In building on last week’s post about the Devils new owners, their hopes for the franchise and their place in the current New Jersey sports landscape, I thought I would write this week about team CEO Scott O’Neil and his plans for the upcoming season at Prudential Center.
On September 4, O’Neil spoke to Stephanie Ruhle at the Bloomberg Sports Business Summit. O’Neil seemed to be particularly interested in the fan experience at “The Rock” and mentioned some key points: first that there will be a ‘Pru Crew’ that will meet fans at Newark Penn Station “and will be human arrows walking them down to the arena.” His second point was that there is a new food service provider (Legends Hospitality) “who brings a kind of food and wine festival-type experience to our house.” The third key upgrade for this season is to be a new “state-of-the-art projection system for on-ice graphics that will bring an entirely new dimension to the gamenight experience” according to Eric Marin of newjerseydevils.com, while O’Neil added that the system is 3D.
The first improvement, the ‘Pru Crew’ seems to be a security safeguard for people visiting Prudential Center more than anything else. Let’s face it; most Devils fans know how to get from the train to the arena without anyone holding their hand. Even if it is your first visit, you can easily follow the signage or just look up and see the building at the end of Edison Place. The ‘Pru Crew’ seems to be a way to get more people out to the building and feeling safe. For better or worse, downtown Newark still has a stigma about it being unsafe. This new initiative gives people who might otherwise not come to the building due to safety concerns feel a little bit safer and use public transportation. I am not certain if the ‘Pru Crew’ will be present for all events at the arena or just Devils games, but I could see some folks making the decision to take the train rather than drive because of this. Personally, I have always taken the train to Prudential Center so I cannot really give a feeling either way as to whether this makes me feel safer or not. Knowing my way around (for example through the Gateway Center office complex) kind of makes this a non-factor for me. But I can see the reasoning behind it.
His second improvement, the contracting of Legends Hospitality as the food vendor at Prudential Center should be a big hit with almost all fans. Anyone who has been to the new Yankee Stadium should know what Legends brings to the table (no pun intended). Legends is the food vendor for Yankee Stadium as they are a joint venture between the Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys, although headquartered in Newark. The food options should increase and, again, fans should be very satisfied with this. Hopefully, if it is not kept, something similar to the “Taste of Newark” is still in place. Newark has a unique blending of cultures and I think that the more those cultures and food items are spotlighted, the more people are apt to go out and explore some of the city’s other neighborhoods, which pumps money into the local economy. I did hear earlier in the offseason that one of the renovations being done to the upper level is a Jersey Shore-themed concessions area (which may be in the old “Taste of Newark” area). This concession area would be replete with its own boardwalk-styled flooring and any kind of food you would find on those boardwalks at the Shore in the summer. No word if pork roll, egg and cheese sandwiches are on the menu.
The final improvement mentioned in the interview is purely cosmetic. The 3D on-ice graphics should improve the Devils pre-game introductions and will certainly give opening night a little more razzle-dazzle than usual. Obviously, if the team is not winning or even putting an entertaining product on the ice, most fans will not care about something like high-tech graphics. Although I think that the game day flourishes do have their place in the overall presentation of the game to fans (look no further than the issue of the goal song, something that still has some fans sore to this day, for proof of that). If done right, this could be interesting and maybe even a trend setter throughout the NHL, but not much more. I am not knocking it, as O’Neil seems to be extremely excited about it, I just feel that this is little more than sizzle to go with the steak.
Overall, O’Neil seemed to be very enthusiastic when talking about New Jersey as a market for hockey and the Devils place in the greater New York City sports scene. O’Neil summed up ownership and management’s commitment to the team in this way: “We’re about New Jersey. Come home from work, drop your suit, put a jersey on, grab your kid and bring him to a game. It’s a different brand and we represent something very different and very special and very New Jersey.”
While some of these improvements may succeed and some may fall flat and be discarded, it is refreshing to see that the ownership is willing and able to put a little bit more into the team marketing-wise. The Devils have gotten by in the last three decades plus almost by word of mouth. Fans go to a game and tell their friends or family how great the game was. Most of this has been because the product on the ice was so good. But in today’s sports climate (especially in one as crowded as New York City), a team cannot get by on word of mouth alone. They have to do more to get the fans engaged and people knowing that the team is here and this is a great place to spend an evening. The new management seems to be trying to make a Devils game into an event and I applaud them for that. While the on-ice product will always be the most important aspect to most Devils fans (you cannot pull the wool over the eyes of our fanbase, I feel we are too knowledgeable for that) it will be nice to see just exactly what the marketing team has in store for us this coming season. I do admit, this is just phase one of a plan that will make the Devils a profitable business venture for ownership and that O’Neil is mainly the arena CEO and does not have any real say in what goes on, hockey operations-wise, so complaining about this only being a Band Aid on a bullet wound would be a little out of place.
Plus, 3D holograms of Devils legends skating across the rink (if that is indeed what they are going for here) does sound pretty cool, I must admit.