Chicago Blackhawks hockey winning the hearts and wallets of fans

Chicago Blackhawks success bringing fans backFresh from helping to rescue the team from irrelevance in the local market, Chicago Blackhawks management now has an almost equally vexing task: preventing the franchise from becoming too popular.

Hockey's hottest young team has brought the fans out of hibernation, filling the cavernous United Center with more than 21,000 rabid red-sweatered rooters for each game, leading the NHL in attendance. But top team brass, transplanted from the hyper-popular Cubs, realize they must still build a fan base beyond what was for so long branded "cult status." The old saying in Chicago was there were 40,000 hockey fans in Chicago, and half of them were at the arena.

Even though the Hawks could easily sell out the building with season ticket-holders wire to wire, management has capped the season-ticket count at around 14,000, up from 3,400 at the start of the 2007-08 season. That leaves about 6,000 seats and 1,000 standing-room only tickets to be sold game by game.

"We have 6,000 on waiting list for any kind of season tickets," said Jay Blunk, senior vice president of business operations. "We wanted the remaining 7,000 to go to youth groups, bus groups, church groups, charities, and we wanted as many people as possible to experience Blackhawks hockey. We didn't want to isolate it to 21,000 people. Our Cubs years taught us, when you ingrain the team into popular culture with bus trips [from] synagogues, churches, scout groups, they're going to come back each year regardless of team performance."

A self-proclaimed fan of all-time sports promoter Bill Veeck, Blunk did not believe when he and team president John McDonough moved over from baseball that a Hawks' revival was a sure thing. "There were questions whether this would come back," he said. But shrewd drafting of the likes of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews just before Blunk and McDonough arrived ensured the on-ice product would improve from decade-long doldrums. But both the business and hockey operations, linked up in formal communication under popular owner Rocky Wirtz, know they must not get prematurely heady with the early success. The fan base still needs further building.

Yet Blunk and McDonough hope to capitalize on existing youth hockey programs to lure new fans for the long term. "There are more than 60 rinks in the [Chicago] area," Blunk said. "Most big cities have three or four major rinks. We needed credibility in the marketplace."

With heavy demand even for the single-game tickets and seats snapped up in advance, an average fan usually cannot go to the box office for a same-day contest. However, the Hawks have instituted a "ticket exchange" program on their Web site so fans can buy seats that season-ticket holders cannot use for individual games.

Prices range from $25 to $60 in the upper "300" level, where the single-game tickets are located and the hoi polloi of fans reside, to $120 to $165 for the main level. Seats in the first row on the glass go for $355. Blunk and McDonough know full well the economy has battered many fans' discretionary income, and have exercised caution in hiking prices. Season-ticket prices were frozen this season.

"We [management] spend a considerable amount of time together, we really understand the market sensitivities, recognizing we have a real good product on the ice," McDonough said. "We rank 22nd in the league in ticket prices. Every decision we make here is made by a group of very seasoned, bright people."

Said Blunk: "Our argument is if you're building a relationship with someone, be conscious of the economy. We've had feedback from fans who said I'd never leave because you're in tune with me. But there will be times when we'll be forced to adjust prices here and there."

The Hawks had a sellout streak of 77 through the game of February 3. In the old Chicago Stadium, closed in 1994, games in the Bobby Hull era would draw up to 20,000 with attendance announced at "16,666" with a nod to the city fire marshall and the building's recognized legal capacity. But actual crowd counts in 2003-04 watching a mediocre team dipped as low as 6,000 at the United Center, while the Hawks charitably announced the gate as around 10,000.

Interest dipped so low the city's sports-talk radio stations discouraged hockey talk. The season-long NHL lockout of players in 2004-05 made the Hawks truly invisible. If you ranked Chicago's top four teams, they might have been fifth.

Worst of all, then-Hawks owner Bill Wirtz, Rocky Wirtz's father, continued his family's long-standing prohibition of televising home games. So why did Bill Wirtz, an otherwise smart businessman running a huge liquor distributorship, not see any relationship between TV and higher attendance?

"Three words...honor thy father," said Tim Cronin, a longtime Blackhawks and sports broadcasting historian who has covered the team for the Daily Southtown-Star and AP since 1978. "Dad didn't do it, so neither would he. He was that loyal to his dad. Bill once said to his kids, when I die, you can do what you want."

That's exactly what Rocky Wirtz did when he took over as owner after Bill Wirtz passed away in 2007. One of his first proclamations was all Hawks home games would be televised starting in 2008-09. Combined with the rise of hockey product, the younger Wirtz has become a hero to his fans. He often accepts accolades when he moves around from his seat 13 rows up to the left of the goal into which the Hawks shoot in the first and third periods. His relationship with fans is 180 degrees different than his father, a target of derision for decades.

"Rocky is the antithesis of the micromanager," said McDonough, who was lured away from the Cubs' presidency by Wirtz late in 2007 to head his management team. "We keep him in the loop on everything, but when he hires someone he allows him to do his job. Obviously his input is valuable. It's always important to get a lot of opinions. I think Rocky has a better grasp of the big picture than anyone I've ever met.

"He's become the king of accessibility. He unique in that way in that sits among the fans and enjoys the interaction. He's a salesman by trade. People interaction comes naturally. He's warm, and you can't teach that. He understands that having a relationship with the fans is crucial."

Wirtz also has brought back legends like Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito to serve as team ambassadors after they were frozen out for years, likely by Bob Pulford, Bill Wirtz's top lieutenant, who apparently still held grudges from his playing days against the old Hawks stars.

Two years into the new regime, the Hawks are now the winter toast of the town, overtaking the NBA's Bulls in popularity. A recent Bulls-Clippers game featured some 5,000 empty seats. The Hawks now are welcome as sports-talk show grist. The Chicago Sun-Times now assigns two writers to cover the team nightly. The Chicago Tribune recently ran a Thursday feature section devoted to the team, with a graphic explaining basic hockey terms like icing and a guide to bar-hopping around the United Center.

The feel-good story, of course, won't be complete until the Hawks win the Stanley Cup, which has eluded them since 1961, only 16 fewer years since the Cubs -- masters of the championship drought -- last played in a World Series. Until then, the brass is happy with the progress made so far while calibrating not making the Hawks too exclusive of an event.

"This is one of the greatest come-from-behind stories in the history of sports, in my opinion," Blunk said. "It's a great story about the fans and their resurgence, not about us. It's a very special relationship between this team and the city of Chicago."

Read Full Story