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December 23, 2003
Sports and Jazz Impresario
As a youngster playing shortstop and second base for St. Vincent High School in Akron, Ohio, Blake Cullen dreamed of making a name for himself in major league baseball. Eventually he did so---sort of. Instead of making his mark on the field, Cullen made his mark behind the scenes, on the business side of sports.
After getting a degree in hotel management from Cornell University, Cullen worked for a hotel in Chicago that he describes as the “sports headquarters” for the city. The connections he made working with local teams led to a job as traveling secretary for the Chicago Cubs, a position he held for eleven seasons, from 1965-1975. Starting out as the guy who made travel arrangements and booked hotels for the team, his duties expanded to include keeping stats, writing press releases and handling day-to-day business management.
He then spent ten years as Administrator of the National League, the number two man to league president Chub Feeney. Among other duties, he was responsible for preparing the league schedule each season and managing the umpire corps.
But Blake Cullen wanted to do more, to own his own franchise. After Feeney’s retirement, he looked for opportunities. He started with a minor league baseball franchise, but discovered minor league hockey and “loved it.” In January ’89, he traveled down to Vinton on the outskirts of Roanoke and took in his first East Coast Hockey League game. The ECHL folks were looking to add a sixth team to the league, and Cullen had just seen a Sports Illustrated cover story on Sweet Pea Whitaker. So he suggested Norfolk. The next day, he drove down to Hampton Roads and scoped out the scene. Three weeks later he put on an ECHL exhibition game here and drew 6,200 people on a Wednesday night.
That fall Cullen’s new Hampton Roads Admirals took to the ice. For the next seven seasons his team was one of the hottest tickets in town, presenting an exciting brand of championship minor league hockey, showing that southerners could be rabid hockey fans.
“When we came here in ’89,” he remembers, “I was upset that ESPN lost the National Hockey League. It turned out to be a blessing. The only hockey you could see was here.”
He sold the team after the 1995-96 season, but Blake Cullen had become a Norfolkian by then. Though he travels often as a speaker and consultant in the world of sports management and education, he’s made his home here. And he’s combined his love for jazz with his commitment to his adopted hometown by booking nationally renowned performers into the Roper Center for his Jazz on Granby concert series.
There is one constant between the hockey team he owned and the jazz shows he promotes---affordable ticket prices. And with both ventures, Blake Cullen has contributed to the vitality of downtown Norfolk. Long before MacArthur Mall and the Granby Street renaissance, before Harbor Park brought baseball to the Elizabeth River waterfront, the Admirals gave people a reason to come downtown at night for fun and entertainment at a reasonable price. They still do. You can thank Blake Cullen for believing in Norfolk when many did not. He still does.
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