With the Atlanta Thrashers leaving the state of Georgia, a lot of talk has been about how Atlanta "just isn’t a hockey town" – whatever that means. This statement actually makes no sense to me. But maybe it’s because I’m a hockey fan.
Yes, there are places that have a reputation for being ambivalent about sports in general. Although, I would still argue that it depends entirely upon the sport and how it's presented to a city/region. And while Atlanta is labeled as this sort of a city, one that can take or leave its pro sports teams not matter how well they're doing, they do seem to turn out pretty well for Georgia Tech college football games (capacity for Bobby Dodd Stadium is 55,000). Obviously, the professional teams in that city aren't doing what the local university is to draw fans.
You see, I genuinely believe that any place can be a hockey town – with the right kind of management, and the right type of marketing.
The management section is in regards to how the team is built and managed. And we’ve all seen some teams seriously poorly managed, haven’t we. Tampa Bay Lightning fans have to look no farther than the ugly mismanagement of OK Hockey a couple of years ago. Tampa, which is obviously a hockey town, was this close to losing the team because of them.
The marketing part is a bit more complicated. Many teams in the NHL are run by Canadians – and they’re run well, too, don’t get me wrong. But the missing piece to the puzzle is the marketing. You see, they don’t have to market hockey in Canada. All they have to do is announce a game, and then people just show up.
I’ve seen that approach used in the US, but it just doesn’t work here. People need compelling storylines; they need to be drawn into going to a game because of all of the other entertainment options out there. A game has to be more than a game; it has to be an event. The basic marketing angle that needs to always be addressed to the American sports fan is this: "Why should I go to a game?"
I mean, even the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys – love them or hate them – do team marketing like that.
And that’s where a lot of hockey fails in this country. It’s not the sport of hockey itself, but the marketing of the sport. American fans need a reason to go, and many hockey teams just seem to expect people to show up if there’s a game going on. It’s a vicious cycle that doesn't get anyone anywhere.
The reason I say that any place can be a hockey town is simply the nature of the game. Listen, hockey’s a fantastic sport. We all know this to be a fact. And we all know that if you can get sports fans to go to games, they’ll become hockey fans themselves. We’ve all seen it, and it’s happened that way to many an American hockey fan in exactly that way. All they did was go to a game, and then they fell in love with it.
Why wouldn’t people love hockey? Probably because they won’t go to games. And how do you get people to games? With marketing and a winning team.
The team that was in Atlanta wasn’t interested in putting in that kind of work, and they had zero foresight. Is it really the fault of the people living there that the team itself didn’t care enough to give them a reason to go? And if the team doesn’t care, why should anyone else?
It’s a similar story in Phoenix. No one’s going to want to emotionally invest in a team that may or may not be moving. It’s the uncertainty of whether they’re staying or going that’s keeping fans from going to games, not this idea that Phoenix isn’t a hockey town. Which sucks for the Coyotes and their fans, but until the ownership situation is settled, that’s how it’s going to stay.
As for the New York Islanders, their issues stem from mismanagement as well as marketing. The team hasn’t done very well on the ice for many years, and there’s this aura of uncertainty about whether they’re staying on Long Island or not. And they’ve failed to carve themselves out a serious niche within the New York City market with their own marketing. Right now they’re sort of thrashing around without a definite direction - and loading up on high-end first round draft picks while they're in wandering aimlessly around in limbo.
Seriously. Any town can become a hockey town with a little bit of work and a little bit of foresight. Just look at the Lightning. Who would’ve thought that hockey would’ve worked in a warm climate? Sure there were a few years here and there where the team was seriously mismanaged, but they figured it out. Eventually. And now the marketing piece is just starting to come through with the St. Pete Times Forum renovations and the recent announcement of a preseason game in Orlando against the St. Louis Blues. There were a few times in the team’s history that they might’ve been on the verge of moving, but things have settled down quite nicely these days.
And that’s proof that hockey can be successful in any town if the team does things the right way. If a place like Tampa can become a hockey town, then any town can be. Just ask the Los Angeles Kings and Carolina Hurricanes.