Originally published in The Cat’s Whiskers Issue #1, Gary spoke to Jono Bullard at the Sheffield Arena prior to a Steelers v Panthers ISL game on 23rd September 2000.
Jono: Can you give us an outline of what you do in your day job?
Gary: Well that’s the magazine filled for about 10 issues! It’s hard to pinpoint really, we’ve re-defined a few rules within the Panthers organisation which means I am more of a General Manager and others get on with things and refer problems to me. I sometimes liken my job to cleaning up other peoples dog poo and I’m the one going around with the doggy bag and making the place look tidy. On the playing front Alex [Dampier] identifies the player and tells me when he wants the paperwork sorting out. Often he does it all himself and I just type numbers into a form. Sometimes it’s more complicated than that, he’ll come to me and say ‘see if you can persuade this guy and his agent that he should be playing in Nottingham’ and we take it from there. Every day is different to the next, I go into work some days with 14 jobs on my pad and if I get to number 3 I’ve had a good day and jobs 4 to 14 go on to next days list and eventually you knock everything off. It’s hard to define the role really, it’s one of those jacks of all trades and some would say master of none, but we try and get the job done the best we can.
Jono: How do you feel it’s going so far this season and how did you feel after the opening night at the new Arena?
Gary: It was a big relief the opening night, there was a good crowd in, the atmosphere was good . We have a fantastic set of fans and we wanted to put on a show on for them so that was the number one priority. I have two priorities in this job, one is to put on a show for fans and number two is to get value for money for those fans. A huge part of our business is the gate receipts, we then spend a huge part of our turnover on players wages so we have to get value for every penny from the players. I sat back at the end of the first night and thought it was great and something we can build on. After the first four games the average crowd is 4,100, which is up 2,000 on the paid for bums on seats in the old building so all in all I use the phrase ‘it wasn’t too shabby was it?’ and I think that was an understatement. We knew on the playing side we still had a couple of bodies to add, Eric Lavigne has come in and we’re still working on the last forward. Alex has identified two or three players and we just want to make sure we get the right guy who’s going to fit in and, to be honest, the chances of us getting the right guy increase each week that we don’t make the signing because the wages are still there so it will be divided by a fewer number of weeks so the quality of player goes up. It’s a harsh fact of life in any business but there’s only so much money to spend.
Jono: How difficult is the wage cap to stick to?
Gary: It’s not difficult to stick to. In Alex Dampier I’ve got a guy who identifies players and then asks me ‘Can we afford him?’ and I’ll tell him ‘Well this is how much is left in the pot and if you do this with it or that with it you can afford to spend X amount on this player, do you think that will be enough?’ and it goes on like that. Alex understands the business side of it from his experiences in Sheffield and Newcastle, possibly better than other coaches. It’s not difficult to stick to, you just set your stall out and know what you’re doing. I think we’ve had an easier ride this year than others.
Jono: Do you think other teams stick to it?
Gary: At boardroom level, from talking to Neil Black, every team is convinced they are sticking to it and at board level that will filter through. I would be naive to say every team is sticking to the wage cap and there are certain things we have done ourselves that has lead to criticism from other teams, they’re unfounded., we’ve just got some smart business sense. We will not spend the £450,000 this year, we’ll be within a couple of quid of it which is a smart thing to do to get value for money for everybody, but we will not be over it by a penny. Bracknell will not be over it, London have assured everyone they won’t be over it. Chris McSorely is having a hard time, he’s admitted that much to me. It’s not easy the wage cap, but it is possible and it makes so much sense if everybody does it.
Jono: What penalties do you think teams should get if they don’t stick to it if it ever comes out that they don’t?
Gary: It’s difficult to police because how do you police a brown envelope full of programme revenue? You’ll never be able to prove that someone is breaking the wage cap, if they want to break it they’ll break it, you’ll never be able to prove it. If someone is stupid and gets caught I don’t think they should be penalised for breaking the wage cap, I think they should be penalised for being stupid and getting caught. Who’s to say how many programmes they sell in Sheffield or London and every programme sale is two quid, so in your books you have 100 sales but you’ve really sold 600 you’ve got £1,000 in cash and that’s an awful lot of brown envelopes. Of course I’m not accusing anyone of doing anything like that!
Jono: What is the long term outlook for the club and more importantly what are Neil Black and Aladdin’s ambitions for the club?
Gary: Success, in a word success. Neil’s immediate ambition is to get a longer term rental deal than we’ve got. We’ve got one year to go on the existing rental deal and at the end of this year we’ll have to renegotiate the rent, that’s Mr Black’s remit. Going back to your first question, that’s something that never comes across my desk so I’ll leave that to him and let him cut that deal. The NIC is a fabulous arena and we love being in there and we want to be there for a long time to come.
Jono: What are your ambitions for the rest of the season?
