NHL Preseason Games Should Be Admission-Free Recruiting Tools

How many $100 million athletes do you know who “beg” to play in all of their teams’ preseason games?
That’s Alexander Ovechkin for you. It was his show last night at Verizon Center, a 5-2 Capitals’ win, and while it meant nothing in the grand scheme of things, because it was a hockey game, with uniforms and officials and some die-hard fans in the stands, it meant everything to him.
Carolina head coach Peter Laviolette made a point of complaining about his team’s effort after Wednesday night’s ‘Canes loss at home to the Caps (4-1), so I was looking for a more inspired effort from the visitors last night. And it happened — the ‘Canes had a nice first period. But then it appeared as if during the first intermission the Jack Adams holder had a few choice words for his lethargic skaters, and thereafter the Caps pretty much had their way. I don’t believe a great deal of value should be placed on back-to-back wins over a bitter division foe in the preseason, even in decisive fashion, but I also don’t believe that the results should be altogether ignored.
A few more people than is customary for September hockey took in last night’s game, but still, it was¬† largely a sea of purple at Verizon Center, in marked contrast to the last time when we were there, for a playoff game 7. It seems to me that the aim of these games should be (1) to avoid injuries; (2) to get a look at some young players in a more competitive environment than with a training facility’s intrasquad scrimmages; and (3) to introduce hockey to those in the region who know not of its existence. (And there are many of those.)
NHL exhibition games mean different things to different organizations. In Montreal and Toronto, of course, they’re sellout occasions. But in D.C., on a rainy night with an upset college football special airing on ESPN, and baseball’s pennant race heated up, or on any September night for that matter, hockey just isn’t going to be a hot seller — even at discounted prices (season ticket holders were offered tickets to this month’s slate of home exhibitions at half price; still most of them remained home last night).
My free-of-charge recommendation to markets like Washington would be for them to take a leap of faith: open those arena doors wide two or three times each September and pitch the exhibitions, gratis, to non-traditional communities: inner-city schools, Baltimore hockey fans, Washington’s teeming immigrant communities. Our Shakespeare Theater offers a week-long Free-for-All at Carter Baron every summer; why shouldn’t our hockey team, for a couple of meaningless exhibitions? I’m pretty sure that if you opened the doors wide on nights like Thursday, you’d appreciably improve attendance. I’m not sure you’d fill the building, but that’s not the point.
For the sake of argument, let us say that 2,500 relative “newbies” had been seated for Ovechkin’s 3-point performance last night, one which included his scoring on a penalty shot and leveling every Hurricane in his path. If 250 of those folks found the proceedings intriguing enough to return for next Friday’s exhibition date with the Flyers — and that ought to offer some atmosphere — is it not plausible to think that a couple of dozen could get hooked enough so as to become the occasional purchaser of some weekend dates during the regular season?
Hockey’s best selling point is how it appears in the arena, not how it appears on television.
A couple of years ago Ron Weber told me that he needed to get a newbie in the stands for three nights to get them hooked on hockey for life. The first night, he told me, hockey’s idiosyncratic rules fairly overwhelm the newcomers. But at some point during the second outing the general parameters of the event fall into line for them. By the third game, the newbies now become aware of what the crowd reacts to, and see the game’s skill sets replicated with impressionable repetition. The hook is set, he said. I tend to agree.
There was some flirtation with the idea of making the entirety of NHL preseason games free of charge back in the summer of 2005, as the league initiated its recuperative efforts from the bruising publicity associated with the lockout. But nothing much came of it. That’s a shame, because I can’t help but think that it’s an opportunity lost. It’s true of course that the Caps have a not-so-insignificant outlay of monies required to host these games. But as any healthy business knows, R&D is generally required before hot-selling products hit the market. Maybe it’s the optimist in me, but I just think that some truly outside-the-box marketing (of which the Capitals’ marketing staff must already be given credit for accomplishing) is required in markets like ours to grow the game.

