Professional Conference Call: Brian Killingsworth, Chief Marketing Officer, Vegas Golden Knights

Last week at Sports Business Chronicle, we launched our first professional conference call as part of a weekly initiative where we interview movers and shakers in sports business, key influential figures and those shaping what’s happening in our industry.

Our inaugural guest was Brian Killingsworth, Chief Marketing Officer for the Vegas Golden Knights. For each call, including Killingsworth’s, we’ll interview the participant for roughly a half hour before diving into Q&A with those Sports Business Chronicle members on the call. The audio won’t be made available online, but we’ll provide a write-up of the discussion.

We briefly touched on Killingsworth’s career journey, creating a party-like atmosphere around the Golden Knights, the team’s Vegas Born mantra, having a startup mentality, how the organization responded to the Vegas mass shooting in October, season 1 obstacles and more.

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On career background working with four U.S. professional sports organizations…

I’ve always loved sports and always wanted to work in sports. I thought I could play and maybe make it as a baseball player but unfortunately I hurt my knee in the Cape Cod League as I played through there. I went about as far as I could playing baseball. I thought, what better way to continue to do it than try to work in sports? I ended up doing a research project on the Tampa Bay Rays while I was getting my MBA at the University of South Florida. That opened doors to make the connections that I needed. A position opened up with the Rays, and it was an entry-level role running baseball camps back in 2002. I jumped at the opportunity. I was with the Rays for about 10 years, went through some low times and some really good times through the playoff run in 2008 and 2010.

Then, I thought I wanted to try what I learned throughout baseball and do some sports marketing at the NFL level with the St. Louis Rams. I had an opportunity to work there for three years and then wanted to continue that with the NFL back in Tampa with the Buccaneers for a few years. This most recent opportunity that I’ve been blessed to be part of is this amazing run we’re going through in Vegas with the Vegas Golden Knights. With the opportunity to create something from scratch at the NHL level, here in the entertainment capital of the world, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

On the learnings from working with the Tampa Bay Rays, Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams to now in Vegas…

A lot of the time you really learn how to refine your skills as a sports marketer when a team isn’t performing as well as you’d like. You realize that you can’t rely on specific players to drive the business. You really have to try to control what you can control and try to influence the experience and what it’s like for a family to come out to a game. So, I learned a lot of those skills working with those teams. What we try to do here in Vegas is try to make it as memorable and as unique as possible. When you come to our game, there’s nothing better than the live experience. It starts really as a lot of sports marketers say ‘from driveway-to-driveway’.

Our whole experience is predicated upon when you arrive, you park your car and then see things like a drumline that’s marching around. We have a big march into the arena. We have tons of activities outside the building. We try to set the tone for what you’re going to experience on game day. We do some of the same things that a lot of other teams are successful doing. We try to amp it up just a little bit more and give it that Vegas touch. We really try to make it so that it’s unique, and people aspire to go to a game live because it’s that unique.

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On the ‘driveway-to-driveway’ marketing mentality and its place in sports…

It’s probably been around for five to 10 years or so. People always try to master it. It’s important that the communication is there — whether it’s through what you do from a database management perspective to really educate people on what to expect and if there’s anything they need to worry about from a parking perspective, if there’s anything special from a giveaways standpoint — so people are prepared. I like to think that people approach going to a game like they would going on vacation. In advance, you want to know where you’re going to eat or what you’re packing to wear. Sometimes, the anticipation is almost better than the vacation. You’ve just been looking forward to it for so long. It’s making sure that you’re communicating as well as possible with your fans leading up to the game, so that you take away any type of issues that might come up that would affect their overall game day experience.

On what other types of pre-game festivities, activations and touch points fans would encounter prior to heading into T-Mobile Arena…

We do a ton of programming around an area called The Park. Obviously being in Vegas, we’re one of the few venues where you can have open container and walk around with a beer out front prior to walking into the arena. We activate a ton around this area called the Beer House. A lot of activities from an activation standpoint that we’ve got is out front of our building. We have merchandise. We have characters from a lot of the different shows around Vegas that are wandering through the crowds. We might have Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil performers that are really trying to create that atmosphere. We encourage people to get down there early. There’s great food and drink offerings as well. Our owner likes to say, ‘Party before the game, party during the game and party after the game’.

On owner Bill Foley making the party atmosphere a point of emphasis for the Vegas Golden Knights…

He was bullish on the fact that Las Vegas could support a hockey team. He felt really strongly that it could work. It’s an interesting market of how it’s made up. You have 2.2 million people that live in the market, hopefully that we can convert to fans, who are living here in Las Vegas. You have 43 million tourists who are coming through the market as well every year. What a lot of people don’t realize is the depth of the market. There’s some great suburbs. There’s some great communities. They’re really family-oriented that are here in Vegas. If you look at the model that we’ve built here, it’s really built on the locals, first and foremost. And then trying to capitalize on the visiting sports fans, the tourists in general. Bill was bullish on Vegas being successful and really supporting a NHL team. He’s laid the groundwork for his vision and what he really wants it to be. He really wants the ‘knight’ culture to be established as part of every game day. So, a lot of those elements that we pull from it: protect the unprotected, always advance, never retreat.

