- Putting the cowboys on ice down in
Think your job is tough? Try selling bush league hockey to football-mad
Texans, most of whom don't know a puck from a donut. But as Sherri
Deatherage Green discovers, the Western Professional Hockey League has
done it on a shoestring budget, thanks to a smart grass-roots campaign.
Real men who
brave contests of grit and brawn wear two things on their feet at the
Lubbock Municipal Coliseum - spurs or hockey blades. Dirt and ice
alternately cover the arena floor, depending on whether a rodeo is in town
or the Lubbock Cotton Kings have a home game.
Across the flat
plains and rugged hills of West Texas, ponds seldom freeze hard enough to
support a puck, much less a 200-pound hockey player. Pro hockey in the
Kozuback, former coach of
The East Coast
Hockey League, for example, started franchises in
traditionally do very well in markets where they are the main show,”
says ECHL's assistant communications director Jamie Fabos. Working with
minor-league marketing budgets, the teams depend heavily on grass-roots
PR. “If you can get more positive publicity from players going to read
to second graders, that's probably more valuable than an ad you're running
on the radio,” Fabos says.
By the time
Kozuback and his group began shopping for teams, asking prices had soared.
Starting a new league in a hockey-deprived region made more sense
few things as highly as football. Kozuback thought the equally brutal
northern sport could extend “Friday night lights” into the winter
months and bridge the gap between the football and baseball seasons. His
group identified cities with populations between 200,000 and one million,
arenas of adequate size and fierce high school or college rivalries. Five
But the PR
campaign began well before the first puck dropped. WPHL officials spent
months explaining their plans to chambers of commerce and Rotary clubs,
creating awareness through roller hockey clinics and cementing
partnerships with radio and TV stations. Coaches and players worked the
malls, county fairs, parades and rodeos. Serious TV and billboard
advertising didn't kick in until two or three months before the season
started. Name-the-team contests resulted in colorful mascots, such as the
Fort Worth Brahmas, Corpus Christi Ice Rays, El Paso Buzzards and
The Central Texas
Stampede and the Waco Wizards faced off in the league's first game at the
first two periods, half the crowd got up to leave,” recalls Steve
Cherwonak, WPHL scheduling and media services director. Employees rushed
to the exits to let them know the game wasn't over. At the end of the
third period, many fans stayed in their seats waiting for a fourth.
meant more than just explaining the three-period concept, though. The
league conducted clinics, developed a “Hockey 101” brochure and forged
relationships with local reporters to pique the locals’ interest.
Fans of the
Austin Ice Bats, one of the oldest and most successful franchises, now can
analyze power plays and debate the nuances of the neutral-zone trap, while
new teams like the Cotton Kings find educating fans to be a bit easier
than their predecessors did.
flocking to Texas Tech from places like
Likewise, minor league interest provides a boon for the major league team,
says Dallas Stars media relations director Larry Kelly. “We see people
come in from around the southwest to see what the NHL is all about,” he
notes. Every Stars game this season has sold out.
PR off the ice
In contrast to
their often-aloof NHL counterparts, WPHL players must pay more than lip
service to their fans. WPHL contracts require players to make up to three
public appearances a week.
“We are big believers in
getting players to stay after the games and meet the fans,” Kozuback
says. Most visit supporters in VIP lounges or stay on the ice for open
skating. Few of the league's 300 players mind the exposure, since many
wouldn’t play hockey for a living otherwise. “If a 12 year old kid
can’t get the autograph of his favorite player, then we're doing
something wrong,” Cherwonak says.
The players usually
get star treatment in the cities they represent. “They don't have a
perception that they are too good to talk to people or sign autographs,”
says Odessa Jackalopes’ booster club president Robin Smith. “They are
excited about being in the community and providing entertainment.” His
group sponsors monthly team dinners and helps new players settle in to new
homes. Each team is allowed 14 visas, fostering quite a bit of
Canadian/Texan cultural exchange.
A big part of
WPHL’s outreach is aimed at its youngest fans. The WPHL’s junior
reporter program lets youngsters “cover” games and interview players
for articles on the league Web site. Jackalopes officials visit schools to
talk about drug awareness and physical fitness while outlining basic rules
of the game, says GM Monty Hoppel. “Many of these children will become
season ticket holders,” Cherwonak adds.
In four years, the
WPHL has grown to 16 teams in
While new ice rinks
have opened in some WPHL cities, other teams can practice only when their
coliseums aren’t being used for other, more traditional purposes. A
Kelly and Cherwonak
agree Texan hockey is here to stay, its popularity underscored by the
growth of recreational leagues. PR and community relations will continue
to be important tools in appealing to the next generation of
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