Monday, October 14, 2013

Is Columbus a Hockey Town yet?

I've been having some back-channel dialogue with a friend about this past Saturday's Columbus Blue Jackets matinee home game against the Boston Bruins and thought I'd share to get your thoughts.

If you're reading this blog and don't know the lengths to which the Blue Jackets marketing folks built up the game experience for Saturday, I'd be very, very surprised.  Taking advantage of the Ohio State football bye week, the team moved the game from the usual 7PM puck drop to 2PM.  (Cue the reminder email from CBJ Central about the time change.)  They also had a pregame 'tailgate' starting at 11AM on the Front Street plaza outside Nationwide Arena, complete with food, beverages, games and a little music - but I can't recall if that was live music or piped in over the Arena District outdoor speakers.  Beyond that, the team was going to do an autograph session around the arena after the game.  (Cue the reminder email from CBJ Central about the party and autographs.)

Around the middle of last week, said friend shoots me a quick note, the text of which being this:
So, the Jackets have to 1) tailgate 2) pick-a-seat and 3) autograph session it up for a Saturday game against the Bruins? #HockeyTown

I forgot about the pick-a-seat component, being a ticket package holder already.  But the point is a fair one.  Is it possible for the Blue Jackets have done more to hype this game outside of having the defending Eastern Conference champs in town for the game?  Oh wait, they DID have the defending Eastern Conference champs in town.

So in the back and forth, I got to the crux of the matter.  He felt that the add-on components were over the top when you consider that the Bruins - a marquee team, Original Six and all that stuff that Tim reminded us about - were the opponent.  In a Hockey Town, the Bruins as the opponent alone should have sold the tickets.

I played nice on this one, giving the CBJ the benefit of the doubt.  It was a matinee game, I said.  Matinees grab a more family-oriented audience, I said.  The over-inflated event might help make some kiddos fans for life, I said.  (Knowing, of course, that mine would have rather had Zdeno Chara's autograph.  Sigh.)  So yeah, the Bruins should have been enough, but this was about family fun and fan-building, too...not just hockey, I said.  Give the CBJ a pass on this one, I said.

Then I went to the game.  Dressed in a Bruins sweater, granted, but I was there and filled a seat.  I was floored at how empty the arena was.

Officially, the attendance number was 14,092.  In an 18,500-seat Nationwide Arena, that's only three-quarters full on the presumption that every single person with a ticket was in the seats.

What gives?  I mean, think about it:
  • It was an OSU bye week, and there were no incredibly huge community events to keep people away.  
  • It was a Saturday matinee game with all the pre- and post-game trimmings, surely to appeal to families.
  • It was the Boston freaking Bruins.
All that, and three-quarters full?  Oh man. I gave the team a pass for their (over-)hype of the game, but I can't fathom how they must be feeling after exerting all that effort only to see nearly a quarter of the seats sit unoccupied.  

HockeyDB's yearly breakdown of average announced
attendance for Columbus Blue Jackets home games
I've had a theory about the Blue Jackets fanbase for a while, and it seems like a good time to rehash it.  Since the team's attendance implosion that started after the 2005 NHL lockout and continued through the end of Doug Maclean's reign and on through Scott Howson's (bottoming out in 2010), the Blue Jackets fanbase has coalesced into a small, ridiculously loyal bunch. And great for them.  They're getting all the perks of fandom and more...because they're the ones who show up.

Problem is, as I see it, Columbus' casual sports fans haven't picked up the Blue Jackets baton again.  That's no indictment of the diehard fans, not in the least.  The diehard fans are keeping this team going in this town while they wait for the casual fans to come back.  (That and a really, really rich man in John McConnell.)  But it's one thing to survive, another to thrive and become a Hockey Town.  

No, it's all on the team.  I know that they're working their hardest to crack this nut - they're making moves to put a consistent winner on the ice, they're making players available to the public in a host of venues and they're pricing their tickets almost as cheaply as the Florida Panthers.  What more can they do?  I hope that is the question that they're asking themselves in their internal conversations.

I don't know.  I offer no answers.  But gee, 76% of capacity when the team gave the community all of those reasons to swing by and catch a pretty good team play a pretty good game against the best team in the conference?

No, Columbus isn't a Hockey Town.  Not yet.  Maybe someday, but not yet.  

9 comments:

  1. I was also there, and thought there would be more seats filled. A couple things came to mind...

    1) A hot finish and "almost playoffs" wasn't enough to supplant most of the, "Same old Jackets..." type people. In fairness, until this year, "Same old Jackets," was about the right way to sum up the team for most of its history.

    2) It was a nice day out.

    3) No OSU game means a lot of people thought, "Oh look, I've got the afternoon free!"

    4) The league moved the game to 2PM for International Viewers...or so we've been told...not the team. I have a feeling a 7PM start would have drawn a bigger crowd.

    But, I agree with you, we're not a hockey town, not yet. We've got a good base going. Good youth hockey programs that are spreading further from Columbus (Newark for a few years, new rink in Springfield, etc), and a good adult league in town. We'll get there. Once our kids are the ones buying tickets...

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  2. Everyone I know in Columbus had a wedding to go to...In Ohio, in the fall, OSU bye weeks are one of the busiest wedding weekends of the year...

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    1. weak excuse, I know, but I think a legit one

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  3. Remember Racetothe Crown, we live in a market where our media members BLAST other market's fans for not showing up to marquee games.

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  4. I like this article quite a bit. I also think it's worth noting that current noteworthy Hockey Towns Pittsburgh and Chicago were in a much worse situation pre-lockout (the full season one, not the newest one). Heck, Chicago didn't get above 85% home capacity in a season until 2008-09, the first time the Toews/Kane version of their team made the playoffs. To that end, I think playoffs are the key to getting butts back in seats. And I also think that if we believe in the Davidson-run build of the franchise, then we aren't far from a team that will bring the people back.

    All the bells and whistles, free stuff, pomp and circumstance in the world won't help if the the on-ice product isn't generating interest on its own. I appreciate the (underrated, MSM under-reported) efforts of the club to reach out to get people interested (and I enjoy reaping some of the benefits), but the casual outsiders probably didn't notice (or even get) any of those email reminders. They'll notice again when a playoff run kicks in. That's when the dormant hockey town becomes a real one. The groundwork is in place (an organizational culture of fanservice, a shift to an accountable set of hockey management personnel), now we wait.

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  5. It also maybe needs to be said that the Jackets *HAVE* to win at home. The crapped the bed on Opening Night, and they crapped the bed in the big-Saturday-no-OSU-all-CBJ-matinee. Like you said, the die-hards will always come. If you lose big games at home, you won't sell out. It's as simple as that.

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  6. Capacity is 18,144 so the arena was actually 78% full.

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  7. I have researched attendance & pro sports; the variable with the greatest weight to improving attendance is winning. And usually the fan base only grows after the team has had consistent success. New stadiums & arenas slightly improve the number of fans; most promotions have a lesser effect than the weather does.
    I expect the Jacket fans to come out this year (there's already an improvement over last year). Winning is the only thing that matters in sports!
    _Rick

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  8. Nope. All you have to do is look at the ratings for the NHL playoffs the last few years in this market - dreadful. I think the SC Finals drew maybe a 2.0 rating in Cbus. There's a base, as you mentioned, of 12K-14K who will show up. The remaining 6-8K will come when there is a "playoff push." The team is not converting casual sports fans into hockey fans.

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