Rocky Wirtz on what the Stanley Cup means for the Blackhawks’ future
Thirty-seven hours after the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, team owner Rocky Wirtz rolled through the Hyatt Regency doors with an orange tie, a yellow shirt and a smile that betrayed none of his exhaustion.
Since Monday’s win in Boston, Wirtz (an investor in Wrapports, the parent company of Grid and the Sun-Times) says he’s gotten little sleep and more congratulatory messages than he knows what to do with — a “couple hundred” texts and 150 emails (the senders of many are a mystery, he admits).
Six months after a prolonged player lockout had fans howling, Wirtz again has the hottest sports brand in town. And with both fans and advertisers jumping at the chance to be associated with a winner, business has never been better. “I think [the cup] certainly helps with corporate sponsorships. It doesn’t hurt on the renewals. And obviously merchandise sales, and then just demand for tickets,” he says.
That demand is being driven in large part by the same type of raucous young fans who filled city streets after the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup-clinching victory Monday night. The owner says the Hawks have roped in the hard-to-understand millennial demographic without really knowing how.
“I don’t know why we have so many 20-somethings following our sport,” he says. “They’re discovering it, they’re talking about it, they’re watching it together, they’re meeting at their favorite watering holes to view it and to celebrate. I think it’s part of the whole lifestyle of what younger people are looking for.”
And while Wirtz isn’t sure why the Hawks have struck such a chord with a younger generation, he thinks it might have to do with providing an excuse to put down the smartphone. “So much is done without human interaction,” he says. “So what they’re looking for is human interaction. That’s where you go to watch games together. It’s my two-cent theory, but I think there’s something to it.”
The team has courted other nontraditional hockey demographics. Wirtz says the Hawks have a 40 percent female fan base and plan to do more to speak to that group.
“We’re not properly marketing to enough women. Many times advertisers are looking at this as a ‘21- to 54-year-old male,’” he says. “We’ve gone a long way in knowing who our fan is, but we have a long way to go still.”
And just as winning smoothed things over with fans who were demanding an apology after the lockout, it’s likely to make next season’s 16 percent ticket hike an easier pill to swallow. “We had the second-lowest ticket price in the league in ’07,” he says. “We knew we had to raise ticket prices but we had to do it very carefully. So much of our sport is derived from local revenue, unlike other sports that have very lucrative TV packages.”
Wirtz also believes that ticket prices won’t scare away season ticket owners, who can now regard their purchase as a safer investment. “If [season ticket holders] know they can get something for their ticket, [they’ll] invest the money upfront and still be able to make it back,” he says.
Wirtz is fine with one group getting squeezed out by higher ticket prices — the brawlers, whom he says he’s seen fewer of as ticket prices have risen and the makeup of the crowd at United Center has shifted from casual viewer to more upscale, serious fan.
“As the tickets are more valuable, our fan behavior is becoming better,” he says. “When the tickets didn’t have the same value or they didn’t look at the team as much, many times it would be an element of people who wanted to come to the United Center just to cause trouble and get in fights. We don’t have that. We do have occasional outburst, but generally speaking it’s a very good crowd.”
That new class of fan also opens the door to new classes of sponsors and other revenue streams. Though Wirtz maintains that the team will lose money this year, he believes the Blackhawks will be profitable in two or three years. Part of that will be continuing to invest in high-quality production of a sport that Wirtz admits is “not an easy game to broadcast.”
As for next season and beyond, Wirtz says the company has a commitment to something he calls the “Blackhawk culture.”
Nurturing that culture has already yielded two cups and what Wirtz sees as parity with the Bears, Bulls, Cubs and White Sox. “We [were] always fifth man on the totem pole as far as other sports,” he says. “I think we’re looked at in the same light now.”