanted to work hard and all bought in on what the vision was to put in more than a 100% effort.
“Everybody on our staff has contributed so much and has worked so hard towards accomplishing this. It’s really incredible from my end, very gratifying,” Costa continued.
A lot of it was driven internally and the promotions the team was able to do, it was a successful year. With things coming together and how they would come together, all of it doesn’t happen without Costa’s staff in the front office.
“I put our staff up against anyone in the American Hockey League when it comes to just creativity and hardworking individuals. It was really a gratifying year for me just to be able to see our team grow not only on the business front, but on the ice. The guys really started to put things together towards the end of the year. During the beginning part of the year, we were banged up. On all fronts, we thought it was a successful year,” Costa stated.
The victory for the Thunderbirds this year was the improvement in attendance. When the Falcons moved out of town, they ranked last in the attendance. The Thunderbirds in their first year, ranked 20th out of 30 teams in AHL attendance. To Costa, an average of 4,600 per game was a great accomplishment and he strives to increase that number. Costa would love to be over 5,000 on a regular basis, then over 6,000 and then filling the building every single night but Costa knows it’s challenging to do overnight in the AHL. However, they are trying to be realistic about this. Costa believes having the success this year was based on their schedule and they had one of the best schedules in the league with a total of 28 Friday and Saturday games. Costa is hoping to get a similar schedule for the 2017-18 season and to keep the momentum going. Costa knows with 38 nights a year, that there is a lot going on not only in the marketplace, but in other people’s lives with it becoming challenging to come out every single night.
The early part of the year is a challenge with football season and they won’t hit their peak until mid-January. The focus and energy will be on the first part of the year with the off-season starting. The Thunderbirds are starting to have conversations with groups about coming out that first part of the year. They really did not have an opportunity to do that last year with so little time to get ready in a short matter of weeks.
Costa believes his goal was to have six sellouts and that was just a pie in the sky to be honest. It was not in the cards. It was not because of lack of work and would’ve had a couple if some bounces went their way, but a lot of it was driven eternally too. The Thunderbirds only had three. The nights that the team did sellout, they had over 2,000 group ticket sales in the building. All were driven by the front office and sales staff.
The avid hockey fan or family would come out to see the Thunderbirds and some got hooked on hockey in the city of Springfield. Costa believes the landscape is changing daily with many different options for families, young people, and really anybody when it comes to the entertainment dollar that the Thunderbirds are fighting for. He knows they want a piece of the pie.
This was Costa’s first time to manage a staff of this size and to be honest, he could not ask for anything more. Each individual staff member left it all out there during the season while working an incredible amount of hours by making personal sacrifices and they all did it for the betterment of the team.
The successful year has already helped to get a greater start selling for the 2017-18 year. With the move of the team from Portland to Springfield, there was not a lot of time to start selling as they did not start until mid-July. They started the 2017-18 ticket sales back in February to the point where they combined new sales and renewals to the numbers they had at the end of the year. It’s a good starting point heading to the next campaign. Costa is hoping to get a jump start on group sales which should help their business.
Costa has always had a vision and for year two, he hopes to stay the course on a lot of the things they were able to accomplish. It is to continue to push the envelope and engaging in promotional nights to also build on the successful nights they had. The team was laying a foundation for success for years to come. Costa knows he cannot reinvent the wheel after every year. Over the next couple weeks, the staff will evaluate and take a look what the strengths and weaknesses are. They’ll also look at the opportunities and threats while evaluating the entire business and figuring out what should and should not stay.
The ownership group has been key as it’s comprised of local businessmen from Springfield and the surrounding areas. The group includes upward-to-close to 30 owners where Costa can tap into their resources and knowledge to be able to lean on them while helping the team get new prospects and businesses. Costa feels they have been extraordinary where each person has brought a different skill set and a different book of business. Each also has brought a willingness to help out in every way this year and has been a part of the team success.
“I think it starts with Paul Picknelly. Paul has so many things going on in his business portfolio, but there has not been one instant where he hasn’t taken a phone call of mine to help if I am in a bind or I have a question. He is always there to provide leadership and provide guidance and mentorship. It’s really been, for me, a fulfilling year on that front. I could not ask for better owners. They’ve been not only great owners, but great partners. It’s been really fun having them along for the ride because they have a similar vision to me. They have the same vision I do for what this franchise can be. They have given me the opportunity to run with it. They have trusted me from day one. It’s a good feeling. It’s a humbling feeling to get that sort of trust right from the get-go,” Costa said.
One of the things Costa has requested for next season is a school day game from the AHL. Other AHL cities have tried it and it has been successful. They will be in a position to release that date in the next couple weeks. They have requested a fall date. The team went down to Bridgeport to see how it works where they do two a year. The Sound Tigers were very gracious to welcome the Thunderbirds staff to help them find the inner workings of how this will happen. Costa feels it will be a great thing for the City of Springfield and the surrounding communities.
“It’s an opportunity to take a Wednesday night game, which is really a challenging sell for us, to provide an educational experience to kids,” Costa continued.
Costa and the Thunderbirds want to not only have an impact on a child’s life by getting a chance to come and see professional hockey, but hopefully providing an educational experience where it will show value to school teachers in the area and the front office of many schools in the local market. It will hopefully expose many kids that are in the Springfield School District, specifically to the product, where they may not have been able to experience it in the past.
The Thunderbirds are going to push getting out to local partners that will be willing to subside tickets for children that might be in need to provide that opportunity to go and see a game while also get an educational experience out of it. The goal is to have it be a sellout where they can get 6,800 plus and hope to make the school day game a staple in the community; one where they can do it year after year.
A hockey icon in the Springfield area called it a career on Wednesday. Bruce Landon retired after five decades of devoting his life to hockey here in the City of Springfield. Landon has saved hockey in Springfield on more than one occasion. There were a lot of variables heading into the Thunderbirds inaugural year, including a lot of things that were questionable about how it would all go. The one thing that Costa knew that would be a positive is if Bruce was involved. There would be dedication and passion and from Costa’s end, it was one of the coolest experiences he has had in professional sports. It was an experience that he will remember forever, which was being able to work with Landon on a day-to-day basis because he has a lot of knowledge in the hockey market.
“You really can’t put a value on how much he’s meant to just being around the group not only on our side, but the hockey side. We absolutely couldn’t have done it without him,” Costa stated.
Another key part to the Thunderbirds office is Chris Thompson. Thompson is the Senior Vice President of the Thunderbirds. Thompson has worked in the AHL and had different roles with the Springfield Falcons for 10 years. Thompson was a big part of the Thunderbirds success during the 2016-17 campaign. Costa has known Thompson for a long time, going to back to the days of when Costa worked for the San Antonio Rampage as a sales representative.
“Chris (Thompson) has sort of been the Star War. The guy who has been here, he’s the one who always understood why sales is so important. He’s done such a good job with our corporate base. He’s been my right hand guy from day one and not only him, but the rest of the staff in general.” Costa said.
The future looks bright for Thunderbirds hockey here in Springfield as they will return this fall at the MassMutual Center for the 2017-18 year.