- Summer arrivals of No. 1 Draft pick and superstar defenseman were ‘a game-changing moment’
- NHL franchise has expanded digital staff from two to 11 members following spike in engagement
- Devils look to become a ‘challenger brand’ locally and view China as major growth opportunity
There is a new wave of optimism and excitement for the National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils following the arrival within a 24-hour period this summer of center Jack Hughes as the No.1 NHL Draft pick and superstar defenseman PK Subban in a trade with the Nashville Predators.
The signing of Subban – a larger-than-life personality who has approximately two million social media followers and is engaged to former Olympic skiing star Lindsey Vonn – has immediately given the Devils national and crossover relevance.
Vonn, who herself has more than three million followers on Twitter and Instagram, is widely expected to attend a number of Devils games this season after recently purchasing a house with Subban in New Jersey.
There is also widespread hope that the highly-touted Hughes will become the long-term face of the franchise, which also includes the 2017 No. 1 Draft pick, Nico Hischier.
Hughes has made an immediate impact already. During the 2019 NHL Draft, the Devils generated three times the number of impressions on Twitter and five times the number of impressions on Instagram, compared to 2017, when the team took Hischier at No. 1.
The Devils have also had a shake-up in the organization’s front office over the summer. Jake Reynolds was promoted to become the team’s president, having previously worked as the chief revenue officer for parent company Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment (HBSE).
Reynolds replaces Hugh Weber, the Devils’ president from 2013 until 2019, who has assumed an elevated leadership role within HBSE.
Reynolds will look to continue the Devils’ recent commercial growth, in which the team is ranked among the top NHL franchises in social media engagement on multiple platforms and in the top 10 in the NHL in new season-ticket sales.
The Devils have also aggressively capitalized on the legalization of sports betting in New Jersey by recently signing Unibet as its latest wagering partner, in addition to prior deals with FanDuel, William Hill US and Caesars Entertainment.
Ahead of the Devils’ October 4 home opener against the Winnipeg Jets at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, SportBusiness spoke to Reynolds about his new role and his plans for the franchise in the short and long term.
Q. How has the mood – or expectation – around the Devils changed following the arrival of Jack Hughes and PK Subban?
Reynolds: We knew in the moment that when the card flipped over and we got the No. 1 Draft pick that that was going to be a game-changing moment for our franchise and for our organization. You have a moment like that when you can get a generational talent like Jack Hughes and then be able within a 24-hour period to add a superstar and former Norris Trophy winner in PK Subban, that is a pretty successful 24 hours. The amount of work that [Devils general manager] Ray Shero and his team did this offseason to put our team in the position that we’re in now going into the season is pretty incredible. I feel obligated every time I see Ray right now to give him a hug and thank him over and over again.
Q. What impact do you think Subban will have on the franchise on and off the ice? What impact has he had already?
R: Any time you bring in a star that crosses over not just sports but sports, entertainment and lifestyle, it’s an opportunity to continue to grow and drive awareness and expand your brand. As we look back on the 24 hours in which we brought in Jack Hughes and PK Subban, it’s been pretty remarkable to track and watch how this has transformed our entire business. Before then, we had a content staff of two people. Since then we’ve expanded that to a team of 11. We’ve set and broken every major organization engagement record, whether it was on the official website, or through our social and digital channels since the draft.
Q. Can we expect to see Lindsey Vonn at a number of Devils games this season?
R: I think you will. She has already been at a few of our pre-season games and I know there is the expectation that she will attend a few of the games. We had an incredible welcome to New Jersey event for PK to introduce him to our premium partners, our sponsors, some of our season-ticket members and both he and Lindsey came to that. They were incredibly gracious and loved being able to interact with our fans and being able to spend time with them.
Q. In terms of your promotion to team president, do you plan to run the team in a similar way to Hugh Weber?
R: Hugh built an incredible foundation, and I’m incredibly excited to take that torch and expand on what he was building here and continue to take this business, organization and this culture to the next level.
Q. In what ways will you look to put your own stamp on the franchise?
R: I think some of it will happen organically and other pieces are continuing to expand, namely the interaction and engagement I have with the fans here. Everything we do here starts and ends with the fans. We want to create a best-in-class fan experience. We want to create an atmosphere that is going to drive the best in-ice advantage in the NHL. For me, it’s having the opportunity to spend time with the fanbase to understand what matters to them. Obviously every wants to win – and we have ambitions to bring a fourth Stanley Cup to this organization – but I’m looking forward to being on the concourse before games, interacting with fans to getting a pulse in terms of what they love and what enhances the fan experience and being able to continue to drive that.
Q. What new innovations will fans see this year?
R: We’re looking to kicking the season off the right way. We have an incredible activation plan for the home opener, starting with a red carpet arrival presented by Infiniti, in which our players will walk the red carpet and allow the fans to spend time with the players as they are walking in. In addition, we have a fan fest which will continue to build on the anticipation from the off-season. We have some new partnerships activations that we’re really excited about: we just did a deal with Magic Hat where we’re going to have a Devils-branded beer here on tap at the arena called the Woo! Brew.
Q. How great is the challenge to make the Devils more relevant locally?
R: If you look at this market place, there are 11 professional sports teams. We have a unique identifier in that we’re the only one that wears ‘New Jersey’ across our chest. But we want to be a challenger brand, we want to break through and put our own stamp on this. For us, a lot of it starts from a content standpoint being able to create platforms for our fans to engage and get to know and fall in love with these players. That is a critical piece, as is being able to use the platform we have to drive meaningful change in local communities. Every employee here commits to 76 hours of community service and once a quarter we shut down the office and the entire staff, 300-plus employees, goes out into the community and takes the day to serve to make the community of Newark, as well as others where we live, work and play, that much better.
Q. The team has looked to grow internationally too in the past few years, in what ways will this continue this year?
R: We have global ambitions as a brand. We were fortunate that we were able to play two games in Switzerland and Sweden last year. We also had 13 European Games of the Week last year and 45 games over the past two seasons have been broadcast in China on Tencent. The global growth of the game of hockey is something that we’re incredibly excited about and we’re also excited about being able to drive and push that. Our team, led by our chief commercial officer Adam Davis, goes to China once a quarter to be able to spend time with local companies there, to drive awareness around our brand, and we’ve made it known to the NHL that we’d like to continue to play in overseas games.
Q. Being based in New Jersey, where sports betting is legal, just how important is wagering in terms of fan engagement and commercial revenues for the team?
R: We’re fortunate to be in New Jersey, which was the first state for sports betting to be legalized in [after the Supreme Court repeal] and our commercial team did an incredible job to be prepared to capitalize on that opportunity. We have four partners here, with William Hill, Caesars, FanDuel and now Unibet. Each have their own lane in this space and specific outcomes that they want to drive but we believe that this will create a better fan experience and more engagement for fans when they are in the arena.