When the hiring of Ari Segal as Chief Operating Officer of the Arizona Coyotes was announced, the team was starting to transform its front office. Quite a few Coyotes fans just aren't sure what was going on with the organization.
Ari Segal is not new to a non-traditional market or to hockey. Last year he was the business operations director for the Anaheim Ducks' Pacific Division based AHL team - the San Diego Gulls - while also serving as the Special Assistant to Duck’s CEO Michael Schulman for three years prior.
Segal was kind enough to answer some questions via email about the upcoming season in the NHL and AHL for the Coyotes and Roadrunners.
FFH: A lot of the Coyotes fan base is very traditional in how they like their hockey, can you explain what you do with your position since COO of a hockey team seems to be varied and wide with each team.
First of all, one of the truly exciting and distinguishing factors about the Coyotes fan base is its diversity. We’ve got transplants from traditional hockey markets like Chicago, Detroit, and Canada, but over the last 20 years, the Coyotes have helped grow hockey in this market at the grass roots level. This consistent, long term commitment to growing the game at the grass roots, and to working hard to expose people to our great game for the first time, has helped make the Valley of the Sun a young, up and coming hockey market unto itself.
We see an incredibly exciting opportunity to be both "old school" and "new age" in how we do business and how we play. We are excited about our roster and certainly ‘traditionalists’ will appreciate some of the size we’ve added to our blue line in recent years and this off-season.
As far as my role in particular is concerned, my main job is to drive our core business operation. I oversee all of our sales and marketing efforts, as well as our AHL club and our 3rd party relationships (e.g., AEG, Levy Restaurants, etc.). And, I work very closely with our CEO, Anthony LeBlanc, to ensure that we’re executing on the vision he laid out a few months ago about our internal strategic priorities across all our functions, business and hockey: communication, collaboration, and modernizing our processes.
FFH: You assisted with the set up of the San Diego Gulls when the AHL expanded to the West. Are you working with the Roadrunners this season? If so what are you working on?
Yes, and yes. I actually started working on the "AHL West" project with the Ducks when I was a graduate school intern back in 2012. When I started full time with the Ducks trying to then get this project over the finish line (November 1, 2014), they didn’t even own an AHL team and didn’t own the trademark for the "San Diego Gulls." My first business card said, "AHL Team President"!
My experience with the Gulls over the last 18 months, and really the last 4 years, was both incredible and invaluable. I’m very excited to help the Roadrunners get going. Organizationally, I formally oversee the Roadrunners’ business operation.
I’m very frequently in touch – several times each week if not daily – with Brian Sandy (club president) and members of his executive team. Tucson is a different market than San Diego, but we’re building a great team down there, and I’m very optimistic that we can succeed there.
FFH: What challenges did you face while working with a brand new AHL franchise?
I think every team, really every business, faces challenges. One great thing about San Diego was that we didn’t have an "awareness" problem – people knew all about the Gulls (from the WHL, IHL, and WCHL). Instead, we had an education problem – we needed to educate the market about why we were different than previous versions of the Gulls.
The key points we emphasized were the stability provided by our phenomenal owners, and their commitment to the market for the long term; the connection to the Anaheim Ducks, and the fact that these players weren’t just independently signed players but Ducks prospects, who would be playing up the road in Anaheim as NHLers; the fact that AHL hockey was the highest level of hockey ever played in San Diego; and the price/value proposition the AHL provides to fans.
Of course, there are always growing pains for a new franchise – just google "San Diego Gulls fog" and look at how much fog was in the building on opening night… we also had to tweak or organizational structure a few times until we were able to build the right organization for that team in that market.
Overall, start-ups are really fun, really challenging, and really rewarding.
FFH: Being in a non-traditional hockey market that has some passionate fans, do you see the fan base for the Coyotes growing even more with the addition of a team in Tucson?
I certainly think so, and hope so. We think the two brands will help each other. For the Roadrunners, having the Coyotes close by reinforces the message about the quality of hockey being played in Tucson, and the price/value proposition of AHL hockey. Players will be going back and forth, and fans in Tucson will see that a player can be in Tucson on a Friday, and then playing in the NHL in Glendale the very next day.
And, on the other hand, the price/value proposition in Tucson also gives fans throughout the Valley the chance to try out the live pro hockey experience at a substantially discounted price point as compared to what they would otherwise pay in Glendale. Getting people in the door that first time to experience live professional hockey is our biggest hurdle, and the Roadrunners help lower that barrier to entry. It’s a major asset for the Coyotes.
