Marketing and Minor League Hockey

We recently attended our first Missouri Mavericks minor league hockey game in Independence. Though we’ve been to over a hundred minor league games in the past, this marked the first time actually sitting and watching a game in its entirety (more on that later).

And wow, what a nice experience! With four children (two families) in tow, we weren’t sure what to expect. Will the hockey be any good? Is the arena nice? Will the kids be bored during the 20-minute intermissions (and for the game for that matter)? Pleasantly, the answers are yes, yes and no!

We’ve always thought that minor league hockey leagues and teams do a great job of marketing their product. So we thought we’d take a look at some of the things they do well … but first a little background.

The Mavericks

The Mavs are an expansion team in the Central Hockey League, an 18-year-old, 15-team organization with clubs in nine Midwest/Southwest states. They are roughly the equivalent of a Double-A minor league baseball team (a step below the Triple-A Omaha Royals, for example, the top minor league affiliate of the Kansas City Royals).

The Mavs home is the brand new Independence Events Center (IEC), a 5800-seat arena conveniently located at the intersection of I-70 and I-470, a few miles down the road from the Truman Sports complex, home of the Royals and Chiefs. We admit having some reservations as we watched the IEC go up, wondering who would fill the place (and pay for its construction). But a successful anchor team plus high school basketball games, college hockey, a separate community ice rink, impressive concerts — and more — have proven our misgivings unfounded.

The Blades

As mentioned, we’re no stranger to minor league hockey. When the Kansas City Blades began play at Kemper Arena in 1990,we served on the Game Staff as the Media Room Supervisor. We were fresh out of college and an internship  in the Mizzou Sports Marketing Department, so the Blades served as a continuation of our love of sports. The late night games with little pay were no problem for a recent college grad with no worries and no mortgage.

Our boss for the Blades was the team’s incredible director of marketing and public relations, Jim Loria (now with the minor league hockey and baseball teams in Sioux Falls, SD). In 1990, Jim was the first employee of the Blades … and what a job he did. His promotions included a few failures and many successes, including …

  • A bungee jumper, who leapt from the catwalk at Kemper Arena to a few feet above the ice . (Jim couldn’t bear to watch. And for good reason. This was the arena whose roof had partially collapsed in the 1990s, forcing the NBA’s Kansas City Kings to play half the season at historic Municipal Auditorium.)
  • A Garbage Can Toss night, in honor of former NHL goalkeeper and first-year Blade’s coach Doug Soetaert, who a few nights before had conspired with Assistant Coach Ken Morrow to hide a metal trash can in the photographer’s box next to the Blade’s bench. At an opportune time during the next period, Soetaert heaved the can onto the ice in protest of an official’s call … then received a heave from the game. Loria’s Garbage Can Toss night earned a thumbs down from Sports Illustrated in its “Judgment Calls” column.
  • Appearances by SI Swimsuit cover model Ashley MontanaMorganna the Kissing Bandit and Kelli McCarty, who was Miss Kansas and Miss USA in 1991.
  • Skate with the Players nights on early evening New Year’s Eve games. And nights honoring local heroes like George Brett, a Blades season ticket holder, after he became the first major league baseball player to win a batting crown in three different decades. And free car washes for the car voted as the dirtiest in the parking lot.

Jim came early and stayed late. On the first game in team history, he headed home about midnight the night before. Unable to sleep, he was back to the office around 2 or 3 in the morning for the 7 p.m. night game. Scheming, you can be sure, for the next big event.

The Mavs Product

That brings us back to the Mavs. We’re no expert on what it takes to market a minor league hockey team, but we think some observations of the Mavs, and the Blades before them, could prove beneficial to any company looking to market itself.

  • Hire people passionate about your business. We recently had the pleasure of meeting several of the team’s front office personnel, each of whom you could tell enjoyed working for the Mavs and sharing that passion with others. We sat down for a lengthy conversation with Greg Bergen and the Director of Broadcasting, Bob Rennison, who we knew from our days with the Blades. Bob used to bring his cassette recorder and microphone to the Blades games. Jim Loria would comp him a ticket, and Bob would sit in the upper reaches of Kemper, practicing calling hockey games and waiting for his chance to call a game live. He got that chance, filling in a time or two for Bob Kaiser on the radio, and for Steve Garrett as the rink-side announcer. Bob went on to broadcasting stints in Wichita and Topeka and Kansas City and Avila University before helping bring hockey to Independence. That’s passion.
  • Build relationships with the media and community. The Mavs reached out to the local newspaper, The Examiner, and the community at events like the Independence Chamber of Commerce-sponsored SantaCaliGon days before the Events Center was much more than a shell. Sponsoring Dinner on Ice for the Boys & Girls Club is a nice touch as well. The Mavs held a name-the-team contest in conjunction with the Examiner, and held a news conference to announce the winner. Those relationships helped build interest in the new team, and serve the Mavs well today.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail in your marketing efforts. Heaven knows the Blades did. We had a post-game rock concert one night that about two people stayed to watch. Maybe three. Literally. Having major league baseball player and Cy Young Award winner “Black Jack” McDowell and his band play after a game seemed like a good idea at the time, we guess, but it didn’t turn out so well. (Like the motivational poster says, though: You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.) The Mavs have the ZOOperstars (think Lil Red for the Nebraska Cornhuskers) entertain during intermissions. They chose a hockey-playing horse as their mascot. Blogger Greg Hall doesn’t like it.  But would the Mavs have been better off being the Presidents or something safe? No, we don’t think so. We personally thought they should have been the Hell Raisers to honor native son Harry Truman.
  • Make a pleasant first impression. The Mavs have greeters at the door and around the arena. Just to say hi, the best we could tell, and likely answer a question or two. Nice touch. Nice, too, is the team’s website (built by the good folks at BIGSHOT). One of the Zamboni drivers lives up the street from us. Terry’s a nice guy and always makes a good impression, just like the team. Holly Starr kept the crowd’s attention in the stands and during intermissions on the ice. Steve Garrett did a great job as the announcer. We loved the video board entertainment, especially the kid giving the Herb Brooks Miracle Pre-Game Speech.  As we said, we had four children at our recent game, and they were all entertained, and the parents had a good experience.

O.K., so we like the Mavs and minor league hockey. We just hope you made it through the long post and picked up a thing or two that might help market your product or service or company. We can’t guarantee success, but we can guarantee you’ll miss the shot if you don’t take it!