No one can deny the lockout made fans dislike the NHL. And now that a new CBA has arrived, the NHL wants those fans back, though every market is struggling with a small contingent of them saying, “No way.”
But in Columbus, CBJ Chief Marketing Officer John Browne feels the Blue Jackets have for the most part seen a more positive response from fans. The phones have been ringing since Sunday from patrons wanting tickets, he said. And one reason for that, Browne believes, is because the club made a consistent effort to stay engaged with fans during the lockout.
“I think we did a good job,” Browne said. “Teams around the league commented about the volume and quality of things we were doing. I was pleased with that.”
The Blue Jackets were engaged with their fans from the moment there were signs of trouble between the NHL and the NHLPA. They launched their first Hockey Halloween, drawing over 4,000 Central Ohioans to Nationwide Arena in October. Families could trick-or-treat throughout the different levels, play games, enter a Halloween costume contest (one lucky kid won an Xbox) and skate for free on the main ice.
“We had a unique opportunity to create a fun event in a safe environment and one that’s not affected by the weather,” said Browne. “The turnout far exceeded our expectations. We had a fair number of people here who had never been to the arena before. It was a fun event for our staff, a fun team-building event and a morale builder for our fans.”
As it turns out, the Halloween event was a kickoff to what would become nearly 3½ months without hockey for a city that was already struggling to excite fans with a losing product. Browne said the club knew it had to keep hockey on Columbus’ mind.
“We just kept trying to keep people engaged and informed,” said Browne. “And mostly engaged with hockey.”
The club provided robust coverage of the AHL Springfield Falcons, sending staffers to the games and providing live updates from its feed, as well as continued reporting on its website.
“We did coverage of Ryan Johansen and Cam Atkinson,” Browne said. “And, of course, we did quite a few updates on Boone Jenner, who is excelling and doing well.”
The club also offered free ice skating for a week for anyone in the community, hosted viewing parties, conducted town-hall style meetings with new President of Hockey Operations John Davidson, stayed active in social media with video clips and conversations, and volunteered at places like the Mid-Ohio Food Bank.
It also orchestrated the Pride on Parsons volunteer project. Staff members, coaches and Fox Sports Ohio employees spent the afternoon beautifying the Parsons Avenue area.
“It’s just another indication of our commitment to Columbus and how we give back even when we’re not playing hockey,” Browns said.
Blue Jackets fan Brett Michel attended Hockey Halloween and other CBJ events during the lockout. She said the club’s commitment to Columbus has created a positive perception.
“They have a reputation for being philanthropic,” Michel said. “They do try to engage. They try to make it personal. They know who you are and they know what you’re about. They pay attention to what’s going on. That is huge.”
Michel, who also attended Hockey and Heels, an event for female fans last year that brought in coaches and players to talk about the sport, said the club’s staffers are what make the difference.
“The people who work for the organization are paying attention,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of fan bases get that kind of opportunity.”
Browne is hoping that feel-good attitude about the team’s efforts during the lockout translates into fans in the seats when the Blue Jackets finally hit the ice. Training camp is expected to start Sunday.
“I think people recognize the commitment that the Blue Jackets have to this community. I think we built on that goodwill (during the lockout),” said Browne. “People are appreciative of that and I hope they’ll reciprocate that with support of the team.”
Fans can sign up for the club’s Flag Bearer email on the BlueJackets.nhl.com website, like them on Facebook (facebook.com/columbusbluejackets) or follow them on Twitter (@BlueJacketsNHL) for updates on ticket sales and other club events.
“We’re excited to get the season going and to show off the new scoreboard that will take the game to a whole new level,” Browne said. “We’ve been working hard to make a real splash.”