Thunderbirds Continue to Build All-important Momentum

Soaring Expectations

Nate Costa, president

Nate Costa, president

David Ortiz is coming to the MassMutual Center this fall, and that’s only one of many ways in which the AHL’s Thunderbirds continue to build momentum — and their fan base — as they prepare for their second season on the ice in Springfield.

A “significant investment.”

That was Nate Costa’s careful, well-thought-out, and quite predictable answer to the question ‘what did it take to get retired Red Sox slugger/legend David Ortiz to come to Springfield for a Springfield Thunderbirds game in November?’

The response from the Thunderbirds’ recently promoted chief executive (he now has the title ‘president’), while guarded in nature, nonetheless carried significant meaning, both literally and figuratively.

By ‘significant investment,’ he meant, obviously, a large fee commensurate with Ortiz’ status as celebrity and New England sports folk hero. And that word ‘investment’ means, well, just what the dictionary definition says: ‘the use of money for future profit.’

And in this case, the profit is indeed monetary in nature — how much is obviously to be determined, but that is both the goal and the expectation — but it goes well beyond that and predominantly falls into a category that Ortiz himself would be quite familiar with — that infinitely precious commodity known as momentum.

Indeed, the Thunderbirds, the American Hockey League franchise soon to begin its second year of operations in Springfield, remains in what Costa called the “acquisition mode,” or the building stage, or the momentum-building stage. He described this state of development as one where profits are certainly important, but what’s more critical is getting ever-larger numbers of fans into seats at the MassMutual Center, not for one game, but several, and preferably a season’s worth of them.

“We’re focused on continually growing the business and getting more bodies in the building,” he explained. “That’s how we’re going to generate revenue and momentum.”

These sentiments explain why a Coors Light will cost even less on a Friday night than it did at the end of last year — $3 for a cup, to be precise — while hot dogs will be $2 and sodas $1, in addition to live music. “I forgave some popcorn to get another dollar off the beer,” he said of the negotiations with the MassMutual Center. It’s also why ticket prices remained the same as last season, and why the team made that investment in Ortiz.

“The phone starting ringing right after the press conference where we announced this, and we sold out in four hours,” said Costa in reference to a special meet-and-greet offer involving Ortiz that sold for $134, a price chosen as a nod to the number he wore: 34.

And it’s also why Ortiz, while certainly the headline-grabbing promotion for the coming season — everything he does is headline-worthy, it seems — is just one of many coming attractions, if you will.

A Thunderbirds banner

A Thunderbirds banner flaps in the breeze in downtown Springfield, another example of the team’s success in remaining highly visible.

Others include everything from a special salute to Willie O’Ree, who broke hockey’s color barrier in 1958, more than a decade after Jackie Robinson gained much more acclaim for doing the same thing in baseball, to a ‘Blast from the Past’ night that will pay homage to the Springfield Indians, the name that was on the home team’s jerseys for decades.

Collectively, these initiatives and many others speak to how the club, which did well on the ice in its first season (falling just short of the playoffs), but even better off it — especially in the form of retained and new season ticket sales, as well as a number of sales-related awards from the league at its annual marketing meeting — certainly isn’t resting on any laurels.

“Those awards were validation for all the hard work we put in, and it was great to be able to celebrate our success with the entire staff,” Costa said. “I knew if we stuck to hard work, I knew if we put our head down and ignored the noise and did our jobs, we could meet our goals.

“It’s an exciting thing to see the reaction of the local community and to see the change from negativity in some ways to being overly positive,” he went on. “There are a lot of challenges still to overcome, but we have high expectations for this year.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Costa about the Ortiz coup, but also, and especially, the ongoing efforts to build additional momentum for the Thunderbirds and pro hockey in Springfield.

Flying High

Costa’s office at the MassMutual Center holds a trove of artifacts from his brief but already significant career in sports management. They include several bobbleheads, a small collection of hockey sticks, and a autographed Tony Parker jersey, a souvenir from his days working in group sales for the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage, which played its home games in the AT&T Center, also home to the NBA’s Spurs.

There’s a new addition to the collection, and it has already drawn a good amount of attention, and rightfully so. It’s a pilot’s helmet signed by every member of the U.S. Air Force’s Air Demonstration Squadron (the Thunderbirds) that appeared at Barnes Municipal Airport in Westfield last month.

It was a return gift, if you will, from the team members, who were presented with customized Thunderbirds jerseys.

“The Thunderbird pilots are numbered 1 through 8, so we had each jersey numbered 1 through 8, and we put their names on the back as well,” Costa explained. “They were really blown away by it; they said it was the first time they’d ever been presented with sports jerseys. It was a natural tie-in for us.”

Actually, those jerseys were just one of the ways the hockey team honored its namesake  — Costa said the name ‘Thunderbirds’ was chosen in part to recognize the strong military presence at both Barnes and Westover Air Reserve base in Chicopee — while also doing what it seemingly does best: making its presence known.

Nate Costa displays his helmet, a gift from the Air Force’s Thunderbirds

Nate Costa displays his helmet, a gift from the Air Force’s Thunderbirds. The hockey team gained significant exposure during the recent air show in Springfield.

Indeed, if you thought the Thunderbirds name, logo, and mascot were everywhere this past spring and summer, you weren’t imagining things.

