On March 12, 2020, I stopped at a friend’s house for a wholesome exchange of Naked Pasta ravioli and a quick bourbon on the front porch. Said bourbon was to be brief visit because I had to get home to the wife and child so we could Lyft on over to the Bon Secours Wellness Arena to enjoy a Greenville Swamp Rabbits hockey game. It was not to be just any game as we were invited to share a suite with the fine folks of iOnGreenville and Fete Greenville. To say that I was a little excited about the evening ahead would be an understatement.
And then I got the call that game was canceled due to concerns over the COVID-19 outbreak, followed by seemingly everything else, from school to barber shops to bars and everything in between. Naturally, I stayed for more bourbon.
What I did not know was that on that same day Todd Mackin was brand new on the job as the president of the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. I had no idea that he was hosting the only game in the 26-team East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) that particular evening, as closures and considerations about public events were changing minute by minute. I was clueless to the fact that he spent the day calling the ECHL commissioner’s office telling them that “if I don’t get a decision, we’re having the game” before he got the order to shut it all down. I can admit, now, that Todd Mackin probably had a far more disappointing day than I did.
I know all this because it was officially announced recently that Spire Sports & Entertainment has purchased the Greenville Swamp Rabbits and that prior to that announcement a deal in principle had already been in place for some time which had allowed Mackin to take the reins in early March. Given iOnGreenville’s close working relationships with the Swamp Rabbits and the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to talk about these developments with Mackin himself last week. Needless to say, it is assignments like these that make my “work” feel like nothing of the sort.
The Greeenville Swamp Rabbits
First, I would like to share a bit about the Greenville Swamp Rabbits as, prior to my conversation with Mackin, everything I knew about minor league sports was limited to baseball. Mackin explained to me that the Swamp Rabbits are a AA (Double-A) franchise that has its primary affiliation with the Carolina Hurricanes. That means that athletes that are currently playing on the Swamp Rabbits are playing with the hope for a promotion to the Charlotte Checkers and then, if all goes well, to the NHL for the Hurricanes.
Actually, that is the best case scenario for most of the team as Mackin explained that the Swamp Rabbits actually have a secondary working agreement with the Florida Panthers. Apparently, there are more NHL teams than minor league hockey teams meaning that not all NHL teams have their own dedicated farm system. The solution to this is to have primary and secondary agreements with teams which strikes me as totally bizarre and utterly fascinating at the same time. Mackin admits that it is not always the ideal situation when representatives from competing parent organizations are lobbying for their players to see more time on the ice than their teammates, proving that politics and self-interest are present in every business, including the world of minor league hockey.
All of this is especially interesting to me as Swamp Rabbit players are just a phone call or two away from the NHL, which is a distinct parallel to the days of the Greenville Braves, an organization that groomed much of the talent that would go on to become the Atlanta Braves dynasty of the 1990’s. Suddenly my 10-year-old self wants to get the Swamp Rabbits trading cards autographed so I can add tomorrow’s NHL stars to my collection.
So who bought the Swamp Rabbits, exactly? That would be Spire Hockey South, a subsidiary of the larger corporation Spire Sports & Entertainment. Spire Sports actually began in motorsports where they work in driver management, sponsorships, track ownership, and even own the number 77 car in NASCAR racing. If you, like me, are wondering what any part of motorsports has to do with hockey, Mackin explains that the two things are not all that dissimilar.
First, the ownership of Spire Sports has an honest passion for both motorsports and hockey. While they were originally invested only in motorsports, the opportunity to get into hockey came out of nowhere when they purchased the Rapid City Rush, an ECHL team in South Dakota. It just so happens that this seemingly odd pairing actually has a number of benefits for the organization as a whole. It basically gives Spire Sports a year round season, as there is limited overlap in the hockey and racing seasons. Additionally, the business of sports management is not that different from sport to sport so Spire Sports’ resources, skills, and experience can now be applied across the board all year long. The proven success of the Rapid City Rush made the perfect case for Spire Sports to expand their interest to other teams and that is exactly what led them to Greenville.
It is important to note here that Todd Mackin is the president of the Rapid City Rush and the reason for much of their success in increased attendance and strengthened community partnerships. What struck me as a surprise is that Mackin is still going to be in charge of the Rush even though he is moving to Greenville and taking on the same role with the Swamp Rabbits. Mackin says that he has a solid management team in place in Rapid City that will allow him to take a more hands off approach as he places the majority of his focus on the Swamp Rabbits. That means that it is possible for two teams with the same owners (Spire Sports) and front office boss (Mackin) could potentially face off in the ECHL championship game, should their paths ever lead them that far. “I’d call that a win/win!” he exclaimed when I proposed that scenario while being totally non-committal as to which team he might root for.
