Game-time decisions Featured

9:32am EDT March 23, 2005
In the great game of sports entertainment -- fan-filled arenas, all-star athletes, decked-out suites and hospitality from box office to box seats -- Ed Snider is a humble host. As chairman of Comcast-Spectacor, his spirit is dedicated to coaching his team; his mind is busy plotting the next strategy.

Ask the sports management industry leader how he nurtured Philadelphia's first hockey team, the Flyers, into a league with a loyal following. Ask him about growth -- his formula for building a business that dips into every entertainment pot from cable television to arena management.

Ask him about the ventures he launched or acquired since 1966 -- he can't remember exactly how many. He sloughs off the question, figuring his start-ups near a dozen. The Wachovia Center, a $210-million state-of-the-art arena, is the company's latest entertainment gem.

Then ask him how he manages the whole act, and he supplies a two-part response that sounds as basic as baking from a box mix.

"You have to have the right idea and the right people," Snider says, passing ovations and overtime credit to his players.

Snider's got game -- and his formula is simple: "Take what you do well and grow it."

He recognizes overlapping opportunities and connects the dots, from teams to television, fans to arenas, ticketing to concessions.

"My thrill in business is to start something from scratch," he says.

And because a company's team is its critical success factor, Snider listens carefully and trains relentlessly. The team, after all, wins the game -- not one player.

"In the business world, [our company] is much like sports," says Peter Luukko, who worked his way up from college graduate rookie and now works closely with Snider as president of one of the company's numerous subsidiaries, Comcast-Spectacor Ventures. "We win together and lose together here. Ed is like your favorite coach. He is demanding, he cares and he's always rooting for you -- always rooting for you."

"You have to have a strong desire to win ... "

Snider recalls the first days with the Philadelphia Flyers. Hockey was new to the city when he founded the team in 1966, and filling the stadium with fans presented marketing challenges he met with ticket giveaways.

"We had to get people into the building to see the sport," he says. "We felt that once they saw a game, a very good percentage of them would enjoy it and want to come back."

Family-focused seat-filling efforts paid off.

"We invited schools as our guests," Snider says. "We worked out a plan so schools could transport kids here in busses. The thing with children is they don't have preconceived prejudices. Adults might say, 'Who wants to go to a hockey game? I'm a baseball fan.'

"Kids loved the game and started dragging their parents to the sport."

Today, tickets for Flyers games are $23 for nose-bleed seats; corporations occupy suites and box seats are a hot commodity.

"We grew every year," says Snider.

Comcast-Spectacor sprouted new businesses from Snider's initial hockey franchise and the Spectrum stadium.

"We are always finding new ventures, but every business is interrelated," he says. "We are not interested in expanding in areas that are not related in any way to our industry. We love what we do and we are good at it, and there are plenty of opportunities for growth in [the businesses] we already have."

Observation is the crux of Snider's growth; entrepreneurs don't necessarily harvest original ideas, he says.

"I didn't invent the arena," says Snider. "I just knew that we needed one in town. It wasn't an original idea, but it was an idea that the city needed."

Still, an entrepreneurial spirit has innate radar for solutions and can design ways to develop, adapt, fit, form and sell a concept to the market, Snider says. Essentially, his acute sense for demand and the innovative means of filling it molded a multibillion dollar arena management business that really picked up momentum in 1996 when Snider merged Specacor and Comcast Corp., selling 66 percent of Spectacor to Comcast.

Today, Comcast still owns 66 percent of the business.

Initially, this venture consisted of the Flyers, the Philadelphia 76ers, Wachovia Center, Wachovia Spectrum and the Philadelphia Phantoms minor league hockey team. Since then, the corporation joined with the Philadelphia Phillies to form Comcast SportsNet, one of the country's top-rated regional sports networks.

Comcast-Spectacor's most recent additions to the business play list include the Flyers Skate Zone, a series of regional ice skating rinks, and Global Spectrum, an international facilities management company. And the corporation provides all of the arena fixings through Ovations Food Services, Patron Solutions box office management, and event and customer communications divisions.

Snider says fans want more than a home-team win; he is providing them with an experience.

"The arena business has changed from just arenas to hospitality," he says. "It's almost like a combination of hotel management and entertainment. We have to cater to suites and box offices and make sure clients have a wonderful experience.

