September 14, 2010
Do you believe Columbus can be a successful NHL market?
There's no question that the city isn't yet a hockey town, and that it doesn't have the corporate base that others do. There's no question that Nationwide Arena is a gorgeous facility with lease/ownership problems. There's no question that the area's going through the same economic hardship as everyone else, with a 9 percent unemployment rate as of July.
But there's also no question that the Columbus Blue Jackets have been a terribly unsuccessful franchise, with one playoff appearance and zero postseason wins over nine seasons.
Perhaps you've seen their Mount Puckmore. Yuck.
Winning games means more fans at the games? Go figure.
There's also no question, in our mind, that there's a latent hockey market ready to boom if the Jackets can ever become a contender. You have the energy from the college fans, ready to make a night of it at the arena and the surrounding entertainment district. You have a burgeoning grassroots passion for hockey in the community and youth leagues. There's a foundation ready to form for a fan base ... if only the Blue Jackets didn't keep dumping their concrete before the pour.
Which is exactly what happened after their first playoff season: Optimism reigned, fans were stoked and the team fell down the basement stairs to 14th place. That, combined with a summer of inactivity, has resulted in a staggering erosion of their season-ticket base -- losing a quarter of their most dedicated attendees.
And the Blue Jackets know they've only themselves to blame.
Jackets season-ticket sales are down almost 25 percent from a year ago, a reflection of fan frustration with the club's 14th place Western Conference finish last season.
The Jackets have sold 7,700 season-ticket subscriptions - down 2,500 from a year ago, when fans expected the team to build off its first playoff appearance.
Which, of course, it didn't, and that hurt. Their season ticket base expanded in Summer 2009 and they sold more corporate sponsorships. The Blue Jackets' regression, which cost Coach Ken Hitchcock his job, also cost them the new season-ticket holders, according to one player in the Dispatch:
"If we'd been in the league 70 years and had eight Stanley Cups or some history, it might be a different story if you have a couple of bad years. We're still trying to establish ourselves as an organization and city in this league."
It's a marketing challenge, for sure, as Light The Lamp noted in its coverage of Columbus's season ticket pitch this summer:
Obviously the CBJ are hurting for ticket sales which comes as no surprise when you lose 9 out of 10 seasons. Making one rather insignificant move to your roster won't do much to rouse excitement for this team either.
I feel bad for the CBJ ticket folks because quite frankly it's like selling real estate in Detroit. Who wants to invest in that dump?
To answer the initial question on the post: We believe Columbus can be a successful NHL market. But we also think it's impossible to judge that viability based on their fruitless history as a franchise. Were the 41 sellouts in Year 2 curiosity about a shiny new toy in the market or fans ready to dedicate themselves to a pro hockey franchise, only to lose interest when the team didn't win?