Rather than asking why fans aren't attracted to the Bulldogs' games, we should be examining what is repelling them.
By Chris Sanislo
Published May 14, 2011
A few nights ago our hometown Hamilton Bulldogs defeated the Manitoba Moose in game seven of the North Division finals – a game needing triple overtime to yield a winner. An impressive script that only about 2,500 souls witnessed.
“Where are the fans?” everyone cried, quickly pointing to the 9,400 that streamed into Winnipeg’s MTS Centre for the Bulldogs game 6 visit to a city poised to see the NHL return. Instead of the usual scapegoating and fan-blaming, perhaps there’s a more productive question that should be answered. Rather than asking why fans aren't attracted to the Bulldogs games, we should be examining what is repelling them.
(And here is the part where I hop over the boards, line up beside a member of the Bulldogs brass and inform them that “we’re goin’” when the puck drops.)
The key issue and/or marketing challenge the ‘Dogs face is that there is absolutely no emotional attachment to their brand. Zip. Zero. And to turn off 700,000 people in a hockey-soaked market takes some effort. But here are just a few ways this feat can be achieved:
Wear the uniforms of a hated rival.
Whether the Bulldogs administration, their Montreal Canadien-parents, the proud-Hamiltonian, or the AHL want to admit it, the Toronto Maple Leafs are king here. A befuddling NHL-imposed monopoly since 1925 has, naturally, resulted in a prevailing allegiance to the Buds. Here is an insight that, somehow, has been overlooked -- Leaf fans hate the Canadiens. Almost amazingly, the black and gold that permeates throughout the city thanks to the 140 years of Tiger-Cats history – not to mention the old NHL Tigers – hasn’t been pursued as a means to garner some attachment by association.
Make the gameday presentation irritating to hockey fans.
Yes, this is definitely the most subjective – that said, you wouldn’t have to go far to find someone who would echo this point. Since the late-‘90s, there has been a fervent push to make sporting events – especially minor league ones – fun for the kids. And that’s great, so long as it doesn’t come at the expense of everyone else. Too often, the Bulldogs game presentation has left the actual game feeling like an afterthought. So, you have to hope Mom loves her AHL hockey; otherwise the knowledgeable fan won’t be renewing their season’s tickets.
Make prospective fans feel bad about themselves.
I’ve been in the ad-game for a while now and I’ve yet to see a strategy document or a briefing that includes guilting prospects into buying a product – informing them that by choosing a competitive product they are negatively affecting the brand being advertised. But this appears to be a cornerstone of the Bulldogs public relation efforts. During the heights of Jim Balsillie’s attempt to bring the Phoenix Coyotes to Hamilton, the entire region was in a tizzy about the prospects of NHL hockey coming to Copps Coliseum. Media attention went beyond obnoxious and water-cooler discussion was extensive to the point of exhaustion. Did the ‘Dogs leverage this long-shot attempt and join in the excitement? Nope. Instead they took a “What about us?” approach and scoffed at the lack of attention.
When 6,000 people showed up at an NHL rally in downtown Hamilton, the only Bulldog presence was…get this…protesters. Yes, you read that right.
For as long as I can remember, this city has been chasing the NHL dream. But, wait!?! Chasing the NHL dream….hmmmm. Isn’t that the exact function of the Hamilton Bulldogs? Isn’t the AHL positioned as NHLers-in-waiting? That sounds like a fine way to weave a brand story into the lives of prospective customers.
Threaten to move.
Related to the previous point, professional sports teams are famous for using the “show up or else” argument. In this country, anyway, that rarely results in a stampede for the ticket wickets. The Bulldogs have proven that point. Sabre-rattling about a move to Laval, Quebec has done nothing but further erode the potential for generating an emotional attachment to the brand. Representing the hometown is the basis of spectator sports. Calling that connection into question by inferring that it’s only a tenuous relationship only increases the perceived distance between the city and the team.
But, there is one thing that can mitigate the alienation and adversarial approach to fan relations – winning. Winning is a nearly-universal cure-all. While it’s usually temporary, it has an incredible ability to cause amnesia. (The Ticats may be banking on this to smooth things over as well.) Right now, the Bulldogs are winning.
As we lead up to their conference finals against the Houston Aeros, I wish them all the best on the ice and at the box office. By the way, game 3 is here at Copps Coliseum – May 17th, 7:30pm. Tickets only $21.50.
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