Those who have attended any of the 200 events per year at Newark’s Prudential Center arena might assume its most potent innovations reside within one of its state-of-the-art technologies: the 3D projection system that lives in its ice hockey rink, the 4,800-square-foot LED screen that graces its exterior, or the eight-sided Daktronics scoreboard that is a centerpiece of the hockey fan experience.
But in fact, the seat of innovation for the arena is housed in a more unassuming place — a modest corner suite on the fourth floor of the Prudential Center’s offices, in the mind of its relatively new Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer, Daniel Cherry III.
If his resume and work to date at the arena are any indication, the Prudential Center is in good hands. Cherry graduated with a degree in marketing from the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, and his diverse experience includes many roles marketing sports teams and brands, including as CMO for The New York Cosmos; work on Nike, ESPN, and the Jordan brand as a senior marketing executive at Wieden & Kennedy; and an innovative “And 1 Mixtape” guerilla marketing campaign he executed early in his career.
Now at the Prudential Center, his focus is on creating an all-encompassing fan experience that emanates out from the arena. “I joke and say we’re in the smiles business,” Cherry told me.
That means he is focused on cutting-edge experiences in the arena itself. But the work also entails creating outposts beyond the arena’s walls via partnerships with local places, developing engaging mobile app experiences, and maintaining a steadfast focus on marketing the Rock as a place that feels native to and customized for Newark and New Jersey. For Cherry, the Prudential Center’s competition isn’t just the other arenas in the broader tri-state area. “Any entertainment option with value is competition,” he said, from Netflix to Xbox.
Right now, the Prudential Center is faced with the proverbial challenge-as-opportunity. When the New Jersey Devils moved from the Meadowlands to Newark in 2007, many fans vowed not to move with the team, and the New York Times called the move “questionable”.
Four years after that article was published, fans proved not to be as hardline as predicted: by 2010, the Times was saying the Prudential Center was “paying off”. The arena broke Billboard’s list of top 10 worldwide arenas by gross revenue in 2012 (it’s ranked #4 for 2016), and in 2013, the city and the arena settled a festering revenue sharing dispute. In the meantime, the Prudential Center has attracted headlining engagements and won contracts for marquee events like the massive K-Con festival, which will see only four other places besides Newark worldwide in 2016. [Related story: “Destination Newark: How the city’s visitor’s bureau plans to spur economic growth.“]
But even with those successes, there’s still a lot more potential for the arena.
Since the Prudential Center has opened, more bars and restaurants have sprung up in the arena district. Cherry wants to engage with them, considering that fan experiences often start before and after a concert or game (ice hockey is the fourth most-viewed professional sport in America, after pro football, baseball and basketball).
And a major question for Cherry is how to make the Devils feel more like a hometown team, in spirit and by attendance, in a city where hockey isn’t a household game.
For Cherry, that is a dual marketing and innovation challenge, and he’s looking at our neighbors to the north for insights into how to popularize a sport that doesn’t have an organic local following.
“Look at what Toronto has done with basketball,” he said, referring to the Raptors NBA team. The team has seen its valuation quadruple since the early 2000s. From the 2010-11 season to the 2014-2015 season, viewership doubled.
“How do we look at Newark as a marketplace that has a potentially great and loyal fanbase, but that hasn’t had an opportunity to engage with the sport?” Cherry asked. He cited two key factors behind Toronto’s success introducing basketball to local fans: one, they took the time to explain basketball to the sport’s prospective fanbase, and two, the NBA features players from their community. According to CBC News, a record 13 Canadians started on NBA teams in 2014, more than from any other country outside of the United States.
“My proudest day will be when we have a Newark audience watching hockey here,” said Cherry.
Of course, the question of how to make more locals into hockey fans isn’t just about marketing — it’s also about actual engagement with the sport. On his office wall, Cherry keeps a map of the city with the Prudential Center in the middle and a one-mile radius around the center shaded in. That shaded area encompasses a diverse set of Newark neighborhoods well outside of the arena district and downtown.
Cherry thinks the arena can be both a local business ally and a catalyst for community engagement. In terms of hockey in particular, Cherry said the experience of the game is a high-value asset all on its own.
“Hockey is one of the very best games to watch live,” he explained. “It’s fast-paced, there’s a very finite window of time for the game, and it takes a high degree of skill. It’s a very well-packaged sport.”
Part of his local engagement strategy entails opening up the Prudential Center to local groups, something that has already gotten under way. In June, the arena hosted the Newark Arts Council’s annual meeting and reception, a public event where the organization announced local recipients of the council’s annual ArtStart grants. And in April, the arena hosted the group NJ Tech Meetup for a behind-the-scenes tour of the arena, a panel discussion, and a hockey game.
This fall, Cherry and his team are working with Newark Celebration 350 to expose locals to the game in what is likely the most effective way of all – by throwing open the doors of the Prudential Center and letting them experience the arena and the Devils for themselves. The Prudential Center will offer a whopping 35,000 complimentary tickets to Newark residents for Devils games in the upcoming season.
“We’re here to make the community proud,” Cherry said. “We have a lot of great assets and experiences here, and we want to put as many types of magic into the fan experience as possible.”
Stay tuned for more updates about activities at the arena and hockey season. Visit prucenter.com/newark350 to sign up for more updates about free New Jersey Devils tickets for Newark residents.