Thursday, December 24, 2009

Back in Connecticut: Whalers Country


Last week, I decided that it would be a good time to treat myself to a Holiday gift. It had been a rough week, and I was about to return to Connecticut for about ten days, so I decided that I should get something to represent my region, the Hartford Whalers. Even now, twelve seasons after their move to Charlotte, North Carolina the Connecticut fans still take a great deal of pride in the team. Recently, companies like New Era, Reebok, CCM and Mithcell & Ness have started producing Whalers retro products for fans to buy. So I went to Lids.com and purchased a new Whalers hat.

Much to my surprise at dinner last night with some friends, Whalers products are the trendy thing to buy this holiday season. At dinner, I saw a Whalers t-shirt, sweatshirt and new hat. All worn by people that were at most 10-11 years old when the Whalers played their final game in Hartford in 1997. This, a couple of days after I found out that Whalers apparel at the NHL store in Times Square is currently the number one seller moving towards the holiday season. To me, that makes an extremely strong statement to the popularity of the Hartford Whalers franchise even still today.

In the past I have done some deeper digging on the subject and made an argument, but now that apparel sales have proven my point even further, the Hartford Whalers should return to the state. The NHL has dropped to fourth among the major professional sports (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) and if you count college sports, it has fallen even further. Expansion teams from the last ten to fifteen years in warm weather cities such as Fort Lauderdale or Phoenix to name two have not proven to be financially successful. While the Whalers did have a tough time selling tickets, I put that at fault of the management of the organization. Things have changed in professional sports. How we get to know and treat our fans is extremely important to team success and the Whalers relied too heavily on the team to sell tickets rather than the experience and fun that comes with attending a professional sporting event. The New Britain Rock Cats of New Britain, CT have consistently set attendance records and were Baseball America's best AA baseball team. Fans obviously have responded to their product, and it is a minor league product! Twelve years later, the state is hungry for another professional sport team as shown through apparel sales.

The most important piece of information that I always return to when I have this conversation with friends is that the city of Hartford is the largest city in the country without a Major League franchise. In September, 2009 the DMA ratings which determine market size show Hartford as being the 30th largest media market in the country. Ahead of cities such as Kansas City (#32), Milwaukee (#35) and Cincinnati (#33) which all have multiple major league teams. There are several cities that have just one professional sports franchise such as Portland, Oregon (#22) that time and time again show that they can draw fans. The Portland Trailblazers are 6th overall in attendance this season and were as high as 3rd last season. Towns with one Major League team have the ability to truly be the only show in town and with Portland being the best example.
The fans are ready, but much is needed for this to be a successful venture. Things that cost money such as a new stadium and sponsorship dollars stand as major hurdles. This year is not the right time, but based on the desire, the NHL should do whatever it can to get hockey in Hartford, a traditional hockey city.
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