Blackhawks’ new STM program designed to maintain attendance through rebuild

For more than a decade, the Blackhawks basically only needed to offer tickets to sell tickets.

But that’s now changing.

Their legendary sellout streak has faded away, even as attendance has remained relatively strong. With the imminent on-ice rebuild foreshadowing at least another few years of losing hockey, attracting fans to the United Center isn’t going to get any easier.

The Hawks aren’t ignoring that reality. After months of surveys, studies, focus groups, conversations, brainstorms and fresh ideas, they unveiled a new season-ticket membership program Wednesday–with an emphasis on the “membership” aspect, designed to provide fans far more than a simple ticket to every game.

They hope the program will maintain their energetic atmosphere and relatively large crowds through this transitional era. They also hope it’ll initiate a new relationship between the franchise, which seems to realize its previous sales brand of exclusivity and elitism no longer flies, and its fans.

“The fans have built this program,” Hawks business president Jaime Faulkner told the Sun-Times.

“They are not shy about telling us what they care about. We listened and we’ve incorporated all of their feedback, or as much as we could, into this membership program. We hope they’ll be happy. We hope that they see this program and say, ‘Yes, you heard what we said, and you’ve delivered on that.'”

Price reductions

There’s one aspect of the new ticketing program fans will inevitably care most about: the price. And on that front, Jamie Spencer–the Hawks’ new vice president of revenue–wants to make something very clear.

“They’ve told us this, and we’ve heard them, and we’ve done the research and we agree with them,” he said. “Our tickets are too expensive.”

Therefore, 84% of seats will be cheaper next season. Another 9% will stay roughly the same, leaving just 7% more expensive. Plans no longer require purchasing tickets for preseason games either, further reducing the cost.

Blackhawks fans have returned to the United Center as COVID-19 restrictions have lifted.

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

The lack of uniformity stems from an overhaul of the United Center seating chart, doubling the number of different “price zones” from 16 to 32. The previous zones often lumped together seats with different actual values, like lower and higher rows in a given section; the new zones are more specific to each seat’s true value.

“We have all the data, we know what those consumer behaviors and insights are, and we mapped out our pricing grid accordingly,” Spencer said. “Then we went back and added value to each seat and put benefits to that. We know what they transact for on the secondary market, and from there, we determined the optimal price for each seat, taking all of those factors into consideration.”

The price changes will not only affect actual season-ticket members but also single-game tickets (when those go on sale closer to next season) and will trickle down to resale prices. The Hawks are aware resale prices are rather low–Stubhub tickets for Tuesday against the Kings currently start at $8, for example–and they hope to remedy the problem.

Flexibility has been improved, too, via the additions of “Pick ‘Em” partial-season plans–which allow fans to choose their games–and game swaps for full- and partial-season plans with preset game assortments.

“There’s two types of fans: those that want to choose their seats and know where they’re going to sit, because seat location is very important, and those that want to choose their games,” Spencer said. “Having these products is going to attract new fans and possibly create more value, because in some cases we learned there were too many games that they couldn’t re-sell or went to waste.”

Beyond the tickets themselves, the memberships now offer a wide array of tangential benefits, including concession, apparel and parking discounts, access to special events and giveaways and dedicated account representatives.

Attendance trends

The Hawks hope the enhanced membership program continues the surprisingly strong attendance momentum they’ve established this spring.

“Clearly our team is not atop the standings and we’re not heading to the playoffs this year, yet [fans] still come in droves,” Spencer said. “They continue to behave like we are a playoff team, and that inspires us to work harder and smarter.”

After the sellout streak ended Oct. 24 with the third home game of 2021-22–the Hawks drew only 19,042 fans out of an official capacity of 19,717–crowd sizes fluctuated for months.

Some bad nights, such as the generously estimated crowd of 15,946 on Nov. 1, featured large swaths of empty seats. The Hawks averaged 17,663 fans for their third through 22nd home games.

Since the All-Star break, however, crowds have surged. The Hawks have averaged 19,351 fans at their last 12 home games, exceeding 18,500 for all 12 and selling out twice (including Sunday against the Coyotes).

Spencer said that trend isn’t atypical, as NHL teams “own the market more”fromFebruary through April after football season ends. That’s in spite of the fact the Hawks have gone 3-6-3 in those 12 games and are 11-17-6 overall at home; only the Kraken and Canadiens have fewer home wins.

“For the most part, our fans–whether diehard or casual–understand the state of this team and where they are from a competitive standpoint,” Faulkner said. “That has not stopped them from showing up and either cheering on a team that they love, or coming with their friends and having a great time.”

The Hawks’ season attendance average of 18,418 ranks fifth in the NHL, behind only the Lightning, Predators, Capitals and Wild (although the Golden Knights, Bruins and Kraken have also sold out every game but trail the Hawks simply due to smaller arena capacities).

That means the Hawks’ streak of 12 consecutive NHL attendance titles will end this season, but they’re still “proud” to rank fifth considering the circumstances, Spencer said.

Looking forward

Spencer optimistically sees “no reason why attendance would drop off” next season.

Objectively, it wouldn’t be too surprising if the Hawks did slide a bit closer toward league average–especially if Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews or Alex DeBrincat depart this summer during the rebuild.

On the other hand, society’s growing comfort level with crowded events and the gradual repopulation of downtown and the West Loop–as workers return to offices–should work in their favor. The Hawks have already benefited this spring from “pent-up demand” for live entertainment, Spencer said, as the pandemic recedes.

And the new season-ticket membership program will hopefully further offset the rebuild’s inevitably negative impact on attendance, convincing on-the-fence fans not to give up their seats quite yet.

“The best thing we can do is give [our fans] a winning product, and we’re definitely going to work on that,” Faulkner said. “But until we can get back to that place, we’re going to give them a really good time when they’re there.”

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