Sarah Pompea Wants the Falcons to Be a Force in the Community
Sarah Pompea was a senior at the University of New Haven in December 2010 when her father, Charlie, acquired the Springfield Falcons, the American Hockey League affiliate that traces its roots back to the late ’30s.
She remembers being excited by that development and thinking that it would provide another outlet for a life-long passion for sports, one that included attending a good number of games involving the New Haven Nighthawks, another AHL franchise, in her youth.
What she wasn’t thinking at that time was that this could become a career, or at least an intriguing and highly rewarding start to one.
But then, Sarah, a frequent spectator at Falcons games before and after the acquisition became official, started interacting with team President Bruce Landon, who has spent more than 40 years with the franchise, about various aspects of the sport — and the business — of hockey.
Eventually, Landon approached Charlie Pompea about the possibility of Sarah bringing her talents in marketing and corporate communications to the Falcons organization. When that question was put to her, she jumped at the opportunity and became the team’s first official marketing coordinator.
In that role, she’s worn many hats and taken on a number of initiatives. These include the expanded use of social media to promote the team and interact with fans, as well as initiatives within the community that have players, front-office personnel, and even the team’s mascot, Screech, involved in programs in area schools to promote literacy, encourage healthy eating, and combat bullying.
There’s also the Springfield Falcons Charitable Foundation, which the Pompea family launched in 2013, with a specific focus on families and children.
Last month, when Landon announced that he was retiring from his position as president and accepting a new role as director of hockey operations, Pompea saw her title change to acting president, and her list of responsibilities grow to include most all of the business and sales operations.
Increasingly, she is becoming the face of the franchise, although she acknowledged that Landon, who last year was honored by BusinessWest as a Difference Maker for his efforts to keep hockey alive and well in Springfield, will continue to have that designation.
Among many other community initiatives, Sarah Pompea and the Falcons have involved team personnel, including players and the mascot, Screech, in literacy programs.
But increasingly, she is becoming the liaison between the team and the community, and it’s a role she relishes.
“I find Springfield to be a very special place to work,” she noted. “It’s a small community, and people work together. Ultimately, I think everyone wants the Falcons organization to succeed, and I think that people do understand that, hockey aside, the players are positive influences and role models within the community, not only for students, but for professionals as well. We certainly hope to be here for a long time.”
For this issue, BusinessWest turns the spotlight on a young rising star in the local business community, an individual who, like her father, is committed to keeping hockey in Springfield, but also making this franchise a more visible, more impactful force within the community.
Parked against one wall in Pompea’s small, windowless office within the team’s complex at the MassMutual Center is a cluster of hockey sticks once wielded by team players.
For one reason or another they’ve been retired from game action, and are set for a new and much different life — as collectibles. They’ve all been signed by the players who used them, and are now destined for area nonprofits to be auctioned off at various fund-raising activities.
Matching area agencies with used sticks is just one small, quite unofficial line on Pompea’s job description, but it’s symbolic in many ways of how she has become that link between the team and the community.
Another example sits in a large frame above her desk. It’s a game jersey she bought following a now-annual event called Pink in the Rink, which, as the name suggests, puts players in pink uniforms for a night to raise awareness of programs to battle breast cancer, and raise money for those efforts by selling those jerseys on eBay.
“We’ve been doing this for about six years now, and it’s something that’s gained a lot of traction in that time,” she noted. “And it’s just one of many ways we can give back to the community.”
How Pompea came to lead such initiatives and become involved in all things Falcons is an intriguing story, and one that can’t be summed up by saying she’s the daughter of the team’s owner.
Indeed, Pompea said a number of other career opportunities presented themselves as she was wrapping up her work at New Haven University, where she majored in marketing and minored in corporate communications.
She had various summer jobs and internships working for marketing firms in Boston and New York, and also had a stint with Micato Safaris, a high-end safari operator based in New York. She interned there, but was brought on full-time for the balance of the summer when the marketing director left her job abruptly.
She worked extensively on the company’s involvement in the huge Travel Mart conference in Las Vegas, and company officials liked her work so much they tried to talk her into skipping or delaying her senior of college to stay with the company — a move she wasn’t ready to make.
“I learned a lot there and took on a lot of responsibilities,” she said, adding that Micato kept trying to lure her to New York during her senior year, but then her father, owner of a steel-distribution company, bought the Falcons, and a career path she couldn’t have imagined a few years or even a few months earlier started to emerge.
She pointed to a game the two attended together before the sale became official as one of the pivotal moments in this ongoing story.
“We just sat in the stands and talked to people, and really learned right away how important this team was to the city,” she recalled. “We could sense the passion and the pride the fan base had for the team, and he knew at that moment that it was something he wanted to be part of.”
And something she would soon want to get involved with as well.
“Once he purchased the team, I attended games solely as a fan for the rest of the season,” she told BusinessWest. “It got to the point where I was pretty much coming to every home game. Bruce and my dad had spoken about an opportunity here, and it’s something I jumped on right away because I was always looking for a corporate job, but not something that had me sitting at my desk from 9 to 5 for 40 hours a week.”
