One of the telltale signs that your favorite team is struggling at the gate: When they spend more time promoting the players visiting the arena than their own stars.
I saw this firsthand growing up as a New Jersey Nets fan in the late 1980s. The team was as terrible as the arena, empty seats outnumbering fans by a considerable margin. Sam Bowie and Dennis Hopson weren't selling tickets; Michael Jordan and Larry Bird would, so the multi-game packages were built around when the Bulls, Celtics and other glamor franchises would visit the Meadowlands.
It's depressing when your team's marketing plan positions it as a jobber to the stars, like a welcome mat for the soiled feet of the visitors. It does nothing to instill pride or stoke passion. It's akin to your house guests grabbing the cable remote and flipping channels while you're forced to watch "Honey Boo Boo", which is a special kind of pain.
It happens in the NHL, too. If Phoenix Coyotes fans haven't been through enough already, the attendance-challenged Western Conference finalist thoroughly puts over the visiting teams on its just-released 2012-13 schedule. "Phil Kessel and the Toronto Maple Leafs come to town for their only visit" and "The Philadelphia Flyers, led by snipers Claude Giroux and Danny Briere make their only visit to the Valley" and so on.
At no point in the release does it say something like "Cheer On Your Coyotes As They Battle …" or "Watch Your Coyotes Kick The Crap Outta …".
Or "Defend Your Arena From The Conquering Hordes of Opposing Players and Opposing Fans." Which is exactly where another attendance-challenged team in the Western Conference, the Columbus Blue Jackets, have decided to take its marketing campaign for next season.
It's not enough to show up at the game; it's time to defend your arena and your team from the mud being thrown at them by the rest of the hockey world.
And if it evokes a classic gangsta rap group, all the better.
In case you haven't heard, it's been a pretty terrible 2012 for the Columbus Blue Jackets. They finished last in the NHL with 65 points and a goal differential of minus-60, and yet didn't earn the top pick in the NHL Draft. Their franchise standard-bearer Rick Nash opted for a trade over further rebuilding, and was sent to the New York Rangers in a package the majority of hockey pundits deemed underwhelming. Center Derick Brassard said he doesn't see a first line on the current roster. The Jackets' identity had entered into crisis, on the ice and in their messages to fans.
"It is a new era. We're going to be honest in saying that," said Marcus Stephenson, digital marketing manager for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
So how does a team that traded last summer's key acquisition to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, finished last, lost its captain and is in a clear rebuild convince fans with varying degrees of abject frustration to spend money on tickets?
By attempting to transform those emotions into a battle for dignity.
#DEFENDNWA is the rallying cry for the Blue Jackets this summer; "NWA" as in Nationwide Arena, the team's home base.
It's a social media campaign that's an innovative twist on the old "pay to see the visiting team" conceit: Acknowledging the Jackets' adversity, with an unspoken nod to their opponents' success, and asking fans to rally to defend their turf against these visiting teams rather than paying to see them beat up the locals.
"It plays into the overarching 'Join The Battle' theme that we've come up with this year. Our team is completely different. Our building's going to be a lot different. We're ushering in a new era here," Stephenson said.
"You've heard Coach [Todd] Richards talk about that level of accountability, and that's there organization wide. We wanted to take that same message and put it out to all of our fans."
The result was a social media blitz in August, that had Jackets fans changing their Twitter avatars to "Defend NWA" signs and attaching the #DEFENDNWA hashtag to their hockey tweets.
"It was to show the rest of the hockey world that we have this great group of fans here. Super passionate and hardcore," said Stephenson.
To those fans, "DEFEND NWA" was a clear reference to their home hockey barn.
To others … well, NWA might evoke another image. One straight outta Compton.
(Hey, look, a Kings fan!)
From 1986-1991, the gangsta rap pioneers "Niggaz With Attitude" created classics like "[Expletive] Tha Police" and spawned the careers of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. And there's really nothing greater than unintentional gangsta rap references in NHL marketing campaigns, is there?
Stephenson was aware of the connection since the dawn of the campaign.
"Our core fans got it. Our fans here know that, as it relates to us, NWA relates to Nationwide Arena," he said.
"As with the nature of Twitter, you need a hastag that's shorter. But I realize the hashtag has gotten some traction in the hip-hop community. But I would point out that their N.W.A. has periods."
The players began getting involved with "DEFEND NWA" too, beginning with defenseman James Wisniewski's "imagine what it'll sound like if we start winning" message:
"It really showed how united an organization we are. We're all really aligned. It speaks volumes," said Stephenson.
Has the campaign made an impact with fans? Matt Wagner of The Cannon opines:
It's legitimate to look at the search engine results or social media trending and saying that the more these tags and campaigns circulate, the more successful they are, but the real success or failure of these efforts is going to be measured in how many tickets are sold - and specifically, how many tickets are sold to Blue Jackets fans who will wear the home colors with pride when teams capable of drawing many more fans into the area (Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, etc.) come to town.
Given the challenges the team faces in a post-Nash, potential lockout, last place offseason, that's a tall order, and while I am hopeful we'll see improvements in the on-ice product, I'm not so sure we're going to see the same thing in the stands.
That's the real battle for the Blue Jackets in filling seats: That fans are filled less with defiance and pride than with apathy.
That's why this honest take from Columbus could work: It's a quasi-acknowledgement that times are tough, with the hope that fans will want to solider through this with their favorite team — rather than stay home and concede their territory to empty chairs, or ones filled with opposing sweaters.
"Our organization is anxious to move forward, and our fans are with us there. It wasn't just us coming up with some marketing campaign; it's knowing our community well enough to know they'd assist in defending this arena," said Stephenson.