Do free tickets really build an NHL fan base?

Any drug dealer knows that a little addiction means great things for return business. Which is why teams in every sport paper their arenas with discounted and free tickets for each game; along with the fact that these freeloaders are still buying concessions and merchandise, in theory, even if the seat was handed to them.

The question that's always perplexed sports marketers, especially hockey: Can a free ticket to the game create a new fan?

There's no question the NHL is an incredible, compelling live experience. It blows away what we see on television, no matter how grandiose your HD flat-screen is. Get the non-believers into the arena, and they will drink hockey Kool-Aid after three periods (and an overtime and a shootout, playing the percentages).

So a free ticket might able to create a fan, but can it create a fan base?

About 15 years ago, the Washington Capitals were giving away thousands of tickets. Back in 2002, their vice president of sales likened this to "giving a Mercedes away for three weeks and then asking people to buy it … you have to build value around the ticket."

Which brings us to the Nashville Predators, who have more buzz now than they've ever had as an NHL franchise (the new sweaters help). Second-year CEO Jeff Cogen, who was president of the Dallas Stars from November 2007 to August 2010, has aggressively used tickets distributed to spectators to (a) get them in the building and (b) track that data to get them back.

From a great piece in The Tennessean about the Preds' fan base:

For the Predators to expand their reach, Cogen's crew digs deep into a mountain of attendance data.

To explain the system, Cogen used a free handout ticket as an example. The team's computer system can track who actually attends. Within days, a team representative will call or write to the attendee, talking about the specific game and promoting paid tickets.

Through this method, Cogen believes he can turn 15 percent of non-paying attendees into paying fans.

Some in hockey, including [veteran NHL executive Jim] Lites, said handing out too many free tickets can erode the base of season ticket-holders, some of whom are bothered when they see tickets priced below what they pay. [...]

As for discounting tickets, Cogen said season ticket-holders seem to approve of efforts to introduce new people to the game.

"I think they give us some leeway," he said. "Empty seats don't look very good on television, they don't cheer very loud, they don't buy hot dogs."

The Tennessean reports that the Dallas Stars are handing out fewer tickets and have gotten rid of many ticket discounts since Cogen left. That probably can't be divorced from the fact that their reported and in-arena attendance has fallen off a cliff in the last year (though there are many other factors).

The Predators, meanwhile, are seeing their crowd grow and their season-ticket base grow, with Cogen saying there's an "outside chance" the team reaches 10,000 season-ticket holders this season.

Again, when you think about what markets thrive and which ones falter in the NHL, atmosphere can mean everything. What fan wants a section to him or herself at a Tuesday night Coyotes game (or Thrashers game before that)? Give them an in-arena experience that's compelling and fun, and they'll come back — the Capitals being one of the best examples on how to build a fan base through that experience.

Question for the season-ticket holders in the audience:

Do free tickets piss you off?

UPDATE: Nice work by George Scoville of The Hockey Writers on the Preds, Cogen and their data-driven ticket sales.