Alum heads up strategy for NHL’s red-hot Florida Panthers

May 16, 2023


He may not strap on skates for the NHL, but Richmond alum Mark Zarthar is a key member of the Florida Panthers organization that pushed the top-seeded Boston Bruins out of the playoffs and sent the Toronto Maple Leaves home earlier than expected to advance to the Eastern Conference Final of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Zarthar plays a critical position: Developing a brand strategy that reflects who and what this relatively young team, which plays hockey in the heart and heat of Miami, really is. Hockey fans see the Panthers as “scrappy,” and the greater community enjoys rooting for the underdog on and off the ice.

“We positioned ourselves that way,” said Zarthar, who studied finance at UR, graduating in 2009.

This January, he joined the Panthers organization as its chief strategy officer. “We were able to be resilient and win plenty of games down the stretch, despite having a young team. That resiliency lends itself well to our current positioning in the hockey community. We refer to ourselves as the feisty underdog. It’s sort of like a scrappy mentality of David versus Goliath.”

Zarthar, who grew up in Boston rooting for the Bruins, saw that strategy play out during the Panthers’ first playoff series where they clawed back from a 3-1 deficit to claim the series — “almost as if we scripted it.”

Beyond brand strategy, Zarthar oversees business strategy and analytics, box office and ticket operations, and communications, along with public relations and broadcast partnerships. His brand work positions the franchise as a welcoming place for top talent to play.

Zarthar started his career focused on commercial real estate and earned his MBA at Northwestern. But he found himself drawn to career and networking sessions where sports teams and household corporate athletic sponsors were recruiting.

He reached out to a mentor at the firm where he had worked previously, sharing that he had a growing interest in sports marketing. His mentor asked: “When you get the newspaper, what’s the first thing you flip to?” Zarthar’s quick answer: “I just go right to the sports section.” Based on that his mentor said he should probably work in sports. “I thought that was a very simple way of him expressing to follow your passion.”

That led to an internship with Nike in Portland, then an early job in New York with Anheuser-Busch InBev, where he worked his way up to global director of sports marketing. A recruiter lured Zarthar to Fayetteville, North Carolina, to be president of a minor league affiliate of the Houston Astros, where he helped develop a $40 million downtown stadium, leaving in mid-2020 to become senior vice president of marketing for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Relationships he built along the way, starting at the University of Richmond, set him up for success and provided the courage to make a career change. That determination led Zarthar to South Florida and his current role with the Panthers.

This season, the team faced numerous challenges, Zarthar said, citing the arrival of a new coach coupled with ongoing player injuries, and few expected them to make it this far in the playoffs. “What our entire organization showed was just a tremendous amount of resiliency. It’s a mentality that has provided inspiration.”