This past week, NLL.com sat down with Matt Hutchings, EVP and COO for Kroenke Sports & Entertainment and President and CEO of KSE Media Ventures (Altitude Sports & Entertainment), for a wide-ranging interview.
Hutchings started with KSE in 2003 as EVP and COO of Altitude Sports & Entertainment and was promoted to President and CEO of Altitude Sports & Entertainment in 2010. In 2011, he was named President and General Manager of Comcast SportsNet Houston, and he rejoined KSE in October 2013
Hutchings sits on the NLL Board of Governors for the Colorado Mammoth, in addition to the NBA Board of Governors for the Denver Nuggets and the MLS Board Governors for the Colorado Rapids.
Hutchings was the recipient of the 2018 NLL Executive of the Year Award.
NLL.com: You started with Kroenke Sports and Entertainment in 2004, one year after the franchise began (2003). What was it like in those first couple of years trying to grow the fan base?
Hutchings: At that time the Colorado Avalanche (who also play in Pepsi Center and are also owned by Kroenke Sports and Entertainment) were coming off of a second Stanley Cup (in 2001). The Avalanche had consistent sell outs for ten years or more. They were an extremely successful team.
We looked at the demographics between Avalanche fans and Mammoth fans, and we felt that the Avalanche had a very significant fan base that carried over to the Mammoth.
We were able to sell the success the Avalanche were having to our new team, the Mammoth. There are a lot of similarities between hockey and lacrosse, so a lot of Avalanche fans started coming to our games.
It helped a lot that the Mammoth had a lot of success early on.
NLL.com: What have you found is the best way to grow box lacrosse in the Colorado area?
Hutchings: I think it’s a two-fold answer. The Mammoth have had some great success over the years. We won a championship in 2006.
Number one I think is the Mammoth’s success, and number two is trying to grow youth lacrosse in the country.
The outdoor game has been the game that is growing the most under youth lacrosse. I think as the outdoor game became so successful with our youth, all of the sudden box lacrosse became a great offseason sport and it crossed over with some of the traditional fall sports. If I didn’t want to play football or basketball, then box lacrosse became a great alternative that tied in great to my spring sport.
The indoor game really helps with stick skills and sharpening some of those skills they use on the field side as well.
NLL.com: What marketing best practices have you learned that works for lacrosse?
Hutchings: I think tying yourself into helping develop the youth programs in your areas. When you are the professional team in the market, it is significant and very important to have your youth programs emulate or model themselves with your pro programs. We’ve had incredible success here with our youth hockey and youth basketball programs (with the Avalanche and Nuggets) and with the Rapids in the MLS. They have great programs with their youth academies. The kids want to be like the pros. You’re able to use the star power to build up the awareness and generate brand extension. And that ties in with growing box lacrosse. You have a youth program and you build up the value.
It’s an ecosystem that feeds off each other.
NLL.com: In year three in 2005, you were drawing 18,000 a game. Why do you think there was so much interest in the Mammoth early on?
Hutchings: I think that goes back to talking about the success and feeding off the success of the Avalanche. Take a look at the Nuggets. Once they got Carmelo Anthony, they became a significant team with their on-court records and the awareness they created in the market. The Mammoth were good. We were able to ride off the success of the other teams and they became a big brand themself. The fans had a great entertainment experience and it was a great, great formula.
And quite frankly, it’s a value ticket for a family to come in and have fun and bring their family here and it’s a pretty good price point. I think it’s the teams, the in-game experience and a great price point for fans to get introduced. This was a great opportunity to bring lacrosse families to the game.
NLL.com: The Pepsi Center is one of the loudest arenas in the league and the Mammoth usually play well at home, but in 2010 they went 0-8 at home. How tough was that season, and what did you learn about trying to fill the arena, your sponsorship deals and growing viewership through the struggles of that season?
Hutchings: That was a tough season. For the coaches, for Steve Govett (the GM at the time), and for our entire staff.
If you look across the spectrum across professional sports, you will see that teams will have their down time. We thought a lot about that here. When our teams go through down cycles, we know it’s only a cycle. They will cycle back up. There will be winning and losing seasons. We talk to our ticket sales team all the time about remembering the good times when you could make a phone call and people wanted to hear from you.
And on the other side, remember when you are having a tough season and people have given up on you – you have to remember to take those in stride. The other thing is, and every organization will tell you this – you have to sell beyond a win/loss record. The team record will always drive the emotions of a fan who supports your team. We learned you have to build around your team – the excitement of coming to a professional arena like The Pepsi Center.
