Date: September 1, 2005

With the 2005-2006 National Hockey League (NHL) season on track thanks to a new labor agreement, the league now turns to damage control. Teams are taking a number of approaches to drum up excitement after the 16-month layoff, ranging from free ticket offers and price reductions by more than half of the league’s 30 clubs, to increased public access to players and general managers.

The efforts are part of a joint marketing partnership by the NHL Players’ Association and the NHL aimed at luring back old fans and finding new ones with the slogan “A Whole New Game.” Kicking off the push was a Beach Party held by the Florida Panthers on July 30 to mark the countdown to their Oct. 5 opening night game against the Atlanta Thrashers at Office Depot Center, Sunrise. But unlike many teams, no ticket reductions are on the books for this year because a rollback was already in place before the scuttled 2004-2005 season, said Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Chad Johnson. The main ticket-related incentive is for season ticket holders, who will be rewarded with a few private events with players.

Otherwise, Johnson said, the Panthers are focused on community relations. “We are going to take our players into the community, because we feel the biggest change in the new system is the true partnership between players and management, so we want to get the players out there,” Johnson said. “To youth organizations, hospitals and youth hockey leagues. Get them out on the road so people know their names and faces.” In early August, more than 40 fans joined All-Star goaltender Roberto Luongo at the Original Pancake House in Sunrise, for the first “Pancakes with the Panthers” breakfast. The slogan for that effort is “It’s a whole new team,” which rolled out as a promotional push in late August and will continue through the beginning of the season.

The Philadelphia Flyers has created a new 600-seat “family zone” on the mezzanine level at Wachovia Center, where they will be offering tickets for $20 (adults) and $10 (children). Otherwise, according to Peter Luukko, president of Comcast-Spectacor Ventures, the entire house has been rescaled and the average ticket price reduced 5 percent, with some discounted up to 19 percent. “We made the upper level more affordable in anticipation of coming back with a hard cap and we can now manage our business and do that for the fans,” said Luukko. Luukko said he was confident fans would be back. “This is a fantastic hockey town and we thought fans deserved a break in prices,” he said. “I’ve always thought they were a little high. It fits our new slogan — ‘We’re back where we belong.’

Perhaps the biggest gift to fans, though, according to Luukko, is the early August signing of Peter Forsberg, one of the premier players in the league. “One of our promotions was signing Forsberg, the whole city is going crazy now,” he said. On the day of the signing (Aug. 4), Luukko said the team did $1 million in ticket sales.

At the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C., the Carolina Hurricanes are also slashing prices and increasing public relations. “We came out six months ago and said we were not interested in unilaterally lowering prices as a PR move to pacify people,” said Matt West, vice president of Business Operations for the team. “We wanted to dig in and find programs that were meaningful for fans.” The result? The “Caniac Comeback Offer” on season tickets and mini plans, effectively selling 25 percent of the house (4,300 seats) for $12-$15 per game. The deals have been “very well received so far,” West said.

For the casual fan who hasn’t been to many, or any, games, the team has huddled with its grocery partner to hatch an agreement based on their interest in promoting education. In the program, for all Sunday-Thursday games, anyone buying a $57 lower level South ticket will pay $50 and fill out a certificate that will earmark $3 from the proceeds of that ticket’s sale to the elementary, middle or high school of their choice. The $21 upper level seats are reduced to $15, with the same $3 donation. The team is operating under the slogan, “Here to play, here to stay,” which West said was a call to action for the players and the team’s partners to reach out to the community. That means giving fans more access to the building, having players involved in the standard school, youth hockey and community outreach and having them “take off the uniforms and make them human beings.” So far, the ticket promos seem to be working.

From the announcement of the schemes on July 22 through press time, West said the team was selling 55 season ticket equivalents a day (which can include full and partial seasons as well as 10-game plans). Thanks to extensive surveys and feedback from a number of focus groups conducted in the off-season, Kings Vice President of Ticket Sales Chris McGowan said the team came up with a list of offerings. First is a free game for fans on Sept. 17 at Staples Center, with season ticket and mini-plan holders getting two to four tickets and a limited number to be distributed through the team’s box office and Ticketmaster. Second is a 5 percent reduction in prices for season ticket holders and a unique promotion to commemorate the signing of new player Luc Robitaille, one signed jersey for every season ticket account (3,500 total). “One thing we heard from fans was that money can’t buy access to the team, so we’ll be doing more online Web chats and meet-the-team parties,” said McGowan. The team will also make players who are injured or not playing in that night’s game available to mingle with fans on the concourse during home games.

Next to fielding a competitive team and providing access to the players, the priority for the club is affordability, which is why the Kings — in the bottom third in terms of pricing in the 2003-2004 season — are offering all-inclusive packages for more than 50 percent of their home games, up from only 10 percent in the year before the lockout. For $50, fans can buy four tickets, four sodas and parking under the plan.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have slashed ticket prices and promised to freeze them for the 2006-2007 regular season. Tickets are now at their lowest point since 2002, with more than 40 percent of the seats at Air Canada Centre priced at $68 or less and 14 percent capped at $35 for regular season home games. The scaling for tickets ranges from $35 to $173. “Generally, we’re building an overall welcome-back plan and how we price is one part of that,” said Tom Anselmi, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. We’ve been out of business for a year and for any business that doesn’t bode well.”

Around the League • The Buffalo (N.Y.) Sabres have reduced prices 12-28 percent, the largest reduction in the team’s nearly 40-year history at HSBC Arena. • The Anaheim (Calif.) Mighty Ducks have started a youth outreach program in which kids meet players and get free tickets to games, as well as offering buy two-get two free plans and free food and parking vouchers for season ticket holders for the first three games of the season at Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim. • The Phoenix Coyotes reduced ticket prices on nearly 15,000 seats at Glendale Arena 11-25 percent, with the average ticket price going down by 12.8 percent. More than 5,000 tickets are now priced at $15, with 1,000 going for $9. All season ticket holders who kept a 50 percent deposit or more on account through the work stoppage were offered a free ticket, or upgrade of the same value for the season.

Interviewed for this story: Matt West, (919) 861-5541; Chad Johnson (954) 835-7220; Tom Anselmi, (416) 815-5790; Peter Luukko, (215) 398-9530; Chris McGowan (213) 742-7183