Canucks and Beyond

200 and Counting

01/29/2008 at 4:14pm EST

“Orca Bay” is no more—the Vancouver Canucks’ operating company underwent a long-overdue name change today: Canucks Sports & Entertainment.

And it’s a big day for the new company, as tonight’s game represents the team’s 200th consecutive sellout. Which is all well and good, but team president Chris Zimmerman isn’t taking anything for granted, either:

...Zimmerman doesn’t want to hear comparisons to the sold-out-from-now-to-eternity Toronto Maple Leafs.

“That’s an incredibly dangerous thing that I would never say,” Zimmerman said. “We talk all the time about ‘don’t take any of this for granted.’ Loyalty can be a fragile thing.”

Especially in Vancouver, which has historically been a fickle market.

That’s for sure.

Matthew Sekeres in the Globe & Mail provides a chart documenting attendance over the past 15 years:

1993-94: 15,226

1994-95: 13,932

1995-96: 17,795

1996-97: 17,320

1997-98: 17,119

1998-99: 15,803

1999-00: 14,649

2000-01: 17,017

2001-02: 17,713

2002-03: 18,396

2003-04: 18,630

2004-05: No season

2005-06: 18,630

2006-07: 18,630

2007-08: 18,630 (through 25 games)

The 1994-95 season certainly jumps out at you, considering it followed on the heels of an exciting Stanley Cup run. But the numbers are a bit misleading, too, given that season was locked out till January, and fans were just as unimpressed with a huge jump in ticket prices.

So what turned it around? Former GM Brian Burke indicates three factors were at work, which Sekeres explains here:

First, the Canucks began concentrating on group sales, believing that getting people into GM Place, even with discounted tickets, would keep them coming back.

Second, the team’s style of play changed to suit Burke’s fiery personality. Crawford instituted an up-tempo style that produced goals and fights and one of the NHL’s best lines in Markus Naslund, Brendan Morrison and Todd Bertuzzi.

Third, after a five-year absence, the Canucks returned to the postseason in 2001.

So what will sustain the success and profits now?

The first factor is obliterated by success—you don’t offer discounts when you have no tickets to sell.

The second factor is obliterated by circumstances—this team is playing such an utterly different style from the Crawford era, you’re hard-pressed to consider it the same sport.

And the third factor… well, the blush of making the playoffs is no longer an exciting goal—the market now expects it. And more.

Zimmerman knows all this, knows that the team’s profitable ways can’t go on forever purely based on the product (and he sure can’t count on them to win the Stanley Cup!), so he aims to make the team part of the fans’ very identity. Win or lose.

This former executive for Nike had a very clear goal with his marketing. “We Are All Canucks” was no accidental catch-phrase—it’s the branding that Zimmerman believes will take the Canucks over the top—brand-wise—with the goal being to achieve Maple Leafs- and Canadiens -type fan loyalty.

“The one thing those franchises might have on us is longer histories,” Zimmerman said. “[But] we want to create something that, over time, has that kind of brand power and fan affinity.”

I guess we’ll see. Creating a brand like those historic teams requires exactly that… “history.” But I suppose the Leafs have proven that marketing can also overcome a whole generation of losing, too.

I’m perfectly aware that Canucks’ fans are fickle (and sort of nuts—judging by call-in radio shows, anyway). But I suspect the same is also true everywhere else in this country. Vancouver is just one of the easier targets for criticism, never having won the Cup.

And yet we still insist on keeping hope alive. Go figure.

I’m sure some Oilers’ or Flames’ fan will comment or email shortly to remind me why we shouldn’t bother…

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