By: Brian Clapp, Director of Content, WorkInSports.com
There is a certain romanticism to junior league hockey.
In the juniors, performance isn’t tied to money or fame, instead, the athletes play for hope. Hope for their own future and hope for the community of the small city they represent.
The United States Hockey League (USHL) is comprised of amateur athletes under age 20 preparing for their professional life by travelling small cities across the Midwest and competing against other highly skilled amateurs. They battle in places like Fargo, Lincoln and Sioux City, where their games are the major event in town, or any surrounding towns.
The local community, a tight-knit group leading similar struggles, bands together in support of their team, taking great pride and ownership of the product before them.
The fans have hope too – they want to see the future stars perform and know them before they had top-selling jerseys. They look forward to the day they can tell their kids, ‘I saw T.J. Oshie play for Sioux City back in 2005’ or ‘Jack Eichel signed my jersey after Team USA came to play in Cedar Rapids.’
It is this undeniable draw of hometown sports that has kept Joe Greene, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for the Waterloo Black Hawks, in the lower leagues.
“While I’ve had opportunities in the NBA and NHL over the course of my career, I love what I do at this level. It offers me the opportunity to be involved in all aspects of the business. Whether its ticket sales, corporate sales, merchandise, marketing or providing leadership and guidance to help further the growth of our employees, every single day is unique,” remarks Greene.
To this point Greene has opted for a life in the minor and junior leagues having worked for the Wichita Thunder, Missouri Mavericks and Dayton Gems before signing on with Waterloo. In the NHL or other professional leagues, employees often have very specific roles and regimented routines, while in the minors, Greene thrives on the changing nature of each day.
“I take a lot of pride in the fact that I started at the bottom of the ladder and have worked my way up in this business,” recalls Greene.
“I’ve been the mascot, picked up concessions, and have pulled the tarp during a rainstorm. Those experiences aren’t exactly the first things that come to mind when you dream of working in sports, but they’ve shaped who I am and I can relate to the people that are willing to do whatever it takes to help the team. Versatility is a key ingredient to increasing your value in this business, especially at this level.”
Versatility isn’t the only key to success in the junior leagues, creativity is a necessity as well. While NHL teams get by on their brand name, star players and world class arenas, junior league teams have to try harder to attract the fans to the game.
“In addition to work ethic and teamwork, creativity is a key component at this level. In a recent fan experience survey we conducted, having ‘too many other things to do’ was the number one response when we asked attendees why they don’t attend more games.
“It’s our job to give them reasons to come back more often and that takes a daily commitment to creativity. Identifying unique ticket package opportunities, introducing new benefits, and designing theme nights to attract new fans all force you to think differently.”
Theme nights can create a lasting impression amongst the fan base, and a good game experience can go great lengths to getting the community to return to the ice for the next game, but often it’s the grassroots community relations that make the difference in minor and junior league sports.
Being visible as a team and as individuals, sharing your story and getting involved in the daily events that shape a community make all the difference.
“In this career, you live it every hour of every day,” informs Greene. If you’re at the grocery store and someone asks about the logo, that’s an opportunity to share our story.
“Building those one-on-one relationships is a full-time job for everyone in our organization. I still keep in touch with fans and corporate partners that I’ve met during my career in all of the markets I’ve worked in. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great people in this industry who’ve shared the same commitment to customer service and community relations. When your owners, coaches, and staff members all buy-in to a strong commitment to community relations, the results are tremendous.”
And while the major sports teams may be the game everyone flocks to, when you break from the pack and head down to the juniors you remember what is so great and so pure about sports. The competition, the fire, the passion and the unabashed love of the game.
The same holds true when you work in juniors, your passion for the game is obvious.