Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Tale of Two (Non-Traditional Hockey Market) Cities

I have an admission to make.  I've been leading a double-life.  Of course, when it comes down to it my heart and my loyalties will always lie with Carolina, but that's not what this post is about.  My insatiable hockey addiction is not on trial here.

I've been afforded a very unique opportunity in that I am acquainted with two "non-traditional hockey market" teams.  First we have Carolina, known for its delicious BBQ and not its frigid winters.  Then there is L.A., where everyone knows intimate details of Lindsay Lohan's personal life, but if you asked someone about Anze Kopitar they'd say they take theirs medium-rare.

What am I getting at?  Well, I read a post by Puck Daddy a little while ago that pointed out the fact that the L.A. Kings are winning, but still not attracting attention in the area.  One specific portion of the article cited that you can't find Kings gear in the usual places, namely the airport.  It seemed like an odd notion because you can find everything at the airport.  Seriously, why do I need a foot bath for my cat from Brookstone before a flight?

I took it upon myself to investigate this on my trip home for the holidays.  As it turns out, I couldn't find a scrap of Kings gear at the airport.  Not a hat, shirt, key chain, or anything else.  Later, I went to a chain department store and it was the same story.  I found a ton of Lakers, Dodgers, Angels, Chargers, and even St. Louis Rams gear for some reason, but no Kings stuff.

Then I got off the plane in Raleigh and found a Hurricanes Lovefest.  Seriously.  Every time I was on the road in North Carolina I saw Hurricanes bumper stickers.  There was Hurricanes memorabilia in every bar and people wearing Hurricanes gear to boot.  You know a true fan when he/she is willing to don the logo of a 30th place team.

I was lucky enough to get some pretty good seats to the Dec. 26th game against Philadelphia (thanks Murray's!) and it was the same story.  35 degrees outside and people are tailgating!  Not only that but the house was pretty full.  87% attendance on the day after Christmas, with the Eastern Conference's 14th place team taking on the 15th place team.

Don't get confused though, the Kings have averaged around 90% attendance this season and the Hurricanes about 78%.  However, also take this into consideration; the Kings have been performing better than they have in years.  And there's the small fact that Raleigh boasts a population of about 10% of Los Angeles.  Raleigh is nearing 400,000 residents while L.A. is nearing 4 million. 

We often compare non-traditional market teams with more hockey-centric areas, pointing out the glaring differences in popularity, profit, and overall success.  I'm going to do something a little different.  I'm going to take a look at two non-traditional teams and try to examine what makes one boom, Carolina, and the other simply tick, Los Angeles.

You would think that Los Angeles would have quite a jump on Carolina in establishing a fanbase, 30 years to be exact.  To be perfectly clear, the Kings faithful do exist here in L.A., but it's not the hockey hotbed it could be.  Carolina has accomplished a lot in a short amount of time.  Since my week long trip to N.C. hardly makes me an expert on the area after a 2 1/2 year absence, I've employed the help of Canes Country faithful "CaniacGirl" to help me fill in some blanks on the 'Canes:
For the most part, the team had to teach them the fundamentals of the game which is not an easy task, especially for a team that is struggling as the Canes were when they arrived in NC. People didn’t know hockey and therefore weren’t going to go out of their way to support hockey which I think everyone saw in the Greensboro days. Chances are the people that showed up for those games were relocated Northerners who had been exposed earlier in their lives; very few native North Carolinians jumped on the zamboni so to speak right from the get go. But on the other hand, this situation could be considered almost ideal. As the team grew, its fanbase grew along with it. More traditional markets may have life-long fans, but it would be hard to find fans who had been with the team from the start of it all. That’s something you can do with relative ease in North Carolina. These “lifers” stuck with the team through it all and I think the organization does a great job of recognizing that.
So in that way, the Hurricanes have sort of an advantage.  The clean slate allowed a wealth of fans to join the team from its inception and therefore feel more like a part of it.   Maybe it would behoove Los Angeles to play up the idea of a rebirth, attract some new fans who want to be there from "the beginning"?

Both of these teams encounter the same problems on a national scale in that they will always lose out to the Pittsburghs and the Washingtons of the league.  What about competition within their own area?  Los Angeles might have it tougher than Carolina in that regard.  They have to compete with the Lakers' astronomical popularity (and coinciding season), the Dodgers (which is basically a religion in Los Angeles), not to mention USC football (again, the Rose Bowl is like the Vatican around here).

Hold that phone though.  CaniacGirl has some interesting insights:
I don’t think I have to tell you that ACC sports are king in NC and no other sport is going to come close to matching them in terms of public and media attention. In the fall you have football and in the winter/spring you have basketball (both at the pro and collegiate level). For example, last night’s game got bumped in the Raleigh area in favor of the UNC men’s basketball game. You can always tell when a big basketball game is on or when the Panthers are playing because the crowds at the RBC Center are much smaller.
It seems that both teams have the same obstacles when it comes to local competition.  U.N.C./Duke/N.C. State are the equivalent of the Lakers/Dodgers/Trojans in the minds of local fans.  Is there a point where the Kings and 'Canes can join that juggernaut of local sports, or will it forever be an uphill battle?

