July 14, 2005
Imagine arriving at the Air Canada Centre only to be glad-handed by a
smiling-for-the-disposable-cameras Mats Sundin, dressed in full equipment
and running shoes, in the concourse minutes before the Leafs' opening
Or sitting on the bench during your favourite team's warmup. Or taking an
honorary pre-game, on-ice slapshot. Or voting on NHL awards.
The buzzword is "intimacy" as the NHL re-brands itself after a season-long
lockout. And all those ideas are being considered as the league looks for
ways to allow fans to "touch" and "feel" the game while reconnecting to the
"We have a need, and we're very aware of it, to restore the intimacy the fan
has with our game and our players," said Bernadette Mansur, a league
spokesperson. "For the first time, we'll have a true partnership with the
players. We're going to get the players involved."
Mansur, along with many of the NHL's clubs, declines to reveal specifics of
what is in the works to entice customers back after freezing them out for a
year. But clearly the weekly conference calls among the teams' marketing
people have hit upon the common theme of reconnecting ticket buyers to the
"I think our fans are going to expect to have more access to the product,"
said Michael Yormark, chief operating officer for the Florida Panthers.
"They're going to want to touch it and feel it more than they ever have in
the past. They're going to want to develop that emotional connection to our
players. Those are things we're going to have to provide them."
Hockey won't be an easy sell in non-traditional markets like Florida. It
won't be enough, as it might be here in Toronto, to throw open the arena
Larry Rauch, a hockey agent based in Florida, says, "People in the game have
to realize it's the sixth, seventh or eighth sport right now."
He said he watches with trepidation as televised events such as poker,
women's softball and college baseball draw bigger television numbers in the
U.S. than hockey did when it was last played.
"Hockey can come back," he said. "But it's going to take a protracted effort
from everyone in the game to win back the confidence of the casual fans."
To that end, some teams - including Anaheim, Chicago, St. Louis, Phoenix,
San Jose and New York - have announced ticket-price reductions with the
emphasis on giving season-ticket holders a break. The Ducks, for example,
have rolled back prices for their 14,000 subscriber-held tickets an average
of 5.28 per cent. Another 1,500 seats are dropping from $25 each to $9.50
for subscribers and the team has unveiled a buy-two, get-two sales promotion
in certain sections.
The biggest discount so far is being offered by the Coyotes: a free pair of
tickets for the entire season to subscribers who renew a pair of tickets.
The Ducks will also offer season-ticket holders free parking, free food and
free non-alcoholic beverages at the team's first three home games.
At the 2004 All-Star Game, league commissioner Gary Bettman said, "I believe
with the right economic system, many, many, if not most of our teams, will
actually lower ticket prices. I believe we owe it to our fans to have lower
While some cities, such as Toronto, have no plans to reduce prices, several
other clubs were waiting for formal CBA details before deciding and Bettman
may yet see that majority achieved. Twelve teams have so far committed to
Whether reduced pricing and increased connections with players is enough of
an inducement for the fans won't be clear until the games begin. Jim Boone,
the Ottawa-based president of the 27,500-member NHL Fan Association,
believes fans will bite back after a season of being ignored and abused.
"There's a lot of pent-up anger, regardless of what is done for the fans on
the ice or off the ice," he said. "Those fans have already made up their
minds how they are going to seek retribution. They are saying things like,
'I'm not going to renew season tickets' or 'I'm never going to buy another
jersey.' They're spelling out how to get back at the league."
Understanding the need to reach out to its customers, the Panthers have
already begun what they call a "guerrilla marketing" campaign with more than
5,000 lawn signs placed on roadsides and in south Florida neighbourhoods.
They read: "There's a cold front moving in." Closer inspection reveals the
Florida Panthers logo and a phone number to call to buy tickets. Yormark
said it's designed to create a buzz about hockey again.
And Yormark is one of the hockey executives who want that buzz to continue
once the fans arrive at the game. He enthusiastically embraces ideas that
connect the players to the fans, whether it be autograph sessions, kids'
hockey clinics or glad-handing in the concourse.
"When people walk in that building on opening night, they need to see a
different type of product. They need to have a different experience," he
said. "It needs to be electrifying. It needs to be fan friendly."