"They bring their clients and entertain in these suites and we, in turn, provide food, beverage and entertainment as necessary."

First-class service is just part of today's game, and winning arena management organizations serve up the finest fare possible for fans. These expectations have created business opportunities for Comcast-Spectacor -- more spokes reaching from this sports entertainment hub into new profit sectors.

"We manage a lot of facilities, and we are good at it," says Snider. "Our concessions and ticketing businesses keep growing."

Arena management possibilities represent a significant growth opportunity, Snider says. Careful management is the key to continued, controlled expansion, as are strong players who want nothing more than to win.

"You have to have a strong desire to win in the sports industry," he says. "You have to do everything in your power and within reason to win. At the same time, you must have financial responsibility and you need two-way loyalty in the organization -- loyalty to the organization's people and people who are loyal in return."

"Fish stink from the head"

Snider learned his first business lessons from his father. Working side-by-side in the family grocery store, young Snider picked up philosophies that shape Comcast-Spectacor's work culture today.

"My father was a man I looked up to tremendously," Snider says, pausing as he considers a bit of wisdom he quotes regularly to employees. "Fish stink from the head. In the grocery business, you know that the head is where the fish starts to rot."

In a greater sense, the supermarket mantra speaks to leading by example.

"It means an organization is only as good as the guys at the top," Snider says. "Managers have to set standards for everyone."

Company culture filters from the boardroom to the box office, says Luukko.

"We are big hall walkers," he says, explaining that visibility and approachability allow managers to reach an organization's field leads.

Locker-room talk sparks business ideas and cultivates a comfortable culture.

"The first quarter of Flyers games, we have a dinner with people of all levels in the company -- whoever is working that night," Luukko says. "We talk business, we poke fun at each other, we laugh."

Fostering a teamwork culture means leaving corporate doors open. As coach, Snider is a sounding board. He shows interest in employees -- in projects his managers oversee and in ideas that start as hallway chatter and continue as conference-room discussions. Snider leads by listening, and when he likes what he hears, he applauds, Luukko says.

"Ed is my greatest resource," he says. "When I have a deal I think is right and I'm excited about it but it's missing something, I can sit down with Ed and we'll brainstorm. Based on his experience, he'll ask, 'Did you look at it this way?' or 'How about if we tried that?'"

Luukko cites one of the first nuggets he gleaned from Snider.

"Once a deal becomes too complicated, it's really not a good deal," he says, pulling another memorable Snider one-liner from his repertoire. "We are in business to make money and to have fun."

That said, Snider says both characteristics - money and fun -- are why his employees stick around, and how he can recruit talented players. Teams execute strategies, he explains, reverting to his formula of fitting people into appropriate roles.

With players in position, Snider can enjoy the vantage point of watching employees provide animation to company strategies.

"Once you have the idea, you have to find the right people to execute it," Snider says. "Our people know they can grow with us -- the sky is the limit. That's how we get the best."

"...Who can say where the arena business is heading?"

Technology offers a home-team advantage for Comcast-Spectacor, and Snider figures advances will present new and exciting ways to bring Philadelphia sports to fans. Consider concessions, which has matured from yesterday's hot dogs and cotton candy to today's high-class catered fare.

Cable television, high definition TV and digital technology can essentially hot-wire a stadium.

"The way technology keeps advancing, who can say where the arena business is heading," Snider says. "We've gone from color TV to HDTV, which is now being used at most games to make you feel like you are there."

Broadcasting games on computers is another possibility. And with Internet access already available in suites, Snider says that perhaps the next step is connections at every seat.

Keeping up-to-date and constantly seeking ways to connect related businesses to the Comcast-Spectacor core will drive the company's growth, Snider says. Meanwhile, the company will stick to its game plan --providing fans a winning sports entertainment experience. And Snider has his bases covered.

Settled comfortably into the box seats in the game of business, he considers his coaching tactics -- his inspiration, his driving force.

"Entrepreneurs are people who not only have ideas but want to execute them," he says. "Make them happen."

How to reach: Comcast-Spectacor L.P, (215) 336-3600, www.comcast-spectacor.com

Hampshire is a free-lance writer in Cleveland, Ohio. She contributes monthly to Smart Business Philadelphia and Smart Business Cincinnati.