On how the Golden Knights responded to the mass shooting in Vegas just days before the home-opener…

It was really something that I’m extremely proud of, the way our organization stepped up. It was one of the worst tragedies you could ever go through as a community. We had planned for about six to eight months on how we were going to launch the franchise here from a game day perspective, from an entertainment perspective and the shooting occurred nine days before our regular season home-opener. The shooting happened on a Sunday night. Monday the next day is when we would be trying to plan like every team does for the home-opener. It was really a somber mood around the office as we were trying to check in with everybody. None of us were thinking about the game. We were checking in with different colleagues, making sure everyone was accounted for and safe, making sure families were okay. We really addressed that, first and foremost, because this is much bigger than just a home-opener and a hockey franchise. It was about the safety and well being of the community.

What I was most proud of was our response as an organization, from players on down. We had lined up some things for the players to do in the community, and frankly, our VP of Marketing and Community Relations went down to the locker room and told the guys that they were splitting up into two days in terms of their commitment to the community. All of the guys wanted to participate both days. They wanted to be active in the community. They wanted to help with the recovery. Our guys were out all over the community at blood bank facilities, visiting the metro police department, fire stations, just trying to offer that support. That was really incredible to see the way that we were able to help heal. As we got further along in the week, we reached out to the Red Sox to try to find out as much as possible to see how they dealt with their tragedy (in 2013). You never want to wish it upon a community or a franchise, but we knew we needed to step up. It was our responsibility as the first major professional sports franchise in Vegas to help bring the community together and help with that healing process.

We started shifting gears and thinking about what are the best ways to really honor the victims and celebrate the true heroes of that tragic event. We did a lot of different things that we tried to work really quickly on, like our dasher boards. We took all of our advertising down. We put ‘Vegas Strong’ messaging all over. We raised a lot of money for Vegas Strong funds, which went to the fallen families. Really supported that through sales, merchandise and t-shirts. We created a logo and a lockup for people to use to really get behind this mantra. We had some really special moments in pre-game with a 58-second moment of silence. We put all of the victims’ names on the ice and really tried to do it the right way. I was proud of the way our team came together.

On what the marketing team delayed rolling out to fans, if anything, as a result of the shooting…

Our home-opener was on Tuesday, October 10. Then, we had a follow-up game on the 13th. So, we did shift the gears a little bit and pushed some of that to Friday. Things like our mascot unveiling, and things that were a little bit more entertainment-based. Once the puck dropped, it just shifted to hockey. What was so incredible about that is you go through such a gut-wrenching pre-game ceremony, and then you don’t know how the team is going to react. The team immediately scored four goals in the first 11 minutes. The Las Vegas native on our team, Deryk Engelland, gave an incredible speech to our fans and addressed our fans. Ironically, for 58 seconds was his speech. He didn’t time it up that way, but it ended up being exactly 58 seconds. He was one of the first goals in the first 11 minutes. It was pretty special. Once the puck dropped, it got back to hockey. I really think our team bonded further with the community, and the community with the team as a result of that tragedy.

On the Golden Knights’ five-part Facebook Watch series, the access needed to capture content and more…

It was something where we worked with the NHL, Facebook and (social video brand) NowThis. It was structured to really cover the launch of the franchise. Obviously, the deal was put in place months prior to (the mass shooting on) October 1. They were covering a lot of the pre-season games and when the tragedy hit, they shifted gears on how they were going to handle the series. We’re really blessed to have a General Manager in George McPhee, an owner in Bill Foley and a President in Kerry Bubolz that believe in access. For us, everybody was on board with having the cameras around and true transparency. We thought it was something that we were really comfortable with. We try to operate on a really transparent basis here as an organization. I thought that series was really well done.

On the Golden Knights’ Vegas Born mantra and if the team’s marketing strategy has changed from Game 1 to now based on the on-ice success…

It hasn’t changed in terms of setting that mantra and what the campaign is about. When we had the tragedy and the whole community and really the whole country got behind the Vegas Strong messaging, we wanted to continue to reinforce Vegas Born. You might have had a conflicting message, but we welcomed the Vegas Strong all throughout the year. We didn’t want that to just end with October 10. So, every game we honor a Vegas Strong hero of the game, someone who in one way or another helped during that tragic event, whether it’s a metro police officer or just a citizen who was there. We always honor someone once a game.

