I wrote one hockey story during my career as a business reporter — well, two if you include a tech review of the NHL’s GameCenter Live online video offering — and it drew about as much attention as anything I’ve ever written. (I even interviewed ESPN’s mullet king, Barry Melrose! See below.)
The Chicago Blackhawks were doing so poorly by the end of the 2007 season that they couldn’t even give tickets away. These were not 300-level seats either, they were seats so close to the ice that lucky fans could catch a player’s wayward tooth.
I’m reprinting this Chicago Tribune from March 31, 2007 to show how far the Blackhawks have come in such a short time, and to honor those long-suffering fans who richly deserve this 2010 trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. If you know me, you know I’m a diehard Red Wings fan — but I’m pulling for the Hawks. (Will someone please through an Octopus on the ice during the finals? Please?)
Free Hawks seats go begging
Lack of interest in freebies for games at the United Center a dead giveaway of the extent that the once-proud Chicago hockey franchise has fallen in popularity in recent years
By Eric Benderoff, Tribune staff reporter / March 31, 2007
Here’s how far big-league hockey has fallen in Chicago: The Blackhawks can’t give away their tickets.
One of the National Hockey League’s charter franchises, the Blackhawks have been so desperate to attract fans to a half-empty United Center that the organization has been offering free seats through numerous promotions, including an e-mail campaign that put top-notch freebies the length of a hockey stick from the ice.
“It’s called papering the house,” said Barry Melrose, a former NHL player and now a hockey analyst for ESPN. “I’m not surprised they are doing it. It’s been a terrible period for the Blackhawks. People are frustrated and angry, and the fans are showing it the only way they can, by staying away.”
For Friday night’s game at the United Center, “I bought 40 tickets for $3.06 each,” said 25-year-old Jason, a part-time ticket broker and full-time culinary student. That small sum accounted for the fees Ticketmaster charged to process the seats.
These weren’t in the nosebleeds, either.
“I had two in Section 119 four rows up from the glass,” said Jason, who resold those tickets on Craigslist.com for $30 each. Face value on those tickets: $80.
But despite his good fortune, not all fans are jumping at the giveaways.
The team has tried several promotions in March, including one with RedEye, an edition of the Chicago Tribune.
“The Blackhawks came to us” with the promotion idea, said Denise DiCianni, senior marketing specialist for the paper. “We pulled it together pretty quickly. They reserved 200 seats for us, and we promoted it on the RedEye Web site.”
The free seats for Friday’s home game were in the club level and had a retail price of $65 each. The promotion lasted for two days and only 100 seats were claimed.
Before the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Blackhawks were tied for the worst record in the NHL’s Western Conference. The once-proud franchise, one of the NHL’s “Original 6″ teams, has stumbled mightily in recent years.
The team last made the playoffs in 2002, and before that in 1997. The team lost in the Stanley Cup finals in 1992. Most seasons in between, the Blackhawks have hovered near the bottom of the standings in a league in which more than half the teams make the postseason.
Additionally, the NHL shut its doors for the entire 2004-05 season as the result of a labor dispute, a move that angered many longtime fans.
The result has been an apathetic fan base that has left the United Center feeling like “a morgue” this season, said Bob, a longtime season ticket-holder who asked that his last name not be used.
“The place is literally empty some nights,” he said. “Only 6,000 to 8,000 fans in the seats.”
The team has averaged 12,610 fans per game this year, the second-worst performance in the NHL, in an arena that seats 20,500 for hockey.
“We’re just trying to put some butts in the seats,” said Peter Hassen, the Blackhawks manager of advertising and promotions. “We’ve had our ups and downs this year, and the fans haven’t been supporting us as much as we’d like.”
Another recent promotion was with radio station WCKG-FM 105.9. Members of that station’s VIP club were offered free tickets for their birthdays instead of the usual box of doughnuts.
“Probably close to 100 or 150 people took advantage of that,” Hassen said.
But the giveaway that has drawn the most attention started with an e-mail sent to recent ticket buyers, not season ticket-holders.
“We offered two free tickets to those fans who supported us in the past,” Hassan said. “We gave them a password they could use on Ticketmaster to get the free tickets.”
Instead, several fans posted the password on Craigslist, and people like Jason, the culinary student, took notice and started grabbing them. Over the past week, the Web site was filled with ticket offers for as low as $5 as people tried to get something for the freebie. Many buyers refused to pay extra for the free tickets.
“I tried to buy tickets from this guy Jason, but I wouldn’t pay him $120 for four seats I know he got for free,” said Mike Igyarto, 22, a service manager in Bensenville.
“I may try to go to Sunday’s game if I have nothing else going on,” he said.
That apathy and lack of attendance saddens Melrose.
“I remember when Chicago was the greatest franchise in the NHL,” he said. “When I played in the early ’80s [with Toronto and Detroit], Chicago Stadium was always packed. We loved to play there.”
It can be a great hockey town again, he said, “but they have to win. It’s not going to take a great advertising plan.”
Meanwhile, the team must hope that free tickets don’t anger longtime season ticket-holders like Bob.
A genial man who plays recreational hockey, he’s angry that his $75 seats can be had for a fraction of that on Craigslist.
Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz “said he’s not putting the home games on local TV because they want to protect the season ticket-holder and the value of my investment,” Bob said. “Now he’s giving away tickets.”
But then he laughed about how cheap he believes the organization is.
“The season ticket-holder gift came in the mail this week,” Bob said. “It was a piece of ‘game-used plexiglass’ from the United Center. It comes with a little piece of wood to hold it.
“What did that cost them? Basically, they spent maybe $2 on a gift for season ticket-holders. It’s the epitome of crap, an old piece of glass.”
Average home attendance, 2007
1 Montreal 21,273
2 Detroit 20,066
3 Tampa Bay 19,833
28 N.Y. Islanders 12,705
29 Chicago 12,610
30 St. Louis 12,368