December 15, 2010
The NHL's Atlanta Thrashers pulled off one of the most elaborate and inventive viral marketing stunts in recent pro sports history on Wednesday; one that featured a stolen Zamboni, a police chase in rush-hour traffic and a giant plush bird behind bars.
But will it sell tickets?
[Watch: Police chase teen in dump truck]
The story went like this: Thrash, the team's mascot, was so distraught over the lack of attention being given to his Thrashers, who were a surprising fifth in the Eastern Conference (17-11-3) but averaging just 11,789 fans per home game, that he "stole" a Zamboni from the team's practice facility in Duluth, Ga. He attempted to drive it 25 miles on I-85 to Phillips Arena in downtown Atlanta to draw the attention of hockey-apathetic locals.
Alas, he was "arrested" by Gwinnett County police, as chronicled by this "news report" posted on the team's website:
Twitter buzzed with curiosity over the incident. Facebook had a running thread of "Free Thrash" comments under an image of the jailbird.
Later, the team offered an update on the "legal" proceedings, as Thrash was "found guilty" by a judge of, ahem, "grand theft Zamboni."
His verdict: The Thrashers must sell at least 5,000 additional tickets to the remaining December home games in order for Thrash to be "released from jail." Uh-huh.
With that, even the most gullible among us realized it had all been a publicity stunt, from the fake police chase (Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office was in on the gag, so nothing unlawful occurred) to the jail-time. Was it worth it? Reactions to the Thrashers' bold marketing move have been mixed.
Here's the second video the Thrashers posted, featuring the "verdict":
The national media took notice, too. Amanda Rykoff of ESPNW wrote:
I happen to have a soft spot for mascots (ok fine, maybe it's a mild obsession; ok fine, it's sort of a major obsession), so when I first heard about this, I wanted to buy tickets just so Thrash could be free to do what he does best -- entertain his fans. But because I live in New York City, all I could do was write about this outrageous publicity stunt in the hopes that any of you in Atlanta will do the right thing and spring Thrash from the pokey. Free Thrash!
The Thrashers blog Bird Watchers Anonymous wasn't sure what to make of the stunt:
I'm torn. Any marketing at all is an effort, and that's more than we've seen from the team in the past. And as ideas go, it is pretty inventive. A giant bird driving a Zamboni down Satellite Blvd. is bound to grab some attention. But the frisking of said bird is bound to leave some indelible scars on the psyches of small children.
The blog ran a reader poll on the campaign, and 59 percent of respondents felt it was good marketing.
It was. It made the locals take notice of a hockey team playing above and beyond expectations. It may have sold a few extra tickets for upcoming games. And at a time when some teams are choosing obvious and uninspired ways to sell tickets, the Thrashers took a chance. For a team struggling to fill seats, that's sometimes the only way to go.
And hey, if the ticket sales are slow, maybe someone can sneak Thrash a small saw inside a pile of birdseed to bust him out of the clink ...