One year to the month after buying the financially struggling Devils from Jeff Vanderbeek, new owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer have been named the most influential people in New Jersey sports by Star-Ledger columnist Steve Politi. The duo bought the team and its arena, Prudential Center, in August of 2013 and have worked to make a team that has had success on the ice, but not in its finances, work in a crowded sports market.
The New York market has plenty of options for hockey fans. Being the youngest of New York’s three teams (not to mention the Flyers, since New Jersey fans can be torn between two metropolitan areas often times) the Devils have always had an uphill battle to face to grab fans from the established teams. Consider that when New Jersey entered the NHL, the Islanders were already in the middle of their run of four Stanley Cup victories, the Flyers would reach the Finals two years before the Devils came to New Jersey (losing to the Islanders in 1980) and three years after (losing to Edmonton in 1985) and the Rangers were the long-established Original Six club. The Blueshirts are hockey bluebloods and their fans were long established, Ranger fandom was often passed down from parent to child.
But the Devils did things the old-fashioned way; they dug in and won hockey games in order to gain new fans and converts alike. But not even Stanley Cup victories in 1995, 2000 and 2003 and Finals appearances in 2001 and 2012, plus a run of playoff appearances that stretched from 1988 to 2009 with only one missed year, a record that easily makes them the most successful of the area’s NHL franchises in the last twenty years, could stave off the tide of financial woes. By 2013, the Devils were in bad shape. Even the roof of their new $325-million arena was leaking. As Politi recounts in his article, the roof of the Prudential Center was damaged during Hurricane Sandy and was never repaired correctly. This meant that during heavy rains, the team needed to lay out buckets to collect the water. Politi points out the metaphor that is clearly present regarding the Devils financial situation.
Enter Harris and Blitzer, owners of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. Harris alone is worth about $2.5-billion, making $397-million last year with his Apollo Global Management; according to Politi (he mentions that similar numbers were not available for Blitzer). The two men have overhauled the way the Devils do things off the ice and have even pushed for a few changes for how they do things on the ice. Politi says that they have, along with CEO (of the team and the arena) Scott O’Neil and Business Operations President, Hugh Weber, “hired 80 new employees to bolster sales, boosting season tickets to 9,000.” On the arena front, they have changed how the fans experience the game by upgrading food options and in-game entertainment and bringing in Ritz-Carlton to provide customer service training for employees of “the Rock.” They have also helped to smooth things over with Newark officials (there was a fall-out between city government and the Devils during Vanderbeek’s ownership) that has brought renewed talk “of a NJ Transit substation and a park outside the arena entrance.” In addition, Politi mentions that the two have put efforts into revitalizing Newark. Harris provided capital for the city “to finish the Indigo Hotel project on Broad Street.” Part of the reason the men made the investment in the Devils (many of their business partners had advised against it) was because they believe in the New Jersey market as a viable sports market and are dedicated to helping rebuild New Jersey’s beleaguered cities. They have also committed to build a practice facility for the Sixers in Camden. In a separate column in The Star-Ledger, Politi mentioned that the owners want to see a better fan experience outside of the Prudential Center. Blitzer told Politi: “There should be more restaurants. There should be more places for people to go before a game or after a game.”
On the ice performance-wise, Politi says that they have convinced Lou Lamoriello “to create an analytics division within the hockey operations department.” The department is being spearheaded by former professional poker player Sunny Mehta. A New Jersey native, Mehta has done statistical analysis of NHL games and has been published on the topic. But beyond that, they have allowed for the Devils to compete with other teams for top free agents and keep players in a Devils uniform. Evidence of this is the locking up of Cory Schneider and Andy Greene to long-term contracts. Overall, though, they tend to leave the hockey stuff to Lamoriello. As Blitzer told Politi, “Lou is fantastic at what he does.” Although Politi does bring up the question of what would happen to Lou should the team miss the playoffs for a third straight year.
The Devils have rarely had trouble getting it done on the ice, but when the new ownership came in, as Harris told Politi, “The team was living literally hand to mouth and barely staving the creditors off.” The team was in dire financial straits and in just one year, Josh Harris and David Blitzer have done so much to turn things around. They are dedicated to New Jersey and utilizing their sports properties to help the state and it the residents of its hardest-hit cities. To top it off, the two men are about one main thing when it comes to the Devils: winning. Harris summed it up best when he told Politi: “[Last year] was a disappointing season, I was unhappy. I didn’t like being home watching the playoffs on TV. I wanted to be in the playoffs. It’s not lost on me. At the same time, good people and good systems can have disappointing years, and we’re focused on making this a successful franchise over the long term.”
Time will tell, but when the Devils take the ice next month for the preseason we just might get a little bit of a glimpse into the future.