Q&A with Chris Botta, SportsBusiness Journal
I interviewed former Isles PR Man, current NYT and Sports Business Journal contributor, Chris Botta. Chris served as Isles PR point man for 2 decades, and became a household name in Long Island’s hockey-sphere for his founding of the always informative IslandersPointBlank.com and a soon thereafter very public falling out with GM Garth Snow.
VP: A lot of Isles fans have some serious reservations about the move to Brooklyn. Do you think there’s any tangible downside?
CB: Once you get over the massive disappointment for a lot of people that the Islanders are leaving – or, more accurately, had to leave – Nassau, the rest is mostly positive. For starters, Brooklyn sure beats the team being in Seattle, Quebec or wherever else it could have landed. Charles Wang made it clear to me a few months ago that there were substantial offers from outside New York, and he listened to a few because they were coming from people of wealth and influence who were sincere in their approach.
I’ve known Wang since 2000, and he always insisted on not using other municipalities as leverage. He never did. When you consider what Seattle has been offering for the Sacramento Kings, it gives you a bit of an idea of what Wang turned down to stay in New York.
My only reservations are about the Brooklyn barn. Despite the comments from the Barclays people that the arena will hold close to 16,000 for hockey, my skepticism was justified, based on what happened at the preseason game. As of now, I’m told by NHL people that somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 seats do not have complete views of the ice. I hope they do something about it. They have two years, so I’m optimistic that they’ll get it right.
VP: How essential is mass transit to the survivability of a team and its venue in 2013?
CB: There are plenty of pro teams in the U. S. that do not rely heavily on mass transit. But it’s pretty essential if you’re going to be a major league team in New York. Could the Islanders have played another century in Nassau without public transportation and been successful? Most definitely, but that ship has sailed. Barclays Center definitely benefits from being adjacent to public rail. When I went there the first time, I almost gasped when I took that long escalator ride up and saw that giant sign for the arena.
VP: Can you please definitively put to bed the notion that the Islanders are going to break this lease in Brooklyn and go back to Nassau?
CB: It has been a non-story since the day they announced the lease and Wang said it was “iron-clad.” Bruce Ratner and Brett Yormark (and no doubt Mikhail Prokhorov) want the Islanders at Barclays. Wang agreed to the deal and won’t break it. Charles wanted to stay in Nassau and tried for more than a decade to make it work. He’s at peace and seems happy with Brooklyn.
VP: In terms of sponsorship, attendance, brand visibility and the Brooklyn ‘effect’: do you think this impacts the Isles significantly? Are you optimistic enough to think they can be in the top half of the league in terms of revenue and merchandise sold after the move?
CB: I’ll answer the second question first. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Islanders will finish in the top half of the league in revenue from merchandising in their first season in Brooklyn. Maybe top third.
Sponsorship sales will increase significantly because Barclays will still be a spiffy new arena, there will be excitement around a good hockey team establishing itself in Brooklyn, and – just as importantly – Brett Yormark is a relentless salesman. Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean the Islanders could not have excelled in business with a good team and new arena in Nassau. We’re just never going to know.
VP: Do you see that new-found potential capital being invested in the team?
CB: I don’t see it as taking new money and putting it into the team. The payroll is going to go up no matter what. The salary cap floor will be over $60 million soon enough. A good team like the Islanders will eventually require a top-15 payroll to retain their core players and add a few free agents to remain a consistent contender.
VP: Could the New York Islanders become a preferred free agent destination?
CB: That can be a bit over-rated, Vinny. How many would you call preferred right now…five or six? Also, Mark Streit had no problem signing up for Uniondale when the Islanders made the highest offer and most aggressive pitch.
I don’t think “preferred” is the right word. The good news is that the Islanders won’t be one of a very small group of teams that free agents try to avoid, unless they need a career resuscitation. Players want to be teammates with John Tavares. Players want to be on a winner. Players want to sign with the Islanders. I believe that has already started, years before Brooklyn.
VP: Did you manage to get to one of the playoff games this year and take in that atmosphere again?
CB: I did and really loved being in the old barn at Hempstead. I hadn’t been to an Islanders game since a game I went to with my family a few months after the blog issue. Work and running around with my sons to their sports had kept me away.
What a great night it was. A friend gave me great seats for Game 4 – the game they won.
I took a friend from Canada who’d never seen the Coliseum like that. It was awesome to see it through his eyes. It was also nice to catch up with so many fans of the team and staff that I hadn’t seen in a while. We went to the bar at the Marriott and just soaked it in some more. Such an incredible night.
After the jump, Chris’ thoughts on You Can Play, outdoor games, growing league revenue and whether or not the NHL needs ESPN.
VP: YouCanPlay and other groups have done a lot to promote LGBT awareness in the lockerroom. Do you think the younger guys coming in to the league are getting it and the message’s importance?
CB: There’s no question in my mind. What Patrick Burke and his staff have done with YouCanPlay has been remarkable. I don’t think a lot of people realize how much they’ve done in short time. Affiliations with Major League Soccer and the NHL, already? All the support videos from so many college and pro teams? Players going out of their way to speak out? Inspiring stuff.
Most of the young players coming into the league are compassionate about the issues without the messaging, you should know that. But YouCanPlay and others have made a monumental difference.
