By Bruce Levine-
(CBS) The marketing genius who now is the president of the Chicago Blackhawks created a genre of fan connectivity that has changed the way sports teams communicate with the paying customer.
Thirty years ago this week, then-Chicago Cubs marketing guru John McDonough presented the first ever fan-driven offseason conclave in team sports history. Originally called the Cub Fan Convention, the three-day hotel event became the prototype that every sports team now uses to reconnect with its fan base during the offseason. McDonough’s purpose of inventing the convention concept was to rekindle the passion and interest of the fan base in the downtime between seasons.
For the first time since joining the Blackhawks in 2007 and overseeing two Stanley Cup championships along with owner Rocky Wirtz, McDonough agreed to an interview with cbschicago.com to talk about his creation and success of the Cubs Convention concept.
In 1983, McDonough interviewed with Cubs team president Jim Finks for the top marketing position that was vacant.
“Jim asked me during my interview if there were any outside-of-the-box ideas that I wanted to pursue if I came aboard,” McDonough said. “I told Jim that I had been thinking about a function that would bring current players, former players, coaches and broadcasters all together with the fans in some offseason formula.”
Asked if he thinks that concept helped him get the job, McDonough said, “I believe it did.”
“Jim was a great executive who was without a doubt the man responsible for putting the personnel in place for the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl championship,” McDonough said of Finks, who previously served as an executive vice president for the Bears. “He was a great listener and communicator. Along with Dallas Green and later Andy MacPhail, these great leaders gave me and my people the flexibility and support to continue to grow the convention model.”
The success of the division-winning 1984 Cubs (their first playoff appearance in 39 years) and having iconic broadcaster Harry Caray at his peak of popularity gave McDonough the impetus to start the convention in 1985.
“I was fortunate to have a good relationship with Harry,” McDonough said. “I told him I needed him to kind of be this grand marshall or pied piper-type at the event we were planning. Keep in mind, I was asking him to come from Palm Springs in the dead of the winter and be the ringleader for a concept that had never been tried — and we were not that sure”
“‘Look kid, for you I’ll do just about anything, count me in,'” McDonough said of Caray’s message. “That was a huge addition and selling point for us.”
McDonough’s selling of past Cubs players along with the current team he had to market was the key to the long-term success the Cubs Convention concept has enjoyed. Adding interactive aspects for kids and even bringing in Bozo the Clown pushed the event to its 15,000-person attendance max by the early 1990s.
“We saw the value of the great players like Ernie Banks, Andy Pafko, Billy Williams and Ron Santo,” McDonough said. “We also wanted the peripheral players and former broadcasters and coaches to know how important they were to the fans and the unique history of the Cubs.”
You now have an idea why McDonough has been so successful during his 35-year career as a sports executive. He has people skills like very few others, and those are skills Jay Blunk, executive vice president of the Blackhawks, possesses as well.
“John and Jay taught me how to communicate and listen to other people,” a longtime associate said. “They can make the most common and regular guy on the street feel like they are the most important person in the world. This type of communication goes way beyond sales. It’s more the empathy they have for the human condition. John is a tough on his people, but in a good way. He does not ask you to do anything but be respectful of people and treat them like you would want to be treated. If you are lazy or without enthusiasm for your position, you will not last long with John.”
Do I see McDonough staying in his position with the Blackhawks forever or could he move to revitalize another sports franchise? Only time will tell. At age 60, he appears to have many more productive years ahead of him. In the meantime, McDonough appears to be content running one of the most successful in sports.
That will be his focus this weekend. The creator of the Cubs Convention won’t be around the downtown Sheraton Hotel this weekend to celebrate 30 years of fanfest history that he invented. McDonough will be watching the Blackhawks fill up the sold-out United Center once again.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.