17/04/2024

Kerry Bubolz lifts the Stanley Cup after the Golden Knights victory. Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images. Supplied by the Vegas Golden Knights.

If there is one owner of an A-Leagues club who knows something about building a successful expansion franchise, it is Bill Foley.

The owner of the new Auckland expansion side in the A-Leagues owns the Vegas Golden Knights, an expansion NHL franchise.

The Golden Knights shocked the ice hockey world when they went to the Stanley Cup final in their inaugural season, losing in five games to the Washington Capitals.

After that inaugural season run, their next five seasons would see a first round exit, followed by back to back Western Conference Final eliminations, failing to make the play-offs in year five, before winning the Cup in their sixth season.

It is an ownership group which should give A-Leagues fans hope, after some failed expansion attempts over the years.

Kerry Bubolz, who is the CEO of both the Vegas Golden Knights and the Foley Entertainment Group, sat down with The Inner Sanctum to provide an insight into how a Bill Foley owned team operates behind the scenes.

“I’ve worked with Bill since October 2016 when he hired me and my frame of reference is going to be the Golden Knights and then of course what he’s doing with the Bournemouth franchise,” Bubolz said.

In both instances he immediately bought a home in those markets which I think is an important statement about the importance of the investments that he’s making with these teams.”

Foley has a number of business interests in New Zealand to go along with the Auckland expansion side, but in terms of his sports teams, there is the obvious barrier of having a large distance between all of them.

Despite the distance and not always being able to have that physical presence, Bubolz says that Foley is able to remain connected to his sporting teams.

“One of the things I always say about Bill is he has a unique ability, because he’s got such a diversity of businesses that are part of his portfolio, his ability to go deep in each of those businesses is unparalleled in my experience, which I think is really incredible.

“[To use] the NHL as an example, it wasn’t like Bill grew up playing the game of hockey in Texas. Certainly he was familiar with it, but his knowledge on the team side of what we do from a hockey perspective is really outstanding, and it’s through learning.”

“I’ve seen that with football as well. Again, I don’t know that he had a significant kind of background in football.

“But his ability to, through the year that we’ve been involved with Bournemouth to speak with our football personnel, learn about what’s important to them both in terms of their strategy, but also kind of their coaching philosophies.

“Through that engagement and that constant kind of curiosity he’s become very knowledgeable and so he’s able to ask good questions and I think that’s what makes him such a unique owner is that curiosity and that knowledge.”

Bubolz also said that Foley is always thinking about the businesses that he is involved in and is in constant communication, whether that be through phone call or a text, while watching all the games he can as well.

The A-League Men team will play its first game in the 2024/25 season, the A-League Women side will take the pitch for the first time in the 2025/26 season.

Bubolz described the decision to delay the addition of the A-League Women side for a season as a “conscious business decision.”

“If you want to do it the right way, you have to prioritise what you’re doing and it would have been secondary to the launch of the men’s team and the work that needs to be done.

“We want to do it the right way. We don’t just want it to be an afterthought. To do it the right way you need to prioritise the work that needs to be done in a year.

“It’s not to say that the women’s team is less important. We knew we had to play with a men’s team and so that was a conscious decision.

“It wasn’t one that just happened that way, it was very much a discussion that we should wait so we could it right and maximise it.

“You want to have an environment for the athletes and for that programme that you know that feels like it’s the way it should, right?

“This is the top league in that area of the world and it should feel that way.”

In acquiring AFC Bournemouth, the women’s side has improved in leaps and bounds since Foley took over the side, and Bubolz gave Foley a lot of credit in that.

“I give Bill a lot of credit for the women’s team in Bournemouth. You do some quick research just on how they’ve improved since Bill took over the team.

“Part of it was we needed to put more funding towards the [team]. All of the athletes before were not paid. So we started paying some of the athletes.

“How are we going to view their games? Before all of the women’s matches were just kind of out of field, and if 200 people came, great.

“We started saying no, no, no, this is value. These are some of the top players in Europe. Let’s make it a big deal.

“The largest crowd they had ever had was 3000 people at [the] Vitality Stadium for a women’s match and we’ve already had two crowds over 5000 and one over 8000.

“By making it a priority and making it a big deal and communicating it and marketing it, just all the things that you do and so they’re really moving the needle with the women’s programme by making it a focus and priority because it’s important to our owner and we want to be able to give it that same type of effort.”

Kerry Bubolz of the Vegas Golden Knights poses for a photo session at T-Mobile Arena on October 7, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images. Supplied by the Vegas Golden Knights.

“Always Advance. Never Retreat.”

This is a mantra of Bill Foley, and it is emblazoned into the jerseys of the Vegas Golden Knights.

Off the playing surface, inside the offices and backroom staff, it also apply to the way the business runs.

