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For NHL, it's time to get out there and sell, sell, sell
While some see an opportunity to reinvent themselves, others, such as the Lightning, are just eager to play.
By BRANT JAMES
Published July 19, 2005
Some teams might see the end of the 301-day NHL lockout and the need to start over. And dread it.
Some might see the chance to start over. And can't wait.
Officials in several marketing departments subscribe to the latter, specifically those who think their existing talent, the supposedly leveled economic landscape provided by the new collective-bargaining agreement and their markets' potential make the time ripe for a reset.
"I'd argue we have as good an opportunity as we've ever had," said Chad Johnson, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Florida Panthers. "We get to go out and reintroduce the game of hockey. We get to go out and remarket and rebrand ourselves, say: "Hey, hockey is coming back and we're coming back and it's going to be better than before."'
This critical business of convincing corporate sponsors, season-ticket holders and broadcast networks that hockey has evolved will begin in earnest late this week when players and owners are expected to ratify the CBA.
The Panthers have taken to the streets with their efforts to re-energize South Florida's fickle populous. Office Depot Center and team employees have been supplied with election-style yard signs, cling decals and sunscreen packs with the slogan "Florida Panthers: There's a Cold Front Moving In" as the first wave of an aggressive marketing campaign. Their mission: Put stuff everywhere.
That includes Panthers players, Johnson said. The team will "put faces out there and let people touch and feel them.
"We're going to take them into the communities," he said. "There's going to be street hockey games breaking out in the streets of our neighborhoods with kids and their favorite Panther players."
Nashville vice president of communications and development Gerry Helper, the Lightning's vice president of communications from 1991-97, said his organization relishes the chance for a do-over. The Predators, who entered the league in 1998, earned their first playoff berth in 2003-04, but finished third worst in league attendance. They sold out their home playoff games against Detroit, however.
Nashville hired Steve Violetta, a former executive with baseball's San Diego Padres and Pittsburgh and Ottawa NHL franchises, as executive vice president of business affairs because, Helper said, "You really only get one shot at this."
"To get another kick at that can so soon after the launch, particularly in a newer market like this, is unusual," he said. "I know how significant a challenge we had in launching the franchise in the first place and with any expansion team you go through the initial euphoria and the novelty, and unless you're really active free-agentwise, you're not going to match up with expectations for a couple of years as you start stockpiling your young players."
Helper maintains an optimistic view that hockey was gone long enough for his football-crazy town to appreciate what it had taken for granted. "Maybe that will bring them back more than before," he said. "There is no scientific data to support that, but just the feel from a lot of Rotary Club functions and Kiwanis breakfasts and a lot of personal interactions with people."
The Lightning's marketing job figures to be easier when it can trot out a Stanley Cup and raise a championship banner on opening night.
"They love, they want a competitive team," Lightning president Ron Campbell said. "If you show your fans you have a chance to win and want to win, they get emotionally involved and everybody believes we will have that for years to come."
Many teams will ask forgiveness by lowering ticket prices, especially for season-ticket holders.
"Ticket prices will be dropping," Columbus president and general manager Doug MacLean said of the Blue Jackets' approach. "Our motivation is we want to reward loyalty, so our first priority is to season-ticket holders."
Pittsburgh announced in 2004 that season-ticket prices would be lowered by 6 to 45 percent, with 61 percent of seats priced at $30 or less. Many teams are considering variable pricing, adjusting cost by perceived demand, which is a factor of date, seat and opponent.
Calgary president Ken King apparently does not believe his rabid fan base needs concessions after jamming the Saddledome during the Flames' run to the Stanley Cup final. He has hinted in the Canadian media that ticket prices - already among the lowest in the NHL - will remain firm. Carolina and the New York Islanders also plan to hold the line.
The Lightning will sell 3,000 upper bowl seats per game at $19, the cheapest for those seats in the St. Pete Times Forum's history.
According to Campbell, the Lightning has sold more than $2-million worth of season-ticket packages since reports on July 7 indicating a settlement was near. The team sold more than $500,000 worth Friday, Campbell said.
"Unbelievable," he said. "They remembered June 7 and the Stanley Cup going over Dave Andreychuk's head. Hockey is healthy in Tampa Bay."