Setting Some New Goals
For team President Nate Costa and Springfield Thunderbirds ownership, it has been a frustrating year and a half — but not a quiet one, even with the cancellation of the 2020-21 season. Indeed, the organization has been busy staying connected to the community through a host of programs and providing value to its supporters, while preparing for a 2021-22 season of great promise — season-ticket sales remain high — but also great uncertainty. It’s a season, Costa said, that not only the team, but its city desperately needs.
For Nate Costa, launching a hockey season after skipping the previous one might feel like starting from square one, but it isn’t, really. Because he was at the real square one, tasked by the Springfield Thunderbirds’ ownership group with fielding a team just four months after luring it from Maine to Western Mass.
“This is a completely different challenge because at least then you didn’t have COVID surrounding you,” he said. “But the processes are very similar.”
To be sure, while no hockey was played in Springfield during the 2020-21 season, ‘skipping’ may not be the right word. Because keeping the franchise relevant and in the public eye was a daily challenge.
“Unfortunately, we had to make some really hard decisions last year in terms of staffing,” said Costa, the team’s president. “We did our best to get through the year, but we had limited staff on reduced hours, and a lot of our staff had opportunities to get jobs elsewhere.”
With eight newcomers on this year’s front-office staff of 17 — about half the crew — “it’s both challenging and exciting,” he went on. “But I tend to hire young because we like to bring people in and teach them how we do things. We find you don’t have a lot of bad habits that come with those individuals — a lot of them have really good energy, and that’s what’s happened. They’ve energized me and the entire staff.”
As he’s noted in the past, he can look to 2016, the year he and his ownership group brought the team to Springfield a month after the departure of the Falcons, for a blueprint of sorts. While the team has a new NHL affiliate in the St. Louis Blues, the core front-office group, including all of last year’s department heads, are back.
“That’s huge because you’re not really starting from scratch,” he said. “You’ve got institutional knowledge, people who know how to do this. So we’ve got a lot of confidence there.”
The team leadership has drawn on that confidence while facing a series of roadblocks and unknowns since shutting down the 2019-20 season early and making the decision to ride out the following season without any gameplay. Even now, the Delta surge that has brought back mask mandates is one more unexpected wrench in a long line of them.
“Our industry is obviously reliant on people coming together in large groups, and that’s the hardest thing.”
“It seems like we get hit with something different every day,” Costa told BusinessWest. “And you just have to be able to be nimble and pivot. It is what it is. Everyone’s dealing with it — not just us, not just our industry.
“But we’re kind of in the public eye,” he went on, “and our industry is obviously reliant on people coming together in large groups, and that’s the hardest thing. Even in the summer, [COVID] was moving in a different direction. So we’ve had to pivot and change things even since the summertime. But at the end of the day, we want to get back to doing what we do.”
One piece of good news is that public support hasn’t wavered. In March 2020, the team had 1,109 full season-ticket holders, the first Springfield hockey team to reach that milestone, he noted; the Falcons had been at 325 before they left town. Right now, the number is 989, and Costa expects that number to easily surpass 1,019 and set a new franchise high. He hopes to set a new attendance mark, too, after the AHL scheduled 29 of the team’s 38 home games on Friday and Saturday nights.
“People are supporting us, and I think people are ready to come back out and do things and get back to some normalcy,” he said. “And hopefully, we won’t need to wear masks all season.”
Costa supports the city’s mask mandate and said the most visceral opposition to it on social media comes from people who don’t have tickets and aren’t likely to support the team anyway. Most people, he believes, understand what it will take to stage a season that won’t have to shut down.
“We are in an industry that relies on packing buildings, getting large gatherings together,” he said. “I think we have a responsibility to do the right thing. And we’ll work through it.”
“At the end of the day, we realize that the last thing we want to have happen is to not have a season again. And everybody recognizes that, and everybody understands that.”
In a wide-ranging interview conducted a few weeks before the season opener on Oct. 16, Costa told BusinessWest what the franchise has been up to over the past 18 months, what fans can expect this season — and why he feels a responsibility to stay connected to the community as more than just its local hockey team.
But first, he talked about safety, and what it will take to achieve it as COVID continues to be a threat.
“It’s a lot of moving parts, but they’re necessary,” he said. “At the end of the day, we realize that the last thing we want to have happen is to not have a season again. And everybody recognizes that, and everybody understands that. So, internally, it hasn’t been that tough.”
To that end, the entire staff is required to be vaccinated, and everyone associated with the Blues is vaccinated as well. “The AHL has protocols that anybody that’s going to be within six to 12 feet of players is required to be vaccinated, and the St. Louis organization is having their players vaccinated.”
That’s critical, Costa added. “With the close quarters our guys are in, and being on buses together and all that, it’s imperative that we have the guys vaccinated.”
As noted earlier, he’s a believer in the city’s current mask mandate as well. “I’ve been keeping my thumb on the pulse of what’s going on for the last year and a half, and I feel like I’m a de facto COVID expert at this point,” he said, adding that requiring masks at the arena is simply a social responsibility to the city, mandate or not.
“We want to sell the place out opening night, and we want to be socially responsible. We felt like it was probably coming at some point that we were going to have some kind of mandate, whether that was going to be mask or vaccination, and I think the mask mandate is perfectly acceptable, because then you don’t have to get into conversation of who’s vaccinated and who’s not. Everyone who comes to the rink will wear a mask, except to eat or drink.”
