Saturday, May 16, 2009

Interview With Kevin Gray, President of KC Sports Commission

Recently, the Kansas City Sports Commission And Foundation was nice enough to get in touch with me to announce their successful bid to host the 2012 NCAA Ice Breaker tournament, and also offered the opportunity to interview their president, Kevin Gray. Mr. Gray was kind enough to spend a while on the phone with me talking hockey in Kansas City. Here is our conversation:

First off, could you give an explanation of what it is that the Kansas City Sports Commission does?

Sure, I’d be happy to. Our mission, primarily, is to create and foster support for both amateur and professional sports. And then we talk a lot about the overall benefits of sports to the general public. When you think about trying to enhance economic development and quality of life for Kansas City, that’s really what we’re all about.

Are you guys an independent thing, or are you tied to the city at all, or…?

We’re an independent organization. If something’s good for the metropolitan area, we’re supportive.

How long have you been involved with the Commission, and what was your background before that?

We’re celebrating our 20th year this year, we were reorganized in 1989. They had been around as a volunteer organization for a lot of years, since 1966, but decided to go to a full-time staff, and I was the first paid associate in 1989. We started out in a closet in Westport and then we went to the basement in the non-profit campus downtown. Now we’re in a historic building on 1308 Pennsylvania that houses 10 associates. 20 years later, we’re certainly feeling good about where we’re headed as a metropolitan area.

My background is, I worked for the Royals before this in marketing and broadcasting, worked for the old Big 8 Radio Network, a company called Learfield Communications, and then before that was in broadcasting.

OK, cool. Congrats to you guys on landing the 2012 NCAA Ice Breaker hockey tournament.


What do you think it was about Kansas City that got you guys the winning bid for 2012?

Well, certainly, we have a new facility that’s very, very important to our bid process. We’ve got a great entertainment package with the Power & Light District. We’ve got a commitment to the future as it relates to amateur hockey. So the whole package was impressive enough that they felt comfortable about choosing Kansas City. We feel real good about the package that we put together. We feel very confident about the future of hockey in this region.

Are you guys pursuing a Frozen Four tournament?

We’d very much like the Frozen Four. We bid on it once before and were unsuccessful with it, and like our chances this go around, because we’ve had 17 months of operation at the Sprint Center. We’ve hosted a Big XII championship, NCAA men’s basketball, we’ll have an event next year for the women’s regional, we’ve got the College Basketball Experience, and an NHL preseason game. We feel very good about where we’re headed from that standpoint. Earlier this year we were also awarded a Division I volleyball championship for 2010, so for us, everything’s on the table, and we want to be as aggressive as we can. The Frozen Four would be a very, very prestigious event that we have in our sights and are excited about in the future.

Can you talk about what the Commission’s role in trying to attract an NHL team to Kansas City is?

Historically, we’ve played a very significant role as it relates to both amateur and professional sports acquisition, and we’ll continue to support a variety of different efforts and initiatives. In this particular instance, it’s a little bit different because the city has entered into an agreement with Anschutz Entertainment Group with relation to the Sprint Center. So what’s unique about this is, number one, the city has an agreement with AEG, which has really authorized only them to solicit either the NHL or the NBA. So we are going to look to AEG for their guidance and support. We’ve been involved in an earlier meeting with Boots Del Biaggio, who was the owner that they were considering at the time for an NHL team. We met with Boots, and offered our pledge of support, and talked a lot about the community with him. We’re going to continue to do what we can to support AEG. We’ve got the right partner with AEG, because of their involvement with the NHL and NBA. They are very involved in both leagues, and as it relates to the NHL, I can’t think of another partner that could be as close to the situation as AEG.

At the end of the day, we have two pieces of the puzzle that are very important: One is we’ve got the arena, and that’s a huge piece. We have an arena that is successful, with all the inventory pre-sold. We also have a local civic group led by NHL21 which is a very enthusiastic group of hockey fans, and that’s really important. What we don’t have is local ownership. That’s what we have to rely on AEG for, finding those opportunities, both regionally and nationally. So having said all that, in a market this size, it’s going to be really important that we really nail it in terms of how we position ourselves, how we prepare ourselves. If AEG were to call us an hour from now and say, “OK, here’s what we need to do: boom, boom, boom, boom,” then we jump into full motion.

