Why NHL COO John Collins quit: ‘I feel like I’ve left nothing undone’
John Collins joined the NHL in 2006. Visualizing where the League was at that moment speaks volumes about where Collins would take it over the next nine years.
No billion-dollar contracts with Comcast and Rogers. No outdoor games, and their ancillary benefits. No deal with Major League Baseball Advanced Media. Teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens proclaiming that they’d tapped out every local revenue stream they could find, desperately seeking national ones the NHL hadn’t located yet. The media chatting up the idea that the NHL, stumbling after its cancelled season, was primed to be surpassed by Major League Soccer in the American sports pecking order.
Hell, in the first Sports Business Journal awards that Collins attended with the NHL, the League didn’t just fail to garner a nomination – no one from the League, including Commissioner Gary Bettman, even presented an award.
But in 2011, Sports Business Journal named the NHL its “Sports League of the Year. In 2014, it did it again.
In 2006, the NHL was a $2 billion industry. As Collins leaves his position of chief operating officer of the League, resigning this month, the NHL is a $4 billion industry.
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“It was a great product that was underleveraged. The plan I put together was the same way we changed the business model in the NFL. What does the brand represent? What are the opportunities?” said Collins in a phone interview on Wednesday.
“It’s been an amazing nine years. Hockey’s a great game and deserves the grand stage that’s been built.”
Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you how much hammering Collins did in building that stage. So why leave now?
Collins arrived from the NFL in 2006; by 2008, he had a hand in devising the NHL’s strategy in global business and marketing, broadcast and digital media, sponsorships, licensing and several other facets.
“John leaves a lasting mark,” said Bettman. “His energy, creativity and skill at building strategic partnerships helped drive significant revenue growth for our League.”
It was Collins that worked with NBC executive Miller to create the Winter Classic and it was Collins that expanded the scope of the Outdoor Games with the Stadium Series. It was Collins as the point man on the $2.2 billion television deal with NBC, and the $5.2 billion deal with Rogers. It was Collins that worked on the $1 billion digital rights deal with MLB Advanced Media. It was Collins that led the charge on the NHL’s game streaming and revitalized digital properties. And it was Collins who located those national revenue streams the NHL couldn’t find in 2006, and has them pumping out dollars to teams and players at a rate of 20 percent growth annually.
“It’s been a great run, and there’s a lot still to do. But for me, I completed, with Gary … the whole business was kind of reinvented,” said Collins. “But there’s a lot of things that I want to do, but there’s nothing I feel like I’ve left undone.”
Collins decided to leave the NHL because he wanted his own “skin in the game.”
He said he felt an entrepreneurial spirit while working within the NFL and the NHL, but sought a chance to have his own equity at stake for his efforts. His new venture will be announced on Monday; and while details are fairly under wraps, we can tell you it involves management of Super Bowl-level events in sports and entertainment and has some significant financial backing from high-profile investors.
It’s a new challenge. “When the opportunity came, I felt I had accomplished a lot [at the NHL]. Not everything, but a lot,” said Collins.
It’s understandable that Collins would want one. All the wheels he’s put in motion are speeding along in the NHL. The TV deals span a decade. The outdoor games are thriving. His newly minted partnerships with companies like GoPro and SAP and MLBAM are burgeoning. The World Cup of Hockey, another Collins project, will debut in 2016; the “Ryder Cup” style tournament that will likely supplant the All-Star Game at some point is also a Collins project.
“I left a five-year plan for Gary. I’m sure it’ll change. It changed under me, even when we had a three-year plan,” said Collins.
(Collins, by the way, had been chatted up as an eventual replacement for Bettman as commissioner. He said he’s never considered the job, and that “inside the NHL, I had the job that I wanted.”)
So he leaves the NHL at a point where nearly every innovation from Collins is thriving, Outside of potential expansion and the 100th anniversary of the NHL coming up, the League’s on a steady, successful course until the next (inevitable) lockout around 2021.
It’s not that Collins felt there wasn’t work left to do in the NHL; it’s that Collins felt his primary objective – establishing the brand, growing the League, moving from local economic reliance to national revenue streams – had been accomplished.
“There’s no good time for this. I sent a letter to the staff saying there’s no good time to leave a job you love doing and people you love to work with,” he said.
“It’s been a great run, and there’s a lot still to do. But for me, I completed, with Gary … the whole business was kind of reinvented. There’s a lot of things that I want to do, but there’s nothing I feel like I’ve left undone.”
WHY THIS ALL MATTERS
There’s no question the NHL has had more than its share of good fortune in amassing its fortune since 2006:
The new rules producing better hockey; the rise of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin; the return to prominence for several significant American franchises like the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins, and championship finals featuring them; and as rights fees for media and sponsorship grew absurdly, the NHL became a “bang for the buck” option for companies like Adidas.
What Collins did was seize upon that good fortune and, instead of coasting on the high, pushed the league in new directions with that wind at its sails.
When someone asks me why Collins leaving is significant, or why Collins himself was significant, I typically offer this answer: ‘You know the things we all want the NHL to do, because it’s what the fans actually want? Collins fought for that.’
The NHL remains an old boys network. It remains “logo on the front, not the name on the back.” It remains a sport that, at times, has to be dragged kicking and screaming into candor, into the spotlight and into modern times.
Behind the scenes, Collins had to fight against all of these forces. Take the first Winter Classic for example. The NHL and NBC had to find a team willing to give up a home game, which the New York Rangers, for example, weren’t. They had to find a venue, and places like Yankees Stadium said no because they didn’t want to keep the water on in the winter. The game almost didn’t happen until the Buffalo Sabres stepped up with a venue and the Pittsburgh Penguins stepped up with star power.
It’s to Bettman’s credit that he backed Collins throughout the COO’s tenure, and to his credit that he allowed Collins leeway to create opportunities and pursue deals that were unorthodox for the NHL.
You’d hope that doubling a $2 billion industry’s revenue inside of a decade would encourage that type of thinking would continue inside the NHL, but without a guy like Collins carrying the battle flag, I think concern that the NHL gets a bit more conservative in its marketing and innovation is valid.
And if they do, then Collins’ legacy will only look more sterling by comparison.
Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.
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