VP: Do you feel the league endorses these efforts strongly enough?
CB: I do. The key will be for YouCanPlay to make sure both its own staff and the NHL are keeping their foot on the pedal.
VP: From a PR standpoint, would a gay player work in any market?
VP: It’s not about PR or particular markets, it’s about what’s right. There’s no doubt in my mind that the first current NHL player to acknowledge that he is gay will be accepted completely by the rest of the players in the league. You are always going to have bigoted people hiding out, mostly behind their computers, but they will not have the courage to put their names to their comments. So really, who cares about them?
VP: Do you think the league is ready for it?
CB: It has been for years. And now with groups like YouCanPlay, the legacy of Brendan Burke and the acceptance of so many NHL players, it’s as ready as any major sports league in North America.
VP: Would that present a PR boon or a distraction?
CB: Managed well, it would be a distraction for one day. If you’re an NHL team and one of your players has said he is gay, take one day and make everyone – including the gay player – available to address every question from every outlet. Then make it clear that the subject will never be addressed again. He’s a hockey player. Ask hockey questions. Anything written or said after that would be noise. I believe the moment is less than ten years away.
VP: What’s your favorite memory of the Barn as we wind down our time there?
CB: As a youngster, I grew up in that place. The Islanders won the Stanley Cup when I was in ninth through 12th grade. My older brother, a Rangers fan, drove me to the parades. It doesn’t get better than that. As an employee, I’d rate getting the chance to work closely with Al Arbour as my favorite among countless great memories.
VP: In your previous life, was there a more surreal moment than the Kirk Muller trade?
CB: Vinny, we had a guy buy the team without money and ESPN will broadcast a documentary all about it soon. We had my friend Mad Mike for a decade. We had Ricky and Yash and Teddy Nolan, the fisherman jersey and the Gang of Four. Neil Smith was fired after forty freaking crazy days and nights and Garth went straight from goalie one season to GM the next. Garth has turned out to be a good GM as I expected he would, but that summer was a wild one.
That’s just some of the stuff you know about, without going into the private stuff. It would be impossible to rank all the moments in order of how surreal they were. What I can say is, it was a privilege to have the opportunity to be a small part of all of it. Of course, as a fan and an employee, I wish a lot of it was better, but I was very fortunate to have 20 years with the team.
VP: As a PR veteran, do you feel the league falls short in promoting its individual stars and their personalities? I feel every other league makes its stars brands onto themselves and at the same time promotes them much better than the NHL does its stars, even though hockey players are infinitely more approachable.
CB: I disagree. I think it’s one of the more poorly-reported issues of the last few generations that the NBA and the NFL promote their stars brilliantly. Those sports are more popular in the U. S., and it’s not the leagues, but the sneaker and apparel companies that have played a bigger role in increasing someone’s star. David Stern was a great commissioner, but he gets a lot of credit for work done by Nike.
VP: How much easier would a homegrown superstar like Captain John Tavares have made your job?
CB: It would be unfair for me to say he would have made my job easier because 99 percent of the players we had when I was with the Islanders were a joy to deal with and made that part of my job hassle-free. John’s a dream because he’s a great player and person and is the biggest reason the Islanders are competitive again. Winning makes coming to work in pro sports even more fun – whether you’re the PR person, ticket sales executive or no matter what you do. One of the many reasons why I hope John leads the team to a Stanley Cup is because I want to see my friends still involved with the Islanders get a ring.
VP: Which of the innovative things that you and your guys pioneered in your time on the old job is what you’re proudest of during your tenure with the Isles?
CB: Near the top of the list would be our involvement with PWAC, the People with Aids Coalition on Long Island, at a time about 15 years ago when the Islanders and San Francisco Giants were the only major league sports franchises involved in the cause. Any of the work stuff pales in comparison to anything we did in the community.
VP: What do you think of the league’s ambitious plan to grow revenue that you recently reported on?
CB: Their goal is to make another billion within three years. I bet they do it in less.
VP: Tickets are moving for the outdoor games, and a Champions League is something that has fans giddy. Do you think the NHL could get that lightning in a bottle moment they’ve craved forever?
CB: Maybe not lightning in a bottle, but the NHL is poised for great growth for the next 8-10 years until this CBA runs out.
VP: I love what the NBC family has done for the NHL and vice-versa, but the question persists: Does the NHL NEED ESPN?
CB: I would have liked for the NHL to leave room in its NBC deal for something like one game a week for ESPN, but it’s a moot point. NBC wanted, and paid for, the whole thing. Having ESPN more invested in the league would help, but no, it is not essential.
VP: Are your kids still Isles fans?
CB: Of course. I’ve been gone from the team five years now, and Luke and Cole are only 12 and Aidan is 15, but there’s a unique bond there. They are going to want to go to games in Brooklyn.
VP: Do you find yourself rooting for the team still, given the ties you have throughout the organization?
CB: Absolutely. It’s not just the ties that remain, or even from working there a long time. It’s a connection that goes back to when the team was formed in 1972, when I was seven. That doesn’t go away.
VP: Despite your rift with the front office, do you still talk with the boys on the team or the guys and girls working for the Orange and Blue?
CB: To clarify, the rift was only with Garth and that’s in the distant past. As for the question, yes. Friends are friends.