This coming Monday, Thrashers beat reporter Chris Vivlamore has his latest installment of "Catching up with..." on tap, featuring team president Don Waddell. Waddell feels that there's anticipation around the team with the addition of big bodies such as Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Andrew Ladd and Brent Sopel. He thinks that Dudley's changes have beefed up the team and will lead to a more aggressive style of hockey under head coach Craig Ramsay and assistant coach John Torchetti. The question is, does aggression lead to ticket sales, and if it does, who's buying?
Contrary to snide remarks that one might read, there is a strong community of hockey fans in Atlanta. The Atlanta Thrashers Fan Club proves that point - it's the league's second largest. It consistently gets support from the players themselves, especially when it comes to charity. People do buy season tickets. You don't have to get on a 10-year waiting list like you might in Toronto or Montreal, but season ticket sales seemed strong last year, and according to Waddell have remained constant if not up. The home opener and closer either always or almost always sell out, and the game after the Ilya Kovalchuk trade was a sell out that was packed with enthusiastic fans.
That's not what makes the news, though. Photos of the crowd at least season's Flood Game - after the flooding in September, the Thrashers drew about 3,000 fans, and that was generous - are what pop up on-line. Weeknight seats are easy to come by, because no one wants to fight traffic to get downtown. Attendance was actually down last year from the season before, but that isn't saying too much - average attendance in 2008-2009 was second to last, at 14,626. Last season they were third to last, but average attendance dropped to 13,607 (attendance courtesy of ESPN.com).
A good number of Tuesday and Thursday night games are to blame for that - the Thrashers seemed to get very few Friday and Saturday games at all. This is a problem that the league scheduling seemed to fix for this season. Hopefully, more weekend games leads to a bigger draw.
Scheduling only does so much, though. Season ticket holders will show unless the team tanks (see: 2007-2008 season), but new fans need to be made. The easiest way to make new fans is to win, and that's what the team took steps toward this off-season. But how does the average person who might not be a hockey fan - or who might be a transplanted fan of another team - know that?
The AJC this summer has been good about putting Thrashers news on the front page of the sports section, but subscriptions are down. Very rarely will it pop up on the main page of AJC.com. People will get the word about the team and hear the buzz through good old fashioned advertising. Where does the team tend to advertise? Where they're already seen. The ads on 680 are solid - get them on 680's sister FM station, 96.1. The guys on The Buzz have gotten some of the better interviews with the players in the morning, but constant publicity through the day would be great. The TV ads show on SportSouth during the games. Not productive. Get them on the major local channels. Have more than four major electronic billboards, please. Atlanta's a huge metropolitan area. Get the word out there, and get a catchy campaign to do it.
Actually, come to think of it, the ad campaigns might be part of the issue. The marketing and fan development hasn't been eye catching. The marketing firm Blue Sky is in charge. Two seasons ago, they were at a loss for a theme, so they went with an intern's idea of "Become One," accompanied with photos of the team that either looked like zombies or Raiden from Mortal Kombat. Colby Armstrong looked practically translucent. It didn't advertise well, and the fans were less than thrilled. There were high hopes for the team's 10th anniversary, but between the logo that spawned this photoshop ...
... and the cardboard chique motif (or as I like to call it, Derelique) of this year's ads and in-arena opening videos, it wasn't working. It was such a failure that season ticket holders actually threw out advice to Waddell on marketing ideas during a Town Hall meeting. To get an outstanding color scheme and video usage example, you have to go back to 2007-2008, with the retro-Soviet propaganda posters/poster inspired video. For a team with the new addition of size and power, you have to have something that goes with that. "The Hockey Way" is something that the team doesn't need again.
What does the team need to do? Something striking that will stick with people, but something that has a sense of humor. The Bostin Bruins bear commercials are now classics thanks to the fact that their innovation got them on every website known to man. The Thrashers are at their best when poking fun, either at themselves or at others - the in-arena cartoons, a la Terrance and Philip on South Park, were very well done. The jab at Alexander Ovechkin season before last for his ill-advised Eastern Motors ad went viral:
Get the folks that made these to work on the TV ads. Get colors and a slogan this year that actually makes sense when said aloud. Other than winning, the best way to get people in the seats is tell people that you exist. People remember humor. And, if all else fails, just put Ron Hainsey on every billboard in areas with a high female population. Boom - problem solved.