Friday, June 11, 2010

Royals can learn a lot from Blackhawks' journey

Alright, you all know me. I'm a huge hockey fan. But this has nothing to do with the sport itself. It does have everything to do with how the Chicago Blackhawks not only turned their franchise around on the ice, but off it as well.

5 years ago, if you would have asked a Chicagoan who their favorite Blackhawks player was, it probably wouldn't have been a player on the current roster. They would have said Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Jeremy Roenick or Denny Savard. The Hawks were downright awful for the most part from 1997-2007. They made the playoffs once, as an 8-seed, during that stretch. The 22,000 seat United Center would be half full for weekend and rivalry games, much worse for weeknight games and non-premier opponents. This was in a city of over 7 million people (2.8 million in the city limits alone) and they could barely draw 10,000 people. Not to mention they had to compete with four other major sports teams. Season ticket sales were south of 5,000 and the Hawks were nearly forgotten about in Chitown. Owner Bill Wirtz refused to spend money on free agents and the draft. He wouldn't even fork over the dough to show the team's home games on local television. Blackhawks TV cost $30/month! $30/month! Just to watch the worst team in the league!

Of course, if you're the worst team in the league, you get the best draft picks. In 2006, the Hawks drafted Jonathan Toews with the 3rd overall pick. The next year, they drafted Patrick Kane with the 1st overall pick. As Bill Wirtz's health declined, his son, Rocky, began learning the ropes and making front office decisions. The board hired former Blackhawks player, Dale Tallon, as general manager before the 2005-06 season, and started making wholesale changes to the roster, shedding awful veteran payroll and began building the team from within while making trades for young players.

Bill Wirtz passed away shortly before the 2007-08 season and his son, Rocky, took over full ownership of the franchise. Rocky Wirtz's first order of business was to put the home games back on local television. Done. Then he hired former Chicago Cubs president, marketing whiz John McDonough, to the same position in the Blackhawks front office.

McDonough knew that the Hawks were not the frontline team in Chicago, and they probably never would be. But no one even cared about the team in Chicago. McDonough and his executives started reaching out to the city of Chicago. Soon bars were flying Blackhawks flags outside of their doors. Blackhawks players were making more public appearances, charitable and social, and the Hawks invited their formerly shunned hall of famers back to the United Center and created the Blackhawks Ambassadors, made up of Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito and Dennis Savard. They cultivated business relationships with the Bears, Bulls, Cubs and White Sox. Jonathan Toews and head coach Joel Quenneville sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at Wrigley Field. Derrick Rose dropped the puck at the home opener. Four Blackhawks threw out the first pitch at US Cellular on Opening Day this year. Lance Briggs participated in the famous United Center "Puck Shoot" in February. They hosted the NHL's annual Winter Classic at Wrigley Field in 2009. They made themselves synonymous with the city.

During the summer of 2008, when the White Sox and Cubs are the only tickets in town, the Blackhawks began hosting the annual Blackhawks Convention, a three day event at the Downtown Chicago Hilton and Towers (you know, the hotel in the last scene of The Fugitive). Hawks players, past and present, coaches and everyone involved with the team attend the event. A lot of sports franchises do it, but the Hawks go all out. Organist Frank Pellico provides the soundtrack for the weekend on a miniature version of the United Center organ. The hotel is converted into a hockey playground, with pep rallies, games, performances from the Second City comedy group, Chicago celebrities and world famous Chicago cuisine. They even open the event with the National Anthem, Chicago style. The first convention sold out in a month, with tickets going for $60. The next year it sold out in two weeks. This year, it sold out in three days.

*Wanna go this year? You can find three-day passes on eBay anywhere from $499 to $3,995.

Then, the Hawks started reaching out to the young people of Chicago. Wrigleyville and Lincoln Park are flooded with young professionals who are out Thursday-Saturday at bars and clubs. The Hawks created the Blackhawks Bars network. A group of over 150 bars, pubs, clubs and ale houses all across Illinois where fans could watch every Blackhawks game and mingle with fellow fans. Young people started to rally around the young team. The city fell in love with the team and there was just one thing left to do...Win.

With the groundwork already in place, the Hawks finally made it back to the playoffs in 2008-09, making it to the Conference Finals for the first time in nearly 15 years, a long time for a hockey franchise. The Blackhawks became the hottest ticket in town. The journey had reached its destination. The Hawks raised the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years and united the city of Chicago. Ask anyone from Chicago what the most popular team in Chicago is right now, and I guarantee you that 95% will say the Blackhawks. The party ensued in Chicago and probably won't stop until sometime in September. The Blackhawks had created magic in Chicago. Team officials predicted 500,000-1 million people would show up at the championship parade on Friday and that was a pretty liberal estimate according to some.

Two million people showed up for the parade.

Two million people. And those two million showed up because the Blackhawks reached out to them. They gave them something to believe in even before all the winning started.

Well, 525 miles away, there is another professional sports franchise that is reeling. They have trouble drawing fans. Most fans will tell you that their favorite player is someone that hasn't played in 20+ years. They lose. They lose comically. They don't have a shred of partnership with the other team that they share a parking lot with. They spend too much money on bad free agents. They make bad trades. They have lost touch with the city. But they've got these guys in the minor leagues that give the fans hope for the future.

The Royals do a fine job with their marketing, they really do. But you have to cultivate a winning environment not just around the stadium, but around the city. Get young people involved. Make Kauffman Stadium a destination for young people. Affiliate yourselves with the most popular bars in town. How cool would it be to walk in to the Brooksider, Tom Fooleries or Paddy O'Quigley's and see dozens of Royals fans watching the game, cheering and celebrating? Make the Royals cool again. Make the Royals Kansas City's team again. Sure we may not win for a few more years, but lay the foundation. Make people expect to win before the winning starts.

"The best way to create a winning environment, is to first expect it" -Marty Schottenheimer

Do that, and maybe someday we'll have a parade with two million people of our own.


  1. Great ideas. It's always a good idea for teams to increase their ties to the community. How about two others. Player and fan ownership.

    Isn't it about time we figured out how we all had a chance to own a piece of "The National Pasttime"?

  2. Cool writeup. I've long been admirer of the NHL. I love/played hockey growing up but never had my own team living in KC.

    Needless to say I've casually been on the Blackhawks bandwagon during their recent run of success. I've always felt more aligned with Chicago living in KC than STL.

    Anyways, I agree totally with your point. KC is and always will be a baseball city. If the Royals organization would reach out to the community at large much much more this city would become electric like it once was as soon as this team even shows a tiny shred of competency.


    ps- Are you related to the McGannon of NHL21 fame in KC?

  3. Yes, Jeff I am. My dad is Paul McGannon of NHL21. But believe me, I am not affiliated with NHL21 in any capacity, other than my father is the president. I have always been a fan of hockey. Thanks for the comments guys.

  4. Hockey is my least favorite sport, I'm sorry to say, and I've seen a live Bruins game only once in my hometown. You make it sound really fun, however, and your Blackhawks/Royals analogy works extremely well. If there are good minor league players waiting in the wings, the KC franchise has to make itself known in venues all around the city, just as you say - generate some optimism and electricity and f-u-n. Heck I grew up in 1963 happily following a bunch of losers - the NY Mets; so what does that tell you? There's no reason why the organization shouldn't be able to capitalize on the feeling of hope that young players often inspire in their long climb to the top. Ideally, KC should be a great road trip destination for tons of people like me!

  5. Very cool write-up!