This entry was posted in Alexander Ovechkin, American Hockey League, Hershey Bears, Morning cup-a-joe, Ron Weber, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to NHL Preseason Games Should Be Admission-Free Recruiting Tools

  1. Brian says:

    While the Hershey pre-season tickets aren’t free, I think they are well worth the $7.00 price. They are also general admission, so that $7.00 could get you seats on the glass if you get there early enough. I’ll be there. 🙂

  2. This is an interesting idea for certain markets, but when there are more than a few arenas that sell out night after night, and are near impossible to buy tickets for in the first place, I don’t see this as being a valuable recruiting tool. Yes, it may increase jersey sales etc, but the number of butts in the seats just can’t be increased…

  3. Jason says:

    The Blues again handed out vouchers for one free ticket to any one of three preseason games at their FANfest (also free) last weekend. The game against Dallas this past Tuesday was really well attended (hopefully as a result), considering it was a weekday, the Cardinals were playing in town, and it was against a non-divisional opponent.
    I love the idea of opening up the preseason to free or reduced ticket prices. At the very least it would expose the game to those fans who are maybe on the fringe and don’t know enough about the sport to feel comfortable about investing the money in regular ticket prices during the season. Getting them out to a couple of free preseason games could potentially make them want to come back during the season.

  4. NS2NOVA says:

    Last year we got free tickets to a pre-season game as part of a promotion for people who had bought game tickets the previous season through a group sales deal with the Canadian Embassy’s Connect to Canada program. They were trying to get those people to buy season tickets for the upcoming season.
    Unfortunately the organization didn’t go through with a similar promo this year, even when we had bought tickets for several more games than we had the year before. We still got all of the sales pitches, and a robo-call from BB.
    Oh well.

  5. nuftjedi says:

    free and/or general admission would both be great ideas to try.
    I do agree that once someone sees hockey live it is hard to not want to see more.

  6. b.orr4 says:

    I used to buy the argument of extenuating circumstance for lack of attendance. You know- it’s a weekday, the Redskins are playing, the Redskins are getting ready to play, it’s rainy, it’s cloudy, blah, blah, blah…The bottom line is despite the impressive off-season sales, DC just doesn’t think hockey in the fall; at least not pre-season. I mean, Chicago drew 18,000 to their first pre-season and they didn’t even make the playoffs last year. But we’re getting better. I assume the home opener will be sold out along with many other games during the year and that attendance will probably average in the 17,000s. And if the Caps ever win the Cup, then even pre-season games will be packed. But for now, enjoy the leg room. There probably won’t be much starting Oct.11th.

  7. pepper says:

    You may underestimate the tremendous cost of hosting the game, though rightly pointing it out.
    I don’t recall the details of the arrangement with the arena, but I thought that Lincoln Holdings still gets nothing, or next to nothing, out of concessions and parking. Were that not the case, it may be a lesser sting to provide these games for free. We can all surmise the extraordinary profit margins on beer and pretzels.
    Or the general admission idea is a good compromise. A single gate charge of say $15-20 (like the cost of going to a show at a music venue or a bit more than a movie ticket), and that gets more people in and at least fills out the lower bowl.

  8. pig pile says:

    Just to clarify…Chicago did not have 18,000 people attend the first pre-season game this year…that was the reported attendance…but common consensus in the Chicago webboards and newspapers indicated less than 10,000 actually showed up. Some long-time season ticket holders went as far as saying there might have been only 7,000 or so there. Supposedly we had over 13,000 last night (official paid attendance)…does anyone who went to that game believe that? I think pepper hit it with his idea.

  9. m says:

    hah i would say there were WAY less than 13,000
    i’m not good at estimating the # of people cause i couldn’t see the people above me!
    i was like 10 rows from the glass, and the only rows in front of me that were full or nearly full were the first and second! attendance seemed pretty sparse

  10. SteckelFan2039 says:

    A further note on the Hershey pre-season tickets. The Bears kids club (called Coco’s Kids Club) sent 2 free tickets to every kids club member from last year for this Sunday’s game. A very nice touch. It is worth noting that the kids club only costs $10/$12 per child and each member receives 2 ticket coupons which can be redeemed for a free upper level ticket ($32 value) to almost any game.

  11. pig pile says:

    or…perhaps we can follow this years rookie scrimmage lead and have some preseason games at Kettler….can you imagine the ticket demand for that? Would be a nice tradition to have 1 preseason game there per year.

  12. go caps says:

    Free preseason tickets devalue the Caps product come regular season time. Pepper is right – it costs a ton of money to pay the people who work the building and concessions etc. Lincoln gets nothing on concessions – it is operated by Aramark through Wash Sports. A lot of people complain about the price of tickets in the arena, but the fact is that it is still cheaper than most hockey arenas, and we’re in one of the highest cost-of-living places in the country. I think the arena will be packed every weekend, anyway – the goal is to get those people to buy tougher games that won’t sell out like weekday games.
    The general admission thing doesn’t work, either – the people who buy season tickets have the right to their seats, whether they show up or not. They paid for that right.

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