Illustration by Greg Dohlen

Deep within the bowels of the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., lies a not-so-secret command center, where a team of highly-decorated generals engages in a cyber campaign of the utmost military precision.

Welcome to Mission Control, a social media command post for the National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils, where a team of high-profile fan bloggers engages with the team’s bevy of Twitter followers, Facebook friends and number one fans. The army is commanded by Devils Arena Entertainment President Rich Krezwick, the winner of the 2011 Venues Today Hall of Headlines Award for Marketing. Krezwick and his large team at the Prudential Center, with assistance from marketing guru Jim Delaney of Activate Sports & Entertainment, were able to turn a PR and sales concept into a physical space, creating a branded concept that not only pervades the digital world, but also serves as a destination for the team’s most dedicated fans.

“Mission Control is a mentality, not just a place,” Krezwick said. “We need to be thinking, living and breathing social media in every aspect of what we do.”

Delaney said he originally got the idea from drink-maker Gatorade, which launched its own Mission Control station at company headquarters as a way to monitor what was being said about the brand and communicate with customers. 

“I told Rich, this is great but it doesn’t go far enough,” said Delaney. “What if you could bring the fans into the process?”

After all, the Devils had already mobilized their army of supporters, drafting 250,000 fans on Facebook, adopting the moniker Devils Army. Delaney and Krezwick drafted two dozen of the most socially active fans with Devils Army, named them the Devils Generals, and built them a digital command center in the heart of the arena with flat screen TVs, computers monitoring chatter on Twitter and several tablets for live blogging. Mission Control is also staffed by the building’s marketing department to monitor and analyze team chatter and online traffic.

Inside Mission Control at the Prudential Center, Newark, N.J.

“We’re focused on the key areas of ticket sales and corporate partnership revenue,” said Delaney. In the past, the team was ignoring fans who wanted to purchase tickets over Twitter — now marketing staff members and sales reps quickly answer dozens of customer inquiries that come over Twitter every day. 

“Twitter and Facebook are the new telephone,” Delaney said. “A good number of fans will no longer pick up the phone to call you to complain, compliment or buy tickets. They’ll just blast it out online for the whole world to see.”

Having the Devils Generals communicate on behalf of the team adds an air of authenticity to messaging that is absent from official PR communications. To really keep the conversation moving along, a sign reading “Ditch the Robot Voice” advised the fan volunteers to keep their posts as conversational as possible.

Giving fans a platform means surrendering some control, but Delaney said Krezwick is “a risk taker by nature,” noting that without the buy-in from top level executives like Krezwick “it is nearly impossible to create a digital culture within one’s organization.” Instead of simply hiring an intern or marketing coordinator to execute a social media campaign, Delaney said Krezwick led a digital sea change within the organization, shifting the mindsets of nearly every department from the box office to premium sales and sponsorships.

“And you have to have buy-in from ownership,” said Krezwick. “There are certain franchises that do really well, and there are certain franchises that won’t touch it.” 

Krezwick said he’s grateful that Devils owner Jeffrey Vanderbeek embraces technology and “understands that we need to be living in the social media space” because “you can’t dabble in social media. It needs to be driven by the top and it needs to be the lifestyle and cultural aspect of the organization.”

As for the future, Krezwick has doubled down with Activate Sports and Entertainment to continue to evolve their efforts and constantly adapt.

“Mission Control is already an old idea. What’s the next idea?” Krezwick said. “We filter through dozens of ideas a week, always churning opportunity. As things bubble to the top, some things make it and some things don’t. Sometimes we fail and sometimes we succeed but, most importantly, ideas are germinating all the time.”  

Read about all of the 2011 Hall of Headline Award Winners.

Bob McClintock and Gregg Caren from SMG take home the Hall of Headlines award for News

Finn Taylor wins Hall of Headlines for Bookings with Cirque du Soleil's Michael Jackson: The Immortal World 

Rich Krezwick from Devils Sports and Entertainment takes Hall of Headlines marketing honors for Mission Control

Nic Nicora and his giant Ovations hamburger earn Hall of Headlines for Concessions