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Gulls Take Flight in San Diego

Ruby and McGrattan

The San Diego Gulls‘ inaugural season in the American Hockey League reached a new level of success last Friday night, with a 6-2 victory over the Texas Stars before 7,509 at the Valley View Casino Center, propelling the Gulls into the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs.

But success in San Diego this season has been measured in another way, one that transcends accomplishments on the ice. After a nine-year absence, the return of professional hockey to the city — the fourth iteration of the Gulls in San Diego since the first team debuted in 1966 — was a smash hit at the box office, with this minor-league affiliate of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks attracting an average of 8,675 in home attendance in 2015-16, trailing only the Hershey Bears for largest average attendance in the 30-team AHL.

“It really did take a village to do this,” said Gulls President of Business Operations Ari Segal. “Our staff and front-office staff, our players and coaches, everyone should take pride in the way we conducted ourselves, the way we entered the market, the way we worked through difficulties. And our fans, too, helping us improve, creating this home-ice advantage. Everyone should feel really gratified.”

Last June, as the team prepared for its inaugural season, Segal was quoted as saying an average attendance of around 6,500 was the goal he was targeting. The Gulls easily shattered that projection, selling roughly 3,000 season tickets, and renewing 85 percent of that figure for 2017 and beyond. Segal said as many as 2,300 renewed season tickets are multi-year renewals, ensuring a baseline for success in the years to come.

“Those people, man, we don’t take them for granted, at all,” Segal said. “That hardcore following in sports, that’s often a generational challenge. Fathers and mothers bring daughters and sons and they bring grandchildren and all of a sudden, you have a family that’s grown up with a team. This happened in six months. You can’t underestimate how important that was.”

Segal has made customer service the hallmark of the team’s operational identity. Listening to fans, incorporating their suggestions and striving to make the Gulls experience enjoyable beyond putting a successful team on the ice has struck a chord with a local hockey following.

“One thing that we continue learn, we learn it again and again, is there is no saturation point in investing in those hardcore fans.” Segal said. “So the more we reach out to them, the more that we embrace them, the more we make them feel valued and heard, the more attendance goes up. And that’s counter-intuitive, because you would think that we should be spending our time on new customers, new clients, people that haven’t given us a shot before. And that’s actually not the case. The more that we show that we don’t just endeavor to be the best at customer service in San Diego, but actually do provide the best customer service, the more that our hardcore fan base grows and that networking grows exponentially.”

Unlike all previous versions of the Gulls, the current franchise is the first in San Diego with an NHL connection, and that NHL brand of professionalism has not gone unnoticed.

Randy Ruby, from nearby Santee, has been attending Gulls games since the original 1966 season and says the difference in the 2015-16 operating model is unmistakable. A season-ticket holder, Ruby was mingling in the concourse before last Friday’s Game 4 when his ticket representative, Derek Dawson, greeted him holding a Gulls photo Ruby had recently purchased.

Dawson, who works with roughly 500 season-ticket clients, was attempting to get the photo signed by the featured player, and sought Ruby out for permission to have the autograph appear off the actual image, to avoid the marker damaging the actual photo.

“This, to me, mirrors the customer service you’d see at the Bell Center [in Montreal], or in Anaheim,” Ruby said. “I think what they’re doing is taking the model they have there and using it here, as well. I can feel the NHL fingerprint on this. They’re [Anaheim and San Diego] the same company and same owners and I’m sure they’re taking the same tried and true ways of doing things and bringing them down here and making them work.

“The gentleman I sit next to is a season-ticket holder in Anaheim, as well, and he’s torn between going to both games,” Ruby said. “He loves it here, because the crowd gets into it. There’s interaction with the team here.”

Although there are two Major League franchises in San Diego — the Padres of MLB and the NFL’s Chargers — the Gulls have had no trouble finding their own niche. Indeed, there is very little competition between the Gulls and their baseball and football counterparts. The vast majority of the Gulls season takes place in winter months when the Padres and Chargers are dormant.

“There is only one area where we ‘compete,’ and it’s not competition, it’s just a function of clicks and the like, and that’s for media coverage,” Segal said. “Otherwise, the idea that we compete with the Chargers and Padres is entirely a false narrative. Operating a business that way just creates a race to the bottom.”

Regardless of how the Gulls finish in the postseason, Segal is already preparing for 2017. Having heard from their fan base, the Gulls are looking into incorporating more of the Gulls’ 40-year history, looking to find a TV package and increased interaction with the parent club, which might take the form of a Ducks exhibition game or a FanFest featuring Ducks players.

“As far as the [fan] experience, what I hear most is that they feel heard,” Segal said. “We try to address each season-ticket holder as an individual, listen to each concern or idea and see if it’s something we can do. And the fact that we’ve done so many things that people have asked for, has shown folks that we really are open and receptive to making them feel heard and making this experience the experience they want. That’s what I think they get the most out of it.”

Image of Randy Ruby and Brian McGrattan courtesy of Randy Ruby. 

This article first appeared in the weekly Arena Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? You can subscribe to the free weekly newsletter here.

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