- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 26, 2005

There’s selling ice to the eskimos. And then there’s selling ice hockey to disaffected sports fans.

The NHL, newly minted with a labor deal and salary cap, now faces its toughest marketing challenge in league history as all 30 teams feverishly begin ticket sales for the 2005-06 season. But each team is re-entering the marketplace with at least one significant sales promotion, ranging from sharply reduced prices to free tickets and jersey giveaways. Most clubs are offering fans an extensive package of benefits.

Many teams around the league yesterday announced their ticket sales promotions for the upcoming campaign. And the aggressive salesmanship is widely seen as a key tool in the uncertain effort to win back a fan base that in many corners did not miss the NHL during its season-long absence.

“There are a lot of simple things about affordability and closer access to the game we heard over and over and over from fans during the lockout,” said Chris McGowan, vice president of sales and marketing for the Los Angeles Kings. “So what we’re now doing is delivering on those requests. One of the silver linings of this work stoppage is we had a lot of time to really get in touch with our fans and listen to everything they had to say. During the normal course of the season and the short offseason, there just isn’t as much time to do that.”

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman did not require teams to cut ticket prices. But each club has made or planned some sort of fan-friendly move in this area because market forces simply required it. Fan polls conducted during the lockout, which wiped out the 2004-05 season, routinely showed high levels of apathy. And replacement programming last winter on ESPN, until recently the lead cable TV home for the NHL, easily beat viewership totals previously posted by hockey.

The magic number in the effort to beat that fan malaise is $10, the price of hundreds — and in some cases thousands — of seats a game. Chicago yesterday joined a fast-growing group of teams putting season tickets on sale for that price on a per-game basis. By assigning nearly 2,700 seats a game to the $10 category, the Blackhawks’ average season ticket price this fall will be less than 1994-95, the team’s first season in United Center.

“We’ve made a very aggressive move and sought to take the issue of price right out of the equation as we get going again,” said Mike Gilbert, spokesman for the Buffalo Sabres, which yesterday similarly announced ticket price rollbacks of 12 to 28 percent at HSBC Arena, the largest such cuts in franchise history. “We’re now in a situation where we can compete directly with the movies on price and in some circumstances beat it.”

The Sabres and a handful of other clubs also are implementing variable pricing for single-game seats. The plan more closely adjusts ticket prices to account for the day of the week and the popularity of the opponent and similarly has found favor in baseball.

The Washington Capitals were among the teams that created much of their post-lockout ticket promotion strategy before the work stoppage. The Caps reduced 2005-06 ticket prices an average of 11 percent compared to 2003-04 and again are allowing fans to pay for season tickets in monthly installments, similar to a car payment.

Most teams around the league are supplementing the price cuts with merchandise giveaways and extensive schedules of events to meet players and management. Many of these types of activities also predate the lockout but will return to the NHL this season with far more frequency and intensity. The Kings, for example, plan regular focus group sessions with season ticket holders, extending a data collection campaign conducted during the lockout.

“This is a very different time, obviously. But we’ve put ourselves in a position to grow the sport of hockey back up and reconnect with the market and the fan base in a very real way,” said Jim Sofranko, the Blackhawks’ executive director of marketing and new business development.

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