Kristin Ropp makes hockey fun at U.S. Bank Arena

It’s not every day you can take your passion and make it happen, as Irene Cara sang, but for Kristin Ropp, Vice President and General Manager of U.S. Bank Arena and the Cincinnati Cyclones, that’s exactly how her career led her to planning parties for thousands of her closest friends 90+ times a year at Cincinnati’s downtown arena. 

A graduate of Ohio University, Ropp got started in college booking musical acts and bringing entertainment to campus. And she thought that would be a pretty cool way to make a living. But not everyone had the same mindset.

“I was probably in my junior or senior year in college, loving Ohio University, and my father said, ‘You need to hone in, you can see the finish line, you need to figure out what you want to be when you grow up.’ And I said, ‘Well, I like to plan events, I like parties,’ and of course I got the eyeroll.”

“Then he said, ‘Listen, you need to find something you have a passion for, or it won’t get you out of bed in the morning. Because if you do something for the money, believe it or not, it won’t get you out of bed in the morning.’ And that was the best advice I was ever given.” 

Knowing her passion was events, she was able to land a job with Nederlander Entertainment, one of the largest and most experienced managers of venues and entertainment properties in the country, and came to Cincinnati. She managed acts at Bogart’s, answered phones at Riverbend, booked entertainment at the Taft Theater and helped produce Pepsi Jammin’ on Main.

“I worked in every possible position from marketing to operations. I wanted to get into production,” she said. “I wanted to be with the bands. That’s what I thought I wanted.” 

Her production background brought her in 2002 to U.S. Bank Arena, where she worked as production manager and director of operations for about six years. 

“And that’s when I realized, I don’t really want that. But I was fortunate enough to work for this company that had a lot of faith in me, and very quickly I was getting more management responsibility.” 

In 2005, Ropp became Vice President and General Manager of U.S. Bank Arena, plus general manager of the newly-reincarnated Cincinnati Cyclones. Being from Pittsburgh, she knows a good hockey crowd when she sees one. And she didn’t see one in the early days before Nederlander took control of the team. 

“You’d come to an event and it was just a lackluster crowd. There was no marketing, no promotions, it was such a great product, and it was frustrating. 

“And then they came back, and Ray Harris (COO of Nederlander Entertainment) bought the team. He called me and said—I’ll never forget this conversation—he called me and said, ‘Well, kid, you’ve got yourself a hockey team. You need to pack your bags, there’s a Board of Governors meeting in Pittsburgh in two days.’

“I said OK and then said, “I have to be clear, I don’t know anything about hockey. I don’t want to mislead you.’ And he said, ‘That’s OK, you’ll figure it out.’ And that was it.” 

The first thing the Arena staff needed to figure out is how to get people back to see the Cyclones, one of the big success stories in minor league hockey in the ‘90s. 

“The first year we operated the team, we threw a lot of things at the wall to see what would stick. We went heavy marketing to reach single males. We thought they were low hanging fruit because that was stereotypical NHL.”

Instead, families started showing up. So the marketing plan went hors piste from the traditional hockey template. 

“We pumped the brakes, said, no, we need to switch this up. The turning point of this organization is when we realized the competition was not the Bengals, the Reds, UC or Xavier, our competition was the bowling alley, the movies, the Zoo, anything else you would take your family to. 

“Because we didn’t come up through a traditional sports marketing background, I think we approached it as a live entertainment event. And I think that’s served us well in a non-traditional hockey market.”

So when the season starts this Saturday you’ll see new glass around the rink and a new Buffalo Sabres affiliation, and continue to see dollar beer, dollar hot dogs, dollar pizza and a calendar giveaway. You’ll see noisemakers, mascots and a party atmosphere. And, oh, by the way, there’s a hockey game going on. 

“We love to say you can bring your children here and you never have to say, ‘shhh.’ You can be loud, you can jump up and down, you can scream your head off and dance. We love it and encourage it. That was the turning point.”

Ropp is truly a hockey mom, and not just to the Cyclones players. Her son, Henry, has been playing youth hockey since he was 4, and he’s now 11. But he’s one of the few in his school. 

“There are two kids in his school that play hockey. That’s a real shame. And that’s why we started the Cincinnati Cyclones Foundation. The whole intent is to give children the opportunity, if they want to try and play hockey, to play hockey.”

“There are a lot of roadblocks to that in the market. We’re going to do our best to take those away and work with CCM and Reebok to buy equipment to get to these kids to instill a love of the game.” 

As GM of the Cyclones, she’s earned the ECHL Executive of the Year award twice, and twice was honored with the ECHL Award of Marketing Excellence. Ropp may be the only female General Manager of an ECHL hockey team, but she doesn’t let her gender define her job. 

“Once you get past being the only woman at the Board of Governors meetings, I never think of myself as a ‘female general manager.’ I just always thought of myself as a person doing a job.”

“I’ve been singled out a few times being a woman doing this job, but I always shy away from it. Pat me on the back and highlight me if you think I’m doing a good job, but don’t highlight me because I use a different bathroom. I’m proud that I could kick that door open a little bit, but I still come here every day to sell tickets.”

No discussion surrounding U.S. Bank Arena would be complete without a look into its future, which could include a major renovation designed to bring more events and bigger acts to downtown. 

“I feel that is the last piece of the puzzle for Cincinnati, for the riverfront. I feel it would be a huge misfortune for the city as a whole not to do it.”

The proposal would turn ownership of the renovated building over to Hamilton County, so that future profits would go directly to the county. Nederlander estimates event nights would jump from 90 to more than 120 a year, with an extra $9 million in revenue for Hamilton County. 

“The new building would position us to host major NCAA events, basketball and volleyball, which bring in so many people from all over the country,” Ropp said.

“Listen, I love this old white elephant, and I’ll stay here as long as Ray Harris will have me. But I think it would be a shortcoming to the city of Cincinnati if we didn’t see this new building come to fruition.” 

The Cincinnati Cyclones open the 2017-18 season at home Saturday against the Kalamazoo Wings. Check out the Cyclones schedule at www.cycloneshockey.com and the U.S. Bank Arena entertainment schedule at www.usbankarena.com

Alex ReillyPROFILES