The New Jersey Devils have never been known as media darlings. Jammed between the beloved Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, New Jersey over the years has struggled to find its footing amongst the casual sports fans and the media in the New York area. However unlike their co-tenants the past two years, the Nets, who bolted the Garden State for alleged greener pastures in Brooklyn, the Devils have stayed put and cultivated a growing young fan base through social and digital media and a deep loyalty program.
The results are clear…New Jersey’s outreach to bloggers and to fans through its revolutionary “Mission Control” platform, coupled with a somewhat unexpected run that has led them to the Eastern Conference Finals, has made them the envy of many organizations in social fan engagement and activation.
Leading the charge has been President of Devils Arena Entertainment Rich Krezwick, who is responsible for all operational aspects of the Prudential Center and the business side of the team itself. We asked Krezwick how New Jersey has gone from being an afterthought in the NHL landscape to a trailblazer in fan engagement.
The Devils have been lauded for their social media work. What was the genesis of it last season?
I would call our progress an accelerated, natural evolution. If you want to communicate fully today, you need to be talking to friends, family and your fans, through social media. The real genesis for me was having two teenagers who taught me everything about social media. If I was not texting regularly, I’d never hear from them. It is the same with fans. We need to reach them, how they want to be reached and Mission Control is our vehicle to do that, broadcasting millions of messages every month.
What’s the best example of how a brand has engaged with the team and its fans through the social space?
To choose one example would be very, very difficult but one example that may surprise you, sticks out in my mind. Of course we talk hockey, we talk concerts, we talk tickets but this one day we had a real life dilemma on our hands. Two stray puppies were found running around the loading dock area of the Prudential Center. A security guard grabbed them both and one of our people got the puppies right to a shelter. Within 24 hours, Mission Control had broadcasted enough information to enough people and the puppies were picked up by their owner at the shelter. The power and reach of social media is just amazing!
The team owns the Prudential Center as well. With the Nets leaving for Brooklyn how does it affect the bottom line for the primary tenant?
The arrival and departure of the NETS were both very well planned and orchestrated events. We enjoyed having the NETS with us, but the bottom line financial affect was not significant. Had the NETS won a few more games the fans would have followed but unfortunately that didn’t happen.
What kind of challenges do the Rangers and the Flyers, two very strong fan bases, have on the business of the Devils?
I don’t see either franchise having any affect at all on the Devils, in fact you could argue that having four franchises in a demographic area of more than 10 million people is great for hockey. It is the rising tide effect on all of our boats. I see Rangers fans with children in Devils jerseys! There is plenty of room in this rich market!
Are there geographic areas you would like to tackle better for support and if so what are they?
I am a big believer in growing your base. I spent five years in radio and you don’t worry about people who don’t listen to your station. You take care of your listeners. We try extremely hard to take care of every Devils fan to the best of our ability. They are our ambassadors in attracting new fans. You see it all the time… four kids may be playing street hockey in Devils jerseys and the new kid in the neighborhood joins in. It is a metaphor, but it is also real.
You have arguably one of the greatest goaltenders of all-time in Martin Brodeur, how has he been an asset in selling the team to the fans?
The list is simply too long! Marty is obviously an amazing asset, resource, teammate and hockey player whose reach is worldwide.
The Devils are known for being a franchise that takes care of its players after their careers are over. How has that alumni network helped with marketing the team?
Again, we are blessed to have four great guys who contribute regularly to our business and a tremendous network of other ex-players who still love the Devils. They read to school children, conduct hockey clinics, attend charity events, visit our sponsors and stay extremely busy 12 months a year.
Media competition in a major market like New York is tough. What does the team do to make sure that their fans are best informed and what has the team done to try and find ways to keep the brand relevant during the season?
Fortunately today, it is much easier than it was ten years ago and the answer is in Mission Control. We have tens of thousands of people who visit our web site or hear from us through some other social media effort, each day. Mission Control is a tremendous communication tool. More than 50% of our ad budget is spent on digital media.
The team has increased its youth presence in recent years, how important is courting the next generation of fans to the team?
Well, I would say that the Devils have always done a great job in this area. When Lou (Lamoriello) got here 25 years ago, he had the foresight to build a very strong youth hockey program, we just continue that legacy today. Jeff Vanderbeek is also very, very active in youth hockey. We all realize it is a chance to grow hockey, but it is also a chance for us to give back. There are now over 100 high schools playing hockey, pros coming out of NJ and dozens of college scholarships handed out every year because of the Devils dedication to youth hockey.