A podcast fueled by professionals bridging the gap between Sports and Business. Enjoy as guests share stories & experiences from the playing field to the board room.
022: The Journey of A Sports Professional: A History Lesson - with Charlie Larson
Charlie Larson serves as the Vice President of Communications for The Milwaukee Admirals. The Admirals are a member of the American Hockey League, equivalent to AAA baseball for those who are trying to understand and serve as the farm team for the Nashville Predators of the NHL. Charlie has been working hard as of late launching a brand new website for The Admirals, premiering the brand new third jersey that The Admirals will be wearing this upcoming season, and the schedule is out preparing for puck drop on October 16 against the Grand Rapids Griffins at Panther Arena in downtown Milwaukee.
On your LinkedIn, it looks like you went straight from college to working with the Admirals. How long have you been with The Admirals?
I will celebrate 21 years on August 23. So I did work for a minor league baseball team, the Michigan Battle Cats, which are now defunct, and probably the worst run professional sports team in history! I'm not joking, it was a race to get your checks cashed because if you were last it might bounce. Luckily, I was making so little money $233 after taxes every two weeks as a full-time job, that it didn't really matter that much. But I had to send my checks back and I had to put it in along with the deposit slip, I'd sign my check, mail it to M&I bank in Milwaukee and they would deposit it. You couldn't just take a picture of your check and deposit anymore. I knew I wasn't going to be there for too long after a couple of days so I didn't want to get a bank there. So I kept M&I, which doesn't exist anymore. It was interesting without a doubt.
So how often would that happen where checks would bounce and your counterparts would come in shaking their head and be like “Nope, this week’s check isn’t going.”?
As far as I know, it never happened during the season when there was a little bit of cash flow. It was the offseason and I wasn't really there for much of any offseason. They were in the same league as The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, who are now the Class A affiliate for the Brewers. Back then they were the Class A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners and I had worked for them as well the year before. It was a wide discrepancy. The Dayton Dragons hold the most consecutive sellouts in any minor league sport. They've sold on every single game since the year they were formed and they're in the Midwest League with The Michigan Battle Cats when I was there, and we averaged like 300 fans a game and could barely even function. It was just this weird discrepancy. But I'll tell you this, living in Michigan, a couple of times a year we would have firework games on Saturday nights so we get big crowds of about 5000 fans which would have bumped our average attendance up to close to 1000. They would buy their sodas and their bottles, and they would drop them under the stands and if you ever lived in Michigan, or if you've seen Seinfeld, you would know that you get 10 cents per bottle and I was making so little money and so were the grounds crews that we would go underneath the bleachers after those games, and it was so disgusting, but it didn't matter. Then we go across to the Meijer store and we throw them in the little chute where you exchange your cans and I come out there with like 100 bucks 125 bucks. It was great cause that's literally half of my paycheck!
Did you know when you were at Ripon College that you wanted to get into the business side of sports?
Not really. I was at the NCAA Division Three Tennis Tournament my sophomore year, and if you know, tennis tournaments, have a lot of downtime, right? I got to talking to the NCAA Rep there because the NCAA sends a rep to every church championship. This guy played basketball at Brown. Let me take a step back. I worked for the sports information director at Ripon so that was sort of my introduction. I liked it but whatever, I never thought about that as a career. Then I got talking to this NCAA rep and I was like this actually sounds pretty good. From there, I applied with her for a job with The Timber Rattlers as an intern and got that and spent my summer up there working like 80 hours a week. No pay, none! I loved it though, I was like, "This is what I want to do!" But at the time, the only school in the state of Wisconsin that offered sports management classes was UW Lacrosse. So Ripon didn't offer a sports management class much as a major. It was right at the beginning of sort of the sports boom if you will and I was a history major, philosophy minor. I tell kids all the time, it doesn't matter what you major in. Do what you want to do, find your love and you'll get if you have that passion for it, you'll find a way to make it work.
How then, do you find your way to The Milwaukee Admirals?
