Numberscruncher: Mass, Class, and the Blackhawks

Written by Current Events, Numberscruncher

The Chicago Blackhawks are one of the great sports turnaround stories. Yeah, they won the Stanley Cup, and we’re all happy about that here in Chicago, but the big story is how the team went from almost no fan base to a huge one. I was at the home opener in 2006 as a guest of the team’s old ad agency. There was hardly anyone at the United Center that evening. Three years later, the Hawks sold out every game.

What changed? It wasn’t just a winning team, as loyal fans will come out to see a team lose. Chicagoans are not fair-weather fans. The problem is that Bill Wirtz, the owner of the team, believed that his target customer was the season-ticket holder. He did not allow home games to be broadcast, because then why would people buy season tickets? (Eventually, the ratings were so low on the away games that the stations dropped the Hawks entirely.) He did not run many single-ticket discounts, because that would insult the season-ticket holder who had paid full price. If the stadium was empty except for a handful of season-ticket holders and a group paid for by the team’s ad agency, well, so be it.

His short-sightedness was especially glaring given the change in media. There are about six million people in the Chicago area, and the United Center seats about 20,000. Even if every seat was held by a season-ticket holder, it would seem possible that there were more than 20,000 potential hockey fans in Chicago who might watch games on TV and buy throwback Bobby Hull sweaters. In sports, you can make a lot of money from people who never once go to the stadium. Your target market is huge!

Businesses need to know their target customers, obviously, but some define that too narrowly. I try to shop at locally owned businesses, but I’ve had terrible service at some of them. I think that the owners have a clear idea of who their target customer is, and they aren’t prepared to deal with someone who doesn’t fit. Jack Black’s character in High Fidelity is a perfect example of someone whose taste interferes with his ability to make a living.  But are there enough connoisseurs out there to support any business? I have often had better service at chain stores than at independent stores simply because a mass retailer strategy acknowledges that anyone walking in the door is a potential customer, no matter how badly dressed or how interested in top-ten hits.

And trust me, I want to love small businesses. My family eats at the same local restaurant almost every Friday night because the food is good and the service is better. And I can name some restaurants that I will never enter again because the staff pulled a lot of attitude. (Of course, I find that these places do not stay in business long.)

For all of the mixed emotions that Cubs fans have for the Tribune Company era, Tribune realized that Chicago Cubs games would fill airtime on WGN, both the local television and radio stations and the cable superstation. Farmers in Iowa could listen to games from the cabs of their combines while retirees in Florida could watch games on TV. Both would spend money on ball caps even if they never bought a ticket at Wrigley Field. And even if they did not have season tickets, they would still be welcome in the stands – especially if they bought beer and scorecards.

The Blackhawks lost fans during the Bill Wirtz era. No one fell in love with the team enough to buy their first season ticket package, and a lot of old fans became disgusted and let their subscriptions lapse. No one followed the team on television and took their kids to the stadium on a bargain ticket day. The Hawks played to an empty arena, which had to be depressing for the players.

Bill Wirtz died, and his son took over. Almost immediately, he started advertising, looked for a television partner, and held some promo nights. And almost immediately, the Hawks became part of the city again.

And no, the Wirtz family didn’t sell out. They brought in good coaches and scouts to pull together a great team. The team is popular with the masses, but that doesn’t make it bad. The lesson? You can care about what you do and have high standards without alienating people who have less passion.