SPORTS PR - Putting the cowboys on ice down in Texas  

          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 Lone Star State would seem an unlikely juxtaposition. But Rick Kozuback saw things differently.

          Kozuback, former coach of Phoenix 's now-defunct International Hockey League franchise, assembled a group of Canadian investors in 1994 with an eye toward purchasing an established minor league team. Increased exposure to hockey via all-sports cable channels fueled a proliferation of minor league clubs in untraditional markets in the first half of the decade, and more than 90 now play nationally. But it took a Texas-size dose of grass-roots PR for this league to take off. 

Face off

          The East Coast Hockey League, for example, started franchises in Tennessee , North Carolina and Virginia in 1988. Like the Texas clubs, ECHL organizations are analogous to Double-A minor league baseball.

          “Our teams 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 financially.

          Texans revere 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 teams in Texas and one in New Mexico hit the ice for the Arizona-based Western Professional Hockey League during its inaugural 1996 season.

          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 Shreveport Mudbugs.

         The Central Texas Stampede and the Waco Wizards faced off in the league's first game at the Bell County Expo Center , not far from Fort Hood . The contest drew about 2,000 curious onlookers.

          “After 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.

          Educating fans 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.

          Students flocking to Texas Tech from places like Amarillo and San Angelo bring minor-league hockey knowledge with them, but Lubbock PR and broadcasting director Chris Due gives the NHL champion Dallas Stars credit for expanding the fan base exponentially. “When they went to the Stanley Cup, that was the biggest thing we could ask for,” Due says. Cotton King organizers threw a game-watching party during the playoffs, which let them explain things like on-glass signage to potential sponsors.

         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 Texas , Louisiana , Arkansas and New Mexico , but it still faces challenges. The Waco and Abilene teams lost their franchises in December due to poor staffing and inadequate capitalization, but Kozuback is quick to note that a Tucson club has been added and two more start-ups are expected next year.

         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 rodeo in Lubbock recently forced the Cotton Kings to commute to Odessa for workouts.

         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 Sunbelt hockey fans, notes Cherwonak, who hopes someday a 6-foot-2 inch, 200-pound West Texas farm boy might be inspired to play for the Stars instead of the Cowboys.

(c) Copyright Haymarket Business Publications Limited 2000, published in Feb. 28, 2000 , U.S. edition of PRWeek.  

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