The End of Hockeytown

With the Wings failing to sell out playoff games last spring and their opener this season, I’ve seen a lot of talk about “The End of Hockeytown” around the web. They’ve got a thread over at Rangerland that references a recent piece by the Freep so I took the time to put together a little rant/response that I’ve decided to repost here…

This is a debate you hear a lot around the Wings sites and you’re never going to just get one answer.

Personally, I think “Hockeytown” was a misnomer anyway. It was their marketing slogan for 1996-97 and they just happened to win the Cup that year so it stuck. Had they gone with it a year earlier, it would have disappeared.

A lot of Detroit bloggers are quick to say it’s not the economy but I don’t see how you can ignore that. Michigan’s got the worst economy in the country. Our foreclosure rate is huge. How can you expect people to buy hockey tickets when they can’t afford to pay for their houses? Those that do have money have it stretched thinner. The Pistons are good, the Tigers are good. The Lions aren’t mathematically eliminated yet. The Wings have more competition in the sports marketplace. If you’re a borderline fan, split between the Pistons and the Red Wings, why wouldn’t you pick the cheaper alternative?

The ticket prices are far from the worst but they’re not good, either. Yeah, you can get tickets for $22 or even $9 if you go to the box office but the $44+ tickets are the vast majority of seats. And the exhibition prices are the same as regular season. Last week I took my dad to the Wings-Leafs exhibition, seats were at center ice but were the last row in the arena, right in front of the press box. Total cost, $100 (Ticketmaster charge included, but not parking).

That kind of thing p*sses the fans off. The Wings came back from the lockout and their big thing was “Look, we’re not raising ticket prices!” Aside from the $9 seats that I can’t get because I live in Lansing and it’s not so easy to just hop down to the JLA box office, they haven’t lowered ticket prices (even just to raise them again) since the lockout. It’s like they didn’t even try to make it up to fans.

And some of the more embedded (or embittered) bloggers will also point out that the Wings’ organization is extremely media-unfriendly. The beat writers basically have to spew what the team tells them.

Their website is awful. Their only official fan communication is through a $40/year subscription site that they don’t even take the time to update (I paid my $40 twice and then figured out how to hack their forums, so I feel better that they’re not getting my money for that sh*t anymore). The players aren’t accessible to fans (unless you pay $500 to enter the Hockeytown Hold’em poker tournament that just happens to be at the casino owned by the Ilitch family).

The Joe, as much as I love it, is a dirt pit. It is an awful, awful arena. I love that there aren’t any stupid distractions to make it seem like you’re at a carnival rather than a hockey game but even I have to draw the line somewhere. I’ve been to Columbus, I’ve seen what a fantastic arena they built there, and if that building was dropped down behind the Fox Theater, more people would be in it than are in the Joe now. I know it’d be a lot easier to get my wife to go to games.

Personally, almost none of this applies to me. I’m 90 minutes from the Joe. I watch the games on TV. I was on the season ticket waiting list and my number came up last year. I passed because I can’t spend that kind of money to race to get to Detroit in time for a 7:30 faceoff against Columbus or St. Louis on a weeknight. I’ll buy a few single-game tickets throughout the season (my first set are next Friday against the Blackhawks).

The Wings don’t sell to the rest of the state. They’ve got a farm team in Grand Rapids and they don’t do any kind of promotions there. They’re in the same state as the NCAA’s defending National Champions, a team that won the tournament on a clutch goal by a Red Wings prospect who also happens to be from in-state, and there’s no cross-promotion except for when they try to bring in Wings fans to watch “College Hockey at the Joe.” Here in Lansing, what few hockey fans there are are MSU fans first and maybe Red Wings fans after that. The Wings have managed to get into a position where they’re competing with the college teams when they should be working with them. To a certain extent there will always be competition (you can’t schedule it so that the Wings are off every night that MSU or U-M or Western or Northern or Tech or the Griffins are playing) but they could at least work together to build fans across the state.

The thing that I haven’t seen mentioned a lot is that a lot of the supposed fanbase the Wings built in the 90s were bandwagon fans anyway. You stop winning and of course those people are going to go away. Detroit wasn’t selling out in the early 90s when they were a good team but kept losing in the first round, why would it be any different now? Especially with all of the other things taken into consideration.

That’s my essay on the matter. It’s gotten a lot of publicity lately. This summer some of the southern fans were asking why they should feel bad about Detroit’s problems. I’m not asking anyone to feel bad. I’m not asking anyone who’s not a Wings fan to care. I fully admit that the Wings are in a bit of trouble, this is why I think that’s the case.

Author: Clark Rasmussen

Clark founded the site that would become DetroitHockey.Net in September of 1996 with no idea what it would lead to. He continues to write for the site and executes the site's design and development.

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