The VP of Premium Seating and Group Sales for Tampa Bay Sports & Entertainment shares some of his personal triumphs and struggles, current views on premium, and association leadership focal points.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
What are some of the personal or professional triumphs or struggles that helped you get where you are today?
I’ll start with this: I am as non-traditional in this industry as anybody. I’m a kid who grew up on the east coast of Canada, and like every Canadian kid, I dreamed of the NHL. Working on the business side wasn’t the original dream but certainly feels like one now. Going to the rink to work every day is still the best part of my job.
I’m a former hockey player. I grew up in the game, learned a lot from the game. Skills and life lessons from sports are so important in my opinion. I was fortunate to play college hockey at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, while earning a bachelor of commerce degree.
After finishing school, I wanted to take a shot at playing professional hockey. I had the opportunity to play in Texas and Louisiana in the old Western Professional Hockey League, followed by a season in Europe. Those couple years were some of the best of my life. Riding the bus with teammates and seeing some of the world was an experience I’ll never forget, but I also realized at that point I was never going to get rich at that level and decided to pack it in and get on with real life, whatever that meant.
Immediately after finishing playing, I had the opportunity to get involved in coaching with Trevor Steinburg at my alma mater, St. Mary’s, as an assistant coach. It was a great way to stay involved in the game. At the same time, I started a private hockey development program and got the chance to work with some local players back at home.
I also got involved with my parent’s software company, which was a means to pay the bills more than anything. It was an amazing company that my father had built from scratch, but it was truly not my passion. And at that point, I still didn’t know what mine was.
Then one night, I was having a beer with a friend of mine, Brad Richards, who was playing for the Lightning at the time. We were chatting, and I said, ‘I would love work in the NHL. It has always been a dream of mine and was curious to see if there would be an opportunity to pursue on the business side.’ Then Brad introduced me to Bill Wickett, the EVP of Communications with the team.
That first conversation basically went like this, ‘Hey Mr. Wicket, my name is Matt Hill. I would love to come down and work for the Lightning.’ And he says, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I say, ‘I’m not sure. What kind of roles are available?’ He says, “Well, there might be a job in tickets”. And I responded, ‘What does tickets even mean?’
When you have your hockey player hat on, you figure that someone just turns on the lights in the arena, and everyone shows up. I had no idea the actual machine and engine behind the scenes that drives the business.
After a few conversations with the Lightning and figuring out the immigration part, I sold my house, left my three jobs, moved to Tampa, and started a job in outside sales with the Lightning making $13,000 a year.
Not really knowing what I was going to be doing, my goal and objective was to get my foot in the door with the organization and ultimately move to the hockey ops side. However, within six months of being in the sales world, I knew that my competitive juices that came out in the hockey world were now just as relevant, if not more relevant, on the revenue side of the business. I fell in love with it, found a passion for it, and knew this was the industry I wanted to be in.
When I started with the Lightning, I was very fortunate to have some great bosses and mentors who provided opportunities to learn about various aspects of the sports industry and allowed me to grow in the organization. After Jeff Vinik purchased the team, he brought in leaders like Tod Leiweke, Steve Griggs, and Jamie Spencer who really taught us what it was like to be a servant leader, both internally with our teams and externally with partners.
“Within six months of being in the sales world, I knew that my competitive juices that came out in the hockey world were now just as relevant, if not more relevant, on the revenue side of the business.” – Matt Hill, Tampa Bay Sports & Entertainment
Well you certainly learned eloquence and professionalism. Where did you learn the art of conversation?
Thanks, that’s a very nice complement. And no, I don’t think my degree had much to do with it. I believe that growing up in a sports environment, knowing how to address and motivate your teammates, talk to your coaches, deal with media, and be in a leadership or captain role are skills you don’t learn in the classroom. Those are skills that translate nicely into the industry.
The guy who taught us how to sell was Tod Leiweke. He coined a new term of selling, not one that you learn in school or in a textbook. He called it “gracious selling.” And it was something that we all sat back and watched him do day in and day out. He built relationships strictly by spending time and building trust with clients, truly becoming friends. That’s the mentality we’ve adopted here in Tampa, and the selling comes easy after you’re learned it.
Selling is one thing, but leadership is another. Are there synergies between leading and selling?
While seemingly different, they’re almost the same. We are very fortunate here in Tampa that we genuinely like and respect each other as coworkers. When it comes to leading, I don’t think people can come in and demand respect. It’s something you must earn. The trick is to be consistent in how you behave and interact. Day in and day out, you need to operate in a professional and ethical way and earn the respect of your coworkers.
In Tampa, we have an amazing corporate culture. Everyone is on the same page and understands our mission. Everyone is willing to play their part, and I think that’s the key to our success. Mutual respect among everyone we work for and with. That’s one of the things I truly believe in. It doesn’t work with everybody not being 100% on board.
Let’s talk a little bit about the arena and its transformation. What were the key factors to the transformation?
Our job in this industry is two-fold. One is to serve our community and make it a better place to live. And two is to provide products and services that clients are willing to invest in, spend their hard-earned money on.
Over the last eight years, we’ve made some significant changes to our arena. Through two major renovations, we have touched almost every part of the building. Specific to the premium world, we gutted every suite and rebuilt them from the studs, built two party lofts, and renovated the club level and our private clubs.
“One of the coolest parts of our jobs is sitting down with a group of people and dreaming up what the next big idea in the premium world is going to be.” – Matt Hill, Tampa Bay Sports & Entertainment
But hands down, the product that was a slam dunk in our market was the creation of our loge boxes. We built the Vology Loge that includes 34 private loge boxes with a private club in the back. It is the perfect mix of private seating and social interaction. With the loge boxes being 4-, 6-, and 8-seat locations, it makes the management of the space from a client perspective much easier. More often than not, it’s not the financial investment that clients struggle with. It’s the logistics of pulling together a full suite for all games and concerts.
We believe we work for the best owner in sports, Jeff Vinik, and he provides us every resource we need in order to continue to innovate. Our customers demand it. Our market demands it. And collectively, we understand that if we’re not keeping up, staying ahead of the game, then we are going to fall behind very quickly.
As such, we have the opportunity to refresh the building on a regular basis, to make major renovations. One of the coolest parts of our jobs is sitting down with a group of people and dreaming up what the next big idea in the premium world is going to be. What’s new? What’s next?
Everyone has the suite. Everyone has the terrace tables. Everyone has the loge. What’s going to be the new idea five years from now that no one has thought of yet? If a new building is about to go up, and the plans are in place for what it is going to entail, by the time fans actually attend a game, those ideas are going to be four or five years old already. So it is our job to stay ahead of the curve and come up with the new idea.