After over 100 days of stupidity ended with the new collective bargaining agreement this week, the NHL can now turn its attention to two far more important items: playing hockey and winning back its fans. The first will be quite easy, as players are chomping at the bit to get back on the ice. The second? Well, that might take a bit more effort as fans around the country are organizing boycotts and swearing they will not attend many games and not purchase NHL merchandise.
The fans have every right to be upset after a third work stoppage under Gary Bettman and the stall tactics used by both the owners and union leader Donald Fehr. The league and its teams have a long road of winning backs fans, but here a few suggestions to get the ball rolling.
Give 50% off tickets to each team’s first five home games: In theory, this would cost the owners money. However, if fans are seriously considering a game boycott, this could help prevent it. It would be a show of good faith by the owners to the fans, sort of an apology for the wrin
ger the league put the fans through yet again. The bonus to the owners would be the concession sales and merchandise sales that inevitably come with larger fan attendance.
Throw in a few freebies … In addition to the 50% off tickets, give every fan who attends a free hot dog, popcorn or soda. It would again be a show of goodwill, and would likely spur additional purchases during the course of the game. It also might not hurt to give every fan who attends opening night for each team a free team t-shirt. The long-term benefits would outweigh any short-term costs.
Get out in the community: Players and team staff need to be visible in the community the rest of this season. This means street hockey clinics at schools, youth hockey clinics, youth street hockey tournaments in parking lots of arenas, visiting hospitals, doing charity work in the community, maybe participating in neighborhood clean-up days – anything that gives something back to the communities in which these players live and the teams play.
Free Center Ice for a month: Give every fan access to the Center Ice package at no cost for the first month of the season (through February 16). Providing access to one of the most exciting games on Earth is perhaps the surest way to get fans back into watching hockey. If you hook them in with exciting games that they otherwise would not get the chance to see (and allow time to heal some of the wounds of the lockout), fans are more likely to pay for the package later in the season. Though some fans might be willing from day one to order the Center Ice package, the number will be much higher come mid- to late-February.
Post-game autograph sessions: Kids only! A great way to interact with the future of the game and make parents and kids
be glad you are back. The Worcester Sharks, and other AHL teams, hold a 45-minute, on-the-ice, autograph session after a couple games during the season. This is a great marketing tool and really brings in the young fan and the families.
Stanley Cup Tour: Bring the most storied trophy in sports to every city for at least a day, and allow fans to take pictures with the Cup for free. Most fans cannot get to Toronto, and only a handful every year get to experience their team winning the Cup (good thing the Hockey Hall of Fame is in Toronto, or Maple Leafs’ fans would never see it), so bringing it from town to town would be exciting, even for the casual fan.
Winning back the fans won’t be easy, but these would be a great start. Of course, providing exciting, well-played hockey games is the best way to win back fans in the long-term. Drop the puck!
Steve Kendall is a longtime writer, coach, and player within the hockey world and USA Hockey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at stevekendallthw.
Steve has been a writer for 20 years, and has covered the NHL, NCAA, and amateur hockey for the likes of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, the Boston Herald, and New England Hockey Journal. Follow me on twitter @stevekendallthw