Q&A with Darren Abbott, Manchester Monarchs president
Darren Abbott, the president of the Manchester Monarchs, didn’t plan for a career as a professional hockey executive. Instead, he was a broadcaster with ambitions “to be the next Mike Emrick,” the legendary television play-by-play hockey announcer, before “a funny thing happened.”
He fell under of the wing of the late South Carolina businessman Jerry Zucker, owner of the minor league hockey team South Carolina Stingrays, and embarked on an on-the-job sports business education.
The Monarchs, the top minor league affiliate for the Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey League, will open their 11th season Oct. 7 at the Verizon Wireless Arena, but Abbott may or may not have much of a chance to actually watch the game. As president, he oversees a budget of $5 million and 20 full-time employees who handle the business side of the team — ticket sales, charity outreach and community relations, including involvement with youth hockey at all levels.
“You need to be a jack of all trades and the best part of my job is that it’s different every day,” Abbott says. “And when the team is on the ice you feel like you’re a small part of it.”
Abbott, who was the East Coast Hockey League Executive Of The Year in 2008, joined the Monarchs in February 2010. He was president of the Stingrays when they won the Kelly Cup in 2009.
Q. How much of an impact will the Boston Bruins winning the Stanley Cup have on the Monarchs and hockey in the region?
A. I think it was a great thing. When people are talking about hockey and being excited about hockey in June, July and August, it’s good for everybody in hockey. During the playoffs, there was increased activity on our website, and it will certainly benefit us because we have Providence (the Bruins’ top minor league team) in our division.
Q. Do you think we could see a hockey-playing renaissance in the region as we saw in the 1970s when the Bruins won two Stanley Cup titles?
A. I think it will have an impact for years to come, from interest in the Bruins and Monarchs all the way down to the pee-wee levels. We work very closely with youth hockey organizations in our region, and I think you will see more participation.
Q. How do you handle the challenge of developing players for the National Hockey League while hoping to create a winning team for the fans?
A. It’s a balancing act. First and foremost, the players are here to develop as players, but the Kings understand the importance of winning. They have been able to give us good quality teams and we’ve had a great coach in Mark Morris, who teaches and wins. The last two years in the playoffs we’ve lost to the eventual champion.
Q. How has the uneven economy affected minor league franchises such as the Monarchs?
A. I think the economy affects everybody and every business. I think after the economic hit (of 2008) entertainment was kind of a bad word for corporations and the downturn certainly impacted ours and every franchise. We’ve used this time as an opportunity to restaff our operations and bring in quality people to support the team and our industry. The team knew that after the honeymoon period there would be a flattening out of ticket sales. Our goal is to keep that at a sustainable level.
Q. How are ticket sales looking for the 2011-2012 season?
A. We average 5,300 fans per game, which is in the top 10 of the American Hockey League. We’re tracking our sales for the new season and are expecting to grow again this year.
Corporate ticket sales and individual ticket sales are rising slightly, and we are becoming more aggressive with our social media outreach. We are lucky to have this fantastic venue as our home.
Q. What was the transition like from broadcaster to business executive?
A. I had a strong mentor in Jerry Zucker, who was a real help for me. He mentored me in basic business theory and how business really works. The first few years were a challenge, a lot of hard work and continuing education. One thing I learned early was taking the best business practices from other teams.
Q. How often do you get to sit down and watch a game?
A. I’m usually there, but visiting our corporate sponsors and fans for the first two periods before sitting down to watch the final period. Of course, the playoffs are different, and I get to watch most of those games.
Q. Has Manchester proven itself a good city to support professional hockey at this level?
A. A lot of people are coming to realize that this is a tremendous hockey state, and Manchester is an incredible hockey town. Look at the support for the Monarchs and the Fisher Cats, and you see a tremendous minor league sports town.
Monarch Cares (the team’s philanthropic wing) has a very strong footprint here. The support and involvement we get through our partnerships, youth hockey and our ticket sales shows the depth of community involvement and the strength of our brand name in the region.