On-ice success driving fan growth, ticket sales for Blue Jackets

Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Blue Jackets right wing Cam Atkinson (13) scores a goal as he crashes into the goal from a Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith (2) check during the third period at Nationwide Arena. Columbus beat Detroit 4-2.  

Russell LaBounty/Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Blue Jackets are turning a corner.

The club is in its final week of the playoff hunt and enjoying its second consecutive winning season. Columbus fans are rewarding the team’s efforts by upping game attendance and ticket revenue after years of concern fueling the widely held notion that Columbus isn’t a viable hockey market.

The bottom line appears as though it is — when the team is winning.

"This is a great market," said Larry Hoepfner, Executive Vice President of Business Operations. "Our fans are waiting for us. We’re getting there — brick-by-brick. All of our metrics are up — ticket revenue, season ticket sales, corporate sponsorships. We have a lot of room to grow, but our metrics say we can accomplish it."

Of the metrics the organization looks to each year, the most important is ticket revenue.

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"This year our season ticket sales are up over 20 percent with 8,600 season ticket holders," Hoepfner said. "That exceeded our goal for the year."

The Jackets are also seeing consistency in ‘walk-up’ or single-game ticket sales.

"We have about three to six thousand in walk-ups per night, depending on the game," Hoepfner said. "That has been very consistent for us year-over-year."

Those sales are valuable. According to hockeyattendance.com, while average attendance across the league has dropped by about half a percent from last season, the Blue Jackets average attendance has increased by .5 percent over last year. The team is also seeing improvement in percentage of capacity filled going from 30th last season now moving up two spots to 28th this year. Those are small steps but they signify progress.

For the Jackets coming off a shortened season last year, growth of any measure is particularly meaningful. The team, and others around the league, undertook many efforts last season to rebuild interest in the game — and fill seats — after a prolonged dispute between the players association and the league.

"When you look at a season like last year, we, and a lot of other teams, did one-time things coming out of the lockout to get people back in the building and engaged," Hoepfner said. "Those efforts were focused on attendance, not revenue."

This year the number of people in seats is coming mostly from paid attendance, and according to Hoepfner both numbers are on the rise. While annualized numbers are increasing, there has also been a slow but sustainable growth as the season has progressed. The team’s performance seems to be bringing more and more people to games — as Hoepfner said, "A rising tide lifts all ships."

As of Dec 12, the Jackets were 14-15-3 and at that time, Blue Jackets attendance was down 8.2 percent from last year. Over the course of December and January the team found more ways to win, added 35 points to their standings total and improved its record to 27-23-4. Since that drive, average game attendance erased the previous debt and every month it has increased from around 13,000 in November and December to 14,843 in January and 15,968 in March (only one home game occurred in February because of the Olympic break. It drew 16,762 in attendance).

The coveted season ticket holders are feeling the difference as the team builds on its winning ways. The Blue Jackets recently completed their annual customer satisfaction survey with season ticket holders and received more than 2,400 responses, many of which support the idea that this is a team on the rise.

"Eighty-seven percent of our fans are optimistic about the future of the team," Hoepfner said. "Ninety-five percent say that they are between satisfied and extremely satisfied with their season ticket experience."

There are positive signs outside the arena as well. The Arena District, the entertainment district developed around Nationwide Arena and the Blue Jackets, also is reporting growth.

"Businesses in the Arena District feel it on the bottom line," said Brian Ellis, President and COO of Nationwide Realty Investors, developers of the Arena District. "If you compare revenue for R-Bar, the local hockey bar, from 2012 to 2013, sales are up 30 percent."

Ellis has been part of the Arena District development for many years and he sees passion for the Jackets increasing.

"The Blue Jackets have always been the heart and soul of the Arena District," Ellis said.

"(They) have always been a part of the conversation, but now they are coming up more regularly."

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Julie Mauer, president of the Jackets official fan group, the Jacket Backers, reports that more and more fans are also interested in showing support for the team on the road.

In 2011, the group had 220 fans travel to three different games. In 2012, a shortened season, they had three road trips that brought along 105 fans and the current season has just over 300 fans visiting six other NHL cities for Blue Jackets games.

"In some cities, if we had been able to get more tickets or more hotel rooms we could have easily brought along a whole other busload of fans," Mauer says.

At the end of the day, however, home ticket sales matter most and the organization is bullish about the future.

"The numbers we use to measure our business are on the rise and they are improving at a pace we are happy with. Paid attendance and total revenue will be up significantly this year," Hoepfner said.

And if the team can continue to deliver on the ice into the postseason, the organization expects the business success to continue.

March 31 was the deadline for season ticket holders to purchase playoff tickets. According to Hoepfner, 94.5 percent of all season ticket holders — including those with partial and full season plans — have reserved postseason tickets.

When it comes to getting fans in the building this year and beyond, "Our players are working hard to make that happen," Hoepfner said.

The Blue Jackets continue their campaign for a postseason spot against the New York Islanders tonight. The puck drops at 6 p.m. in Nationwide Arena. For more information, including how to purchase tickets, visit www.bluejackets.nhl.com.