Former Atlanta Spirit chief Bernie Mullin forms Aspire Group

March 4, 2008

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Atlanta Business Chronicle – by John Manasso Staff Writer

After his mutual parting from the Atlanta Spirit LLC, owner of the NBA’s Hawks and NHL’s Thrashers, former CEO Bernie Mullin said he had about 27 different job prospects. He inquired about two CEO positions, one involving baseball and another involving multiple sports. In the end, he decided to go into business for himself, creating a sports consulting business, the Aspire Group.

Mullin and partner Michael Ditchfield, another Englishman who has experience in customer service and is based in Denver, already have signed the NHL and Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians as clients. The company will deal with the business support side, marketing, improving fan satisfaction and other team-related services. On Tuesday, Mullin spoke to Atlanta Business Chronicle via cell phone in England, where he is courting business relationships. Before he left, he met with his former boss, NBA commissioner David Stern. “We’re talking to NBA Europe to see if there’s any potential work there,” Mullin said. “Tomorrow, I’m going to spend the day with the Chelsea football club just exploring… From a quality of life point of view, it’s markedly different from eating, drinking and sleeping Thrashers, Hawks and Philips Arena. Right now it’s a very positive change. The biggest thing is we’re going to look for opportunities in the Atlanta area that keep me involved.”

In regard to his work with the Indians, Mullin said it would be “straight up marketing philosophy, sales training” and that he would soon give a motivational talk to the staff before the season starts. Aspire Group’s contract with the NHL calls for it to work the league’s new club consulting office. Susan Cohig, senior vice president in charge of that group, knew Mullin from when she worked with the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and NBA’s Denver Nuggets. At the same time, Mullin was with the Colorado Rockies.

The NHL consulting group is little more than six months old and Cohig said Mullin would help it get its operations off the ground. He was instrumental in starting a similar office in the NBA, called TeamBo or the “Team Marketing & Business Operations” division. “Obviously, given not only the tremendous experience he brings with respect to Atlanta and the Hawks and Thrashers, but his tenure and experience at the NBA is tremendously valuable,” Cohig said. “He really has a great understanding of what we do and how we operate from a league perspective.” Cohig said the office is tasked with driving revenue through helping teams with ticket sales, marketing and sponsorships.

Mullin said he sees enormous opportunities in Europe and elsewhere around the globe. He said facilities are one area that holds the continent back in comparison to where U.S. sports are. He said he attended a soccer game at the 40,000-seat stadium of his favorite English Premier League team, Everton, and called the facility “primitive.” But times are changing and Mullin hopes to aid that change. He spoke of another stadium in the city of Coventry, which he likened to Detroit, and said that that facility has a casino, a club, an 8,000-seat exhibition hall and a hotel. He said an Indian cricket league recently expanded to eight different cities, with each franchise having a $100 million price tag. He believes the cricket league will be “extremely successful,” owing to the sport’s worldwide popularity.

Mullin put up his shingle in Buckhead with a small amount of office space to start out. His experience with Atlanta Spirit, with multiple owners tugging at him, appeared to influence his thought process. “The real answer to your question is that my wife and I sat down, given my experience, and asked ‘What is it that I want?’ ” he said. “I want a job where I would be the president and CEO with full responsibility of running the entire organization. There’s not many positions like that. I wanted a situation where there was one owner. There’s not many situations like that. “I wanted a situation where there was one owner who had been in the business a long time and who had a history of letting their CEO do their own thing. There’s not many situations like that. I didn’t want a situation where the team was at the bottom and had years to go before it was on top. I wanted a team that was in the middle and didn’t have far to go to the top and the market and quality of life were at least as good as Atlanta.” In the end, working for himself would be his best bet.

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