Kukla's Korner Hockey
by George Malik on 10/24/06 at 05:56 AM ET
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is right when he insists that it's far too early to draw any conclusions from the attendance figures. But it's not too early to point out that the NHL continues to lose ground in certain U.S. markets, including some long-standing hockey towns. Or that some franchises are badly run and poorly located, a reality that won't be altered by any of the changes meant to make the game more appealing. "The National Hockey League is going to continue to go through peaks and valleys and I don't think it's constructive for anybody to focus on the significant upticks or hand-wring too much over any of the shortcomings," said David Carter, the executive director of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute. "In the macro sense, the league is coming back. In a micro sense, looking market to market, there are certainly challenges."
While Nashville has a ways to go, the reason they’re establishing themselves as a hockey market has everything to do with how they’re marketing the game:
Here’s how tough it is to crack a non-traditional hockey market. The Predators have done everything right in Nashville. Under the new rules of the game, the smartly run franchise has emerged as an entertaining team with marketable young stars who play winning hockey. And thanks to the NHL’s new revenue-sharing formula, the club had extra millions to pump into player acquisitions and salaries this season.
Yet it has boosted its season-ticket base to only 8,300 from 6,348 before the lockout. These are not actual season-ticket holders, but what teams call full-season equivalents, the total number of half-season, 13-game packages and the like that most clubs sell, divided by 41 games. That’s well short of where the club needs to be to get on a sound economic footing.
“We need to get close to 10,000 FSE and the revenue that generates to stay competitive,” Violetta said. “The growth will have to come from the Nashville business community.”
Yet Nashville is doing much better than such established franchises as the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Islanders and St. Louis Blues, all of which illustrate that if given enough time, inept management and bad hockey teams can turn off even the most loyal fans.
Nashville ranks 22nd in the league with an average attendance of 15,652 after three home dates. Chicago is 28th with average crowds of 12,372 after four home games, the Islanders 29th (11,692) and the Blues last (11,599). The Hawks have the most empty seats, nearly 40 per cent in a stadium that holds 20,500 people.
You can sell hockey in Nashville, though it takes time and effort to generate returns on your investment, and you can equally sell yourself out of a great hockey market by telling your fans that they’re privileged to have to overpay for an inferior hockey product.
For Red Wings fans, that doesn’t mean that Detroit will become the next Chicago—the team does draft well, at least—but given the seams of seats forming in the Joe this October, it’s arguable that at least 1/4 of the rink will be empty on those awful “Central Division Repeat” nights in January.
The Red Wings’ front office doesn’t seem to understand that even a good on-ice product isn’t enough when you treat your paying customers poorly. It’s also arguable that the PR staff can’t or won’t comprehend the fact that that openly resenting fans who don’t own season tickets worsens the situation.
Jimmy Devellano, John Hahn, and the rest of the Wings’ front office believe that barely acknowledging the existence of their season ticket-holders creates an “air of exclusivity.” If they stopped looking at Detroit hockey fans down the length of their noses, they’d realize that their actions create an entirely different kind of smell.
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