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FILE: Jim Little.
A file photo of Jim Little, named on Friday as new CEO of the Ottawa Senators.
Cyril Leeder on the day he left the employ of the Ottawa Senators in 2017.
Senators owner Eugene Melnyk chats with defenceman Thomas Chabot, left, during the annual Eugene Melnyk Skate for Kids at Canadian Tire Centre on Dec. 20.
The job facing Jim Little, the incoming chief executive of the Ottawa Senators, is quite simple: He has to bring back the fans.
Going into Saturday’s match against the Montreal Canadiens, the Senators had played 20 home games this season with average attendance of fewer than 11,800, dead last in the 31-team National Hockey League, despite the fact many of those seats were filled by giving away tickets.
For a small market team like the Senators, this matters a lot financially. Because nearly 6,800 seats are unfilled each game, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk is leaving an estimated $500,000 on the table for every home match in the form of foregone ticket revenue. That’s $20 million to date. For a team that barely broke even on operations last year on total revenues of $165 million — the recent estimate from Forbes Magazine — that gap must be addressed.
Little, 55, won’t find it easy. The slide in attendance began during the 2016-17 season and has accelerated since then. Former top gun Cyril Leeder and chief marketing officer Peter O’Leary were casualties of that initial decline. Melnyk replaced Leeder, now CEO of Myers Automotive Group, with Tom Anselmi early in 2017. O’Leary was fired in late 2016.
Anselmi’s mandate was to oversee negotiations related to the $600-million-plus project to build an NHL stadium on LeBreton Flats. But Anselmi resigned in early 2018, when it became clear Melnyk and Trinity Development founder John Ruddy wouldn’t come to terms on the overall $4-billion mega project.
Ever since, Melnyk has been both owner and acting CEO, watching with increasing frustration as many fans have simply stopped coming to Senators home games.
The reasons are many, ranging from a weak team to the lack of a downtown arena, but a key one concerns Melnyk, a Barbados resident who has not endeared himself to the Ottawa community. More than two-thirds of Ottawa residents surveyed a year ago by Ekos Research Associates believed Menyk bore the brunt of responsibility for the collapse of the LeBreton project, while fewer than 40 per cent blamed Ruddy. Late in 2017, Melnyk had mused about moving the team if fan support didn’t improve.
Before 2017, the team regularly attracted more than 18,000 fans per game and maintained a solid core of 13,000 season-ticket holders. The latter are now substantially fewer in number.
During the hunt for a new CEO, which began at the end of last season, Melnyk recognized he needed to hire someone who could rebuild links with the community.
Leeder, who had been part of the group that brought the NHL back to Ottawa in 1992, was known and generally liked throughout the capital region. He was on a first-name basis with nearly all the 125 companies and organizations that rented suites in the Canadian Tire Centre and knew very well the importance of maintaining good relations with the business community. The Senators depend on corporate clients to fill 35 per cent of the seats every game, all the more important given that federal government employees are not allowed to accept tickets as gifts.
Leeder, of course, had many years to develop these personal ties. Little will have to move much more quickly, but Melnyk thinks he’s up to the job. Little was one of four candidates Melnyk interviewed in October, when a road trip took the Senators to Las Vegas. “Jim stood out immediately,” Melnyk wrote in a reply to queries by this newspaper. “His passion for winning is apparent as soon as you meet him.”
LIttle, a McGill University arts graduate, is familiar with the world of sports thanks to a series of corporate marketing gigs. During the 2000s, he oversaw RBC’s sponsorships for the Olympics and golf. Starting in 2012, he took on the role of chief marketing officer for Calgary-based Shaw Communications, a cable operator and major promoter of sporting events.
Little exited Shaw in May 2018 in the midst of a bone-crunching restructuring. Shaw’s earnings in 2018 were hit by $446 million in restructuring costs related to the company’s decision to trim operations in the face of a weakening consumer video market. Thirty-three hundred employees — Little among them — representing approximately 25 per cent of Shaw’s total workforce, accepted buyouts.
While Little had been one of Shaw’s top 10 executives, the company’s financial hiccup was not exclusively a marketing issue. In any case, Shaw’s strategy of tightening up operations was evidently successful. Earnings soared to $753 million in its latest fiscal year.
Melnyk noted that Little’s mandate with the Senators would be to oversee operations at Canadian Tire Centre, “including events,” and to try to boost the team’s revenues “through partnerships and marketing.”
Mostly, though, he has to start filling those seats with paying fans.
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