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Former Browns exec John Collins now working his big-game marketing magic for the NHL

Jan 30, 2014 -- 6:02pm

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

NEW YORK

Browns fans may remember John Collins as the replacement club executive for Carmen Policy who ultimately lost a power struggle with then-general manager Phil Savage.

What they might not know is that Collins, 52, has gone on to bigger and better things.

Known prior to his arrival in Cleveland in 2004 as one of the NFL’s fast-rising marketing mavens, Collins took his “big event” mindset to the National Hockey League following his departure from the Browns after two seasons.

Now the NHL’s chief operating officer, Collins’ newest co-creation was on display in Yankee Stadium here on Wednesday night – a hockey game between the rival Rangers and Islanders, part of the league’s wildly popular Stadium Series.

How wildly popular?

More than 50,000 hockey fans attended the game in temperatures that were 21 degrees one hour before the first puck dropped. (Per the Islanders Website, ticket prices ranged from $79 to $349. Music acts were part of the event – CeeLo Green performed at the first intermission and a Beatles cover band at the second intermission.) And that was after more than 51,000 attended a Rangers-Devils game on Sunday.

The Stadium Series, which features a total of four outdoor hockey games in three venues – including one last week in Dodger Stadium, with a performance by KISS!  – is an offshoot of the NHL Winter Classic, a one-game only annual event on New Year’s Day. That was also the brainchild of Collins, along with Jon Miller, president of NBC Sports programming.

The first Winter Classic was staged in Buffalo in 2008. Miller said the genesis was NBC’s desire to create a big event after the network lost its traditional New Year’s Day college bowl game.

Miller said Buffalo was the only NHL market to volunteer to host the game. He said Yankee Stadium officials scoffed that hockey “wouldn’t be played in the House That Ruth Built.”

“It doesn’t happen without John Collins. He took (the idea) and sold it inside (the NHL),” Miller said.

Similar to the instant success of “ABC’s Monday Night Football” in 1970 – when former Browns owner Art Modell volunteered to host the first game – the event was a huge success, inspiring other cities to line up for future outdoor games.

According to one report, the outdoor games this year – including the Winter Classic and the Heritage Classic in Vancouver, BC, in March -- could net the NHL about $20 million in revenue.

All of which boosts the reputation of Collins as a big-picture, big-event marketing genius.

“John’s terrific,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “He’s creative, he’s thoughtful, he’s great with people. He’s been an incredible, incredible addition to the league.”

Miller said, “He is the savviest marketing guy I’ve met in any sport in any league.”

In his three years as Browns president and CEO, Collins made revenue and content enhancements with the team’s official Website and in other marketing areas. He also was the driving force, after the departure of coach Butch Davis, to divide the club’s football operations among a general manager and a coach – with each reporting to Collins.

In 2005, the Browns named Savage GM and Romeo Crennel coach. After one 6-10 season, Collins thought Savage was a mistake and he urged Lerner to correct it. After news of an imminent shakeup came out, public support for Savage flooded Browns’ phone lines and email inboxes. The next day, Lerner and Collins jointly decided that Collins would be the one to leave.

Collins looked on spot when the Browns slumped to 4-12 in the second year of Savage-Crennel. But a 10-6 season followed. Lerner responded by handing out contract extensions to Savage, Crennel and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.

Then, a relapse to 4-12 in 2008 resulted in Lerner blowing up the whole operation and starting over again.

Collins has never publicly commented on his breakup with the Browns. He declined to comment on his Browns’ tenure for this story.

He does not seem bitter about his Cleveland term, but he did express regret that that he did not help Lerner turn around the club’s fortunes. He remains friendly with Lerner, occasionally getting together when both are in New York.

Like many, Collins shakes his head solemnly at the downward spiral the franchise seems stuck in. “The fans deserve a winner,” Collins said.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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