As marketing coordinator, Pompea has had a broad range of responsibilities, from media buying, which she revamped recently to include television and a reworked radio message, to work with social media to increase fan interaction, to creation of promotion nights and theme nights, with a broad focus on enhancing the family experience at Falcons games.
And there have been a number of successes in all those realms, which often come together with various initiatives.
For example, there’s the ‘tweet your seat’ program, something borrowed from the Red Sox, and a name that pretty much says it all: fans tweet out their seat number for an opportunity to win prizes. There’s also something called ‘Facebook fan of the game,’ which encourages fans to take a picture of themselves enjoying the game and post the photo on the Falcons’ Facebook wall.
“We’ve found that this has really generated a lot of interest among our fans,” she said of the Facebook initiative. “Each game, I see more and more pictures being submitted. We pick one lucky winner and feature their photo on our video board during the game. So the fans feel special, and it’s something they look forward to; they’re always hoping they’ll be the winner that night.”
Overall, Pompea views social media as an effective means for connecting with the fan base and the community between games and, in many respects, all season.
“Fans are on their phones and on the Internet non-stop,” she explained. “It’s important for them to feel part of the team, even in the offseason, and know what’s going on.”
With the promotions and themes, the team has introduced or continued everything from restaurant giveaways to celebrity appearances — Jarod Mayo from the Patriots and Gregory Campbell from the Bruins have been on hand for games this year — to so-called ‘seat upgrades.’ Sponsored by A to Z Movers, that program allows two fans, usually sitting high up in the cheap seats, to move to a seat on the glass.
When asked to quantify and qualify the results from such initiatives, Pompea said there has yet to be a strong impact on attendance, although she expects that will happen. In the meantime, though, such programs are keeping those who are in attendance more engaged — and entertained — and broadening the fan base at the same time.
“We can’t control what happens on the ice,” she explained. “But we can control the fan experience. Our goal is to make sure that, whether the Falcons win or lose, fans go home smiling because they had a great time.”
But while Pompea and other members of the Falcons’ staff have made great strides when it comes to the game experience, some of their best work has come outside the arena — in school classrooms, at Habitat for Humanity building projects, and a host of other settings where the team has become not only more visible, but more of a force with a number of the challenges facing this region.
During her tenure, Pompea has played a lead role in introducing several new programs that place Falcons players and staff into the community.
One is called Stick to Reading. Sponsored by Columbia Gas, it puts players in classrooms, where they read to students and then engage in often-lively Q&A sessions.
Another, called Play It Forward, focuses on health, nutrition, and exercise, and also places players in the classroom, where they talk about healthy eating and how it contributed to their success, and also lead a game of ball hockey.
And then, there’s Teamwork, an anti-bullying program that features players talking with small groups about teamwork, what it means to be a leader, and how they work together.
To further emphasize the team’s commitment to the community, the Pompeas launched the Springfield Falcons Charitable Foundation, which puts its focus on families and children.
“It’s important for us to invest in the future of Western Mass., so our foundation focuses on creating long-lasting partnerships with a handful of organizations,” she said.
The first of these relationships was established with Link to Libraries, which works to fill library shelves in schools and youth agencies while also promoting literacy. As part of that partnership, the Falcons sponsor Tatham Elementary School in West Springfield, and players and front-office personnel read there regularly.
Meanwhile, another partnership has been forged with the YMCA of Greater Springfield to sponsor that organization’s so-called Saturday Sports Sampler, which introduces young people to a variety of different games and sports.
The Puck Stops Here
Since joining the Falcons in the spring of 2011, Pompea said her hockey IQ has increased measurably through far greater exposure to the game and its many nuances.
But, as she said, she is focused far more on the business side of the game and the fan experience than she is on penalty killing, power-play opportunities, and line changes.
And thus, she treats each road game (she goes to some, but not all) as a learning experience.
“I like to be a spectator, see other arenas, and pick up some ideas that we can implement here, whether it’s concessions or in-game entertainment,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot from watching how other teams do things.”
A few weeks ago, she was in attendance for the AHL all-star game, played in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The franchise there, the Ice Caps, have sold out 103 consecutive games, said Pompea, speculating that the long, cold winters there probably have something to do with that — fans are looking for an escape — but that streak is more attributable to the team’s success in “creating an NHL atmosphere in an AHL city.”
That’s something she’ll be trying to replicate as the Falcons’ acting president, a role she says she’s growing into.
She now has control of all day-to-day operations, including business-side functions such as marketing and community relations, but also sales. Her new title also means she’s picked up what had become Landon’s top priority in recent years — improving the numbers at the gate.
Pompea said there has been some improvement in attendance since her father bought the team, but not as much as was expected, especially with the team’s recent success — a playoff berth last year, the first in some time, and its steady position at the top of the Eastern Conference’s Northeast Division this year.
“We’re certainly looking to build off our playoff run last year,” she said, “and I hope we’re playing hockey into June.”
She’s not sure if and for how long the word ‘acting’ will remain part of her title, but for now, she’s focused on eventually becoming the face of the franchise, while also working continuously to improve the fan experience and make the Falcons more of a force in the community.
“In the 20 years that he was here, Bruce did some wonderful things for this franchise,” she said. “I just see this as a new chapter for the organization.”
A chapter that is still being written.
George O’Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org