There are few executives in sports who have been as successful in so many places in the past 40 years as Dave Checketts has been. Even as his fulltime focus shifts to his role as Chairman and CEO of Legends Hospitality Management, the premier provider of hospitality, merchandising and premium ticketing services, founded by the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys and Goldman Sachs, his ownership of the St. Louis Blues continues to gain momentum, with the team taking over the best record in the NHL this past week.
Prior to taking over the top position at Legends, Checketts founded SCP Worldwide, which has owned and operated an impressive stable of assets including: the Blues, Scottrade Center, Peabody Opera House, the 2009 Major League Soccer (MLS) Champions Real Salt Lake, Rio Tinto Stadium and ESPN 700 Sports talk radio.
Before the creation of SCP, the Utah native had one of the most successful runs of any executive in the history of Madison Square Garden, serving as President and Chief Executive Officer for seven years, and overseeing all operations of “The World’s Most Famous Arena” and its three sports franchises, the New York Knickerbockers of the NBA, the New York Rangers of the NHL, and the New York Liberty of the WNBA – along with the award winning MSG Network and FOX Sports Network. Under his leadership, MSG was named Arena of the Year for six straight years, and established the MSG “Cheering for Children” foundation which created after school programs for thousands of New York City school children. Prior to becoming President and CEO, Checketts was President of the New York Knicks for four seasons, which included two first place finishes and the legendary run to the Eastern Conference Championship in 1994.
We took a few minutes to talk to Checketts about his business success, his new venture and the state of sports today.
You have had some of the most successful and high profile positions in all of sport and entertainment, is this new position a continuation of the same path or a departure into a new challenging area?
It is a little of both. The same in that the while Legends is not, and will not be, a team owner, it still plays in that space albeit in a different way. While I still will be involved with Real Salt Lake at the ownership level and the St. Louis Blues, until they are sold, I am ready to move on to the next stage in my career and I see Legends as a wonderful opportunity to do just that.
Over the course of your career you have worked with some of the most high profile owners in business. This business, with the Cowboys and Yankees, could be with two of the most ambitious ownership groups in sports history. How do you balance the sides and grow the business?
I have been fortunate to have had relationships with both organizations for some time and while I am learning the dynamics of Legends it is clear that both the Cowboys and the Yankees operate under the same ethos. They both aspire to be the gold standard in their respective sport and have modeled Legends in the same light. It is one of the main reason’s I chose to join the group, as chairman and CEO as well as an investor. Together, we all believe that Legends has a very bight future with the ability for tremendous growth. We are all on the same page and in my opinion that makes the balance easy.
With all the challenges you have faced in your career, what’s the one lesson that resonates when you look for successful business ventures?
A plan. You need to have a plan. In addition to having to charter a course of action, an organization needs to have talent and passion. I have found that without both, the plan becomes obsolete.
The Dodgers and their hefty price tag are obviously the talk of the industry right now. Do you think we will see a time where prices will consistently drop, or is there no ceiling on franchise value?
It doesn’t seem like prices are going to drop. But team ownership is a cautionary tale. One needs to have access to capital to properly operate a franchise in the long run and that needs to be factored into any new sale. In the past, that wasn’t traditionally adhered to, but as of late, it is becoming an integral part of the equation.
What is the biggest lesson learned from running an NHL franchise?
That there are no bad sports towns, just bad sports franchises. When we purchased the St. Louis Blues in 2006 we inherited the worst team in the NHL. It has taken a strict approach to rebuild from within and we have pretty much stuck to that for the last six seasons. Now we are fortunate to have the best record in the league and consistently sell-out our home games. In the end, it’s not much different from the other leagues I have been fortunate to own and run teams in, you need to chart your course and not wander off of it, even when the temptation to do so is starring you right in the face.
You are on the board of JetBlue, an airline which prides itself on customer service. Are there traits from the airline that can apply to the team services business?
Very much so. The heart of a team or organization is its relationship with its fan base. That starts with customer service. JetBlue has made that the foundation of the airline and have been quite successful. Their goal is to make air travel as simple, easy and comfortable as possible. I think those three traits, if implemented properly, work very well in the team services business.
Legends Hospitality is all about customer service.
Which teams in your opinion are the best in class for fan engagement and hospitality around the world now?
I have been very impressed thus far with what we call “The Legends Way”. It is a level of service at events that I have not seen in all of my years in the industry. As far as the rest of the industry, I have always thought the old time Phoenix Suns of Jerry Colangelo, or the brand new Seattle Sounders of MLS both set very high standards for fan engagement.
What are the long term goals for Legends as a business? Is it a cache of elite partnerships with venues or is it mass arena deals, and can quality be kept with quantity?
We believe our hospitality, sales and marketing and project feasibility businesses have enabled the company to set a very strong foundation on which to build on. Each can stand on their own and we have aspirations (and expectations) for them to grow. We have been pitching more new business in the last three months than ever since the company evolved three and a half years ago. While we expect to stay within the sports, media and entertainment fields, there are no boundaries for the business to grow within each. And I expect that growth to be both organically and through acquisition. In the end, we won’t do anything if it means we have to depart from providing the best service or not being able to continue to be the gold standard the company was founded on.
Recently you have helped turn around the fortunes of the Blues, guided the ownership group of the Detroit Pistons and brought Real Salt Lake to the top of MLS. Is team ownership going to be back in the future for you?
Other than my ownership stake in Real Salt Lake, I don’t think there will be much more on that front. Legends has presented me with another great opportunity to be associated with premium brands in the Cowboys, Yankees and Goldman Sachs. Something I have been able to do throughout my career. I am looking forward to the endless possibilities that are in front of us. I think in a short period of time we will have grown the company into something very formidable. That really excites me.