“In our office [and] just with our general culture, there is that always advance, never retreat mentality.

“It applies to what we do again on the ice, it applies to what we do with our business metrics every year, the expectation [that] great companies are always moving forward.

“He helps create that expectation just through his interest, his involvement, his questions. And he’s always pushing because that’s the way he’s he’s wired.

“I love going back to the “Cup in Six” [quote]. When he said that seven years ago he got q little bit of criticism, but he got mostly just like people laughing like, well, this guy has no idea what professional sports is really out about. That’s almost borderline ridiculous.”

“But for him, it was like, well, why not, right? Like why do we have to wait in 20 years or 30 years, or in the St Louis Blues case over 50 years?

“I worked for the Cavaliers. We won an NBA title in our 52nd year. It doesn’t have to be the 52nd year if you put out the right expectations, and there’s nothing wrong with putting expectations out that are a stretch and trying to build and work towards that and that’s what he’s done and and it’s pretty awesome when you think about [it].”

Looking at the success the Golden Knights have had since coming into the NHL as an expansion side, only one team has more play-offs wins. The Tampa Bay Lightning, who won two Stanley Cups back-to-back, and came close to winning a third.

“When I think about, you know, the number of organisations that have only one, three or four or five playoff series in their entire history and we won, I think we’ve got 11 or 12 now. I mean, that’s just incredible. And it’s really a neat thing to be a part of.”

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Prior to the interview, Bubolz had spent some time in Auckland, along with Todd Pollock (VGK’s Chief Ticketing Officer) and Jim Frevola (AFC Bournemouth’s President of Business Operations).

They liaised with the staff already in place, including the Auckland expansion teams CEO Nick Becker during the trip with the purpose of helping to accelerate the process of getting the team up and running because “it’s such a short window.”

This included things like sending documents over to ensure that the Auckland side does not “have to start from scratch” and that they are “starting from somewhere in terms of what’s been done already.”

“It really allows Nick and his team to prioritise the most important parts of the business as they get ready to start play next fall.”

“Prior to Nick’s hiring, I was asked by our owner to work with the Stadium authority there on the venue hire agreement and so ultimately with Go Media Stadium, you know we spent some time with that group trying to figure out a solution for the team and everything that kind of goes into a venue hire agreement.”

“When we went into Bournemouth, the facility itself was an older facility and here’s what we did with that facility to help make it improve the fan experience, so we shared a lot of those thoughts and ideas.”

“It’s more of a best practice sharing of information and helping them accelerate the work that needs to be done and then just being available if Nick has a question.

“You know, he certainly has enough experience in his other roles that he’s had, but there may be something unique to a startup that I can help out with and I want to be available to them because that’s important to our owner.”

“Community’s a contact sport, just like hockey.”

Something which has become incredibly crucial to the way the Vegas Golden Knights operate is community engagement and making sure they are embedded within the local community.

Bubolz said the same can be expected with the Auckland expansion side.

“I always say it’s the three legged stool and it will apply to each of the teams.

“It’s what we do on the field or on the pitch or on the ice right. What’s the expectation? Do we have the best available talent to build that part of our business because that’s an important part.

“The second piece is the fan experience. What are we doing to make sure we have the best fan experience possible?

“And so with Mt Smart Stadium, I’m looking for things like video boards and sound systems and sight lines and the premium areas and how do we elevate and make for a great fan experience.

“How people travel in, like, what’s their path to travel to get to the stadium, the train, you know, how close does it come and what’s the path to travel when you get on the train and when you get off the train again, all of that kind of leads into the fan experience.”

The third piece on that stool? Community engagement.

“We have a saying with the Golden Knights, which is ‘Community’s a contact sport, just like hockey.’

“We wanted to set the stage from day one that as an organisation we’re going to accept that responsibility as a community leader and we’re going to, wherever we can, we’re going to go to the community first.

“That will absolutely exist with what Nick’s going to be doing with the team in Auckland and you want the community to know that you’re there more than just to take their ticket revenue.

“You’re there to be a part of the community, be a fabric in the community and be a source of pride for the community and those are all things that we’ve been able to do here. And I know it’ll be a priority for Nick.”

The decision to hire Nick Becker was also a conscious one from Foley.

“Even though he has a significant business interest, he understands the sensitivities around an American owner or even with what we do in Bournemouth and he’s worked really hard to make sure that we’re doing it the right way.

“We’re being respectful and sensitive to the communities that those teams are in and then even the key people that he hires.

“Nick is from Auckland. The fact that that was a priority for Bill, [it] would have been really easy to just let’s go find an American sports marketing guy from a Major League Soccer team and put him down there.

“That was never even a consideration. It was always I want to make sure I hire someone from the area that knows the area, knows the people, [and] the culture.

“That’s really important to him and he’s leading by example with that.”

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