Honestly, it's as simple as my girlfriend at the time was living in Milwaukee. We had dated for three years at Ripon and I moved to Michigan, and she moved to Milwaukee and her mom was like, "What the heck is going on here?" So she was there and I was like, "Well if we're gonna if we're going to make a go at this, we could at least live in the same timezone," and so I just started emailing and calling all the teams and I had actually called The Admirals once, they said nothing's available and then I call them back and they said, "Oh, yeah, we've got a sales job open, send in your resume." I did and I interviewed some time, at the beginning, August, and I got offered the job a couple of days later, and then I started August 23.
Was the league The Admirals played in called The AHL back then?
It was the IHL. It would turn out to be the last year of the International Hockey League. It was an interesting time because both the IHL and the AHL developed players for the NHL, but the AHL had branded themselves as THE Developmental League. They weren't bringing in guys that were on the downsides of their NHL careers and that's what the IHL was doing. The IHL made some atrocious business decisions expanding all over the country. In the NHL lockout of 94-95, the IHL decided that they were going to replace the NHL and that they were going to compete with the NHL. That was a bad move because yeah, they had a TV contract and games run ESPN and it was cool at the time and San Francisco spiders, got some really cool jackets, but there was no vetting process for the ownership. It was just really about getting the initiation fee if you will and we'll go from there. There wound up being teams that were folding midseason, and it was bad news. By the year 2000, it was clear that the AHL, their business model was gonna win.
Was that a fascinating time to be around the game where some of the IHL teams were folding?
Yeah, so we had 11 teams in our league that year and six of those teams were absorbed into the American Hockey League. So it was us, Chicago Wolves, Grand Rapids Griffins, Houston Aeros, which no longer exists, Utah Grizzlies and they are now in the ECHL, and the Manitoba Moose. So now that those teams go into the AHL, and that's we've been there ever since.
What did your job look like the first year working with The Admirals?
So I was a Sales Account Executive and I did that for two years and then I was promoted to Director of Ticket Sales. Also, Jane Pettit, who is The Admirals owner and the greatest philanthropist the city of Milwaukee has ever known probably one of the greatest philanthropists ever died on September 9, 2001. This was the beginning of my second year, and it was almost fitting because two days later, September 11 happens and so her death was overshadowed and that's sort of the way I think she that she liked it, that's how she lived her life. She built so many buildings in Milwaukee, I mean think of all the buildings that have the name, Pettit or Bradley. So Jane dies and she leaves The Admirals in her estate and she leaves basically a set amount of money. So once we blow through that money, that's going to be about it. So when I started with the animals, we probably had 15 full-time people and by the time our current owner, Harris Turer bought the team in April of 200 we were down to four full-time employees. What's sort of a shame is those were the best teams that The Animals have ever had. We won tt Caler Cup in 2004 with six full-time people, and I was doing things that I had no business or idea what I was doing. It was literally flying by the seat of my pants.
Where were The Admirals playing then?
They were at the Bradley Center. So The Bradley center was built by the Pettits to attract an NHL team. Bradley is Jane Pettit's maiden name and she built the Bradley Center for 2 reasons; because The Bucks were gonna move because they were playing at The MECCA right which didn't have the revenue streams that they needed and because they wanted to lure an NHL team to Milwaukee. The Bradley Center when it opened in October of 1988 was the best arena in the country. The Bucks moved and The Admirals, it was a hockey game that started it. So the Edmonton Oilers vs. Chicago Blackhawks and The Admirals had been averaging about 3000 fans at the mecca they didn't know how this was going to go and so they've really been pumping Wayne Gretzky coming in. Wayne is coming in he's gonna play and in beginning August Gretzky got traded to Edmonton which is crazy because the Bradly Center had a contract that said Gretzky and a bunch of other big players had to play in the game. So they sold out the building and it was a spectacle. It was awesome, but it was like a real snake bit and Wayne was supposed to be there and he wasn't. Now coincidentally he did play next year. Wayne did come and play the next year as a member of the Kings. The Kings played the Blackhawks in a preseason game that year. So The Bradley center is where we were playing and the NHL team never happened for a couple of reasons. It's not because of the Blackhawks, everybody thinks it's because of the Blackhawks it is not because of the Blackhawks, so