Sold on hockey? Not Lexington
June 30, 2002
Macon Whoopee

Hockey Stick -- Don't get CHECKED!

New team's success lies wholly in marketing

By Mark Story
Herald-Leader Sports Columnist

As one who eats out every night, I have noticed a certain phenomenon.

When a restaurant fails, it often seems that attempts to open subsequent eateries in the same location also go under.

It is as if the stigma of failure attaches to the venue -- even when there is nothing obviously wrong with it.

Which, of course, brings us to Lexington's new professional hockey team.

Long before their squad faces off with East Cost Hockey League rivals Cincinnati, Dayton or Peoria, team owners Jean Gagnon and Michel Cardin face a much more formidable foe:

Overcoming the stench of failure attached to pro hockey in Lexington.

"That's the biggest challenge they face," said Bill Owen, the Rupp Arena pooh-bah who is giving hockey a second try only one season after the demise of the Kentucky Thoroughblades.

"In any sports entertainment venture, you've got to create buzz. That's the bottom line to this whole thing."

Of course, the perception of failure in pro hockey's previous five-year run (1996-2001) here is not entirely fair.

Because, at the turnstiles, the T-blades didn't fail.

They averaged more than 7,000 fans a game their first two years. Even in their final year, the announced attendance was 4,461 per game.

"If you can average more than 4,000 people a game in minor-league sports, you ought to be able to make money," says Lexington Legends President Alan Stein.

"That shouldn't be a failure. Their problems were not attendance."

That said, by the end of their tenure here, there is no question that the T-blades had lost their glow.

In hockey's early years, Rupp Arena rocked.

The games were the place to be. For couples on dates. For the UK crowd. For families. Even the corporate tickets were mostly used.

Then, the newness wore off.

Facing non-attendance-related financial woes, the team cut back drastically on its marketing budget.

Some of the promotions it kept went stale.

By the fourth year, the air went out of the bubble.

And without the fans who attended because it was the trendy thing to do, there weren't enough hard-core hockey followers to keep the team afloat.

Which brings us to hockey, take two.

Stein, whose gonzo salesmanship brought minor-league baseball here without public funding, says it is crucial that the new team get the public's attention from the get-go.

"It is incredibly important that they get the buzz going this summer," he said. "If they don't get it going now, they will never recover."

A huge financial commitment to marketing and an ability to "hype everything they do into a big deal" are the keys to success, adds Stein, who says he hopes hockey succeeds even if it means competition for advertising with the Legends.

Whether Gagnon has such a marketing plan is unclear.

He wasn't tipping his hand Friday after the news conference that announced the new team.

"We will sell the hockey and sell the entertainment," Gagnon said. "We know we have to do both."

I suspect selling hockey to this market is a bigger challenge than Gagnon realizes. We shall see.

Many Lexington hockey fans were hoping that the city would not get another pro team until someone finally stepped up and built the much talked about mid-sized arena.

The rationale being that hockey would have a better chance here in a 7,500-seat (or so) venue with luxury suites, etc., where it could be the main tenant and share in parking and concessions revenue.

Though a new curtain configuration will reduce Rupp Arena to less than 10,000 for the new team, hockey will never be the main tenant as long as UK is in Rupp. Meaning hockey won't benefit from either concessions or parking at the arena.

By coming back to Rupp so soon after the T-blades, Gagnon and Cardin are risking more than their capital.

They are risking Lexington's viability as a pro hockey town.

A two-time loser probably doesn't get a third strike.

So, for now, pro hockey in Lexington is like a bumblebee with laryngitis:

Frantically looking for its buzz.

This article is copyright 2002, The Lexington Herald-Leader, and is used for historical/education purposes only.


Hockey Stick -- Don't get CHECKED!

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