Nathan Costa, President, Springfield Thunderbirds
He’s Netting Wins in the Community, Regardless of the Score on the Ice
When the Springfield Thunderbirds shut down the 2020-21 season in the midst of a raging pandemic, Nate Costa understood the impact — and the longer-term risk.
“It was an awful period because I had to lay off half of my staff, and the staff that stayed with me were on reduced hours,” he recalled. “And we really didn’t know what we were facing.”
That was the initial impact — which also included serious revenue losses. The longer-term risk had to do with momentum — more accurately, a complete halt to it.
“COVID affected our business like few others. You need people to get together to come to sporting events, to have success in this business. So COVID was a scary thing,” Costa continued. “And we weren’t sure how long it was going to take to have people come back together again.”
Looking back to 2016, when a large ownership group comprised of local business owners brought the Thunderbirds to Springfield just two months after the Falcons moved to Arizona, Costa said it was critical to move that quickly, as other cities that had lost AHL teams, including Worcester and Albany, never replaced them, so maintaining momentum was paramount.
Which is why late 2020 posed such a concern. But Costa understood that the way the organization was constructed would put it in the best position to succeed when hockey returned — and return it did, with a late-season surge in both wins and attendance in the spring of 2022, and a playoff run that stopped just a couple wins short of an AHL championship.
“We had taken the right steps to build the business the right way … to do things that were going to put us in a position to be sustainable long-term,” he said. “And that was really focusing on community activity, being visible in the community, and giving fans a good experience here at the building.”
By continuing with those efforts — and for leading a team that positively benefits community organizations, an enthusiastic fanbase, and the economic vitality of downtown Springfield — Costa has been named a Difference Maker for 2023, though he’s always quick to deflect credit to a hardworking staff and a committed ownership group.
“We had taken the right steps to build the business the right way … to do things that were going to put us in a position to be sustainable long-term. And that was really focusing on community activity, being visible in the community, and giving fans a good experience here at the building.”
“I’m a young person — I have a lot of life to go,” he said, contrasting his experience with Ted Hebert, a member of the T-Birds’ ownership group, who was honored as one of last year’s Difference Makers for a lifetime of work in the community. “It’s cool to be recognized, obviously, but it’s a humbling thing because it’s not what I got into it for.
“I grew up in Springfield,” Costa continued. “I used to come to games. I always thought it would be the coolest job in the world if I could run the hockey team one day, and it happened. And the extension of that is that I get to do things that are going to be the right thing for the community.”
Raising Their Game
It’s called Pink in the Rink.
It’s a national effort across the AHL to raise awareness of breast cancer; teams dye the ice pink, wear pink jerseys, and often highlight local efforts.
“Some teams partner with national organizations; some teams don’t partner with anybody — they just host an event, and there’s not a lot of teeth to it,” Costa said. “But when I came here, I knew that the way to make that event as effective as possible is to partner with somebody locally. It’s like an amplification of messages.”
In the T-Birds case, the local partners include Rays of Hope and the Baystate Health Foundation, and the event isn’t held in October, the traditional month for breast-cancer awareness, but in March.
“We do it during a time of the year where there isn’t a lot of focus on the breast-cancer cause. That’s strategic. October is a time when there’s already a spotlight on that cause. Our idea was, ‘well, why don’t we have a second event that brings just as much attention as we would in October to a whole different group of people?’”
Last month, the team hosted a Stair Climb as part of its Hometown Heroes night, celebrating first responders and raising money for the T-Birds Foundation, with support from the American Lung Assoc. “That night, at the game, we have police vehicles and fire vehicles on the ice, and we recognize people that have made a contribution to our community throughout the night.”
Back in November, the team partnered with Rock 102 on the Mayflower Marathon, raising thousands of dollars to battle food insecurity locally. December saw the annual Teddy Bear Toss, when players collected thousands of stuffed animals thrown by fans onto the ice and delivered them to several local nonprofits serving children. The list continues: Military Appreciation Night; St. Pawdy’s Day, which raises money for the Foundation for TJO Animals; a sensory-friendly game in February; and so on.
“Obviously, you want to win a championship, and you want to bring that excitement to the city and to your fans. But I do think, on a day-to-day basis, we put a lot of focus and time and effort into creating value regardless of the score on the ice.”
Many of these events generate a quantifiable community impact, as opposed to the team’s emotional impact on individual fans. But that’s just as important, Costa said.
“We’re getting to the point where COVID is behind us, and getting back to providing experiences for kids and giving them access to players — high-fiving the players, lining up with the players, doing interactive things. Those are things we couldn’t do all last year.”