It's a tough thing to do, garnering popularity outside of a certain radius.  I always find it curious when I come across a 'Canes fan in Calgary, or a Kings fan in Kelowna.  Somehow these fans have felt a connection to the team and taken them as their own.  The credit in these cases is more likely to lie with an obscure point of interest rather than a successful marketing campaign.  As Puck Daddy stated in the aforementioned article, the Kings marketing campaigns haven't exactly lit the town ablaze with excitement.  I don't doubt the job is tough, after all the Lakers basically sell themselves, even despite the NBA's woeful attendance issues.  The Kings are a tougher sell.  If only they could get Jack Nicholson rink side...

As per CaniacGirl, the 'Canes aren't faring much better:
The team does an absolutely horrid job marketing to almost anyone outside the Triangle. You lose 99.9 the Fan (the flagship station of the team mind you) once you get past (interstate) 40 and they do very little promotional stuff outside the area. I think the first Cool Bars ever is coming to Wilmington this year. Most promotional events are held in the Triangle and for a team that supposedly belongs to the whole state (SC too or so I’ve been told), that’s really unacceptable.
We may have the support of Stephen Colbert, but I'll bet it's tough to find a 'Canes hat on many South Carolinians.

But what about the really important stuff, the community?  In this regard I think the 'Canes have a huge advantage on the Kings.  This is where size does matter, but not in the way you would think.  First let's hear from CaniacGirl one last time:
The team has very much ingrained itself in the community because it is a community-oriented team. The Kids-and-Community foundation is a perfect example of this in terms of public relations, but it goes deeper than that. I can’t speak to the situation in other cities, but having such “normal” players really helps the team become part of the community. Wallin’s sons play on a local youth hockey team (and he brings them to and from games when he’s home) and his family takes part in their neighborhood’s block party. Jeff Daniels used to bring his daughter to story time at the library where I worked. Cole and A. Ward shop at Target. Scott Walker’s family volunteers at the local food pantry. The majority of them live in Raleigh during the off-season. That’s something special about this group of guys, but has been the case with all of their predecessors. The fact that they are willing to embrace the community makes the community want to embrace them.
This part I can personally vouch for as well.  I've seen Glen Wesley at the local grocery store several times.  Arturs Irbe, in his heyday, lived right around the corner from me.  It all adds to that feeling that you're a part of something and not just a spectator to it.

The Kings have a much tougher time with this.  About 10 times tougher, if we are speaking in terms of population.  When it comes down to it, the Kings do just as much as the 'Canes in terms of community involvement and charity work.  Unfortunately for them it's not as visible within this vast community.  The fans of the team certainly take note of it, but I see nary a word about it elsewhere.

So what's the big difference here?  What exactly am I driving at?  The Kings and the 'Canes are the same soul, but in two different communities.  In this way, the 'Canes are kind of masters of their domain.  They've embraced the area they're in, taken advantage of what they know about the community, and become a part of that culture.

What can the Kings do?  For starters, the team is in the media capital of the world.  Sure, the Kings were in The Love Guru (which grossed about $20 million LESS than their budget, worldwide), but take advantage of where you are!  Get Kopi on Conan.  Get Brown on Leno.  Put 5 of the guys on Family Feud.  I've seen a dozen episodes of How I Met Your Mother where hockey is mentioned, get in there!  This is a team that deserves to be seen, so show them to the good people of L.A. and the rest of the nation.

And of course, the winning helps too.


  1. So it looks like the Kings are getting the star power they need in the stands to take their popularity to the next level. Oh wait...,213852

  2. I hope you didn't spend more than $13 on ebay for the Kings jersey. When I saw a Canes fan wearing a Kings jersey it made me throw up in my mouth a little. I also think winning a cup and going deep in the playoffs a few years after being here helps on the fan base. Great article.

  3. I spent EXACTLY $13 on the Kings Jersey. I'm sorry about your near vomit, but my hockey fandom is a little too large to fit under the Hurricanes umbrella alone. If there is a hockey game on TV, I'm watching it, whether it's 'Canes vs. Caps, Kings vs Ducks, or donkeys with pads on. ANd for sure, a Cup is a boon to any teams fanbase.

  4. So for $26 you got two jerseys, sweet. I understand, thats why I pay for center ice, the love of hockey. Even when the Canes aren't playing my tv has some kind of hockey on. To be a hockey fan is to be obsessed (or consumed) with hockey 24/7.

  5. I think winning a cup and deeper into the playoffs a few years after being here helps the fan base. Great article I congratulate them.