Hugh Weber has been in the arena business long enough to know one certainty: The best places connect people in ways that go way beyond simply cheering for the home team.
“Buildings have to stand for something more than just a game or a good 2 1/2 hours with your favorite artist,” the president of the Prudential Center and the New Jersey Devils said. “One thing that’s great about sports is that it builds community in a different way. Whether you go and you stand with 8,000 people or 18,000 people, there’s a commonality that makes us feel that we are part of something in our human psyche.
“Teams that have the strongest brands, that’s what they have, that’s the shared attribute. They have connected collectively with the people they represent.”
Eighteen months ago, when Weber and others were discussing the next steps for a group that had helped steer the team and the arena in the right direction following an ownership change, they decided the building and the team could serve a bigger purpose: bringing the state together as a whole.
With that, the team’s “One Jersey” movement was born.
“We’re trying to create a platform to make sure that our brand is representing the community,” Weber said. “No matter what business you are in, you have to ask yourself: What is our why? What is our purpose for being here?
“The purpose for the organization has always been to win hockey games, but our unique purpose that was never clearly articulated or a vision that was never shared succinctly is this: We’re here to represent what we all hold near and dear, New Jersey. It’s New Jersey collectively, and this collection of communities that make up what it means to be from New Jersey.”
The team and the arena have been slowly releasing the idea to the business community and the public, including airing a promotional video on the concept at a season kickoff event for season-ticket holders last Sunday.
Weber said they have been pleased by the response.
“When you go out and you have a sense of purpose and you share it with people, it either gets sticky or it doesn’t,” he said. “This clearly has snowballed.
“It doesn’t matter if you live in downtown Newark or you’re from the Shore, when we started talking about the state and what it means to live here and what it stands for, we got a great reaction. And that’s how we knew we were on the right path.”
In the corner of a whiteboard on the wall in Weber’s office are three questions the organization wants to ask every New Jersey business and resident:
Who are they?
What do they want?
How are we giving it to them?
Daniel Cherry III, the chief marketing and innovation officer of both the Prudential Center and the Devils, will use the answers to these questions to implement One Jersey.
“This is not advertising or a tagline,” he said. “That is not what creates a movement; that is what signifies a movement. How to start it, is to be of service.
“Candidly, there are givers and takers. This organization is a giver, so the first question is: How do we serve?”
Cherry says the organization is willing to do anything and everything. Big or small. In Newark or in the state.
“When the mayor needs support or the city needs something, how can we show up and support,” he said, “be it our manpower or proximity or our resources, whether it be a beautification project along McCarter Highway or after-school programs such as boys and girls clubs and mentorships.
“Maybe it’s just giving access to this space. There are a bunch of folks in this community who have never been in this building. We shouldn’t assume that they need to buy tickets to take a look. Can we do dark-day tours?
“There are things that are small signifiers that show we are committed. And committed to all of New Jersey. Not just Newark, not just Essex County, not just northern Jersey. All over. And we’re going to do more of those.”
Unique ticket plans
New Jersey Devils President Hugh Weber has been forward-thinking when it comes to season tickets.
The team has upped its base in each of the last three seasons; it’s now at nearly 10,000. And, while Weber is confident that number will continue to grow, he also knows the standard plans are not for everyone.
That’s why the Devils introduced flex plan accounts two years ago.
Here’s how they work:
Companies or individuals put a minimum of $2,500 into an account, then those who have access to the account can use it any fashion they like at any event at the Prudential Center. And they gain all of the benefits of being a plan holder, including invites to exclusive events and discounts on team merchandise.
“If we tell people,we’ve got this thing and it’s going to cost you 1,000 bucks and it’s for 44 nights and we tell you when you have to show up and go home — that doesn’t work,” Weber said.
“With flex memberships, you put some money in an account and draw it down the way you want. You want to go to this game versus that game, bring your kids to a game and sit up high or bring your buddies to a game and sit closer to the ice, we don’t care. You even have access to single-game suites.
“We think that’s much more reflectve of the marketplace in general. People want more choices.”
The effort is allowing the team to engage businesses like never before.
Gone are the days of having tiered plans, whether it be for buying tickets or becoming a partner.
The point, Weber said, is not necessarily to push ticket sales, but to allow the Devils and the arena to find ways to talk and work with businesses without a price tag necessarily being attached.
“Let’s say you walk into a large company that has 1,000 employees who are New Jerseyans,” he said. “You say, ‘You’re here, you’re committed to making your employees’ lives better, so are we. Let’s just align. I don’t want to transact with you, I just want you under my tent and us under yours. I want us to be working together.’
“That’s the start of a different conversation.”
Barry Ostrowsky is a Jersey guy.
He was born here, went to Millburn High School, got his undergraduate degree at Rutgers University and now heads the biggest health care system in the state: RWJBarnabas Health.
So when his organization was considering a partnership with a sports team, he had one requirement: It had to be true to New Jersey. He chose the Devils.