FFH: What are you looking to do with fan interaction, arena experience in Tucson and with the team in Glendale.
In-arena experience is critical in today’s sports/entertainment environment, because that in-arena, truly live experience is the only thing that differentiates a viewing or consumption experience from someone’s living room. 25 years ago, before HDTV, DVR, and enormous flat screens, it was really hard to see and follow a game on TV. Now, that on the couch experience is pretty awesome – the picture quality is great, you can see all the replays you want, pause the game whenever, there’s never any line for the bathroom, and commute time is 0.0 seconds!
We need to make the live experience really special, so it’s clearly worth the incremental cost and inconvenience. Here, we actually have an advantage over other sports, because I believe the difference between watching hockey live vs. on TV is bigger than any other sport – TV production still hasn’t caught up to the speed of our game, which is the fastest in the world. But, it’s still a challenge.
That’s why, for example, you’ll see us continue to work with our building and concession partners, AEG and Levy, respectively, to improve and enhance the F&B offerings at Gila River Arena. We’re also working really hard on some exciting technology-based programs to drive cross-platform fan engagement, and create very real incentives for fans to come to games, follow and chat with us on social media, refer us to friends, and connect to/affiliate with our partners. More to come on that in a few months!
Having said all that, the #1 most important thing we can do to improve and enhance the live experience is to make the fans part of the show – to make them feel like it’s their show. European soccer clubs have done the best job of this globally, and well run MLS clubs (Seattle Sounders FC and the Portland Timbers, to name two) have replicated the model here in the U.S. Those venues are often old and not necessarily even built exclusively for soccer (at least in the U.S.), and none of them have a center hung, LED scoreboard.
Yet, the fans, with their passion, truly create an amazing game day experience. In fact, the experience extends far beyond the confines of "game day" – it’s more about a 365 day community. That’s the holy grail.
FFH: What is the Coyotes immediate priority from a business perspective?
That’s easy: we need to sell out opening night, October 15 against Philadelphia. It’s an opponent that is a good draw, and it’s on a Saturday night. I’m a big believer in sellouts – real sellouts, not when teams cheat to get there by papering the building with comps. When a game is sold out, it feels like an event. People talk about it, there’s a buzz. The players feed off it, and the quality of play really improves.
Because the product is great, people feel like they were at a meaningful event, and, most importantly, because by definition, demand has exceeded supply (with respect to tickets), sellouts drive more sellouts. If we sell out opening night, we’ll sell out more games, and that momentum will, with a lot of hard work, ultimately build towards a virtuous cycle, where we’re selling out multiple games each season.
FFH: With the non-traditional markets starting to grow, and with the drafting of local Auston Matthews, how do you see things developing from a fan base prospective?
Well, in the first place, it’s important to look backwards before we look forwards. Auston Matthews is the first player from the U.S. Sun-Belt to be drafted #1 overall, but he is by no means the first player from the Western or Southern U.S. to be drafted, or to be drafted in the top few rounds. Auston’s draft position is obviously a capstone event and marks a significant pivot point, but it is by no means an isolated event.
In this year’s draft, seven Americans were taken in the top 15 picks, and 12 were taken in the first round – the most ever! These players are 18 years old, so we can view this historic achievement as 18 years in the making. There is no doubt in my mind that clubs like the Coyotes and others in so-called non-traditional markets will benefit as players and fans who grew up with the game come of age.
Remember, 21 years ago, there was no NHL team in Arizona, so anyone 21 from Arizona didn’t grow up with a hometown NHL team. Now, we have the opportunity to have what I call "cross-generational" connection with families – those kids born in the early 1990s who grew up with the Coyotes will soon become parents themselves, and they’ll have children who grow up with the Coyotes. That will tie three generations of a family together around the Coyotes. That’s what makes fandom become really sticky in markets.
Mr. Segal does understand the hardships that the Coyotes have faced in recent years and knows how to get ahead of the eight ball and start working on them. I know a few of you are still unsure about the moves of the front office this off season, but don’t be. With John Chayka finding deals and fine tuning the roster, Dave Tippett back for the duration and pieces like Ari Segal on the business side, the Coyotes are fine.
It’s time to stop dwelling on the bad of the past and look at the bright future that the Coyotes are starting to bring.
Thanks again to Ari Segal for the chance for this interview.