He admitted it’s an extra challenge to enforce that behavior among fans. “We don’t like wearing masks as much as the next guy. But it’s our livelihood. We’ve committed our resources so much to doing this the right way and bringing the sport back. Last year was really such a blow to me personally just because the last thing I wanted to do is not play. So we’ll do whatever we need to do to get back on the ice and get back to some normalcy.”
One change this year is an absence of high-profile promotions like previous years’ visits from the likes of David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez. Those are expensive investments, and with no guarantees all games will even be played, the Thunderbirds will focus on more locally based promotions — and there are a lot of them, including returning favorites like a throwback jersey night (the Falcons this time, instead of the Indians), the Teddy Bear Toss, a Military Appreciation Night, the Pucks ‘N’ Paws pet night, and Pink in the Rink, which supports the fight against breast cancer. Every Friday night brings a Deuces Wild concessions deal, with sodas, hot dogs, and cups of Coors Light selling for $2 each.
“Last year was really such a blow to me personally just because the last thing I wanted to do is not play. So we’ll do whatever we need to do to get back on the ice and get back to some normalcy.”
“While we’re not investing in huge promotions, there’s still a good foundation of promotions and themes,” Costa said. “We want to re-establish ourselves, get through this year, and hopefully have this in the rear-view mirror next year and really blow it out.
“We always want to provide value and not get complacent,” he added. “And I think we’re providing as much value as anyone in the American Hockey League. I’ll put our stuff up against anybody’s; I take a lot of pride in that. But it’s still a fraction of what we normally do. We have a long-term vision, and that means getting back on the ice first.”
Many of the promotions will support causes and groups of people, like Frontline Fridays, in which healthcare workers, first responders, and other frontline workers who serve the public will be honored.
“I wanted to make sure it was a season-long thing, not just one night,” Costa said. “A lot of people in our community stepped up and did the right thing, working through COVID, and we want to say ‘thank you,’ and it’s really on behalf of the season-ticket members.”
That’s because, with seven home dates left in the curtailed 2019-20 season, most season-ticket holders, instead of demanding refunds, donated the tickets back to the team, and that formed the foundation of the Thunderbirds giving those tickets away to the frontline honorees every Friday this year.
“I feel really good about what we’re doing — not only the fun stuff, but we have a community piece to it as well that will hopefully give a break to some people who have been working hard, give them a chance to come out.”
It wasn’t only season-ticket holders that stayed loyal, Costa said. All the corporate sponsors are back as well, and even though they lost those seven games of exposure, he was able to show them that the team overdelivered on attendance for the other 31 home dates. The team has also included sponsors in its social-media and community activities during the pandemic.
“We genuinely feel like people like us and want to support us,” he added, noting that the team ranks at the top of the league, among like-sized markets, in sponsorships and full season-ticket sales. “At the end of the day, that speaks volumes about who you are as an organization. So the biggest thing was doing right by the people who have done right by us for the first four years of our franchise.”
Costa said the goal last year was to stay visible, even for just a few hours a week. That meant donating meals to frontline workers, trotting out mascot Boomer at community events, and teaming up with the Massachusetts Lottery to spotlight first responders.
“It was important to keep the community aspect front and center,” he noted, adding that the Springfield Business Improvement District stepped up with cash, allowing the team to activate more community promotions and just “keep our lights on and keep our people engaged and keep the business moving forward.”
His goal was simply to be sustainable during a difficult time with little revenue. “I didn’t want to go to ownership and ask for cash. Not that they wouldn’t support it, but I felt we had a duty to do our best, and I think we did better than we ever could have expected.”
The silver lining to all this has been growing demand for the activity for which the team exists — actually playing hockey.
“Obviously, we wanted to play last year. But what do they say — absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? I think that happened a little bit,” Costa told BusinessWest. “I think there’s a real pent-up demand for just having fun in an exciting environment, and just doing things again with our friends and family. We’re hearing from people who can’t wait to get out and cheer on the team and hopefully see us have some success on the ice.”
Still, the past 18 months have reiterated Costa’s view that the Thunderbirds are more than a hockey team, and more than a business.
“I invest my heart and soul into this thing. Sometimes people say, ‘it’s just an AHL hockey team.’ For me, it’s much more than that. I feel like we’re the lifeblood of the community. We’re at the centerpoint. Our whole marketing campaign is going to be around ‘we are 413.’ And we feel that. We want to be that type of organization.
“We genuinely feel like people like us and want to support us. At the end of the day, that speaks volumes about who you are as an organization. So the biggest thing was doing right by the people who have done right by us for the first four years of our franchise.”
“The last year and a half, it’s been, ‘how to we get through this and get back to what we do really, really well?’ There’s no playbook to get you through this stuff. You’re doing things on the fly and trying to make the right decisions, but you don’t know the outcome of certain things.”
He called decisions on what staff to keep, furlough, or cut back hours two springs ago were “gutwrenching,” especially because they came so quickly and unexpectedly.
“The Saturday before shutdown, we had our ninth sellout — tied for most ever, and we had three Saturdays left,” Costa said. “The next week, I had to furlough half the staff. And none of it was their fault. I mean, the week before that, we were on cloud nine. None of us thought this would happen. It completely changed our organization. And you just have to work through it.”
That said, “our goal is to get back to normalcy as quickly as possible, but also do it responsibly and do it the right way,” he noted — even if that means wearing masks a little (well, hopefully just a little) longer. “It’s going to take some time, but we’re really well-positioned as an organization to come out of this strong.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]