An interview with Greg Jamison

In August 2003, I was able to sit down with Greg Jamison, President and Chief Executive Officer of the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, to talk about the team, the expectations for the season, and some of the issues and challenges from last year’s disappointing season.

Because of an emergency, we had to cut the interview short, and we’ve been trying to find a free time in common since to finish this (we finally have, and we’ll be meeting in about two weeks). Because of that, we’ve agreed to publish this, and use the second session as a new interview examining how things are going now that the season has started.

Interview of Greg Jamison, President and CEO of the San Jose Sharks
Interview conducted August, 2003

Chuq: can you give us a quick opinion on how Doug Wilson has taken on the GM’s role?

Greg Jamison: I feel pretty good about it. I think Doug has done a good job. I like the work he’s done concerning the Group II free agents and the amateur staff. I am very pleased with the way things have gone to this point. We have one player left to sign and everyone else under contract.

Chuq: How’s that going? I figured Hannan would be the hardest one to sign.

Jamison: I think it’s going fine. I talked to Doug this morning, and we’re making good progress. We’d like to get him under contract, so we can really go into the year prepared and bring this team out of camp and ready to go. My sense is that everyone is ready to do that and everyone is looking forward to the season.

Chuq: it seems to me looking around the league that players are more willing to sign this year, and the impending end of the CBA has something to do with it. Is it your impression that this is making it easier or harder to sign players?

Jamison: I can’t get too deep into the CBA, but one thing I can say is we do have a backdrop of the CBA. The word that’s come up so much from Commissioner Bettman is that everyone who runs a business is looking for some form of cost certainty, both on the expense side as well as the revenue side. So whether it’s having that type of impact or not is probably speculation, but there’s no question that as you move a team going forward you must keep in mind that there’s a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that’s going to be done in 2004, and so you have to be prepared to anticipate wherever that may go and that may have an impact on how you build teams, write contracts, etc…

Chuq: and the same is true of the agent’s side, because you can’t afford to have a player out for a year, and then find out they’re not playing for a second year. I think that’s probably affecting some of their view.

Jamison: That’s what I’m saying. Because there’s a potential change coming into the mix, it probably impacts all different ways.

Chuq: Do you think the Sharks will be a playoff team this year?

Jamison: our stated goal is to be in the playoffs. We expect the team to be in the playoffs every year, and we expect to be in the playoffs this year. We are confident that our organization will come out of what was a tough year and will have a very good training camp and have everyone in. Obviously we’re at the mercy of health and what have you, but we expect to be a playoff team.

Chuq: The team that you’ve built can do that given what the western conference teams have done this off season? The west is a tough conference.

Jamison: The West is a tough conference. I think Doug articulates it very well. I think you take care of what you’re supposed to take care of. There was a lot of speculation when teams got players and what have you, but the playoffs bore out a much different story. You had your teams like Detroit and colorado and Philly out in the first or second round, I think it sent a pretty strong message that at the end of the day, it’s still a team game and the team has to play well together, good goaltending, good defense, an opportune goal at a certain time as Anaheim proved, and bang — you’re there. And I think that’s how we look at it from our own perspective of what is it we have to do and build our own team. We let in too many goals last year, and if we clean up that alone it’d make a difference in what our record would be. But Doug feels confident and I agree with him that we’ll have some goals scored, too. It’s a different dynamic now, there are certain players that were in leadership positions that are no longer here, and I think you’ll see some other players emerge into leadership positions in a very positive way.

Chuq: I don’t see that as a bad thing. It’s a different sharks team, that’s for sure.

Jamison: it’s a faster sharks team, The defense has some guys that are veterans now, although in some people’s minds some kids never get older. I think defensively we’ll be strong. I think we’ve drafted well since 1996, we have more players in the pipeline that are coming forward, so into the future, no matter what happens, I think we’re in a good position going forward.

Chuq: going into last season, everyone was really looking forward to it, and it looks like the Sharks tripped going into camp and never really found their center. Looking back at that, with the ability of 20-20 hindsight, do you see any single event that started that cascade that could have been avoided? In retrospect, do you see something you could have done with the knowledge you have now (knowing you didn’t have it then) that could have avoided the problems?

