MV: You mentioned that the owners want to win, but I'm guessing they want to make money too. How do you balance that?
DA: “They want to make money in the board room, but they want to win on the ice. It's a balance. We have tremendous ownership here, they really are great. But you need to ask them, and this has been a challenge for me being new to the position, you have to go and ask them exactly what it is they want. If you want us to focus energies into profitability, it has to come from somewhere. One thing I think we've done tremendously successfully this year versus other years is to use a bit more of a major league model. Our hockey ops is completely separate even to the point where they work out of a different office.
“Jared [Bednar] is the VP of hockey operations. He and I were together for 10 days last summer coming up with a [budget] number. He's new to it as well, so we got some other teams' budgets, some teams that we wanted to model. We put them together, found out what was fair, and then he is paid to make sure that is the budget and that's where it comes in. It's a very fair budget and it's on par with a lot of teams that win a lot of games in this league. We separated that and said, 'That's you guys.' Now, when I walk over to the rink at night for the hockey game, I know we're going to have a team, I know the bus is going to be there on time and I know all these things are going to go on. Before, the president of the Stingrays had to worry about everything. If 10 palettes of sticks showed up on the front door, the president had to worry, 'Can we afford these?' Now, I don't know what sticks cost and I don't care. I know what a year's worth of sticks costs, but I don't know what one stick costs. I've got a hockey guy telling me we need X amount of sticks, they cost this much and here's the budget. Boom, that takes that away.
“A lot of the things we've changed this year as far as winning versus budget haven't affected anything. It's just that we have people who actually know what an elbow pad is and how many pairs of compression shorts Nate Kiser needs. They know that. We had presidents in here before who came out of the financial world. They didn't know what a hockey stick was and they were trying to go through purchase orders on equipment and travel and all these other things.
“To answer your question, our owners are very good owners and they're very fair to us. You just have to ask them, 'What's most important to you at this point? What do we need to do to keep you happy?' Because at the end of the day they own the team. The great part of it is they're very good to all of us and they're fans. That's why they bought the hockey team, because they like to come to the games with their families and watch. When I was in Roanoke, we had owners who didn't come to the hockey games and didn't really care. They just wanted to see the balance sheet. That's a sign that it's going to be pretty short-lived; there's no passion there.
“Our owners have passion for the South Carolina Stingrays, for the logo, for our history and things like that. That's always nice to know as far as being able to guarantee that you're going to be employed for more than a year or two. In the minor leagues it's tough to work for any one team for longer than a couple years. That's not the case here. [Office manager] Julie [Thoennes] has been here since 1993; she was the first employee of the Stingrays. That doesn't happen very often. They're very fair. I wouldn't trade our ownership for the world. They understand that it's a balance. They didn't get to that point in life without knowing how to run a business and knowing that you do need to be profitable. They're very trusting, and they're hands off for the most part, which is good.”MV: How important is winning from an attendance standpoint?
DA: “Some people at this level will tell you that it's not important at all. I come from a PR background, so I think that winning is important. I think that winning drives media coverage in this market. I think when the Stingrays are playing well, people are talking about it. We're getting on the front page of the paper after a Saturday home game. We're the lead story on the evening news when we're playing well and when we're going into the playoffs and things like that. Our coverage gets really, really good in the playoffs because people care.
“We've never 'not' won. This year, everyone is up in arms and we're still something like eight games over .500. We've never not won, so I don't really know the difference. But I think that winning drives media attention and media is one more aspect to help you sell tickets. On our budget we can't afford to spend a million dollars on an ad campaign. We need to rely on the media. And if the media is not interested in coming out because the team [isn't good], that's where winning comes in.
“Now, we're in the same market as the Charleston River Dogs, who are a nationally renowned success story for minor league baseball and they don't care if they win one game. It's a circus and in the middle of the circus there is a baseball game going on. We've incorporated some of those ideas and some of those aspects and it's been helpful for us, but our core fans want to see us win and our core fans help us pay our bills. That's where your winning and losing comes in. For some reason, minor league baseball has been able to distance [itself] from winning and losing. It's just a national perception that, 'Well, they're an affiliate of - in this case, the Yankees - and these players are here to help the Yankees win. But isn't it a beautiful stadium? And the popcorn tastes good and the beer is cold, and there's a juggler over there.'
“For some reason hockey breeds more passionate fans. And that's a good and a bad thing. The NFL is all about winning. It's about competition. Hockey is a little bit like that. You guys know that too, at the NHL level. There are 25 teams in our league and probably 80 in minor league hockey, outside the AHL, there are probably 80 Double-A teams. I'd bet 90 percent of the [team] presidents would say winning doesn't matter. But I think it does. I think it makes everyone have pride in the team. It makes office people have pride in what they're selling. It makes the media pay more attention. It makes the community more proud. The last time we won the [Kelly] Cup you couldn't find an empty seat in the building the night we won it. We still have a community that is behind us and is proud of us. It's a tradition. When you've had 15 years in the minor leagues and you've been able to put championship banners up there, that's a pride thing. And pride helps sell.”Q&A with Darren Abbott, Part Two, Page 2