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Kate Hollencamp/MEDILL

Blackhawks attendance went from second to last in the NHL in 2007 to first in the league this year. 

Losing may be the secret to Blackhawks president’s success

by Kate Hollencamp
Feb 11, 2009



Fans flock to Wrigley Field for the 2009 Winter Classic. The Blackhawks/Cubs partnership is one of several ways in which the hockey team is gaining ground throughout Chicago.

The Blackhawks' Signs of Life

Rising ratings
Last April the Blackhawks partnered with Comcast SportsNet Chicago and WGN to air all regular-season games and playoff series for the first time. The team tested the waters of regional broadcast in their 2007 and 2008 seasons, airing select games on the sports network. This year ratings have increased 83 percent from the same point last season, jumping from an average local rating of 0.6 to 1.1, representing more than 1 million households.

Sellout streaks
In 2006 the Colorado Avalanche ended the longest recorded sellout streak in NHL history at 487 games. Game 488, was when the Blackhawks came to town. Not only were other teams’ fans disinterested in the Hawks, but the United Center has long been half-empty. Well, ticket tides have turned: Last month, the Blackhawks played for their 23rd sellout crowd in 23 games.

Profitable paraphernalia
Blackhawks tickets aren’t the only things selling out. Sales of Blackhawks merchandise have more than doubled since last year, according to Sports Business Daily. Sound like a lot? They’ve sextupled since 2005.

Imagine the Blackhawks went an entire season without winning.

For seasoned Chicago hockey fans, picturing the 0-82 season might not seem like much of a stretch. And that’s just what Blackhawks President John McDonough asked his front office to consider at the start this season.

“You have to assume every win is a bonus,” McDonough said, “because you can’t count on team performance.”

Speaking at a Publicity Club of Chicago luncheon, McDonough said the team has an obligation to market itself 12 months a year, win or lose.  That’s a lesson he said he learned well after more than 20 years with the Chicago Cubs, but the marketing maven focused his lecture Wednesday on his latest triumph: The resurgence of the Chicago Blackhawks (29-14-8 before Wednesday night's game).

While casual fans credit the team’s turnaround to rookie sensations and off-season acquisitions, business leaders, historians and longtime Hawks fans know new leadership played an even larger role. The team’s reins changed hands in 2007, when W. "Rocky" Wirtz took over for his father Bill, who passed away shortly before the start of the season.

In one of his first acts as chairman, Rocky Wirtz called then-Cubs President McDonough and laid his cards out on the table.

“He said, ‘I want you to be president of the Chicago Blackhawks,’” McDonough recalled. “I said, Rocky, I’ve got a pretty good job.”

“But as he was explaining this, I remembered my youth,” McDonough said, “and I remembered what the Blackhawks were like in the '60s and '70s.” That’s when McDonough realized he had the chance to reinvent himself, along with an entire organization.

And reinvent, he did. The club ESPN named one of the worst franchises in sports history in 2006 is now enjoying the top average attendance in the National Hockey League. According to McDonough, the number of season-ticket holders went from 3,400 to 13,100 last summer alone, and Blackhawks merchandise sales are skyrocketing.

Additionally, local television ratings are up 83 percent from the same point last season. This figure might have shocked Bill Wirtz, infamous with fans for barring broadcast of local home games for fear of decreased ticket sales.

“Wirtz was a big ogre in the mind of many Chicago fans,” said Steve Reiss, Northeastern Illinois University professor of American history and author of the book “100 Years of Sports in the Windy City.”

“Once upon a time the Blackhawks were the hottest ticket in town, but by the late '90s, it began to decline as the team began to decline,” Reiss said. “They started out on a low point, but ... Rocky has done everything the opposite by bringing in better players and putting the team back on television.”

This year, Wirtz inked an agreement with Comcast SportsNet and WGN to air all 82 regular season games and, with any luck, the playoffs. The contract was a first in franchise history.

Eric Mehon, a 23-year-old sports marketing student at Columbia College and lifetime Blackhawks fan, said that was a crucial move in reigniting the fan base.

Like many others, Mehon said, he lost the drive to keep following the Blackhawks and turned his attention to other area teams, like the 2005 World Champion White Sox. Now that his Hawks are back on television, though, they’ve got his attention.

“The TV contract is huge,” Mehon said. “Plus the team has undeniable talent.”

The talent includes young stars like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, who McDonough said understand the importance of their relationships with fans and media. He's also established a relationship between the guys on the ice and the ones behind desks.

“I want the players to know that the supporting cast of the front office is trying to fill that building every night, and I want the front office to know that if we don’t have a product on the ice, it's going to be pretty tough,” McDonough said. “And I want the two of them to appreciate each other.”

That’s not the only partnership McDonough’s been working on. A lifetime Sox fan and former Cubs employee, he sees great benefits in partnering with other area teams. The Blackhawks even sponsored both Chicago baseball teams last season, and Hawks players stopped by both fields to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

The Cubs partnership provided more national notoriety for the Blackhawks on January 1 when the Hawks faced the Detroit Red Wings on Wrigley Field in the 2009 Winter Classic.  The event was deemed a success for the franchise even though the Blackhawks lost.

“The Winter Classic changed the DNA of the franchise forever,” McDonough said. “It was the highest rated regular season game in 34 years.”

McDonough said they’re just getting started. The team is also lobbying to host an NHL All-Star game at the United Center and has been chosen by the NHL to kick off the 2009-2010 season in Europe.

Still, with the advent of so many new marketing techniques, the Blackhawks aren’t forgetting their roots. Before each home game, fans at the rink still go nuts throughout the entire National Anthem, and the club often highlights its prior stars and past successes.

“The Blackhawks are on the right track,” said sports historian Reiss. “They’ve done what the fans wanted, and they are all going to reap the benefits.”