Jamison: I do think there were a number of issues that all came together at the same time. There are some issues I can’t speak to, but there were other issues that seemed to all happen at the same time, caused a reaction, which caused a reaction, so by the time it was all done, by the time we came out of camp, we had a weak beginning. But you also have to remember we came out of December 7-3-2-1 for the month, with 10 home games in January, and I thought we were poised to take off at that point, and we went through one of those issues and [unintelligible].

Chuq: to me the crowning point of the season was the Predator away game at the end of that road trip. That’s where I think the season spun for the rest of the season.

Jamison: I’ve had that game come up before. That road trip was crazy. I think it was like that the entire season. We had a crazy camp. Nick Sundstrom couldn’t get here. We had some injuries, and it seemed like bang from the very beginning. I also see some silver linings. We got it all out in one season, we made some changes that help this franchise move forward, and I think overall our player mix is a good player mix, and if we can get to camp and get some of the basics taken care of, address the system that Wilson and Hunter and Zettler want to address, and I think we’ll come out of camp a good team.

Chuq: Let’s talk about finances a bit. I went back over some of the stuff that came out when the Kings were audited by one of their season ticket holders who’s an analyst, and I found that document to be both fascinating and scary because it made some implications about league-wide finances that really bothered me. Would you say, without going into numbers, that that report is broadly comparable to the state of the Sharks?

Jamison: I’m not at liberty to speak about other team’s finances or league finances, but I can tell you this, that I think this gentleman’s report did follow the strength of his convictions. From the Sharks standpoint specifically, the team lost money last year, and is projected to lose money this year. In talking about the Sharks, our goal has never wavered from winning the Stanley Cup, but I also feel we have to follow a good financial strategy and a good budget process and all those things that go into running a good business, but our business is hockey and running this arena. You have to remember that winning is not a function of throwing money at the team but spending money wisely.

Chuq: the number that really stuck out to me in the Kings document is their concession number, which is about $6 per ticket sold. From what I’ve seen at other venues that’s a very low number, and it indicated to me that the fan feels like the ticket price is too high, so they aren’t spending elsewhere in the arena. would you say that’s a fair assessment?

Jamison: within the scope of it, that’s one portion of it. I think it’s a multiplicity of things to be honest with you. We all very closely chase discretionary entertainment dollar. Depending on who you are right now, the economy has had a huge impact on that; for many people, the money just isn’t there. If you look at your overall financial picture, you have to put all of that out there: ticket price, parking revenue, food, and it all comes into play when you look at revenues. Our goal as a franchise is to chase revenue as much as we can, and in some cases and get outside of the consumer. Our goal isn’t to see how much how much we can take ticket prices up, our goal is to see what revenue we can get outside of that, and our more encompassing goal is to get our expenses in line so we take in more than we spend and still have a very good and competitive product that doesn’t take it’s eyes off of winning the Stanley Cup.

Chuq: do you think you can make the Sharks both competitive and sustainable under the current CBA or will it require changes in the CBA?

Jamison: As I said, the early word on the CBA is cost certainty. You must have cost certainty so you can plan cash flow and all the things that go with that. Do I feel that you can run a good business and break even or make money and win? Absolutely. Absolutely. You must spend money and get to a certain level to bring in talent. But I have three words for you: New York Rangers.

Chuq: one of the things I’ve been worried about over the years is that while the Sharks have done a good job of selling tickets, it seems like the other areas of the audience, especially TV and radio, have not grown the way we had hoped. is there an issue there of whether you’ve appropriately marketed out to the casual fan, and do you think you’ve done a good job of attracting the casual fan, or has your marketing been oriented towards maintaining your current fan base?

Jamison: you always worked hard to maintain the current fan base, because those are the people who are involved with us and have a strong affinity for us, but I do think that at the end of the day, a strong aspect of this, even when we had better renewals than we do this year, it’s important that people be able to buy tickets. What we’re trying to do is both: we try to maintain our audience, but we try to make sure there are tickets available. you never want a 9 year old kid to grow up and not be able to attend a game. I think that serves you well if your season ticket base drops off at is has this year, a strong part of it because of the economy, as well as team performance and not meeting the fans expectations.

