Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Have the Blackhawks Hit Bottom?

Not even close, BUD!

This will probably be my first and last post about hockey. I’ve never been much of a fan. I’ve never attended a game, I’ve only watched the Blackhawks on TV maybe 3 times over the past 5 years, and I’ve only attempted to ice skate one time in my life.

But I wanted to mention an article by Jay Mariotti for a couple of reasons. First because it is about the Blackhawks. Now I’m sure he has written other columns about hockey but they aren’t common. I have a suspicion that this is because he doesn’t care much for the sport.

But the odd thing about the column is he argues against firing Coach Brian Sutter. Let me repeat, Jay Mariotti is arguing against firing a head coach.

For those of you not familiar with Jay Mariotti, his modus operandi is usually to attack every player, coach and GM as greedy, cowardly, incompetent, selfish or a combination of each. He usually goes on to state how if such and such team would just follow his advice they would become the next dynasty in whatever sport they are playing.

Of course if the team ends up winning, he will change course and talk about how brilliant the Cubs were for winning their division ( with 88 victories) and how sorry and pathetic the White Sox were for losing their division (with 86 victories).

Anyways, for Mariotti to write that Brian Sutter should keep his job just reaffirms my belief that he doesn’t give a squat about hockey and just tossed out this column for the sake of writing about hockey.

Unfortunately for the Blackhawks, Mariotti is with the majority of Chicago sports fans on not caring about hockey. The Blackhawks used to be one of the hottest tickets in town and regularly soldout the Chicago Stadium. But since they moved to the United Center in the mid-90’s, attendance has slowly crept downward and now stands at 13,305 per game, ranking 26th out of 30 NHL teams.

One reason for the decline has been the fact that the Hawks have been one of the worst teams in the league for the past five years. But an even bigger reason for the decline has been Blackhawks majority owner Bill Wirtz’s refusal to televise Blackhawk home games. Television has now been the main channel for sports to market themselves for well over 20 years now. It is just mind boggling that Blackhawks continue not to broadcast home games.

Just last month the local arena football team game on NBC had higher ratings head to head than the Hawks game on ABC. I think that speaks volumes on the relative popularity of hockey in this town. And it may be too late to do anything about it now.

Bill Wirtz has a lot of money so the Hawks aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. He is also part owner of the United Center which doesn’t hurt the team’s bottom line (or at least Wirtz’s bottom line). But it is not hard to imagine that Chicago will no longer be a viable market for an NHL team ten years from now.

Now I know many people would argue with this assessment and believe fans will come back once the team starts winning. They point to how well the Chicago Wolves, a minor league hockey team, does in attendance. But I would counter that most people go to see Wolves game mainly for the entertainment value, not because they are hockey fans. The highest priced ticket for a Wolves games is $40, while very good first level tickets go for $23. The cheap seats go for $9. This is a good deal for people looking to take their families out for the night. The games are also conveniently located in Rosemont, which draws fans from both the North and West suburbs.

In comparison, the highest priced tickets to a Hawks game are $250 each and the cheapest lower level ticket is $75. The cheapest tickets, way up in the third balcony, go for $15. At those prices, the Blackhawks are not going to get 20,000 fans at most games even if they are in first place. There just aren’t enough hockey fans left in the city to fill the United Center. And the games are too expensive for people just looking to be entertained. So if you don’t draw fans, and people aren’t watching on TV, there are not many avenues left to generate revenue.

It will take a lot more than winning to make for decades of management mistakes. And I don’t think this management group is capable of pulling it off.