Matt Levine still has the letter from CCM.
The Sharks had decided to go with teal as their primary color and the jersey maker didn’t love the decision – a choice that would define the franchise and change the hockey marketing landscape.
The letter read:
“Dear Mr. Levine. The country is excited about the Sharks. You haven’t played a game yet. You don’t have a player. I hear that you’ve designed a logo and selected your colors, the teal blue color and I’d like to suggest you take a look at the blue being used by the Blues, the Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs. They are very established shades of blue, and would make it much easier for us if you selected one because if you select teal we’re going to have to create an entirely new yarn and that’s going to be very expensive for us and I was wondering if you would take our recommendations into consideration.”
Levine laughed when he brought up that note, because of what happened after the Sharks decided to go ahead with teal.
In their first year the team generated $150 million of retail, which accounted for 27 percent of the NHL’s league total. They ranked second behind the Chicago Bulls, led by icon Michael Jordan at the time, in merchandise amongst all pro sports teams. According to Levine, most NHL teams accounted for 4-5 percent of the league’s merchandise sales.
“I never gave it a second thought. Never gave it a second thought,” he said of the teal.
The choice to choose teal was just one of the many smart decisions by the Sharks that have paid longstanding dividends for the image of the team.
Their logo helped give them a national presence.
Their arena had the right type of charm and size for an expansion NHL city.
The location as the only game in San Jose and in Silicon Valley, where the titans of the tech industry live, has proved invaluable to the franchise.
Because of all these factors the Sharks have become arguably the best expansion choice into a non-traditional market by the NHL since they entered the league in 1991-92.
“They own San Jose and I firmly believe that, if this team were in Oakland or San Francisco it wouldn’t do as well as it is in San Jose. Even before this run here, a couple of years ago I thought to myself, ‘How lucky are the sharks that they got in on San Jose?” said CSN Bay Area broadcaster and East Bay native Brodie Brazil. “San Jose is their own and they think they’ve found a hungry market and they’re feeding it."
What’s in a name?
The Sharks could have been the Cansecos or they could have been the Rubber Puckies.
After the NHL decided to expand into San Jose the team needed an identity. So they reached out to fans in order to see where the populace stood on the name.
They held a ‘name the team’ competition that was initially advertised locally, but eventually went national after major publications and networks heard the story.
“Before you knew it we had entries from every state in the country and every province in Canada and three entries from Genoa Italy where someone read about it in the international New York Times,” Levine said. “It was ‘Hockey in no-man’s land in Northern California’ and we have these crazy names coming in and here’s what they are.”
Levine and his creative team always held Sharks as a preference, even as some odd names, like the Cansecos, named after local baseball star Jose Canseco, or Rubber Puckies came trickling in.
“We wanted a name that wasn’t being used in the sports world. We wanted a name that had regional implications. We wanted a name that generated excitement with adults and children. We wanted a name that lent itself to imaginative graphic interpretation and we wanted a name that couldn’t be shortened in a headline,” he said.
Blades finished first in the fan vote, but ultimately it was shot down because of crime implications.
Plus Sharks held local significance to the area.
Northern California is home to the Red Triangle, which extends from Bodega Bay out beyond the Farallon Islands and down to the Monterey Bay. This region is known to have a large amount of marine life including Sharks.
This also helped with the decision to have a Shark leaping out of a triangle, rather than a square or another shape.
The message was intended to be somewhat subliminal.
“That was part of the reason for having a triangle in the logo. Even though we were carrying the San Jose name we wanted to appeal broadly to the entire Bay Area and very conveniently a triangle could symbolize the locations of San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland and where they are geographically,” Levine said.
Also, the look of the logo was different for an NHL team. Most organization’s relied on a two-dimensional logo at that time. The Sharks didn’t want this. They wanted a logo that gave the appearance of movement.
“My direction to our designers was to develop something that had dimension to it and action. So hence the Shark basically coming out of a jersey. It’s coming out of a triangle,” Levine said.
There were some other concepts for the logo. General manager Jack Ferreira wanted the beast to be missing a tooth.
“I thought it would be unique with hockey. But that didn’t make it,” Ferreira said.
While the logo and team name were important, the decision to go with teal as the team’s color gave the Sharks a unique identity.
Because the Sharks wanted to make a splash, the organization didn’t want traditional colors. Levine went to at Neiman Marcus, L.L. Bean, J. Crew, Bloomingdales and Starter and asked, “What blue has legs on it for at least five-to-10 years?’
Levine said that all the companies independently came back with teal. There were 20 shades of teal, and the Sharks design team picked the one that would be the squad’s primary color.
“I thought it was terrific. Nobody had it,” Ferreira said.
Said longtime radio broadcaster Dan Rusanowsky, “It was different but it was fun and it looked as if it was going to work in the great tradition-minded life that the NHL certainly had at that time.”
