Staff Photo: David Friedlander Georgia Force president Cory Howerton has been in the front office with eight different teams in six different leagues but is now with the Georgia Force for the long haul.
Georgia Force president Cory Howerton has served in the front office of eight professional teams, including Major League Baseball's Minnesota Twins and the NBA's Seattle Supersonics. He assumed the reins of the Force late during their first season back in the Arena Football League over the summer. Howerton, who lives in Norcross with his wife and four children, talked with staff writer David Friedlander on his career, and where the Force go from here heading into the 2012 season.
DF: You're from Seattle originally?
CH: I was born in northern California, but raised in Seattle. Believe it or not, I grew up an Atlanta Braves fan because they were on TV every day. So, the fact that I'm here now and I get to hear (former Braves pitching coach) Leo Mazzone on the radio every day is pretty special to me.
DF: How did get into sports management? I know you started out as a soccer ball boy, but how did it evolve from there?
CH: When I was about 13 years old, my best friend's sister worked for the Tacoma Stars in the old Major Indoor Soccer League. She came over to his house one day while I was there and said, 'We need some ball boys. Are you guys interested?' I was a soccer player, so it was like, 'Are you kidding me? Absolutely.' At the time, the MISL was drawing 17 or 18,000 fans per game in just about every market they were in. In our market, we were outdrawing the NBA team.
So over the years as the MISL stopped growing and really turned into a secondary sport ... that really intrigued me. I wanted to understand why we had 18,000 fans in 1987 and had 6,000 fans in 1992, and where did those people go? When it was time to grow up a little bit and say what I was going to do with my life, I made the decision that I wanted to be in sports marketing and figure out how to put people in seats and how to promote pro sports.
DF: What other teams have you worked for?
CH: I have been with a major league team twice. I was with the Minnesota Twins as the director of sponsorship sales for two years, and I spent three years as the last director of ticket sales in the history of the Seattle Supersonics before they moved (to Oklahoma City). To be fair to that job, if they hadn't relocated, I probably would've stayed there. I mean, working in the NBA in my hometown was pretty special.
But I really do have a passion for niche sports. Indoor soccer is the reason why I do this for a living. I just think our sport, in particular here in arena football, is every exciting. I love the scoring and those type of things. Moreover, I love the challenge of promoting a sport that is unique, and really promoting the entertainment side of what we do. We really do rely on two different groups of people to come to our games -- football fans, which are really important to us, obviously, but then people who want something to do on a Saturday night.
DF: But that's really true of the more mainstream sports, too, isn't it?
CH: It really is. When I was with both the Twins and the Sonics -- moreover the Twins because when I was there, we weren't winning Central Division championships. They were a pretty awful baseball team. ... The goal was always to be able to stop somebody on the concourse after the game and say, 'Hey, did you have a good time tonight?' and have the response be, 'Yeah, I had a great time.' And when you ask who won the game, they wouldn't have a clue. And we weren't winning many baseball games.
And the same thing happens here. We really want people to come out and have a great time (regardless) of what the score is. We do have a good football team, and that's a huge bonus. We want people to come out and feel like they got the bang for their buck and made a good investment in us.
DF: That said, winning is still pretty important, isn't it?
CH: I'm very competitive. Our coach (Dean Cokinos) is very competitive and really wants to win football games. We made it to the American Conference championship game this year, and that was exciting. We want to win a championship, period.
DF: What kind of unique challenges come from running an arena football team, and what was the first major challenge you faced when you first got here?
CH: The biggest challenge first was the awareness in the marketplace that the team was back. People that I ran into on the street or during speaking engagements ... would say, 'You know, we used to come to games five or six years ago, but I had no idea you were back.' So, we really had to re-establish the brand in the marketplace. We're not done yet. We've got a long way to go in that regard, and right now, I think that is our most significant challenge.
"We're a crowded sports market, especially in the summertime. The Gwinnett Braves do a fantastic job, (but) I wouldn't say we compete directly with them. We've got nine home games and they've got 70, and they've got a lot of good things going there, but everybody's fighting for dollars.
DF: Even though it's the offseason, is this one of the busiest times of the year?
CH: It absolutely is. It's funny because when we get to the season, that's sort of the time when people in the front office can take a breath and say, 'Now we've got to put the games on.' I think somebody told me once it takes about 30,000 hours of planning for about 200 hours of actual entertainment in the sports business. Right now, we're looking at our strategic partnerships, our corporate partnerships, our ticket sales programs. Our sponsorship sales are up about 50 percent, which is tremendous. I'd say we're probably about even in ticket sales, but we're starting to see a spike as we start incorporating some groups in the area and they're staring to commit to (tickets). To me, that's a great sign.
DF: Any other changes fans can expect to see in 2012?
CH: We're going to work on a couple of different things. First of all, we've changed the seating configuration so that the seating will be hockey style. The benches are going back to midfield. ... In the south end zone where the players came off and on the field, we're going to have a party zone that will be a ticketed area, and we'll release some more details about that later. One thing the fans will really see that's different. It's the entertainment value of what we do. We got a lot of feedback last year that the show we put on wasn't what fans expected. It wasn't what they had experienced what they did in the past, and we needed to concentrate on the entertainment value. ... The football was fine. They loved the product on the field, but things like the player introductions and the halftime show needed to get better. We've spent a lot of time, effort and energy over the last four or five months examining our game presentation and what that's going to look like. What I can tell you now is fans can expect a much better game presentations and better entertainment for their dollar.DF: You've already resigned several key players from last year, including quarterback Darnell Kennedy and receiver Larry Shipp?
CH: For most teams in the league, you're going to see about 50 percent turnover in the roster in a given year. I don't think we're going to be any different. I think we're going to return about half our guys. I know Dean is working very hard to set up the core of what could've been the American Conference championship team. We came within a touchdown of going to the Arena Bowl. ... I think we're going to bring back a core of our guys. I know that's Dean's goal. But every team is trying to get better. ... We've got a lot of work to do.