The logo was on banners in downtown Springfield, on the temporary fencing set up in front of the United Bank branch now under construction at Monarch Place, on large banners gracing ‘Thunderbird Thursday’ events staged by the Springfield Business Improvement District, in the windows of office spaces available for lease downtown, and seemingly everywhere else.

As for the mascot, ‘Boomer,’ well, he set what those at Thunderbirds headquarters believe is a record for appearances in a month — 25 of them by Costa’s count — during August.

“There was one Saturday where he was at three different locations,” he recalled. “And that’s an important part of what we’re doing; we’ve trying to accommodate anyone and everyone who’s asked us to be part of what they’re doing. We don’t charge people for an appearance, and it’s a way to show people that we mean what we say when we say we’re going to be part of the fabric of the community.”

Costa said there are certainly quantitative measures for all this exposure the team is getting, especially when it comes to social media and analytics, but there are more qualitative indicators, such as that line ‘I see your logo everywhere,’ or words to that effect.

“We’ve heard it all summer — people will say, ‘I’m seeing you,’ or ‘it’s noticeable,’ or ‘you’re out there,’ and that’s a validation for us that we’re doing the right things,” he went on. “We’ve tried to be community-focused.”

All of this strategic visibility comes with a single goal — to build the Thunderbirds brand, said Costa, circling back to that reference he made to the team still being in ‘acquisition mode.’

And these efforts, coupled with effective pricing, free parking, and other initiatives and incentives, have enabled the Thunderbirds to lead the league in something other than wins and points, and something in many ways more important — a statistic called ‘recovered revenue.’

As Costa explained, this is a metric that the AHL tracks — essentially a measure of the number of renewed and new season tickets sold. The team stood at 115% at last check, a strong number that speaks volumes about the team behind the team on the ice.

“We were over 100% when the season ended, and that’s a testament to our fans renewing in a timely manner,” he explained, “but also to our staff being ready to start having conversations in February; it’s a great metric for us, and it’s something that hasn’t been done here in quite a while. Our season-ticket business has been strong, and our corporate business has been strong as well.”

Covering All the Bases

When asked if not making the AHL playoffs last spring brought any sort of advantage to the team, especially in the form of more time to plan for this season (there was very little time to prep for the 2016-17 campaign, you might recall), Costa quickly dismissed that notion.

“We’d much rather make the playoffs — that’s what we’re all in this for — to win a Calder Cup,” he said. “I talk a lot about promotions and themes and community involvement, but at the end of the day, winning the Calder Cup helps selling better than all that.”

But while the team didn’t win on the ice as much as the fans and management would have liked, it has taken full advantage of every other opportunity to build its brand and its fan base.

And Ortiz’ visit to the City of Homes is a big part of that.

As he talked about it, Costa said the team, fresh off last season’s hugely successful promotional event featuring wrestling icon Ric Flair, was thinking even bigger for this year — but it wasn’t really thinking about the retired Red Sox slugger.

Indeed, Costa told BusinessWest that he was considering big-name bands for a post-game concert and was making inquiries about the Dropkick Murphys.

“We were really close on that,” he recalled, “but then I really looked at it from the business side, and I thought, ‘we’re in the business of running hockey games,’ so it made me really nervous about getting in that other business of promoting a concert with all those other expenses.

“But in the conversations we had with a couple of different groups about talent and a couple of bands we thought might work, someone had seen our Ric Flair night and said, ‘hey, we also do appearances,’” he went on, adding that one thing led to another, and eventually Big Papi was signed on the dotted line.

The makeup of the Ortiz appearance is still a work in progress, said Costa, adding that several options are being discussed.

The emerging plan is to dedicate one of the two intermissions to him and do some “fun stuff” that he doesn’t do at most appearances, Costa went on, such as taking the Zamboni for a spin while tossing out T-shirts, perhaps, or maybe hitting some signed foam baseballs into the crowd.

“We really want to do something unique,” he said, adding that this adjective describes many of the team’s initiatives off the ice.

Such as the night honoring Willie O’Ree’s breakthrough. It will mark the 60th anniversary of his first appearance with the Boston Bruins, but also commemorate his time spent playing in Springfield in the AHL before being called up.

Other promotional events include bringing back Rene Rancourt, who has sung the national anthems of the U.S. and Canada before Bruins games for 40 years; another Star Wars night, and a Wednesday tilt in November that will become a “school-day game,” as Costa called it, with a 10:30 a.m. puck drop and special emphasis on getting schoolchildren in the stands.

And while being creative with promotions, Costa believes the team is doing the same with its prices — by not raising them.

“We talked about not having any barriers for people — we didn’t want to put any negative thoughts into people’s minds when it came to renewal time or for this season when someone comes out to a game,” he explained. “I didn’t want any conversion to focus on ‘geez, they went up $2 on tickets; maybe we won’t go now.’

“That might come in time,” he went on. “But for now, we want to focus on getting more bodies in the building instead of focusing on the small piece of revenue we might generate by going up on ticket prices.”

Hitting It Out of the Park

When asked if the team was likely to recover that significant investment it has made in Ortiz, Costa smiled and said, “we’re well on our way.”

That phrase covers many other aspects of the Thunderbirds operation and the team’s ambitious plans moving forward.

It works when it comes to goals for selling tickets, gaining brand recognition, creating momentum, and making this team part of the region’s fabric and economy.

There is considerable work still be done, and Costa, as noted, strives for continuous improvement. But for now, this team is doing what its honored guest on Nov. 11 did his whole career — hitting home runs.

 George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]