The color didn’t just strike a note with fans globally who wanted to buy Sharks merchandise. The city of San Jose has adopted the color as its own.
“I was just coming back from college at the time and went to school out of town. It struck me as not quite the most ferocious color to attribute to a team involved in a contact sport. Nonetheless, it was remarkable how people took to it,” San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo said. “As you’ll see in the next few nights here in downtown literally our street scape is painted in teal. Our glass dome in City Hall is all lit up in teal. We have a building with neon lights in teal. It’s really been a lot of fun to see how it’s transformed the city.”
There were some thoughts on going a different direction with the colors, but ultimately they just didn’t work. Levine noted the team’s “Napa Valley” color idea of burgundy, silver and black didn’t strike a note with fans the way teal did.
“It was a disaster,” he said. “When you’re in consumer package goods marketing, one of the things you obsess over and that’s primarily products in supermarkets and drug stores, you obsess over your package and design and color are paramount in your thinking and they were for me.”
The Shark Tank
San Jose was once a donut. The areas around downtown were full of residences, while the middle of the city was empty.
“I think an awful lot of us who grew up here remember the downtown of the early 1980s as somewhat of a ghost town,” Liccardo said.
There were already plans for an arena in place downtown (plans that eventually passed by a slim vote in 1988) but it wasn’t going to be a hockey building. The arena was supposed to be a 14,500 seat community arena. But the NHL’s decision to expand to San Jose gave the building close to 3,000 more seats, funded by the Sharks, and 41 defined nights of activity during the year.
“That arena gave such a jolt to those redevelopment efforts and gave an awful lot of restaurants and entertainment venues a reason to be here,” Liccardo said. “That has really over time now suddenly built an awful lot of momentum.”
The arena became a structure of pride for fans – one they endearingly call the “Shark Tank.”
The stands are built upwards, rather than outwards, which give it a more intimate feel. The acoustics produce some of the league’s loudest crowd noise. Even though it’s one of the older building in the NHL (opened in 1993 after the team played the first two years in the Cow Palace) it’s still well-kept.
But most importantly, when the Sharks started to become a reality and pushed arena planners for more seats, they didn’t look for a massive building with 19,000 to 20,000 seats.
“We wanted to optimize, not maximize, capacity to build pressure on sellouts because when you have sellouts it creates an environment that gets fans more enthusiastic and helps create scarcity,” Levine said. “The size is a product of the building footprint to begin with. Our wish was not wanting to get too big and then having a lot of empty seats. I wouldn’t say it was scientific but it was just a judgment of all of us and the footprint we were given.”
While many 90s expansion teams in non-traditional markets have struggled to hit sellouts, the Sharks never had major attendance issues.
Since they moved to their new arena for the 1993-94 season they’ve dipped below 17,000 fans five times – one of which came this past season. The arena seats 17,562 people for hockey.
“The Shark Tank has been a perfect home for that franchise from the day it opened. The location is great and the physical structure of the building allows it to provide an atmosphere with the right balance of intimacy and intimidation,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. “Historically, it's been one of the toughest places for road teams to play in the League. Again, a credit to everyone involved – the team, team management, the building, it's location and most importantly the fans.”
They also held a sellout streak that lasted 205 games into the 2014-15 season.
San Jose struggled early this postseason with some attendance issues. The team had made three Conference Final appearances before the year and had finished below expectations before last season when they didn’t make the playoffs for the first time since 2002-03.
The year before San Jose blew a 3-0 first-round series lead to the Los Angeles Kings which could have also dampened enthusiasm.
The Sharks made the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in team history this postseason, which could potentially re-boost attendance in the future.
“We used to joke about that all the time, get knocked out again in the Conference Final or knocked out in the second-round and had a great season and all these players, and the drafting pipeline was great that there are probably 15 teams in the league that would trade places with us at this moment,” said former Sharks PR executive Ken Arnold. “They would swap the roster in a heartbeat. You have that almost success for so long that there was success fatigue.”
Silicon Valley boom
When the Sharks were awarded a franchise there was no way to predict that Silicon Valley would go through multiple boom periods after the team arrived.
There were some tech companies that had started to grow roots, but nothing like today where three of the top five public/private employers in San Jose alone include Cisco Systems, eBay and IBM according to a fact sheet from the city of San Jose.
San Jose is the fifth most expensive place to live in the United States and holds an average family income of $108,090.
The Sharks have been able to reap the benefits of their local area on the business front. The latest Forbes team value ratings puts the Sharks at 14th amongst all NHL teams – which is the highest amongst groups that have expanded since the 90s.
This also places the Sharks ahead of longtime NHL franchises like the Calgary Flames, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, Buffalo Sabres and St. Louis Blues.