When Ostrowsky met with the team’s top officials (Weber and CEO Scott O’Neil) and its new owners (Josh Harris and David Blitzer) to construct a partnership, he loved how the conversation was about more than just business.
He quickly discovered they shared a common passion.
“When I sat down with Hugh and Scott and the new owners, it was clear to me that they weren’t simply here casually in Newark, that they were various serious about integrating in the community, which of course is something we aspire to,” Ostrowsky said. “They are very concerned about raising the visibility of New Jersey as a wonderful destination for everything from cultural events to sporting events.
“I have to tell you, it was infectious. It tended to reinforce our thinking. So, when we sat down and ultimately crafted our business relationship and Hugh began to talk about other businesses, I was sold.”
With that, Ostrowsky and RWJBarnabas Health agreed to be one of the top corporate partners in the movement.
But instead of a traditional deal in which suites and tickets and signage were exchanged, the partnership is based on how the Devils can work with RWJBarnabas in areas it feels are vital, such as health services for children.
In the process, both groups feel they are helping to elevate the state, something Ostrowsky feels is much needed.
“Every significant business in New Jersey seems to have some inferiority complex about being in New Jersey and not having its corporate offices in (New York City), Chicago or Philadelphia,” he said. “That drives me crazy.
“We immediately subscribed to what they were talking about because I would love to see the business community stand up and say New Jersey is a wonderful place to do business, it’s a wonderful place to live, it’s got 8.5 million consumers and we should make a concerted effort to raise the visibility of our state and not simply just be in the shadows of New York City in North Jersey and Philadelphia in South Jersey.”
Prudential Financial also is a major partner in the movement.
“They are representative of many who have come on board,” Weber said. “These are people who are totally committed to the community.”
More announcements are forthcoming, arena officials said.
The players appear to have signed on, too.
Even the ones who were not born here.
Goalie Cory Schneider is the team’s best-known player in the city of Newark. It’s a designation he didn’t necessarily earn from his all-star efforts on the ice, but his actions off it.
In early September, days before the Boston native was scheduled to go to Team USA practice for the World Cup of Hockey, he made a quick trip to Newark. There, in full uniform on an unusually warm day, he played a quick game of street hockey with local kids outside of the Prudential Center.
It was an event with Hockey in Newark, a nonprofit group that has been growing the game in the city for more than a decade.
Schneider said he was happy to lend a hand — and to be able to connect with the fan base in a different way.
“The organization has been great, and taking the opportunity as a challenge to expand and create more goodwill in the community around the team and the arena,” he said. “It’s more about building a bond with the people around you.
“For us as players and an organization it’s not only something we accept as a challenge but it’s part of our responsibility to be a factor in the community and not just be here and go about our business without trying to contribute anything to the people who support us.”
Schneider and his wife, Jill, have started “Cory’s Keepers,” an initiative where they buy two dozen premium seats at selected games for kids in the community. The goalie then meets up with them for conversations and photographs afterward.
Cherry said the idea came from the goalie. And Cherry said he wasn’t surprised that it did.
“You’re dealing with a millennial generation, a generation who really cares,” he said. “It’s not just about the contract and what happens on the ice, they recognize and our aware of where we are.
“So, it’s not about turning the tide and having them shift their approach; it’s giving them what they want and care about. The all have values. As the millennial generation, these young men and their wives or girlfriends get it. They want to contribute to the community.”
For all this goodwill, Weber acknowledges there has to be some sort of return on this investment.
“There are measurable things that we’re doing,” he said. “If our data isn’t growing and our people aren’t coming here, then we’re not doing something right and we’ve got to figure it out. But it takes time.
“Every market has unique qualities that are to be amplified. It’s not that one is right or wrong — or better or worse. It’s that everyone is a little bit different. So, understanding how you tap into that and how you connect with that is what we’re in the business of doing.”
It won’t be easy, he said.
“There hasn’t been a track record of anyone who has raised their hand and said, ‘I’m Jersey,’ and been successful. No one has cracked the code.
“You can’t stop with, ‘Hey, we’re Jersey.’ You have to breed the characteristics, you have to go out and live it every single day and not just put the flag up.”
Don’t expect a big marketing splash as the season approaches (the home opener is Oct. 18).
While the video was introduced at the season-ticket holder event, there are no plans for a huge rollout. That’s not how this is going to work, Weber said.
“You’re not going to see a ton of billboards, but you are going to see us showing up, whether it’s in your inbox or at your kids’ school or at an event,” he said.
“It’s going to be death by paper cut. You’re going to say, ‘Everything that I do in my life, they seem to be there.’ That’s our signal to say show up at the town square.”
That’s the ultimate goal, the officials said, to make the Prudential Center a place for the state.
“This isn’t about hockey,” Weber said. “We hope that we are not the only ones who are advocating for the state. We hope that each time someone becomes part of this movement we have multiple advocates to talk about what it means to be from here.”
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