The USC Marshall Sports Business Institute (SBI) recently held its first installment of “The Business of Team Sports” series. This event, “The Business of Hockey,” featured Luc Robitaille, Los Angeles Kings President of Business Operations, and Michael Schulman, Anaheim Ducks CEO. Topics included revenue growth plans, the collective bargaining agreement, the evolution of the media, community involvement and player safety, to name a few.
As Robitaille and Schulman fielded questions from moderator and SBI Executive Director David Carter, one topic came to the forefront: the importance of growing the fan base in Southern California. So much so that collaboration between the cross-town rivals is necessary. Robitaille stated the Kings and Ducks “battle on the ice, but off the ice we have to work together.”
At first glance, the growth of hockey doesn’t seem to need special attention. Despite the recent lockout, the NHL had to raise the salary cap after grossing record high revenues of $3.7 billion for the 2013-2014 season. Regionally, ticket sales for the Ducks are at “95 percent capacity and L.A. is 100 percent capacity (with) not a lot of room left to bring fans through the turnstiles.” Schulman said. Add the success of the 2014 Stadium Series game at Dodger Stadium and the upcoming game at Levi’s Stadium, as well as the massive growth and popularity of the Kings and Ducks, and it’s difficult to see the cause for concern.
A deeper look, however paints a different picture. Hockey originated in Canada and is dominant in Northeast North America. Below is a map of NHL teams depicting this concentration.
Forbes recently listed the most valuable NHL teams. Despite playing in a major market with the Ducks winning the Stanley Cup in 2007 and the Kings winning in 2012 and 2014, neither franchise cracks the top 5.
Even with Arizona State University adding hockey this year, only a handful college programs in the western half the U.S. field teams. In fact, there are zero Division 1 hockey programs in California. At the high school level, California has only 28 schools with hockey teams. Growth of hockey at the lower levels has been slowed by complaints of equipment and ice rink costs.
Robitaille and Schulman’s blueprint for growth is to take a grassroots approach.
- Both the Kings and the Ducks have implemented programs aimed at getting kids in the 4-8 year old age demographic interested in hockey. Some of these are philanthropic in nature, relieving parents of the cost of equipment.
- The Ducks have been instrumental in the development of hockey at the high school level. The Kings are set to join next year.
- The current phase of this grassroots approach is to move three minor league teams to Southern California. The hope is that in doing so, there will be more opportunities to watch hockey and that fans will be able to follow and root for young talent. “People that see minor league hockey and follow players will want to see major league hockey, and it’s only going to expand further,” Schulman said.
- The next phase is to focus on developing a Senior Elite AAA league for young adults. The last senior league in California disbanded in 1963. This “next part of growth is very, very important,” Robitaille said. Added Schulman: “If you were a good player, you had to leave California to where the scouts were and we are going to change that. We are going to keep the kids here and bring the scouts here.”
Both are adamant that expanding the Kings and Ducks fan base is dependent on their ability to expand the sport of hockey at every level.
When one thinks of Southern California, with its beaches and winter days that sometimes hit 80 degrees, it’s unnatural to think about ice hockey. Luc Robitaille, Michael Schulman and the entire Kings and Ducks organizations are intent on changing that.