Blackhawks rewarded for taking risks

It's easy to appreciate the historic run the Chicago Blackhawks are enjoying right now. Even non-hockey fans can understand that 24 games without a loss in regulation time is kind of a big deal.

But to appreciate what has happened off the ice, it's important to understand how far this team has come.

From being consistently outdrawn by the local American Hockey League team, the Chicago Wolves, to four straight years of leading the NHL in attendance (and their current 202-game home sellout streak).

From not being on television at all to viewership numbers that prove that even the casual fan can't help but tune in.

"We have a long way to go," team president and CEO John McDonough said before last night's 3-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche. "We might have a swagger, but it's a humble swagger."

McDonough, a renowned marketing guru who was hired away from the Cubs in 2007, has set the pace and the expectations for the returns the team can hope to get from this amazing run.

"In 1997, the Cubs started the season 0-14," McDonough said. "For us, winning and losing has to have the same look. You can't make any knee-jerk reactions. What really matters is having consistent excellence every year, getting into the playoffs and having that 1-in-16 opportunity to win it all."

Skating on thin ice

In October 2007, just days after the death of Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, his son, Rocky Wirtz, the team's new chairman, made a phone call to the folks at Comcast SportsNet Chicago, the regional sports network.

Wirtz wanted to discuss the idea of putting the Blackhawks on local television.

"They thought I meant next season," Wirtz said at the time.

Chicagoans were just as shocked when, weeks later, a deal was consummated and Wirtz announced plans for CSN Chicago to broadcast seven games that year.

For any other major professional sports team in the 21st century, having games televised locally wasn't a big deal. It was, though, to the declining population of Blackhawks fans, since Bill Wirtz believed that broadcasting games would take away from attendance at the game. So aside from a sold-out game here and there, in which Wirtz gave in, and a pay-per-view attempt in the early '90s, fans couldn't watch games on local TV.

Rocky Wirtz might have had the same last name as his father, who was jeered during a ceremony honoring him at the United Center soon after his passing, but the fact that he wasn't involved in his dad's reign gave him a chance to be heard.

Actions followed. Rocky quickly pumped $40 million of his family's money into the team to the relief of fans who had come to know his father by "Dollar Bill" thanks to his stingy spending habits.

With fans willing to give the team a try again in a crowded market that included the Bulls, Bears and Cubs, the team sold out 10 games in the 2007-08 season, more games than in the previous five years combined.

And the team won. They had a winning season in 2007-08, just missing the playoffs. They advanced to the Western Conference finals in 2009. And, as vaguely promised by Rocky in his first days at the helm, they won the Stanley Cup in 2010.

The power plays

Winning is the ultimate, but the Blackhawks have done a remarkable job at reaching the fan at every level.

First, Wirtz focused on getting the house in order internally.

"In the liquor business, if the sales guys aren't working with the operations guys, it doesn't work," said Wirtz, who spends most of his days heading up Wirtz Beverage, which does about $1 billion a year in sales in Illinois alone. "You can sell all the liquor you want, but if you can't serve the customer on time, it doesn't matter."

Each week, both sides of the Blackhawks' business meet to make sure they are on the same page.

"I like the fact that our people in hockey operations know what a ratings point is and why season-ticket prices are where they are and why certain marketing terms exist and what players we are going to showcase," McDonough said.

Given his other business interest, Wirtz also came up with a local bar program to give the fan base incentives to congregate when the team was on the road.

"You can communicate to a lot of young people in bars, and they're the hardest group to reach," Wirtz said.

So the team developed a bar package. Wirtz Beverage would discount prices on popular drinks like Ketel One, Captain Morgan and 1800 Tequila in exchange for a hockey-based name on the drink specials and a guarantee of a certain number of TVs featuring the Blackhawks games.

They also provided the bars with a goal light and two songs: "Chelsea Dagger," which is played after every Blackhawks goal and win at the United Center, and a rendition of the national anthem performed by opera singer Jim Cornelison, who signs it at all Blackhawks home games.

