It doesn’t happen every year. Sharks owner Hasso Plattner showed up at SAP Center, aka the Shark Tank, spoke publicly and answered questions. This was the first time he has spoken to the media in over 2 years, and only the second time Plattner has spoken publicly since he took over the Sharks nearly 2½ years ago.
Very Good News
In a season without much to cheer about, Plattner brought genuinely good news. He announced an extension to the lease at the Shark Tank that will last until 2025, with provisions to go beyond that date. Plattner was clear about his desire to continue the team’s presence in San Jose and very complimentary of the venue itself. For an owner with Plattner’s resources and given the options he had, this news was hardly a given. It is good news for the fans, for the people of San Jose and for the downtown businesses that garner a meaningful portion of their customers around Shark games. It should be noted, there were no ‘opt-out’ clauses mentioned. If there is a devil in the details, it was not raised at this announcement.
Plattner specifically commented about never seriously considering moving the team elsewhere. Comments by San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo and Sharks COO John Tortora made it clear, though, that the new Warriors venue in San Francisco (slated for a 2018 opening about 40 miles from the Shark Tank) loomed large in these negotiations. Still, the importance of an owner’s commitment to a city is hard to overstate. Long time Bay Area sports fans know that both baseball teams have come close to leaving the area. The Raiders football team and the San Jose Earthquakes soccer team both left the area and later returned. Even now, both Oakland teams (baseball and football) are often in the news regarding potential relocation.
This Sharks season saw a failure to make the playoffs, a lengthy sell-out streak ended, harsh criticisms of management, and at least anecdotal evidence that season ticket renewals are likely to come up short of prior seasons. Couple all that with the potential upside of a move to San Francisco. If the owner was going to waver about staying in San Jose, this would have been the time for it.
The reality is that San Jose needs the Sharks far more than San Francisco needs them. Still, community needs rarely play a major role in business decisions. Plattner, a native German who still lives there, made one of his more insightful comments when he spoke about an “American” approach that sees a relatively short useful life for these sorts of venues. Plattner sees the world differently, expressing the opinion that venues like the Shark Tank should have a much longer life.
In Plattner’s only prior interview, he stated 3 organizational goals: winning a Stanley Cup, improving the business and growing hockey in the region. A move to SF could have helped 2 of the 3. I was among the skeptics about Plattner keeping the team in San Jose. Moving to San Francisco had to be an attractive business option and would have grown hockey in the region. The decision to stay in San Jose is a major one, as there were many good reasons to move. I’m quite happy to be wrong.
Listening, But Not Agreeing
There was a second message beyond the core news announcement. Many Shark fans probably missed it. In contrast to my THW colleague Andrew Bensch’s thoughts, my sense was Plattner was communicating something fundamental to the fan base: “I’m listening”. He is not agreeing, but he is paying attention. He is engaging more. Those things matter.
Plattner referenced public opinion and commentary, both directly and indirectly, several times. He called out people who thought he was not involved enough with the team. He called out people who thought the team might move (that would include me). He acknowledged that his recent letter to the fans was not well received, chalking it up to his letter being “straight and open”. While he might be tone-deaf with certain of his comments, he is hearing the voices of the fans and the community.
Plattner also spoke to hockey specifics such as free agents, the need for an improved fourth line and added defensemen. He even hinted that one of the strategies the Sharks will employ is to approach teams with cap issues and see what the Sharks can acquire. He was specific on the expectations for next season: a return to the playoffs. He mentioned Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson in that response, the GM is now on notice. The owner expects the culture of winning, which disappeared this year, to return next season. The playoffs are a manageable goal. Icing a legit Stanley Cup competitor is a bigger stretch. That would require changing the culture in a positive direction; Plattner has not done well on that score.
I want to take one moment to address an issue for which Plattner seems to get unwarranted criticism: his English language skills. He is not speaking to the media (or writing) in his native language and it shows. His comments sometimes leave room for misunderstanding, on other occasions they are awkward or vague. For the most part, though, his comments are understandable. While his grammar may be lacking, Plattner is able to communicate reasonably well. Plattner’s language skills are not a legitimate reason for criticism.
These days, judging by articles, comments and fans chanting to ‘fire Wilson’, Sharks management does not seem to have much good will. What happened on Friday, however, is major When an owner makes a substantive commitment to the fan base, especially given the options this owner had, that deserves to be applauded. When he goes public with comments and takes questions after over 2 years of silence, that is a step in the right direction. When he shows signs he is hearing the voices of the fan base, that is positive. There are many issues to be addressed, but an owner that recognizes he needs to be more engaged is, at the very least, a good sign. All in all, this may well be the highlight of the year thus far for Shark fans. Even if many don’t yet realize it.