#AHLOTB: Televising the Gulls

Photo: Vince Rappleyea

by Craig Elsten | AHL On The Beat

When Matt Savant took over as President of Business Operations for the San Diego Gulls in September he inherited a great situation. The question coming out of the inaugural season in San Diego was how he could make it better.

The Gulls had just smashed all expectations in their rookie American Hockey League campaign after the Anaheim Ducks purchased the Norfolk Admirals and relocated the club from Norfolk, Va. Last season the Anaheim Ducks affiliate advanced to the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs, finished second in the AHL with an average per game attendance of 8,675 fans through the turnstiles at Valley View Casino Center, and infused an already strong sports community with a hockey fever it had not experienced in over a decade.

Still, Savant knew challenges remained as he took on a new challenge within the club where he spent 13 seasons with the Anaheim Ducks.

“We’re not a new team, but we’re newer to the city of San Diego, the AHL version of the Gulls. This is our first time here,” Savant explained prior to a recent home game against the Iowa Wild. “The exposure to our local market is huge if we can get on TV.”

And there was the million dollar question: could the Gulls get on TV?

As the director of marketing and brand management for the Anaheim Ducks, and before that the Director of Fan Development, Savant had been front and center in the efforts to build the Anaheim Ducks brand within their community since 2005. He saw the power of consistent television coverage.

“We have a lot of people coming in to Valley View Casino Center to watch the Gulls, but when you can put it on TV and someone can sit on their couch and enjoy it and not have to get up and bring the kids and bring the family to the game, that’s a whole new demographic that we’re exposing our team and our brand to,” added Savant.

Each AHL market brings its own challenges to the table, and in San Diego where Major League Baseball and the National Football League had ruled the roost for decades on TV, breaking into an already crowded winter sports calendar seemed daunting. While associating with local sports cable stations made sense from the periphery, other properties made scheduling a near impossibility.

Knowing that NHL ratings generally rise as the NFL season ends, Savant set out to find a local partner who would be looking for the same thing he was: exposure at a time after football when the sports landscape had thinned and stations would be looking for alternate programming.

A local partner would emerge that ticked all the requisite boxes, the station that was carrying this year’s Super Bowl in FOX 5 San Diego. A lunch between Savant and FOX 5 president and general manager Scott Heath quickly found the two to be of like mind.

“We talked about [the Gulls on TV] and right away, Scott said he was in,” Savant recalled. “He gets it, he understands what we’re trying to do, and he liked the timing of a game the week after the Super Bowl.”

Photo: Vince Rappleyea
Photo: Vince Rappleyea

The schedule matched up perfectly, with the Gulls hosting the Bakersfield Condors on Sunday, Feb. 12, one week after the big game. The negotiations were quick.

“Sitting down [for business] was the easy part,” said Savant, “The question was ‘how do we bring this to life?’”

Some of the main questions were how to film hockey at Valley View Casino Center, what was needed from a production standpoint, a graphics standpoint in order to make it as high-quality a production as possible.

Pulling on his old Anaheim contacts, Savant reached out to Proangle, a Southern California TV production company that has worked on Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and Los Angeles Clippers games. In addition to Proangle, Savant brought in producer Mike Levy, who oversees production for the Los Angeles Dodgers on Time Warner Cable’s Spectrum SportsNet, and director Bob Sipowich who works full time with Fox Sports as the director on Ducks broadcasts.

Add the local FOX 5 San Diego cameramen and crew, in addition to heavy leaning on the Ducks’ chief marketing officer Aaron Teats and broadcast associate Tiffany Spiritosanto for their expertise, the production took shape.

The Sunday morning of the broadcast saw dozens of crew members come together to set up the television truck, set up a total of seven cameras and run thousands of feet of cable from the outside of Valley View Casino Center to each camera location and the press box atop Section 1 in the arena. From Proangle’s setup of the truck and cables, to the back end of the production with Levy and Sipowich who scripted the entire show and plugged in graphics on the back end, to the dedicated FOX 5 San Diego crew who all came together with the Gulls on a lone broadcast was a sight to see.

All in, more than 45 members of the various organizations collaborated to prepare for the broadcast before the cameras were even ready to roll.

After weeks of preparation and promotion, including commercials spots aired during the pre- and post-game Super Bowl spots the week prior, the San Diego Gulls made their TV debut with the pre-game FOX 5 Sports Final at 4:30 p.m. live from Valley View Casino Center. The pre-game show brought a live player interview from the bench during warmups, grassroots hockey features and a buildup to the game itself.

At 5:07 p.m., the puck was dropped and the game was live with the Gulls vs. Condors live on FOX 5 San Diego in a simulcast with radio partner The Mighty 1090. The broadcast brought fans hockey for 60 minutes of play, but the intermissions connected fans to Gulls players with defenseman Nate Guenin and left wing Antoine Laganiere joining the broadcast to discuss the game during the 18-minute break between periods.

Also between periods were live interviews with AHL President and CEO Dave Andrews, who discussed the state of hockey in San Diego, the Pacific Division and where the league is headed. During the second intermission, it was San Diego hockey legend and ambassador Willie O’Ree, whose No. 20 hangs in the rafters of Valley View Casino Center.

For the highest level of hockey ever broadcast in San Diego, the Gulls skated to a 4-0 win in front of 9,627 fans and a fantastic television audience. Fans were then entertained with a post-game show that featured live interviews from the three stars of the game, including Dustin Tokarski who stopped all 22 shots for his first shutout of the season, Kalle Kossila who tallied a couple of assists and Chris Wagner who scored a goal in the win.

The show then wrapped with Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins live on the broadcast to discuss the monumental day for the Gulls and the thrilling 4-0 shutout win. From start to finish, the broadcast ran a total of three-and-a-half hours.

The entire show was a hit.

“We are thrilled to be partners with the San Diego Gulls and working together to bring last Sunday’s game against Bakersfield to broadcast TV was just amazing as we delivered a 0.8 HH rating and a 0.6 Adult 25-54 demo rating despite going head to head with the Grammy Awards,” said FOX 5 San Diego president and general manager Scott Heath.

“Our game outperformed KNSD (NBC) San Diego’s Detroit Red Wings vs. Minnesota Wild NHL game by 25 percent in adults 25-54. But the most impressive part of last Sundays game were the fans, the families and all the kids having a great time loving hockey.”

So now, it’s time for the next million-dollar question: what’s next for the Gulls on TV?

If Savant has his way, this is just the start of a beautiful relationship.

“I would love to have as many games as possible on TV, this year, next year and beyond. FOX 5 has been an excellent partner, so obviously I’m going to stick with them and knock on their door. There could be opportunities [for cable broadcasts] as well. I just want to get our team and our product and our brand into as many households as possible.”