“This was already Silicon Valley but if you go back 25 years ago, things like Google hadn’t even been invented yet. But you could see it all percolating,” longtime Sharks television play-by-play man Randy Hahn said.
The Sharks were also able to use local technology to become pioneers in the NHL. San Jose was the first league team to have a website. This quality of this was enhanced by being close to some of the biggest web companies of the time.
An informal meeting between the Sharks and Sun Microsystems, after the site launched, enabled Sun to become the power behind the team’s webpage.
Levine said the Sharks introduced Sun Microsystems to the NHL, and they entered an internet partnership for the league’s website.
Sun Microsystems also became the Sharks’ first tech sponsor by buying space on the dasher boards. The arena’s naming rights have been sponsored by tech companies Compaq, Hewlett Packard and now SAP. San Jose’s owner, Hasso Plattner is the co-founder of SAP.
In the area, the Athletics and Raiders belong to Oakland and the East Bay. The 49ers, Giants and Golden State Warriors speak to entire region in general terms. But in a lot of ways the Sharks are San Jose’s and Silicon Valley’s team, and this speaks to the tech influence in and around the organization.
“The Sharks were able to kind of find their own area and claim their own area,” Brazil said. “They certainly were able to make their mark and set their foundation.”
Pro Hockey San Jose
Hahn isn’t just the team’s beloved TV voice. He’s also the one of the founders of Pro Hockey San Jose.
This was a non-profit corporation Hahn started in the late 80s after he moved to the region and saw the hockey potential there.
The new arena talk was heating up and a group of people wanted to meet and chat about how hockey could become the focal point of the building. So Hahn went to the House of Pizza where the discussion took place. There he got into a side conversation with some attorneys on ways to make San Jose an NHL market.
They made the company and wrote quarterly newsletters to people who wanted to join for $20. Members got a free T-shirt that interestingly had teal in the logo.
“How were we to know, right?” Hahn said.
Locally they would put fliers on windshields at sporting events.
Hahn, who then worked for the Los Angeles Kings, would try to talk to any mover and shaker he knew in hockey, just so they could hear about hockey in San Jose.
For the 1989 NHL Draft, Pro Hockey San Jose gave one hospitality basket to each NHL owner and one to each NHL GM.
After the draft, Brian Burke, who then worked for the Vancouver Canucks, decided to go to San Jose to meet with the mayor’s office and local City Council to explain his team’s business model and why it could work in San Jose.
Said Hahn, “Our part of it was the grassroots effort to kind of get the thing started, get the city excited, then get the league excited then bring the owners together with the city and eventually it all came together.”
There may have been some initial wariness based on the struggles of the California/Oakland Golden Seals, a group that played in Bay Area from 1967-68 through 1975-76 and never had a winning record.
But the locals in San Jose were convinced that this new team could could work.
“There’s a reason why the Bay Area is the technology capital of the world. We’re not afraid to try new things. It’s an innovative area,” Brazil said.
And once they arrived, there was no turning back for the locals. What started out as a novelty, quickly turned into a Bay Area staple and an important power player on the West Coast for the NHL.
“Certainly, the Northern California market was one the League identified as important and significant going all the way back to the 1967 expansion and the Seals. It was likely always a forgone conclusion that the League was going to go back there when there was the right opportunity and the right ownership,” Daly said. “San Jose provided that opportunity.”
That type of support will be center stage for Game 3 of the Cup Final. It won’t just be a game, but a showcase for San Jose and the NHL.
It will show the success of that decision to expand to San Jose. And it will also show how hiring the right people to run a franchise in their early years can alter the team’s landscape moving forward.
“I think a combination of market, fan base and team ownership and management,” Daly said of why the Sharks have been a success. “The team formed a love affair with its fans early on and they have not only been able to sustain it, they have grown it over time.”
There was some talk recently the team could move to Seattle. But a lot of those fears were squashed when a new lease deal was hammered out in May of 2015
“Nobody likes negotiating over contracts, but nonetheless it was an important exercise to force everyone to recognize that we need each other,” Liccardo said. “The Sharks are really important to us and certainly all the ancillary events that happened at the arena are critical for a vibrant downtown, but at the same time the Sharks recognize they have an incredibly unique community there.”
Of course winning played a big role, and the foundation created by hockey operations people such as Ferreira, former GM Dean Lombardi and current general manager Doug Wilson helped.
Lombardi, for example, drafted Patrick Marleau who has been with the organization since 1997. Wilson made the franchise-altering trade for Joe Thornton in 2005-06 that turned the Sharks into a seasonal Western Conference power.
“If you go eight or nine years in a row in San Jose without making the playoffs, maybe our conversation is different because it’s such a crowded marketplace,” Hahn said. “They have repeatedly, for the most part, been competitive. They had that 10 year run where they made the playoffs. That’s a hard run to come through in this league especially now with so much parity.”
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