Metropolitan Riveters president Digit Murphy remembers her reaction when she first heard the idea.
“I said, ‘I’m not playing in mall! We cannot do that!” Murphy recalled. “But then I saw it, and I said, ‘Oh we’re definitely playing here.’”
Here is the Premier Hockey Federation franchise’s new home venue, the American Dream mall. Located in New Jersey in the shadow of New York City, American Dream is the second largest mall in America. It has an aquarium, an indoor ski slope, multiple theme parks, a Ferris wheel, and starting in November, a professional women’s hockey team. The Riveters have signed a new three-year agreement to play home games in the ice rink that sits in the middle of the mall, part of the franchise’s plan to fully overhaul its gameday experience.
There’s a common refrain in sports media: Go to where the fans are. The Riveters are taking that approach literally with their new home venue. Instead of trying to lure fans to a stand-alone hockey rink, the franchise is bringing games to a place where more people can stumble upon them. Murphy said the mall is on pace to have 6 to 8 million people come through its venue this year, and many of them might learn to love the PHF if given the chance.
“It’s like a live infomercial,” Murphy said. “If I’m a mom, I’m going to the American Dream, I’m taking the kids to the aquarium, we’ll take in a women’s hockey game, and maybe we’ll play mini golf. It’s an experience. Because we just haven’t yet gotten to a spot where tons of people are buying season tickets. But we’re working on it.”
Now in its eighth season, the PHF is still trying to establish itself as a sustainable business, asking its owners to invest heavily in the league over the next few years (to the tune of $25 million) as it boosts player salaries and funds expansion and infrastructure upgrades. And like many nascent sports properties without a huge media deal or massive local followings, its clubs rely heavily on sponsorships. The Riveters have played in multiple venues in the past few years—including the New Jersey Devils’ practice facility, a different rink 35 miles outside NYC, and a venue on the outskirts of Brooklyn—but were in need of a change.
While terms of the contract weren’t provided, Riveters owner John Boynton said the team is paying 2x-3x more than it would to play in a more traditional suburban rink.
“For us that’s an investment in marketing,” Boynton said. “We need to build visibility for this team. We need to build brand. And playing in a facility like this is going to be a big leap forward for us.”
Boynton and BTM Partners purchased the Riveters in May 2021, their third PHF franchise at the time, alongside the Boston Pride and Toronto Six. They are also the ownership group behind the coming Montreal Force expansion franchise, which will play its inaugural campaign this season. In March, BTM sold Toronto to a group of the league’s first BIPOC and Canadian investors led by retired NHL player Anthony Stewart and former Canadian hockey star Angela James, which will bring their ownership back to three teams once the deal is finalized. (Shared ownership is a temporary allowance until distinct investors, as with the Six, are found for each team in the league.)
The American Dream ice rink, where the Riveters practiced last year, has three levels of railings where people can view games. There are currently no seats, but Murphy said the Riveters will set up roughly 1,000 for each game, with room for another 1,000 if the team eventually uses the third level. Most PHF venues don’t have suites, but the Riveters plan to create seating along the rails that includes premium-style options.
The rink won’t be the only major change. Instead of the traditional approach of selling each of the 12 home games as a contest against an opponent, Murphy said she envisions selling 12 distinct events. Those could be themed nights, games booked out for a corporate outing, or partnerships with local retailers with shops in the mall.
Both she and Boynton mentioned a hypothetical involving American Dream resident H&M. The Riveters could have an H&M Night, where the players arrive in clothing supplied by the retailer, fans in attendance receive coupons for the store, and Riveters players sign autographs in the store after the game. The team has a pitch package ready to begin those conversations.
Located in East Rutherford, N.J., across the street from MetLife Stadium, the American Dream mall technically opened in October 2019 after more than a decade of construction delays, bankruptcy, new names and new backers. The COVID-19 pandemic hit just a few months later, further complicating things for the mall’s owners, who originally projected 40 million people would visit the mall each year.
The retail stores opened in October 2020 and stretches of the mall remain empty. Last month Bloomberg reported that the owners, Triple Five Group, missed an $8.8 million interest payment that was due on bonds sold to finance the venture.
Triple Five also owns the Mall of America in Minnesota and Canada’s West Edmonton Mall. Both those malls also have ice rinks, with the West Edmonton Mall hosting the Brick Invitational hockey tournament, an annual gathering of some of the world’s best youth teams.
For a franchise that relies so heavily on sponsorship, the Riveters are hoping the new venue will give them more to boost their biggest revenue stream. That includes hospitality options throughout the mall for existing partners, and a host of new ways to weave new partners into their game day.
“For a niche sport like women’s hockey, we don’t have the numbers yet to be able to command $7 million for a 30-second spot,” Boynton said, referencing the price of Super Bowl ads. “But, if we can can give you all the traditional in-game experiences, and also in-community experiences, it makes for a much more compelling package.”
(This article has been updated in the ninth paragraph to include Boynton’s and BTM Partners’ ownership of the Montreal Force expansion franchise.)