Nothing ‘minor league’ about San Diego Gulls’ return

Ari Segal, president of business operations for the San Diego Gulls and one of the architects in returning hockey to San Diego, emphatically states, “… we are not a minor league team.”

The Gulls are the American Hockey League affiliate for the Anaheim Ducks.

“You’ll never see ‘minor league’ in any of our branding, any of our collateral, anything anyone says from our staff ever says publicly,” said Segal. “We’re not a minor league team.”

Then what are they?

“[The AHL is] the second best hockey league in the world, and we are San Diego’s professional hockey team,” said Segal.

San Diego is part of the four team AHL expansion to California. The newly formed Pacific Division includes: the Gulls, Ontario Reign (Los Angeles Kings), Texas Stars (Dallas Stars), San Jose Barracuda (San Jose Sharks), Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton Oilers), Stockton Heat (Calgary Flames), and San Antonio Rampage (Colorado Avalanche).

Last weekend the Gulls wrapped up their first season back in San Diego in the second round of the playoffs with a 4-1 series loss to the Ontario Reign. While the end result wasn’t what the team was hoping for, the return to San Diego was a success.

The Gulls last played hockey in San Diego in the 2005-06 season. A decade later, was the classiest city in the world ready for the return of the franchise?

Short answer: Yes.

Based on the AHL’s average attendance figures alone, the Gulls were second behind the Hershey Bears.

It all starts back in January 2015. The Anaheim Ducks announced they had purchased the Norfolk Admirals with the intent of moving the team to San Diego. The decision to take the team to San Diego wasn’t just because of the availability of the arena and the proximity to Anaheim (a 90 minute drive up the 5 Freeway, if you’re lucky).

It was far more strategic.

“There’s a media landscape that lends itself incredibly well to us,” said Segal, “ … you have an NFL team that plays primarily in the fall. A major league baseball team that plays primarily in the summer … from January to March – which is the peak for the American Hockey League – … total vacancy.

“Every network here has a full time sports anchor. The paper has multiple beat reporters and columnists and editorial to support those teams. There’s all sorts of bloggers … and all of those entities are thirsty for content. We plug in right at a time where they need to fill pages and space and generate clicks and everything else, and add to that, because we’re an AHL club, not an NBA or NHL club, we don’t compete with the Padres or Chargers.

“We’re completely non-threatening to them, and in fact, complementary because we can keep their fans engaged in sports … We can kind of be all things to all people.”

Coverage is fantastic, but what the group needed next was the buy in from the locals.

“There is a relocated population,” said Segal. “People who live in San Diego aren’t even from San Diego. They’re from other places and they come here. So a lot of them have grown up with hockey. Plus, because of the military, there is a largely transient population that is from all over the country, and is coming and going and looking for activity.”

We went to Game 2 in San Diego against the Reign, and saw exactly what Segal was talking about.

In addition to the expected Gulls, Reign, Ducks and Kings jerseys on fans, we saw people wearing gear from: the San Jose Sharks, New York Rangers, Washington Capitals (Mike Green), Chicago Blackhawks (Jonathan Toews), Philadelphia Flyers (Mike Richards and Shane Gostisbehere), old Winnipeg Jets (Teemu Selanne), and oddly enough, Atlanta Thrashers (Zach Bogosian).

San Diego appeared to be a market just waiting for their team to return. However, according to Segal, it wasn’t a predetermined conclusion the team returning to San Diego would be named the Gulls.

“The team we acquired was named the Admirals. This is a Navy town. The Navy presence is bigger here than Norfolk; why not keep the Admirals name? Well, there are a lot of reasons why that would have been a bad decision. Not the least of which is, there is a another team in the AHL that has the name ‘the Admirals.’”

[Author’s Note: Norfolk, Virginia is the home of the largest US Naval Base. There is a large presence in San Diego, but Norfolk boasts the largest Naval Base state-side]

To the Gulls, there is nothing more ‘minor league’ than having two teams with the same name.

Ultimately, the decision to go with the Gulls was three fold, said Segal, “First of all, it’s a complimentary brand to the Ducks. Second, the existing color palate was complementary to the Ducks.

“And third, if I’m in an elevator with someone in San Diego and I have 15 seconds to make an impression, and I say, ‘I work for the Gulls. The Gulls are back in San Diego.’ They know it’s a hockey team, and they know where we play. Any other name, you have to explain, ‘Oh we’re the new professional hockey team,’ and probably get some question about, ‘Oh, what happened to the Gulls?’”