With the Penguins, I’ve had people say, “We were used.” We didn’t really look at it that way. We looked at it as: We know it’s a long shot. We know the city of Pittsburgh doesn’t want to lose their franchise. We know the NHL would prefer to keep the franchise there if possible. But we also knew two things, that the city of Pittsburgh was having a hard time figuring out their arena. They had been doing this for over ten years. So we knew that was problematic, and we knew we had an opportunity. But then the other issue was that this young team with Crosby was really good. That’s why we were so passionate for the Penguins. But I’m an optimist and really think that the future bodes well for the Sprint Center and the opportunities that might present themselves for professional sports down the road.

But it sounds like as far as you know, there aren’t any potential owners right now?

Well, no, not really. You’re talking about a lot of money in this economy, and that’s a challenge. We haven’t had a lot of local owners step up for any of our other sports. You’ve got David Glass outside the marketplace, you’ve got the Hunt family outside the marketplace, the France family with the Speedway outside the marketplace. We do have local ownership now with the Wizards, and those owners have deep pockets and have stepped up to support that franchise. But you’re talking about a little different game with the NHL: Pretty substantial investment and in a basically unproven market. I think it’s really important that we continue to support as best we can these NHL exhibition games, support the Frozen Four, support the Ice Breaker tournament. Those are the kinds of things that we need to be as supportive as we possibly can because those are what the league is going to continue to take notice of and say, “Hey, this city is really embracing ice hockey.”

It’s interesting that the CHL is coming to Independence. It will be fascinating to see how it does. I’ve met with that group and I am impressed with that group, and I am impressed with that arena. I think it certainly potentially could bode well for Kansas City if that’s successful. If that’s not successful, you would have three franchises, the Blades, the Outlaws, and in this case, whatever the name of the team will be in Independence, that weren’t successful. I can’t think that would be good for Kansas City as it relates to hockey. But I think if the CHL is successful, I think that could bode well for us.

Kind of along those lines, the preseason game coming up this September, between the Kings and Islanders, recently it came out that the game will be on a Tuesday night. Are you worried at all that that’s going to draw an especially small crowd that will maybe hurt our chances?

I think it’s important that we stay together as a metropolitan area to support events of this magnitude. Especially events where we’re trying to prove ourselves a little bit. I think it’s really important that we give as much notice and as much lead time as we possibly can, and as much energy behind the initiative as we possibly can. I think that’s vital. I think the fact that it’s a Tuesday, if I had my druthers, would I prefer a Friday or Saturday? You bet. But that would be easy. And we’re not going to be judged by weekend dates. We’re going to be judged, if we have an NHL team, by weeknights. We’re going to have to be able to support the franchise through thick and thin, which is going to mean Tuesdays and Thursdays and Mondays. I don’t think we can dwell on that issue, I think we’ve got to embrace it with all we can muster and support it as best we can. So if I had my druthers, would I prefer it? Yeah, I guess I would, but on the other hand, I think we’re excited to have the opportunity to host an NHL, professional hockey game here in Kansas City. That’s the most important thing, in my book.

It seems to me that the AHL never seems to come up in discussions about Kansas City. Do you ever hear anything about the AHL?

We looked at the AHL pretty closely at one point, before the Sprint Center was built. We looked at the AHL-affiliated opportunity with St. Louis. We thought, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be great…” I think at the time they were in Worcester. We looked at the opportunity to host that here in Kansas City, thinking maybe the Blues would play a couple matches here. We thought that might be a good opportunity to grow the marketplace. But we’ve kind of…because of the emergence of the Sprint Center, and AEG as a local partner and NHL21, we’ve kind of, at this point, looked beyond that. But I don’t think we should necessarily dismiss that as a possibility. It’s like AAA baseball, its high quality. The IHL at one point was a pretty doggone good league in terms of the quality of play, and I don’t think we should discard the AHL as an opportunity if that’s what was suggested to us by the league. In other words, “Prove yourself with the AHL.” I will say with the IHL, when the Blades were here, we were drawing pretty well. At one point, I believe we were averaging about 8,500, which is pretty good for minor league hockey at the time. So we felt pretty good about it. If we were told, look, the AHL makes sense right now, for a couple of years, and see what happens, I think we should embrace it and go with it. And a lot of it, the key is what affiliation you have with it.

Do you think AEG is interested in having an AHL team at the Sprint Center?