Costa noted one young girl who attends games all the time, and a member of Costa’s staff gave her a signed stick from one of the players as a reward for her achievements in school. The girl was thrilled.
“I waited behind because I wanted to see the whole thing, because that’s the stuff that you don’t necessarily get to see every single day,” he said. “But that’s what our organization really means. You have an ability to make a real impact on someone’s life. You don’t know what they’re going through; you don’t know what they’ve been through; you don’t know what they’re striving for. But at that one moment, giving someone a stick from their favorite player, it’s a really meaningful experience.”
He recalled his employee was in tears after the encounter. “Those moments that get burned into your mind … that’s what it’s about,” he went on. “Where else in this area can a little kid go and get to sing the national anthem in front of 6,500 people? Where else can you go and high-five professional hockey players that tomorrow night might be on the ice at the NHL level? You can’t do that elsewhere in Western Massachusetts. How many times can we make a difference in someone’s life? How many times can we provide them with an experience they can’t get anywhere else? We want to sell that story to people, and by extension create lifelong fans by the experiences that we’re providing.”
And although it’s not the main factor — as roster decisions are up to the St. Louis Blues — fielding a winning team is a net positive, he added.
“It definitely helps. People have been spoiled in this market because of the success of the major four,” he said, referring to the raft of titles won by the Bruins, Celtics, Patriots, and Red Sox over the past two decades. “So that’s a good thing at the end of the day. But are we reliant on it? No. I think we have built an organization that could be sustainable even if we’re not necessarily going to the Eastern Conference championship.
“That was the goal from the beginning,” he added. “Obviously, you want to win a championship, and you want to bring that excitement to the city and to your fans. But I do think, on a day-to-day basis, we put a lot of focus and time and effort into creating value regardless of the score on the ice.”
The third major impact the Thunderbirds — and Costa — have had is on Springfield itself, especially its downtown.
“We take a lot of pride in being sort of the centerpiece for the downtown renaissance, I think, hand in hand with MGM Springfield; I mean, none of this would be possible without their investment in downtown, too. They’re driving as much of that renaissance here as we are,” Costa said, again trying to distribute credit. “I think a good example of showing how much we mean to the downtown area is this brand-new garage going up across the street. I don’t think it would be possible if it weren’t for the success of the franchise. We’re averaging more than 5,000 people, 40 nights a year. So we’re bringing bodies downtown.”
And that benefits restaurants like Red Rose, Nadim’s, Theodores’ and others, as well as bars and other attractions — and contributes to an ongoing effort to change long-held misconceptions about being downtown, especially at night.
“I think we’ve really changed the perception. Very rarely now do I hear, ‘I don’t want to come downtown because it’s not safe.’ That is not something we deal with, ever.”
It’s not just hockey and gambling driving the renaissance, he added, noting projects like the renovation of the former Court Square Hotel into mixed-use space. “It’s great to see that local people are trying to invest in living downtown; I think more people living downtown makes our job easier. Everybody coming to our games now, they’re driving downtown. If we have more people living downtown, they can just walk across the street.”
He went on to cite continuing investments by MGM, the revitalization of Tower Square, and new places to eat and drink on Worthington Street as examples of why downtown Springfield is on the rise, and he knows the Thunderbirds are a big part of that. That potential is what the ownership team recognized when they moved quickly to draw another AHL franchise to the MassMutual Center after the departure of the Falcons.
“They understood the need for this,” Costa said. “Yes, we want to have a successful franchise; obviously, that’s our mission for long-term sustainability. But at the end of the day, these guys have successful businesses and were able to take on the risk because they wanted to do something for the city of Springfield — for this renaissance of this area.”
And while championship runs may not happen every year, Costa said, there’s no reason why the fan experience can’t be stellar all the time.
“I think if you come to one of our games and then you go to any other rink, you’ll see we’re putting on, if not the best, one of the best experiences in the American Hockey League. And it doesn’t matter that we’re in a small city; in fact, we take a lot of pride in that. It’s pretty cool that I get to go to the league meetings, and we’re winning awards and getting recognized next to teams that run the same type of business in cities like Chicago, Austin, San Diego. Look at Hartford — we’re outdrawing them almost two to one. There’s a reason for that: we’re really investing in the entire experience.”
He may balk at being singled out as a Difference Maker, but for leading a staff that continues to impact lives and communities — both inside and outside the rink — Nate Costa certainly lives up to that title.