Steve Donner has roots in minor league hockey. He also was among the first to sell hockey in the South.
“I feel pretty comfortable that if I can sell hockey in a 30,000-seat building in Tampa, that we can tackle hockey here in Greenville,” said Donner, a former marketing executive for the National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning and the leader of a new ownership group, South Carolina Pro Hockey LLC, that bought the Greenville Swamp Rabbits.
The ownership group is the ECHL franchise’s third owner since it started as the Greenville Road Warriors in 2010. When the sale was disclosed, the team immediately announced that it had extended its lease with the Bon Secours Wellness Arena through 2021.
“We didn’t buy the team as a relocation opportunity. We bought the team as a great opportunity in Greenville and wanted to make a statement. The best way to prove that is to commit to a multiyear lease with both the building and the community,” Donner said.
If you look at the success of the Drive, they’ve done a great job. We’re not going to use them as a complete blueprint, but in our own way I’d like to methodically build what they’ve built.
South Carolina Pro Hockey bought the team from Chestnut Street Sports, a company owned by Fred Festa, president and CEO of Maryland-based W.R. Grace & Co. Festa had owned the team since 2012.
“Fred could have taken many other options, including closing the team and selling the team to someone who would move it out of town, but he was looking for someone that would keep the team in Greenville,” Donner said. “He told me, ‘This can work here, Steve, just someone’s got to come here and live here and be part of the community, and have the marketing background to take it to the next level.’ I want to thank Fred for his commitment to Greenville and giving us the opportunity to continue this.”
Donner has decades of experience in professional sports, a career that started in minor league hockey in 1980. During the 14 years Donner was owner of the American Hockey League’s Rochester Americans, the team made the playoffs every season, advancing to the finals in four of them and winning one championship.
“I’m returning to my roots,” Donner said.
The Greenville Journal sat down with Donner to talk about what’s next for minor league hockey in Greenville.
I’ve been in business for over 27 years, so at this point in my life I can be a little picky as to where I want to live and do business. I was looking for the right opportunity in the minor leagues that had a community soul. We looked at four other teams, three in the ECHL and one in the AHL. Some were in the South; some were in the Northern market.
One of the first things about Greenville that really struck us was the community spirit here. Obviously, there’s a bit of a checkered past for hockey here, and the business models and numbers at first were a little bit daunting to look at, but again, we looked at the future and where the city’s going. Anywhere you go, you want to see vitality, a cooperative building, and a beautiful building to operate in. We just thought with where the market is going and with the backing of the arena, this market provided an opportunity.
What made Greenville stand out?
We started looking at this in late July, early August. We took our time because we wanted to get to know the arena people here, and we really wanted to get an idea from current ownership some of the challenges they went through and some of the progress they made. It was a methodical process.
What we saw was a hockey organization that was moving forward and stabilized, but maybe with the ownership situation could not be here every day. Maybe the management group did not have the correct mix of assets and talents to make it successful at the next level. So we listened very carefully and tried to put together, and have put together, a dynamic team that can take this franchise, that was already moving in the right direction, to the next level.
What are some of the challenges that you and your organization have to overcome to take it to the next level?
First and foremost, I think we have to rebuild the business model a little bit. I think we may have to lower some of our costs of overhead. I’m fortunate to have leadership skills in many areas of the business. We’ve got some good young people. I think with retooling our staff and retooling our business model, and I think with me living in town, I’m really hoping that we can establish long-term relationships in the community.
If you look at the success of the Drive, they’ve done a great job. We’re not going to use them as a complete blueprint, but in our own way I’d like to methodically build what they’ve built. If we get in front of community leaders and they see our energy and commitment, and our willingness to be creative, I think we’ll win them over.
How will your experience in Tampa help you sell hockey here?
I look at our opportunity here somewhere between a rebuild and an expansion opportunity.
When you’re in the National Hockey League and you go through an expansion process, especially in a nontraditional market, you have to think outside the box. You’re going into it knowing that you don’t have a lot of hockey fans here. In Tampa, we had a daunting task of going into a 30,000-seat arena knowing we had probably 5,000 hockey fans at best.
So when you do that, you’ve got to focus on entertainment. You do everything to get them into the building for the first time. When you get them here, we’re going to have to provide a lot of fun to bring them back. Little by little, if we can get them here often enough, we’re going to turn people into hockey fans. We’re trying to unshackle everyone and have some fun and really be creative, maybe do some things that are almost outlandish at times. The main thing is that we don’t have to go after things in a traditional sense. We’re going to be out-of-the-box thinkers and relationship builders.
What about the team and building excited you?
There are so many good parts of the organization. Take the hockey part. We’ve got a great head coach here. He’s a great recruiter. The style of play when we have a full roster is as entertaining as there is in the ECHL. Early on when we were looking, the team was winning big, losing big. No matter what, the team was entertaining.
When you look at this facility, for someone like me who’s been in the National Hockey League to have this building to market in, wow. It really has major league amenities. The suites, the video scoreboard ring, the party facilities, those are all NHL-level.
One of the things I loved about the building is it’s like an accordion. It can be any number of things. What happens in some instances in the ECHL is you get into a building too small and lacks amenities that fans are looking for. It’s a real hindrance. But if you get into too big a building where you have NHL amenities, it can be expensive to operate in. Take Orlando, for example. The expense of operating a team in that building was choking to the last owner, and the Magic have taken over because they have the master lease to the building.
Here with the accordion system, the building’s intimate enough with 7,400 seats. I’m a guy who likes to have capacity. Some teams like a small, compact building. I like the chance to have some big nights. So I’m hoping what we can do differently is have six or seven nights a year and blow it out with some really big crowds. But on those nights we can’t, if we get 4,000 people in here, the building has a great atmosphere.
The fact that the arena manager and the board like hockey, and want to see hockey here, that was a huge plus. They would like to see us doing a better job than we’re doing now, and we accept that responsibility.
What makes you think you can succeed where the owners before struggled?
The two previous ownership groups were extremely well-intended.
The first group was a good hockey group, but maybe they didn’t have the business ownership living here day-to-day and maybe didn’t take the time to understand the market. With Fred Festa, he had all the right intentions. He had all the financial strength to do this. He expressed his own frustrations to me that he couldn’t be here to make his own impact with the organization.
This is a multimember group. It’s not just me. We have some strong partners. Strategically, we put together a powerhouse team of marketing and sales people with the understanding we have to be patient, that it’s not going to happen overnight. We’re going to have to be on site. We’re going to have to roll up our sleeves and get involved in the community. I’m hoping that will make the difference.
In addition, the lease can make or break minor league hockey teams. Beth [Paul, general manager of the Bon Secours Wellness Arena], the board, and the county, they have a very fair lease in place. I’d call our lease a partnership lease. There’s incentive for the building for us to succeed. The lease doesn’t choke us. There’s revenue sharing for us so if we do well, the building does well. They’ve been very fair to try not to saddle us with a lease that is very difficult to overcome from a cost standpoint.
Corporate partnerships and being a part of the community have been key to the Greenville Drive’s success. How will you build your community relationships?
We place a high value on community relationships. We’ll take our relationships one at a time without expectations that they have to love us just because we have a team. We have an ownership group that can certainly fund the operation while we’re building relationships. If we get in front of community leaders and they see our energy and commitment, I think we’ll develop those relationships. I’m hoping to literally win them over one at a time.