SBJ/October 1 - 7, 2007/SBJ In Depth

Teams to watch

Chicago Blackhawks

With the death of Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, the focus will shift to the future ownership and control of one of the league’s six original teams.

The team has bled money of late, claiming losses of $31 million last season, and many locals had blamed Wirtz for those struggles. Fans have left in droves as the team has missed eight of the last nine playoffs and failed to broadcast Blackhawk games locally. Last season, the team averaged 12,727 fans, the league’s second lowest and only 62 percent capacity. The Blackhawks have taken steps to turn things around. The team will bring on eight additional employees to drive ticket sales this year. But the longer that a team in such an important market struggles, the more the league suffers, especially considering that Chicago is the nation’s third-largest TV market.

St. Louis Blues

Dave Checketts’ first year owning the Blues got off to a slow start. At midseason the team’s attendance was down 19 percent and the Blues were averaging only 11,313 fans. But Checketts’ SCP Worldwide, which bought the team in June 2006, turned it around.

SCP fired head coach Mike Kitchen in January and replaced him with Andy Murray, who finished the season with a 27-18-9 record. The team held two free-food games in January and attracted more than 17,000 fans to both. The offseason brought more changes, as the team signed free agent Paul Kariya, brought in 2006 No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson and added new vice presidents in marketing, ticket sales and sponsorship sales. It also dropped ticket prices.

The Blues are already seeing the results. The team has a 90 percent renewal rate for season tickets and has pushed season-ticket sales from 4,500 in 2006 to 8,400 in 2007. Its continued growth could help the league improve in a modest but important market, considering that it is the backyard of league partner Anheuser-Busch.

Phoenix Coyotes

Last March, Coyotes CEO Jeff Shumway said the team was expected to hemorrhage roughly $30 million during the 2006-07 season. The franchise faces an intensely competitive market where the strong Phoenix Suns, surging Arizona Diamondbacks and improving Arizona Cardinals compete for attention. Its home, Arena, sits in Glendale, where the team has struggled to fill the building since the lockout.

The team cleaned out its front office during the offseason, firing general manager Mike Barnett and two other executives in an effort to get out of the NHL’s cellar. The team named Don Maloney its new general manager and he has put more emphasis on acquiring and developing young talent.The club hopes that fixing its on-ice woes will drive ticket sales and improve attendance from an average of 14,988 fans. The front office is supporting that effort with a new slogan, “Phoenix Coyotes: Hockey Headquarters,” and an effort to attract young people who play hockey.

Nashville Predators

No team has garnered more attention in the offseason than the Predators. Craig Leipold’s decision to sell the team to Jim Balsillie for $220 million caught the hockey world’s attention. The move to sell season tickets in Hampton, Ontario — a potential relocation site — fanned the flames.

Leipold later signed a letter-of-intent with a group of local investors committed to keeping the team in Nashville. The group has said that doing so will require that the team averages 16,000 fans this season in order to break even. It averaged 13,815 paid attendance last season, which leaves a significant amount of tickets left to be sold.

The front office has risen to the challenge in the offseason. The staff, led by Executive Vice President Steve Violetta, has sold 9,200 season tickets — up from 6,300 out of the lockout — and sponsorship sales are up more than 35 percent over the same period. Still, the club faces challenges as it tries to fill the newly named Sommet Center and drive revenue.

New Jersey Devils

The Devils begin play in the first of a series of new buildings coming to the tristate area. The Prudential Center in downtown Newark will feature a restaurant where fans can eat dinner while they watch the team play; two clubs where fans can hang out before, during and after games; and an exclusive platinum club underneath the seating area for 150 people at a price of $80,000 for the year.

The $375 million facility is poised to immediately raise the Devils’ profile. Ticket sales at the new arena have been robust and the team is optimistic it will sell out every game, which would be a major step forward for a team that averaged 14,176 spectators last year — the fifth lowest in the league.

Though sales are strong, Devils principal owner Jeff Vanderbeek knows that the honeymoon phase in a new arena can be short-lived. To avoid drop-off in the future, he is intent on making the Prudential Center central to the effort to revitalize downtown Newark.

— Compiled by Tripp Mickle

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