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This is Hockeytown?
Detroit, in the Stanley Cup final for the 5th time in 13 years, has the nickname, but with empty seats in Joe Louis Arena, is it time to give it up?
Sunday, May 25, 2008

HOCKEYTOWN, USA -- Wait, really? This is Hockeytown, Detroit? All right, I guess, if they say so, and they've said so around here since 1996, when an ad agency contracted by the Detroit Red Wings rolled out Hockeytown as a marketing stroke, and Detroit sure doesn't seem to mind, especially with the Stanley Cup final on stage in lower Michigan this weekend for the fifth time in the past 13 years.

Hockeytown just sounds so accomplished and so welcoming. And, you have to admit, it beats the heck out of Murder City.

"Hockeytown is not a geographic location," corrected Steve Violetta, the Wings' senior veep for business. "It's more a lifestyle, a philosophy. It's like when you see the Steelers playing a road game, and all the Pittsburgh fans that are in those stadiums; it's just such an identity."

The Red Wings Web site still welcomes you to Hockeytown, as does a still-trendy downtown restaurant and night spot prominent among the holdings of Wings ownership.

Still, some wonder how Hockeytown can have a Stanley Cup finalist that doesn't routinely fill its arena, and how the most celebrated athlete in Hockeytown this weekend is probably Richard Hamilton, whose one-handed runner in the lane the other night pulled the Detroit Pistons even with the Boston Celtics in the National Basketball Association's Eastern Conference championship, which are, many have noted, 100 percent ice-free.

"This is maize-and-blue town," Keith Meldrum was saying as the Pistons were nailing it down on the big TVs inside Balloon Saloon in Southfield. "I'm mostly a Michigan football fan, but look around in here, these people don't care much about hockey."

Asked for a prediction as to who'll win the Stanley Cup, Mr. Meldrum said, "When does that start?" Estimates are stubbornly low -- mostly in the 10 percent range -- on how many avid basketball fans are also avid hockey fans, and vice versa, but you don't have to be watching the NBA playoffs to get the sense that Hockeytown might be something of a misnomer.

That notion reached something of a flashpoint in December, when Sports Illustrated spotlighted some nettlesome facts, such as that of Joe Louis Arena's 20,006 seats, fewer than 15,000 are filled with season ticket holders.

"Our season ticket base is still among the top five in the league," said Mr. Violetta. "The Red Wings are still a great brand.... When Turnkey Sports ranked the brand names of all the teams in the four major sports, the Red Wings were No. 8 out of 122, so there are a lot of positives."

That was the brand cachet survey from last November that put the Steelers No. 1.

Still, Mr. Violetta wasn't in his Joe Louis Arena office here yesterday by accident. He was hired because certain market forces within Wingsworld had thrown the hockey team into relative disfavor. Since they won the 10th of their Stanley Cups six years ago, the Wings have watched the resurgence of the Pistons and the unlikely World Series ascendancy of the Detroit Tigers in 2006, all at a time when the NHL had, in some ways, become more daunting.

Bye-by Yzerman

Add a couple of conspicuous post-season collapses, and there's trouble in Hockeytown.

"No matter what kind of hockey town you are, baseball's always going to beat you," said Gene Myers, sports editor of the Detroit Free Press. "The hockey lockout [in 2004-05] really ticked people off, and a lot of hardcore hockey fans just couldn't wait to come back and hate the new NHL. ...

"When they won in 2002, nothing could have been bigger. But Steve Yzerman retired. Brendan Shanahan went away. Sergei Federov went away. Scotty Bowman went away. And some of the new players haven't really established an identity like those guys.

"Their ticket problems are mostly traceable to the economy, which is really bad, but the Pistons had the same problem in the '90s when the Bad Boys dynasty disintegrated. The Pistons, though, had a much more corporate fan base. They were great marketers and they worked their butts off. The Wings never had to do that. When things started going backward for them, they didn't have the mechanism to react. I have season tickets, but I don't want to go to 40 some games. I do want to go to seven or eight or nine, and I never had any trouble selling the others, but now all of a sudden I can't sell 'em.

"People say, I don't want to pay $54 to see the Wings."

Heavy doses of Columbus

There was more at work in the Wings' decline than simple peevishness.

For one thing, the lockout begat the league's first salary cap, meaning the Wings had to stop behaving like the New York Yankees, essentially purchasing high-grade talent with no apparent constraints from Illitch Holdings, the empire that sprang from Little Caesar's Pizza entrepreneur Mike Illitch and also includes the Tigers.

For another, the league's unbalanced scheduling and Detroit's address within it have not been a hit with fans who wouldn't mind seeing a lot less of Nashville and the Columbus Blue Jackets and a lot more of Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin.

For a third, for all of Detroit's wondrously skilled players, they haven't displayed the kind of highly marketable Crosby-like magneticism off the ice.

All of that said, nothing pushes the pendulum the other way like a head-to-head for the Stanley Cup, and the mechanism has already been established by Mr. Violetta, who'd previously been the marketing strategist with the Ottawa Senators, the San Diego Padres, and, from 1993 until 1996, the Penguins.

"There are cycles in every market," he said. "Now we've sold out 17 of our last 23, including the playoffs."

The Penguins, by comparison, have sold out 64 consecutive home games including 10 playoff games, and have trumped Detroit's status as the most formidable cable draw in hockey.

The average regular season game drew a 6.0 rating for FSN this year, compared to 4.7 for the regional equivalent carrying Red Wings games. In the playoffs, the Pittsburgh rating was 15.5 to Detroit's 9.0.

Hockeytown, in fact, would not be misapplied to Pittsburgh.

It's just, you know, already taken.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.
First published on May 25, 2008 at 12:00 am
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