For Greenville, though, Mackin’s emphasis is, just like in Rapid City, on building a strong front office, increasing attendance, and strengthening the relationships with local businesses. He sees the organization as a “diamond in the rough” in “a great city with great people”. I asked him how he plans on increasing attendance in what is arguably, a Southern city with limited interest in hockey, and he detailed his plan with an unexpected but totally relevant analogy about the circus.
“If the circus is in town five nights, you might go to one of the shows but why bother with the other four when they are the exact same show?” is a question he admits that a lot of people in his office are tired of hearing. The point, however, is a brilliant one – while you might have different opponents and different outcomes from night to night, the hockey experience will always feel similar when the only change night to night is the action on the ice. He explains that he went to five Swamp Rabbit games before taking over as president and four of them were almost identical crowd sizes and experiences while the fifth was a sold out game for an evening of “Pucks & Paws”… because who does not love dogs competing on the ice between hockey periods? Giving the fans more than just hockey as a reason to come to the game is a concept that Mackin in wholly invested in and he plans to bring that model to Greenville in spades. Look for more themed nights like Harry Potter, Marvel, or veteran appreciation nights (to name a few) and Mackin promises there will be more than the standard “two reasons to stand up at a hockey game – goals and fights” in the coming season.
Sometimes an interview like this one stays on topic and takes about ten to fifteen minutes to complete. This one, however, revealed a lot of mutual interests between Todd and I and, as a result, changed directions more times than I can count. I could not help but feel as if a couple of those tangents are worth addressing.
On George Brett…
Originally from Kansas City, Mackin’s hockey journey began as a front office official for Kansas City’s minor league hockey team. This gave him valuable experience in marketing a minor league product, especially since he was competing for fans in a city with three “major league” franchises in the form of the Royals (MLB), Chiefs (NHL), and Sporting Kansas City (MLS). It also opened the door to him meeting and becoming friends with baseball Hall of Famer George Brett.
I cursed at the mention of George Brett because I was a fan of his on name alone, mostly because there are not a whole lot of “Bretts” in your world when you are growing up in Greenville in the 1980’s. So, naturally, 10-year-old me sent him a letter expressing my fandom, a baseball card for him to sign, and a self addressed stamped envelope for him to return said card. I dutifully checked my mailbox every day until one day, weeks later, my envelope came back to me.
Inside, I found a form letter informing me that the great George Brett does not sign autographs in that manner. Brett, or more likely, his “people” if I had to guess, did not even return my baseball card and I have held a grudge against him ever since.
At this, Mackin assured me that George Brett is actually a really good guy and shared a few stories of parties at his house that made me warm up to the fact that he is probably a pretty fun guy. He even offered to get his autograph for me the next time they see each other which, for my money, would be the perfect end to a 32 year feud that George Brett never knew we were having.
Ten minutes before my interview with Mackin, I was on the phone with my 44 year old friend Keith who plays rec league hockey here in Greenville. “Can you get me a tryout with the team?” he jokingly asked me.
“If the interview is going well, I just might ask,” I told him.
Forty five minutes later, I asked Mackin what I needed to do to get my friend a tryout. This resulted in a long enough pause that made me think I screwed up the whole conversation.
“Make him 20 years younger,” was the eventual reply which resulted in laughter on both ends of the line. The rabbit hole that followed saw us discuss the possibility of Mackin joining my friend’s rec league hockey team and maybe – just maybe – Keith working out with the Swamp Rabbits. Mackin suggested him sporting a helmet cam filming the action, so we could witness the exact moment where he breaks. I, in turn, would be safely observing off ice so I can write a follow-up piece about the pain and suffering the team put him through for however long he lasts out there. Only hilarity can ensue.
I have always been a casual hockey fan, going to Swamp Rabbits games here and there over the years and watching the NHL on television on the rare occasion my hometown New York Islanders are on. This conversation, however, left me with a refreshed appreciation for the importance – and fun – of local hockey and I am anxiously awaiting the return of the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. I have no doubt that Mackin’s message will be both heard and well received throughout the local community and that the Swamp Rabbits will earn the fan base and respect that they so thoroughly deserve.
The Greenville Swamp Rabbits season starts in October and season tickets are available now at www.swamprabbits.com.
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