Gary: I’d like to win something. I jokingly say to people, tongue firmly in cheek, that it’s better than working for a living! All those long hours in the summer and the sleepless nights, i know it sounds corny but I do have them! No one worries about the fortunes of the Nottingham Panthers more than Alex Dampier and Gary Moran, but all that worry and all that heart ache and all that passion and emotion is worth it if on the other side you come out of the season with something. I wasn’t too despondent last year, I know we had a dreadful road record but we put on a show at home. We gave value for money at home and ended up with the best home league record and we nearly sprung a huge surprise in the Challenge Cup final in front of millions on TV. The neutrals, and I stress the neutrals, in the audience at the Challenge Cup final recognised how close we got. This year it would be great to win something and given our start to the season I think the signs are there and it’s something to build on, something to work with. We’ve got a fantastic group of players and I hope I’m saying that at the end after we’ve lifted some silverware.
Jono: What marketing strategies are in place to try and fill the arena a couple of times this season?
Gary: I think it was a smart business decision not to spend money on a big advertising programme for the launch. How many people didn’t know there was a National Ice Centre in Nottingham? How many people didn’t know that the Panthers played there? And how many people didn’t know, given that we were on the radio and TV for two weeks virtually, that we were going to play our first ever game there? That was proven by the size of the crowd (4,506) on an early weekend in September which is traditionally a small crowd. If you look back over history we never filled the old place for the first game of the season. We have a marketing strategy at the moment that is very much aimed at attracting youngsters. If you look at our supporters profile it is stacked at the top end of the age range, very knowledgeable, experienced fans who remember Chick Zamick in his prime, and very few kids. So the marketing director has been given the job of talking to schools and providing other things that will tempt youngsters into the building.
Jono: Will there be any free giveaways?
Gary: I don’t believe in wallpapering the crowd, Neil Black will tell you this. I’m against free giveaways, I don’t think it’s fair for someone who has paid hard earned money to be sitting next to someone who has come for free. I was instrumental in stopping the vast number of freebies that were given out in Nottingham, I’m not making a song & dance about it but I don’t think it was fair on those who paid. We discounted the price of season tickets hugely, I think we give the fans a really good deal, but it’s still not fair for them to sit next to someone who’s got a free ticket. We do tickets for our sponsors, but they’ve paid many times over the face value. We operate on less than 200 seats for sponsors, players wives, visiting teams, workers and volunteers. The people who wash the shirts, I don’t expect them to pay to watch the games but I don’t pay them for washing the shirts. You can honestly say there are very few people who have in that building who are there without having paid for a seat in one way or another. We want to attract new customers, so it may be in the schools programme that we look to giveaway 200-300 tickets to a school and put them in a block specifically for that purpose. I may have to eat my own words down the road but so far so good. I even found, in the old building, that when you stop the freebies most don’t come and pay. We do competitions on the radio so you have competition winners, but we get a lot of publicity from that so the seat has been paid for in the way of publicity. Even in the old building, we only gave tickets away to existing sponsors if say we had a midweek game on TV that clashed with an England game.
Jono: How do you feel about some of the personal criticism and in some cases personal abuse you’ve received?
Gary: It goes with the territory I’m afraid. At the very, very end of the day as much as I love our fans and their support and all the rest of it, there’s me, my wife and our three kids and when we’re all happy with what I’m doing and the reasons behind the decisions then I sleep at night. I don’t not sleep because of the personal abuse, I honestly believe that if the critics knew 90% or even 60% of what I know they would probably agree with 99.9% of the decisions taken. What the fans nee, quite rightly, is to see the players as their Saturday night gladiators. They are their heroes, we build them up to be their heroes and so it has to be. I don’t believe in washing dirty linen in public, I was always fair and balanced as a reporter, I never got criticised for giving one side of the story and the rest of it. Every fan pays to get in and has the right to criticise. When they cross the line into personal abuse they start to lose a bit of credibility and when the abuse gets particularly personal and it is anonymous then it gets treated with the complete and utter contempt it deserves and goes straight into the grey file that’s round with a lid on top of it!
Jono: Final question. How do you rate this years Panthers team against those from previous years?
Gary: Well you have to compare the other teams as well. Like for like this is the best Panthers team ever. When you put your team together over the summer you go down last years list and what you’ve pencilled in for this year and then you compare them and see if you’re making improvements in the departments. If at the end of the day you’ve made improvements then you’ve done a job and I’m sure me and Alex have done a job this year, but the other teams are doing the same thing and trying to improve. We’re sitting in the House of Steel as they call it and they were heavily criticised Mike & Dave Simms for getting rid of Teeder Wynne and Ed Courtneay. So you’ve got Wynne, Courtneay and Tony Hand, all ex-Steelers playing against them at Ayr, so they were ecstatic last week when they beat Ayr. They haven’t replaced them with skill, but Mike Blaisdell will argue that he’s made pluses in the heart department and the will to win department. You try and improve your team year on year, I think we’ve done that on last year, I think some of the other teams have done that big style as well. I think there are signs there and some skills there, and we’ve seen in training behind closed doors improvements being made by the lesser players that very much bode well for the rest of this season. I wouldn’t want to be peaking in the third week of September. the first week of December is a good time to peak, Challenge Cup final weekend is a good time to peak and maybe stretch to the league championship. I think the league championship, when you’ve rebuilt the team to the extent we have, would be too much to hope for, but a trophy of some sort isn’t too much to hope for and I hope we can deliver, but if we don’t it won’t be for the lack of trying.