That’s a great question, I don’t know that I’ve ever really specifically sat down and talked to them about that. I don’t know. If AEG said, “This is an opportunity for us,” I think we’d need to take a long, hard look at it to see if that would make sense for us. We at one point even talked about, is there any way that we can convince the NHL, through AEG, to allow the Blues to play over here a couple of times a year? Now, I’m sure the folks in St. Louis wouldn’t like that, but boy, wouldn’t that be great, if they wanted to test the market, and have the Blues play over here once or twice or three times a year? Remember how the old Kings were here, when they had the old Kansas City-Omaha Kings? Could we play a couple matches over here annually with the Blues? So we’ve kind of thrown out some different, outside-the-box opportunities that might make some sense, which might be able to be attention grabbers for us to try to elevate the quest here, which is ultimately the opportunity to attract an NHL team. I think we’ve got to be as creative as we can with these kinds of issues, because we don’t have a Lamar Hunt standing in the wings to purchase a team. So I think we’ve got to be as creative and opportunistic as possible. We have to be open to the ideas and suggestions of people like you, who are hockey enthusiasts, who we need to listen to, and say, hey, look, here’s what people are telling us. Maybe there’s some (creative) ways we can do it or some (different) ways we can look at it.

If we could talk about NHL21 for a minute…I noticed that Paul McGannon of NHL21 is listed on the Sports Commission’s executive committee. Is NHL21 tied into the Commission, or are they separate entities?

If I could take Paul’s enthusiasm and bottle it, we’d have had an NHL team years ago. Paul is about as passionate and up-beat and enthusiastic as anybody I’ve ever met. He’s a Kansas Citian through-and-through, and he just loves the sport. So, yeah, Paul loves to talk about it at our meetings, so it’s good to have that kind of enthusiastic embrace of this sport that might be considered non-traditional in Kansas City. It’s always good to have people like that that can continue to sing the praises of professional hockey. Paul is very up-beat about the sport, needless to say.

What, specifically, do you know that Mr. McGannon and NHL21 have done as far as making efforts to bring a team here?

They’ve hosted a few games, we’ve helped them with those. That was one of the earliest strategies: Let’s make sure we, at a minimum, host an annual NHL preseason game. They certainly partnered with us on the Ice Breaker tournament and the Frozen Four and other ideas. I know his group would be very active in creating a group similar to the Royals Lancers and the Chiefs Red Coaters. We would need some sort of group that would embrace the sport and sell the sport here locally. I think Paul would, if he were told in a half hour, that this is what you need to do: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, he’d do it all and not ask any questions, because he’s that passionate about it. So I think you want NHL21 to be involved. Paul will go to the NHL draft; you wouldn’t believe the places he’d go. He drives over to St. Louis to watch a game. The other guy we have in Kansas City is Kenny Morrow, I think you remember that name. Kenny’s here and Paul talks to Ken a lot. Those two are always going back and forth to St. Louis. It’s good to have Kenny in the market. And there are a lot of former Blades that stayed here as well. So, that’s kind of interesting to see where people’s passions are. But NHL21, you want them involved. It’s a great group of people that are committed to bringing professional hockey here to Kansas City.

Certainly, we have a lot going on in this market. And there are challenges in this market: you have a state line going down the middle; you have sort of a divided city. But there are so many positive attributes about our community and so many positive developments as it relates to the Sprint Center and the entertainment district, so I’m very optimistic about what the future holds. I think having AEG at the table is as strong as it gets. We may not have the owner willing to put the money down, but when you have AEG, represented on the Board of Governers of the league, that’s pretty strong. Pretty strong. You’ve got to think they’ve got some inside information, right?

Yeah. As far as you know, Tim Leiweke wouldn’t be interested in actually leaving the Kings to join an ownership group here, would he?

Oh, you know, I’ve never talked to Tim about that, I don’t know. You know, he lived here at one point. I don’t know. I doubt it. And I don’t know how deep his pockets are. I guess I don’t know how well the Kings are doing, but I guess the Kings would always be a possibility, who knows! But I don’t know that to be true as a possibility with Tim. But he’s as close to the league as you possibly can get, so I think that’s a good one to have engaged in the process, no question. We’re very, very fortunate to have AEG here in Kansas City. Very fortunate.

I appreciate your time. It’s been nice talking to you.

Oh, I really enjoyed it. Please do keep in touch. And anything I can do to help you, or talk to you about, just call anytime.


Ella Bee said...

Great article. I am optimistic that KC will get an NHL team but we have to be patient.

Anonymous said...

Just remembering this article after reading that Kevin Gray passed away two days ago. RIP