By David Cruz
There was optimism at the Prudential Center today, something that has been in short supply of late. With the Devils mired in debt and missing the playoffs, there was talk of the team getting taken over by the league because a buyer was hard to find, but today the pressure was off. New owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer, who also own the Philadelphia 76ers, say they are bullish on the Devils.
“This team has stood for excellence and we wanna continue that excellence,” said new co-owner Blitzer. “I think the New Jersey Devils are the envy of 99 percent of the NHL from the standpoint of their performance on the ice, so we don’t really wanna change that.”
The sale is rumored to be valued at over $300 million although no one at today’s announcement would confirm that number. The Devils have won three Stanley Cups and have made five appearances in the finals. That’s an enviable record for any sports franchise, but the real plum of this deal is the Rock, which was eighth in the world and fourth in the U.S. in gross-ticket sales for concerts and other shows last year, according to Billboard magazine. That’s almost $33 million in sales, not to mention millions more in parking, concession and other sources of income.
“Our jobs here on the business side is to first generate some revenue and to make sure that we can funnel it back to the team so we can create that advantage,” said new CEO Scott O’Neil. “The second part is to create home ice advantage here. We want this place loud and proud. Loud and Jersey proud, so we need ya, we want ya and we love ya.”
But it hasn’t always been love between ownership and the city of Newark. The arena was built with a quarter of a billion dollars in public money and the resentment between former owner Jeff Vanderbeek and the city, which didn’t make out as well as it had hoped on revenue sharing deals, has sometimes boiled over, most infamously when Mayor Cory Booker called then majority owner Jeff Venderbeek “a high-falootin’, high-class huckster and hustler.”
But NHL CEO Gary Bettman downplayed the squabbles.
“There’s no doubt to the fact that there have been some what I’ll call ‘commercial disputes’ which were disputes in good faith,” he said at today’s press conference, “but anybody who suggests that Jeff’s relationship and the team and the building under his guidance in the last 10 years was strictly a contentious relationship, I think that’s unfair to exactly what Jeff’s commitment was to this community.”
As for Vanderbeek, the new owners say he’ll maintain a minority share and have an as yet unspecified role in the team. Today, he seemed relaxed and said he had no regrets and would be watching developments downtown very closely.
“I think this whole area around here is going to be redeveloped,” he said. “Triangle Park is going to get done. I think there’s going to be a bridge to the Ironbound. The whole south side of the arena is going to be developed as a mixed use. All that stuff I think is going to get done.”
Even Mayor Booker, who was against the arena before he was for it, expressed optimism about the sale.
“I’m thrilled about our arena,” he told NJTV yesterday, before the sale was official. “This new owner … will be a part of a great city, part of a great community and we’re just looking forward to welcoming him with open arms.”
One of the most important aspects of this deal is that it changes the conversation about the Devils and the arena. Instead of talking about debt and other financial problems, the discussion now is centered on hockey and entertainment and on how to get and keep fans coming back to the Rock.