Chuq: do you think you’ve done a good job of convincing that 9 year old to attend a game?

Jamison: We’re still in a non-traditional hockey market. We’re in a very fragmented media market. And I think the thing that really drives that is you can have a good regular season and a first round, but I think if you go deep into the playoffs and there’s a real strong concerted interest in the game and what’s going on and you have a deep playoff run and you’re in the third round and into the finals, that’s when I think your television numbers can get a pretty good spike that you might maintain into the future. Hockey on television, for the person who loves hockey and understands the game, they can watch hockey on television and enjoy it. For the more casual fan, even if they’re in the arena may or may not get into hockey on television as much until their sophistication and interest grow. I think thirdly one of the things that will help hockey on television is HDTV. It seems to make it more vivid, puck following is easier for some, so I think there’s a lot of upside potential, but we haven’t fulfilled it. And even when you look at radio and television down the road, eventually you’ll have people in place who’ve grown up on Sharks games and become a sportscaster on a channel, and talking about hockey as well as football and basketball and baseball. Remember, at the end of the day, we’re still only 12 years old. We have not gotten to the point yet where we can take it for granted.

Chuq: this building is about 10 years old. has it met your expectations?

Jamison: I think this building’s been great. People tell me all the time they love our building. It’s intimate. It’s about the right size. Lighting is good. Sight lines are good. it’s safe and secure. It’s been a great building

Chuq: if you were to redesign the building, what changes would you make?

Jamison: I’d do everything I could to maintain the intimacy I have now. I’d probably improve the sound system. I’d have the latest video technology — I think we’re going to wait and see what HDTV does. I like the club. We might revisit the suites. Other than that, I think this building turned out to be very well received and very good. I go into many buildings over the year, and the one thing that jumps out at me is that this building is so intimate.

club: this building is about the last building where the club is down in the 100 level. GM place puts the club half on one side, and then with key arena, they raised the building and put the club into the 200 level. If you had to do it again, would you move the club?

Jamison: I’m not dissatisfied with the model we have. It seems to work well and people seem to like it the way we have. there’s always talk about things, like would you have a restaurant with sight lines into the bowl. Sometimes those are nice, but if you had to pick an overall setup, does this work? My answer is yes it works very well. There’s one guy I see, a president of the building, every time I see him he’s telling me how he has to retrofit his building and how I have a great building.

Chuq: I am fascinated by the lack of retrofitting you have done. About four years ago you put the penthouse in for group sales, but that’s about the only major change you’ve made other than ongoing capital maintenance.

Jamison: we have the terrace and penthouse suites, one other suite. We’d like to re-do the sound system, but the city has to be involved in that.

Chuq: why does the city have to be involved?

Jamison: this is a city-owned building. There are times when the city has to share the costs. We should not be expected to bear the brunt of all improvements to the building. This building has served the city well, and has surpassed every for of speculation of how successful it could be for the city of San Jose.

Chuq: how many light dates do you have a year?

Jamison: about 125, which is pretty good for a one team building.

Chuq: are the metal detectors going to be a permanent part of the entry this season?

Jamison: that’s still being looked at. We are checking with the other arenas, and we don’t want to be lax with our security, and we want to provide a safe environment for our fans. We work very closely with the league. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to do that, but as we all know, we don’t live in a perfect world.

Chuq: I hate to bring this up, but: ice quality. Have we ever really figured out why it fell apart? Because it had gotten better over time, but last year it seemed to fall apart with everything else.

Jamison: It’s interesting how you finished that. There are certain things that always seem to come into play. When a team isn’t playing well, maybe the hot dogs aren’t as good, or the songs you play. We lost the ice for a while in December because of the rain and the humidity. We’ve worked on the ice, we’ve talked to all of the teams, we’ve sent people to ice schools around the league. I’m not negating the problems; you never take the pressure off of how you build the ice. It’s a function of temperature in the building, humidity plays a part, how you make the water, deionized water, and the process is ongoing. My sense is the ice will be ready to go. I believe that, and my people believe that. At the end of the day, we’ll put the best ice we can out there. But once we’re done, the players have to go out and play, because both teams have to play on the same ice.