There’s something unique about this franchise being born and raised in Vegas. That’s really our core competency. That’s what we’re going to continue to reinforce, the fact that we’re the first major professional sports franchise here in Vegas. We’ll always be Vegas Born. We really love the fact that when you go to different away games and you see little kids holding posters saying, ‘I’m Vegas born too’, that’s when you start to see a little bit of traction.

On local celebrities turning out for Vegas games and what that has meant for the expansion team…

I’ve always tried to cultivate that celebrity aspect at my previous stops in St. Louis and Tampa. A lot of times, you try to capture acts as they come in to your town. There’s some homegrown celebs. Here in Vegas, it’s on another level. We’ve already had Kris Bryant or Bryce Harper, Lil Jon, all of the performers who are here in Vegas stopping by, Andre Agassi. You’ve got a number of different celebs. One of the coolest things is when you don’t line it up, and you just happen to see them in their seats. Then, I’m texting our entertainment head, ‘Hey, Frank Thomas is here and is in this seat’. You go down, talk to them, and they’re wearing Golden Knights’ gear. They talk about how they’ve been to three or four games, and they’ve caught the fever. It’s pretty cool to actually see that pop up. It really has become a true destination place for celebrities. Sometimes, when we get some requests from celebrities, we don’t have enough tickets to actually provide. It’s not the normal. We don’t take that for granted at all. It’s really cool to be able to tap into the celebrity base that is here.

On playoff-specific marketing messaging that is being communicated to fans…

One of the things we’re doing is…we want our fans to wear jerseys. It’s not just to sell extra jerseys. It’s really because we want them to feel connected to the team. So, the one unifying thing between our fans and our players when they’re on the ice for game days is that unique crest. That’s important for us to try and cement that. Our fans have been so great at buying merchandise, whether it’s hats, polos or t-shirts. We really want to have that home-ice advantage for the playoffs and when that visiting team looks up in the stands and everyone is wearing jerseys. We’ve been pushing that. We’re launching a ‘Knight Up’ campaign that cements the fact of wearing your jersey during the playoffs on game days. We’ve got some paid media, some social, some PR behind that. That’s something we’re rolling out.

On encountering and managing first-year obstacles…

One of the things has been keeping up with the demand of our product. It’s probably an area that I’ve had to dig in a lot further than I thought initially because of the success of the team and the way that the community has reacted. We opened a team store that we call The Arsenal that’s here at City National Arena, which is our practice facility. We initially opened it up because we thought it would service the two rinks here around youth hockey. We thought that store would be predominantly hockey equipment, skate sharpening, we’d have a little bit of merchandise sold out of there as well. Soon after opening, we realized that that was going to be the complete opposite. It was going to be the main destination for people to buy Golden Knights’ gear, and hockey was going to be a thin slice of that. We constantly had to change orders because we didn’t order enough product. It’s a good problem to have, and we’re humble about that. That’s something where we probably failed on anticipating how much growth we were going to have.

On the Golden Knights having a startup-like mentality and whether or not that’s just for season one…

We all follow the vision of our owner Bill Foley. I think what he set for us is he challenges us to do things differently, to do things big. He gives us the resources necessary to do that. We try to approach things from an innovative perspective. Our President Kerry Bubolz challenges us every single day to try not to do things how they’ve always been done. Coming in with that attitude, that’s going to extend way beyond this first year. We’re such a lean organization now, and we’re going to fight to maintain that.

On hard skills and soft skills to look for in new hires fresh out of college…

I’m looking for a few different things. I’m looking for someone who is a good communicator, so when I have a sit-down conversation with them, they’re articulate. They can do the whole elevator pitch on why they should be hired, why they should be part of the organization. In terms of resume, I’m not looking for one particular track. We’re not just hiring within the sports business vertical. We’re hiring from all different majors, work experience levels. I’m looking for someone who shows leadership, whether it’s through clubs or organizations. That’s a big part of it. That could be playing sports or community groups. Leadership is something that is definitely important.

I like people to be assertive. When we vet potential employees, we look at the whole picture. It’s something where we want the best of the best. We want people to represent our brand incredibly well, too. We’ll look into all aspects of a candidate. It’s important to show that. It’s not just experience on a resume. It’s how you communicate. It’s how you show leadership. I’m a big believer in finding the right talent. Sometimes, I’ll hire someone who is a better fit over a better resume. That’s key, too. When you’re looking at an organization, get to know the culture, ask the right questions.

The next guest for our weekly professional conference call is Erik Burkhardt, NFL agent and Co-Head of Select Sports Group. It’ll be Friday, April 13 from 2-3 p.m. ET.

Burkhardt represents the likes of Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Danny Amendola, Philadelphia Eagles running back Jay Ajayi and Denver Broncos quarterback Case Keenum, among others.

About Mark J. Burns

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