"We have 130 bars now involved in the program and tons of applications," Rocky said. "We want to expand the program outside the metro area more to cities like Springfield, Bloomington and Peoria."

For what it's worth, the only tradition of Bill Wirtz's that has stood the test of time is cheering throughout the entire national anthem.

Keeping fans happy and up to date virtually has also been important. The team's 1.25 million Facebook fans ranks fourth in the league, only behind the Red Wings, Bruins and Penguins. The Hawks' 280,000-plus Twitter followers comes in fifth, one spot ahead of the stalwart Maple Leafs.

Hoping to get the fans closer, the team has streamed its morning skate online four times, drawing more than 15,000 viewers for each one.

After team executives, through market research, discovered that 70 percent of the Blackhawks' fan base wasn't with them before the new regime, they realized they had to place more importance on year-round personal communication.

Enter the Blackhawks Convention, an event in July in which fans can talk to and meet the players, coaches and executives.

McDonough, who came up with the idea, didn't think it was acceptable to hand over the reins to the local baseball teams just because the hockey season was out. Blackhawks executive vice president Jay Blunk, who also came over from the Cubs, invented the Training Camp festival, a day in which the Blackhawks sell out the United Center during the preseason, as fans watch the team practice and take part in a street fair.

The community goal

As the Blackhawks started to win under the third generation of Wirtz ownership, amateur hockey participation in Illinois also started to take off.

Two locations of Johnny's Ice House, located 12 blocks from each other in downtown Chicago, were getting booked like never before.

The Blackhawks embraced the connection by investing heavily in youth hockey -- not only ice hockey but also roller hockey and street hockey. Over the past four years, the Blackhawks have hosted the Illinois state high school hockey championships.

Gunzo's, a hockey equipment retailer that has three locations in the state, has become a popular destination, too -- not only for equipment, but also for Blackhawks jerseys.

Last month, jerseys of Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews were the league's best seller on its online site, with right winger Patrick Kane coming in fifth.

The players themselves have bought into McDonough's philosophy that in the crowded Chicago market, where the Blackhawks are still low on the totem pole, the team can't take any fan or business partner for granted.

Players watched as the team offered every one of its season-ticket holders an opportunity to take a picture with the Stanley Cup after they won it in 2010 (the organization's first Cup win since 1961). They saw how, at the parade, the team took the unprecedented step of giving its biggest sponsors their own buses along the route. And they've appeared in non-traditional media, such as Patrick Sharp's appearance, with his baby girl, Madelyn, on the cover of Chicago Parent Magazine.

Despite all this, the Blackhawks' ticket prices -- if you can buy them at face value -- are still reasonable compared to in-market competition.

Tickets to the Cubs, Bears and Bulls are ranked among the five most expensive in each of their leagues, while the Blackhawks enter this season with the 12th highest face-value ticket, according to Chicago-based Team Marketing Report.

For those who don't buy tickets from the team, the lockout-shortened season has lowered prices on the secondary market, said Max Waisvisz of Gold Coast Tickets, the city's largest ticket broker.

"A lower-level ticket, which has a face value of $200, you can get for $250 on some nights," said Waisvisz. "Now if you want the Red Wings game, it will cost you $425, but that's still relatively a good value."

When asked about how it used to be, Waisvisz laughs.

"Before Rocky, I couldn't sell eight tickets to a single game," Waisvisz said.

Now, McDonough is doing the unthinkable: soft-capping season-ticket sales at its current 14,000 fans in order to make sure he gets as many people to come in and sample the Blackhawks product.

"This is a long-term deal," McDonough said. "We have to be innovative and take some risks. We can't just be the Blackhawks."

At a recent liquor convention, Rocky Wirtz was the man everyone wanted to talk to, and it wasn't about the latest flavored vodka.

"Hundreds of people, all asking me about the Blackhawks," Wirtz said. "Five years ago, I would have had to pay people to talk about the team."