This is where it’s so important to have excellent ownership to invest in the things we wanted to invest in. You want your team to win but when you come to Pepsi Center, we want you leaving thinking that you had a great time, you were treated right, and that it was an awesome experience and it was the place to be. You build around that fan experience. You can use that as your base to sell your tickets to come and watch your game.
The expectations we want for fans to have is that this is the place to be. That our staff is professional, the food is good and the environment is fantastic.
And if your team wins, that’s icing on the cake. Those are the lessons that every professional team in any league should understand. Sell the environment, sell the experience and the ability to be in a great environment. And if your team wins that’s just a better thing.
It’s hard. It’s not easy. You have to continually tell folks who spend their hard earned money come to Pepsi Center, win or lose.
And all that ties into sponsorship and viewership on television and ticket sales. If you can keep a good base of fans coming to your arena, that makes a good impression for sponsors who want to see eyeballs. They all feed to each other.
NLL.com: Denver is a very crowded sports market – you have the Rockies, Broncos, Nuggets Avalanche, Mammoth, Rapids and Outlaws, plus the college teams.
What strategies have you found are best for getting people to Mammoth games and to follow the team?
Hutchings: Denver is a crowded sports market but we can use that to our advantage. First and foremost, we have excellent relationships with other teams in the market. We know their ownership and management teams and do a lot of things together in the community from a corporate perspective. They are very well run. We like them to be successful because if they are successful that brings more of a spotlight to sports in the market.
Second, there are a ton of great college teams. University of Colorado, Colorado State University, Denver University, Air Force… They are all really high level teams in the market, and that’s just in Denver, let alone the region.
Sports fans are sports fans. They love winning teams and the environment. That can be a curse and a blessing.
I think the question is how do you continue to set yourself apart?
You have to win, you have to have a great environment to have folks come watch a professional game and you want to build around that central area of fans and build off there.
It’s a continual search of making sure fans keep coming no matter what.
NLL.com: Are there any annual events that the Mammoth put on every year or every month in the community to get your name out there?
Hutchings: We’ve made a big effort to increase our visibility with the youth programs in the region. That’s super important to make sure we are out there in the youth programs that are within our market.
Brad Self heads up our youth lacrosse development department. He goes to schools multiple times a week to teach lacrosse in P.E. classes or after school.
Dan Coates recently started Coates Corner, an initiative to combat bullying by commending students who are driven leaders and embody kindness in their schools.
Earlier This year, we hosted a “Parade of Champions” to promote the growth of youth lacrosse throughout Colorado. We invited every youth team who won a championship in 2018 to come and run across the Mammoth turf in the parade.
NLL.com: You’ve been in the league since 2010. What aspects of where the league is now compared to where it was 9 years ago do you say to yourself, “Wow, we’ve really come a long way?”
Hutchings: I think the league is clearly a different league than when it was in 2010. The league has grown tremendously, not just in the number of teams, but the leadership as well. The league has come tremendously far in terms of organizational structure and a professional approach to the sport. It really is almost night and day.
Nick Sakiewicz (NLL Commissioner) and Dave Rowan (Chief Operating Offices) have done a heck of a great job with getting more franchises in. We’ve had great owners and more are coming in. And they are all pretty high profile names, such Joe Tsai (San Diego Seals, and Comcast (Philadelphia), GF Sports (New York) and Terry and Kim Pegula (Rochester expansion franchise).
These are ownership groups who are all in and will put their money in to help grow the league and the sport. It really boils down to the professional approach to how the league is operated and the ownership groups that we are bringing in.
NLL.com: Lacrosse has seen a huge growth in youth participation and viewership numbers over the last 15 years. What do we have to do to continue to grow the sport?
Hutchings: I think it ties into what I just said. It starts at home with how we look at ourselves and how other leagues look at us.
The approach we have had as a league has become very professional with how we look at ourselves. It makes all of the difference.
The sponsorships, the public relations, the operational oversight, the ticketing – everything. And that flows to the teams. The league sets the bar high and the teams do it great as well.
Lacrosse in general is becoming more prevalent with the youth in the country. It feeds into itself. It starts with the league, the professionalism the teams have and ownership.
NLL.com: What does the sport or the league or the teams need to do to get the NLL to be on par with the NBA and NHL in terms of popularity in the United States and Canada?
Hutchings: Those are great aspirations to reach for to be with the big four. I think again it goes back to helping the youth programs grow across the country, continuing to set up our leagues and teams up in a professional approach and continuing to develop significant talent as they grow in their sport that there are professionals they can aspire to. So I think we just have to keep doing what we’re doing. Continue to get excellent ownerships groups to expand and grow our league to get to 20-30 teams in the next ten-plus years.
You’ve got the key markets, excellent ownerships and great competition on the fields.