please get that out of your head! So we came into the league at the same time as Tampa Bay and we were up for expansion that same time as Tampa Bay and Ottawa and those were the two teams. Eventually, Milwaukee dropped out and a couple of other cities dropped out of the expansion bid and those are the only two teams left. So the NHL really only had the choice to give them to Tampa Bay and Ottawa. I think the admirals dropped out of the bidding in 1989, somewhere and there were a couple of reasons they did it. One was the expansion fee the NHL had pitched was $30 million and that's nothing compared to Seattle who just paid $600 million. But then The Animals General Manager had gone to Quebec City to see a Nordiques game, ostensibly to see sort of how they ran or how they were running their operations, and it was really because he was meeting with some of the owners on the expansion committee, and they told them like, "Hey our math is a very good and that $30 million expansion fee so sorry, it's actually $50 million." So basically doubling it. The Pettits had a lot of money and they could have paid it, but they also saw that the team was going to be really bad to start the year because the way they did the Expansion Draft and if anybody hockey fans out there, they know how the Seattle and Las Vegas have done it over the last couple of years. But the way they did the Expansion Draft back then was gonna make the team really bad for a really long time and they didn't know if Milwaukee would support a bad team for seven or eight years. As it turns out, Ottawa and Tampa were horrible for the first few years. But by 2004, Tampa had won it and I think in 2003 Ottawa made it to the finals. So we never got the team and it was very sad. It was a tough thing for the Pettits to admit, especially Lloyd Pettite as a Hockey Hall of Fame announcer with the Blackhawks, that was his goal and it just didn't work out. So Jane died and we had no money and we had no employees and we had this great team. Three times we had been this is the last season of The Admirals, your health insurance is gone and we're done. So it was a challenge, but it was a blast because every day was different and it was an adventure and we had an awesome team. So we just kept putting one step in front of the other end, you can only take it one day at a time, like literally one day at a time.
What was it like winning The Calder Cup with 6 full-time employees?
It was crazy! We win the Calder Cup, we had no money so we had to rent a 15 passenger van to drive out two of our staff out to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. So Mike Wojciechowski, who has been with the animals for 40 years, he's driving it. Funny story, we get pulled over and driving through the mountains out in western Pennsylvania and we get pulled over go like 95 miles an hour in a 15 passenger van. Woj, as you can tell by his last name, he's Polish and the officer is Polish to it and Mike says something like, "Come on, can't you help a fellow countryman out!" So we got the ticket and went on our way and we won it and had a turn around the next day and get right back in the 15 passenger van. We won it on a Sunday, June 6, 2004, and had to drive back because on Tuesday night we're having a party at the Bradley Center. So we met the team at the airport because they flew because that was actually paid for by the league, the league pays for travel in the playoffs. So we met the team there and it was awesome because there were so many fans at the airport. Back then, sure it was a thing for major league sports, but that didn't happen in minor league sports. 26 years, The Admirals had been a professional team at that point and never won anything made it to the finals and it was so cool. The next night we had a big event at the Bradley Center and it was just amazing. Then the following year Harris Turer bought the team and literally saved The Admirals. If it's not for Harris Turer, The Admirals are gone, there are no Admirals, and he led a consortium of about 15 local business people and hockey people to buy The Admirals and, and he realized this is a community and we were a community Now we're back up to over 15 or 16 people, it's crazy! I think to myself sometimes like, "How did we possibly do it?" And it was different to like, there was no social media, we had a website, if you updated it the next day, that's fine. So there wasn't as much immediacy, but still, there was a lot, a lot, a lot to do.
When did you officially move into the role of Vice President of Communications?
So I was a Director of Ticket Sales for one year and then the next year, the PR guy left and so I had to take over his duties. So I really never got the official title of Communications Director and then after Harris bought the team, I knew I wanted to do communications, that was what I was passionate about. So I went and saw John Greenberg, who was brought along as Team President by Harris and we had some chats and he said, "Well, let's take the ticket sales off of your plate, and you can go be the Vice President of Communications."
And so much more...
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