Michael Mudd learned a thing or two about defense playing goal tender in minor-league hockey. But today, as president of the Worcester Sharks AHL hockey team, he's more concerned about offense, including growing the franchise's fan base throughout Central Massachusetts. Mudd was recently promoted from senior vice president of hockey and business administration. He takes over some duties from Michael Lehr, who remains CEO of the Sharks, but is taking on more business development responsibility for the Sharks' parent company, Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment. Here, Mudd talks about his new role as well as the toughest management lesson he's had to learn.
>> What is changing in terms of your responsibilities now that you have a new title?
I think the title change means that I'm becoming more of the face of the franchise and my job is to brand the Worcester Sharks and to be out in front of the business community, which I really enjoy. But I still love the day-to-day operations of a hockey team. I oversee every department here.
>> What kind of hockey market is Central Massachusetts?
This hockey market is great for development of players and it's great in terms of travel. About 80 percent of our away games are within an hour to an hour-and-a-half of here, so we hop on a bus at 4 o'clock for an away game, drive an hour, play the game, and we're home by 10:30 at night. We're sleeping in our own beds, not staying in a hotel, not paying as much per diem. So, it's cost-friendly, and our players are getting a lot of rest. This area is also a hockey hotbed. We've got Division I college hockey and the Bruins in Boston. And we've also got a very vibrant youth hockey scene. Youth hockey is one of our No. 1 revenue drivers to sell tickets.
>> What are the challenges to this market?
We knew coming in that we're a little bit landlocked in terms of how we can drive business. The fact that other teams are so close can be a negative on the business side overall, because we can't go 20 minutes south or we're in Providence territory and we'd be reprimanded by the AHL. We know Worcester County is our footprint, but it's tough to grow our business past that.
WEB ONLY>> Have you been successful in drawing fans from outlying towns like Fitchburg and Leominster?
When we first came here, we literally had the map out and we focused on the city of Worcester. Then in year two, we branched out to the boroughs. But it's still tough to get into the outlying areas. We do get fans from the Fitchburg-Leominster area, Westborough, Southborough, but it definitely dwindles, the farther you get from Worcester. We feel for us to get the next level, we have to do an even better job of engaging those outlying areas, because that's where the bedroom communities are and that's where there's more disposable income.
WEB ONLY>> How is hockey's popularity?
I'm encouraged over the past year about its popularity for a couple of reasons. No. 1, the Olympics were phenomenal this year. The U.S. almost pulled off another miracle moment and the ratings were through the roof. The Stanley Cup was also one of the better ones in recent memory and the ratings were very good. The television ratings are very important to the success of the sport. I'm also encouraged because USA Hockey recently reported that, for the first time in a long time, registrations were up in the 8-and under-age group. And lastly, which is a big one, there have been more Americans in the NHL draft. In the past, if an American was drafted, that person was typically from New England, Minnesota, Michigan, maybe New York State. We're seeing kids drafted now from all over the United States in non-traditional markets.
>> How has the franchise fared during the recession when it comes to corporate sponsorships?
Corporately we've held strong through the recession. We're one of the smaller markets in the American Hockey League, but in terms of corporate sponsors, we're right in the middle of the league. That's a tribute to one, our corporate partners showing support for a civic entity that's important to the city. On the flip side I think we've done a really good job servicing our corporate clients.
>> How are ticket sales?
The economy has impacted our business ticketwise. Years one and two we had solid numbers, year three we definitely took a dip and year four (last season) we ended up finishing just ahead of year three. The good news is, it's on the upswing and we had a very solid second half of the year. Our renewal rates are very good for this upcoming year. We do feel like we need to reengage the city. We knew coming in the honeymoon would wear off and it's important for us to reengage our business leaders to let them know the value of partnering up with the Sharks.
>> What's the toughest management lesson you've had to learn?
Making difficult decisions. At the end of the day I think, communication is key to everything. The toughest part for me was restructuring my staff last spring after year three and having to make some difficult decisions about people's employment. It's very tough to separate the personal from the professional, but at the end of the day you have to do what you feel is the right thing to get all the oars pulling in the right direction.
Watch as Worcester Sharks President Michael A. Mudd discusses what he learned from his own experiences being on the ice: