In July of 2009, or long before he ever thought about investing in the money-losing Phoenix Coyotes, George Gosbee was appointed to the board of Chrysler Group LLC, to oversee the federal and Ontario provincial governments’ investment in the bankrupt company.
It was the height of the financial crisis and things could not have looked any worse for Chrysler’s survival. The challenge, according to Gosbee, was significant.
“How do you come up with a marketing campaign for a company that might not have made the best cars, had laid off thousands and thousands of employees, and was owned by taxpayers now? How do you come up with a campaign that says, ‘Buy our cars?’” he says. “We came up with up the ‘imported from Detroit ad’ – about how hard the employees worked at Chrysler. I wanted that type of message here – how hard the team had worked to overcome adversity.”
By here, Gosbee meant the Coyotes, the NHL team he and a group of investors purchased out of bankruptcy in July, ending an ownership soap opera that rivalled Days of Our Lives for twists and turns. In early September, the rebranding of the Coyotes began in earnest, with a one-minute ad broadcast on the videoboard at the home opener of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
It featured team captain Shane Doan staring into the camera, while a narrator extolled the virtues of a team that far exceeded expectations in the years when general manager Don Maloney had to run the team on a shoe-string budget.
“It was not a typical sports marketing message,” Gosbee says. “It was about bringing in the collective resources of the ownership group and giving a better message: That we’re here to stay; we understand hockey; we understand what it takes on and off the ice.”
Gosbee is president and chief executive officer of Calgary-based AltaCorp Capital Inc. and so, on Wednesday, he will be sitting in his own private box at the Scotiabank Saddledome – right across from where the local owners sit – as the Coyotes play the Flames in an exhibition game.
On some level, it will represent the culmination of a dream he says began in sixth grade, the year the Flames moved to Alberta from Atlanta. Virtually from that moment on, he had it in his mind that one day, he wanted to own an NHL team.
“The Flames came at the same time I had a math teacher explain the stock market to us,” Gosbee says. “I remember running home to my mom and saying, ‘Mom, do you know about this stock market?’
“I just became infatuated with the stock market – because of the numbers; and the management side of it. I was always a sports nut. I’m a live-sport junkie. So to me, the two things kind of coincided were the two things I love – sports and finance.”
Once upon a time, Phoenix was a decent hockey town. According to Gosbee, knowing the team now has stable ownership will go a long way to winning over the local business community.
“What corporate sponsor would come in and sign a three-year deal when they knew the team could be gone?” he says. “So those things are starting to change.”
But operating a sports teams is a little like buying real estate – sometimes, it all about location, location, location.
Part of the problem is that Phoenix is so spread out geographically the drive to Glendale (where the Coyotes arena is) from Scottsdale or any place else on the east side of town, on a weekday night, facing all the traffic, can be nightmarish. The fan experience is terrific once you get there – a small village of restaurants and bars service patrons before and after games, a modern up-to-date building – but the logistics of getting to games remain problematic.
“We’re exploring a lot of different things – transportation on our own, transportation with the city, transportation with restaurants,” he says. “We’re exploring different start times. We are exploring all that, but we’re never going to make up for the distance.”
As part of trying to increase its presence throughout the state, the team will be known as the Arizona Coyotes next season.
For now though, in the giddy early days of ownership, the challenge will be to leave the hockey operations in the hands of Maloney and head coach Dave Tippett and not fret about exhibition game losses.
Gosbee says he understands enough about hockey culture to do just that: “That’s the message of our group. We want to focus in on the non-hockey stuff – and just enjoy the hockey.”