Seems like a simple decision then to go with the Gulls as the team name. It also acted as an invitation to the San Diegans that were here a decade ago.

“… we were able to extend that name as an olive branch to the people that were here that were waiting for the team to come back. It was a way to say, ‘We want you back the same way we’re bringing hockey back.’”

The team worked hard to come up with a marketing concept for the first year back in San Diego that would invite new and old fans alike back to Valley View Casino Center (formerly the San Diego Sports Arena).

“Something really, really simple, an inaugural season logo, we spent a lot of time trying to think about how can we both subtly and directly message to the people here either hockey is back,” Segal said as he explained a branded, military inspired ‘challenge coin.’

“This is the logo that we created for this season … There is so much subtlety to this.”

“San Diego has a lot of civic pride, and is very keen on differentiating itself from LA or Southern California or anywhere else. ‘America’s Finest City’ is not something to be taken lightly. They mean it. They believe it. It was important for us to work that into our inaugural branding. That’s number one.

“Number two. Is it an inaugural season? If we say it’s our ‘inaugural season’ we alienate all the old Gulls fans because they say, ‘I was here in 2000 when we won the Taylor Cup. What do you mean? It’s not inaugural. I watched Willie O’Ree in 1967. What’s inaugural?.’ You’ve alienated them.

“If you say something like, ‘The Gulls are back,’ then you completely diminish the value that the AHL branding and the connection to the Ducks brings in. So ‘inaugural AHL season’ allows us to be all things to both of those constituencies.

“… the logo overall, looks like a military ring. That’s an ode to the military history and tradition of San Diego.”

(The armed forces presence is most certainly there among the fans. During a stoppage in Game 2, the PA announcer asked all current and former military members to stand. Of the nearly 8,000 fans in attendance, about 25 percent of them stood up to be cheered for a full minute by the crowd.)

“… [the orange and blue] bar and stripes. Each of these stars represents one of the versions of the Gulls: The WHL, the IHL, the WCHL, and then us … see the connection to the Ducks. There’s the Ducks windswept font.

“It’s a great market, but we also spent a lot of time trying to understand the market, and trying to make sure that they way we entered the market was a way that the market would want to receive us.”

And receive them they did.

In the first season ticket run of the team’s return, they sold approximately 3,000 tickets to fans. Of those season seats sold, 1,200 were purchased for a three-year term.

According to Segal, “… we understood that, especially in the American league, the value of the customer you have dramatically exceeds the value of the newly acquired customer.

“Renewing our existing base of season ticket holders was way more important than growing and selling new full season tickets. At every turn, where they opportunities have been a choice between do marketing to try to bring in new fans or figure out a way to service our existing fans, we’ve always gone with the latter.”

Thus far, the Gulls are at about 2,550 season tickets going into year two. Now 2,400 of those tickets are on a multi-year platform – doubling the total from year one.

For making the multi-year commitment to the team, the Gulls return the favor by including various perks such as access to the players, Q&As with Dallas Eakins and Segal, and in a neat gesture, got to sign the end boards during a ‘Founders Day’ celebration. The dasher stayed up all season long and was a point of pride for Segal.

Much of the Gulls success has to do with the product on the ice, too. The future of many organizations come through San Diego at least once.

“On any given night you might see 10 to 15 first and second round, third round draft picks on the ice,” said Segal.

The benefit to the fans to see those young players before they hit the big time is obvious. It helps the parent club, too.

Prior to the move, any player called up from Norfolk had to take a seven hour plane ride across the country to get to and from their assignment. Now they just jump in the car or take the train up to Anaheim.

“There have been guys who get called up, and they go up to practice,” said Segal. “What an experience with zero risk and basically zero cost for a young player to have that, and for all the other players to see that at any moment you can get called up.”

This gain extends to the front office, too. According to Segal, most of the Ducks senior player personnel, including Ducks GM Bob Murray, are at a majority of the games. Within a five hour driving radius, scouts can see home games for the Gulls, Reign, Condors, and next season, the Tucson team relocated by the Arizona Coyotes.

All in all, hockey’s return to San Diego has been a successful one.

The team played well, even though they didn’t get past the Reign. Fans enjoyed themselves (and with two-dollar beer night on Fridays, how could they not?). The parent company is happy.

There’s not much left to say except: You stay classy, San Diego.