Kerry Bubolz, president of the Vegas Golden Knights, spoke with The Hockey News publisher Graeme Roustan as part of our ongoing Peer-To-Peer Q&A series with prominent members of the hockey business world.
Graeme Roustan: Let’s go back to when you walked into Oklahoma State University back in 1985 or ’86. Did you ever think that one day you’d be running one of the most successful franchises in pro sports?
Kerry Bubolz: No, I can’t say that I did. I didn’t know anything about the business of sports. I really didn’t know it existed. I knew that I loved sports, and I had an interest in it. But when I thought of sports marketing, I thought of companies like Nike. You know, Bo Jackson and “Bo Knows Football” or Michael Jordan and “Do It Like Mike,” and so I always thought I was going to work for a company like that. I was fortunate along the way to read an article about the business manager of the minor-league baseball team in my hometown of Tulsa. I remember thinking that’s what I want to do, and I reached out and ended up meeting with him, and it really kind of went from there. I started working in minor-league baseball, and was fortunate to touch most of the professional sports out there. But hockey, really, from early on, became a passion, and I just enjoyed the experience of the game even though I didn’t have the opportunity to play it growing up in Oklahoma.
GR: How did you get your start in the NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes?
KB: Prior to that, I was working in Cleveland with the IHL’s Lumberjacks. I’d been there six years, started out by running the sales sponsorships and the broadcasting areas and then eventually became the president and COO of that franchise. Our owner at the time, Larry Gordon, ended up selling the team, and it just felt like it was time for me to take the next step. I had worked 11 or 12 years in professional sports but never at the major-league level, and it felt like it was time to make that jump. A gentleman by the name of Doug Piper, who was actually working for the Edmonton Oilers, was hired to lead Carolina’s business operations, and he hired me to run the sales, sponsorships and ticket sales for the Hurricanes. And that’s how I got started in the NHL.
GR: And then your next stop was with the Dallas Stars, right?
KB: Yes, it was a brief stop with Dallas. At the time, Tom Hicks owned (baseball’s) Texas Rangers as well. My timing wasn’t great, literally within a couple of months after I arrived in Dallas they decided to split the organization because Hicks was selling off the Stars. And so I ended up being more focused on the baseball side with the Rangers, and the candid answer is that really wasn’t why I went there or my passion, and so it was a pretty short run in Dallas. But I had an opportunity to go back to Cleveland, in a familiar environment in the same building that I was working with the Lumberjacks. I went back and worked for the NBA team, the Cavaliers, and I was there for 13 years, and it was a great business experience.
GR: Can you share how your move to Vegas went down?
KB: In Cleveland, in addition to my role with the Cavaliers, we owned an AHL team. And the people in Cleveland who knew me well, even though I was very focused on the NBA side, I was also the president and governor of our AHL franchise, so I was very active, and that was connected to a lot of NHL relationships. (Vegas) knew my passion for hockey and reached out and said, “Would you be interested in being a part of our process as we look to hire a president to run the team?” We had just finished winning the Calder Cup with the Lake Erie Monsters, and then, literally nine days later, we won the NBA championship with the Cavaliers, so it was a pretty exciting time in the market. But my ultimate passion was to get to the NHL and lead a business organization, so even though we had incredible momentum with those two situations, it felt like it was a good time to move on. And so I jumped at the opportunity and it’s been tremendous from Day 1 when I arrived here in October 2016.
GR: Of course, the thing everyone talks about is the on-ice performance of the Golden Knights in their first season. But when you’re running a business, there’s a lot of groundwork. What were the early challenges from a business point of view?
KB: First of all, as it relates to what happened on the ice, all of the credit and the work was really led by George McPhee, under the guidance of our owner, Bill Foley. In a lot of ways we divided and conquered, George focused on hockey and I focused on business and we worked closely together on those areas that would cross over. All of my time was spent thinking about the business and what we needed to do to lay the foundation to build this brand. We knew there was a national narrative that we had a bad logo and a bad name and it was a bad idea to put a team in the desert. But I already knew the numbers. We had already seen what had happened here with the ticket drive. We knew people were prepared to spend the type of money and make the investments that are necessary to make these teams work. The NHL is not a cheap business, and the average ticket price and the revenues that are necessary to support these organizations are significant. But there was already a great foundation in place, and we had 16,000 people who said, “Hey, we’re prepared to put down deposits on a multi-year basis.” We have three-, five-, seven- and 10-year season-ticket commitments. Based on that, I put together a plan that I presented as part of the interview process with Bill Foley and really just went through each area of the business and laid out what I believed would be the most important things that you need to do to lay a foundation to build a successful sports organization. It was heavily focused on the core things we had to do in that first year. And so if I step back and say, “What am I most proud of about Year 1,” it’s that we were able to prioritize and do it at a very high level. We needed to get the season-ticket base and get those deposits converted, and we did that. We needed to build out a sponsorship platform and drive our sponsorship revenues to the level that we needed them to be, and we did that. We needed to put a game presentation in place. This is the entertainment capital of the world, and there was a heavy expectation on that side of the business. So we weren’t going to just play hockey, we were going to put on a show for people that was very, very much consistent with the Vegas marketplace.
GR: You’ve got this ‘VGK Worldwide’ initiative. Are you expanding the brand outside of the state? Is that what
KB: We really are. Our TV territory covers Montana, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, all of Nevada, parts of California, and parts of northern Arizona, so we wanted to have a distribution partner that can touch all of those areas. And it was really more of a mantra that our owner had put out, “Let’s be the team of the Rockies,” and it’s really focused on that. But after we made the playoffs in that first season, we started to hear from people in Europe. I remember meeting a woman from Australia, and she was talking about watch parties that she was having, so that’s really where we started thinking that Vegas is already a global brand. So we started to think about ‘VGK Worldwide’ and what that program would look like. And we put together a member kit, which has unique products in it, just for people who are a part of the ‘VGK Worldwide.’ And through technology, they’re able to mark their place on a map, and then find other Golden Knights fans in their community or in their region. And we create content that we distribute through our social channels to them.
Listen to the full Q&A with Kerry Bubolz atTheHockeyNews.com/P2P