By: Hamilton Bulldogs
05/31/2013 9:39 AM -
HAMILTON, Ont. – The Hamilton Bulldogs may have missed the Calder Cup Playoffs, but the American Hockey League club made considerable strides with its off-ice initiatives.
The Bulldogs played 38 home dates before 203,012 fans, an average of 5,342 which was the third-highest total in franchise history. That number includes two games played at the Bell Centre in Montreal and three sellouts at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton.
“There has been growth in ticket sales and our community initiatives,” Bulldogs president Stephen Ostaszewicz said recently. “My team worked very hard to put up those kind of numbers and it wasn’t easy. We were short-staffed over the last half of the season, but that’s how business goes.
“We focused on instituting a culture of performance and with that comes accountability. We held the team accountable to goals and targets. Did we achieve all the goals and targets we set? No, but we recognize that most of them were attainable. We hit all of our ticket sales plan except one area and that was group tickets, but that was offset by growth in other elements in our business plan from a ticketing perspective. Our group tickets, however, did increase 39 percent year over year.”
The Bulldogs played before a sold-out crowd of 8,819 against the Toronto Marlies in their home opener on Oct. 19 and again when the Marlies visited on Jan. 19, a night that also marked the return of the National Hockey League after a 119-day lockout. The Bulldogs’ biggest home-ice crowd was the 10,649 that took in a school-day matinee against the Rochester Americans on Nov. 14.
The club continued to enjoy healthy crowds after falling out of playoff contention. A game against the St. John’s IceCaps held in conjunction with the Boots and Hearts Music Festival drew 5,523 on April 19 and their regular-season finale two days later against Rochester drew 6,546.
“We won’t have the benefit of the lockout next season, but some of our best crowds came in the second half after the lockout ended,” said Ostaszewicz. “We had nine home games in February and did fairly well from an attendance standpoint. We finished the season with some strong crowds. That tells me the people believe in what we are doing and recognize the value.
“We did the Boots and Hearts theme night for the first time and it was a vibe we hadn’t previously experienced. It had a high level of energy, it was loud and vibrant. We need that on a continuous basis.”
Ostaszewicz said the Bulldogs’ players were a critical part of the club’s off-ice success.
“They were an integral part of everything that we did from day one, whether that was our exhibition game in Brantford or the four community skates and practices we ran in Burlington, Ancaster, Dundas and Waterdown / Flamborough.
“Zack Stortini was up every Thursday morning to be in studio with Y108 and Kyle Hagel was out doing a community-based reading program. Our guys were out visiting schools and also serving breakfast at Bennetto Elementary School, which was a recipient of funding from our Dawgs Breakfast program. What they do off the ice matters and their accessibility contributed to the fans wanting to come to Copps Coliseum to support them.
“From an on-ice perspective this season was an aberration, but we had a number of rookies in a lineup against teams that had several NHL-caliber players. Our owner, Michael Andlauer, has a commitment to winning and we have great leadership on the hockey side of the organization to make that happen. Sylvain Lefebvre has supported everything that we have asked of him.”
Ostaszewicz, a Hamilton native who joined the Bulldogs in June, 2012, said his team remains focused on the customer.
“We tried to be customer-centric from the moment I arrived. We went out and developed relationships and bonds with the people of Hamilton and the surrounding area. I am a local guy, born in Hamilton, and our vice president of sales and marketing, Marc Boria, was born and raised in Hamilton. We’re local guys and passionate about what we do and we want the people we have hired to be passionate too. They have come from the surrounding areas and they have bought in to what we are trying to achieve.
“We sell family entertainment. If you look at our tiered pricing you could buy a season ticket for as low as $10 per game and our top ticket price on the day of a game was $29. We have something for everybody. We know that there are different economic levels within the city and surrounding area and that’s part of being customer-centric. We tried different things like the Christmas flex pack and did a February flex pack. We sold 6,300 tickets through our partnership with Fortinos. It’s important for us to associate with iconic local businesses like that and that helped us.
“We know that income is hard earned and if we were going to get you to come for a night out we are going to ensure that we are giving you good value. I think we accomplished that and now we have to take it to the next level.”
Ostaszewicz said he began planning for next season several months ago.
“I have been in that mode for a number of weeks. The planning began back in December. We need to continue to grow our season ticket base and we hope that comes from businesses in the surrounding area and the downtown core. I want to be able to walk around and see that business support, not just through partnerships. I want there to be a sense of pride of the Bulldogs in the city. We also need the employers in the city to bring their employees to a game as a social outing.
“We maintained the core programs like the Dawgs Breakfast program, through the Bulldogs Foundation, but if you are not out in the community and supporting the other events why would people come out to support you?”
Ostaszewicz said the club will be reaching out to youth-based community programs beyond those in hockey.
“We are working with the Hamilton Jr. Bulldogs to extend our program with them. We want to enrich that program. Minor hockey is our bread and butter, but we need to go beyond that. We have to look at gymnastics, dance, Beavers, Scouts, Girl Guides, anything that is centered around youth. We need to find ways to get them to come to games as groups.”
Copps Coliseum opened in 1985 and has been the Bulldogs home since their inaugural season in 1996-97 and Ostaszewicz said fans should see some improvements next season.
“We are working on a number of enhancements to improve the customer experience from the moment they arrive at the building until they leave. We won’t do that on our own, we will do that in conjunction with our partners at Global Spectrum. We hope to have an LED ring in the bowl and other significant refurbishments. When somebody comes to a Bulldogs game next October they won’t recognize the building. It’s long overdue.”
“We learned there isn’t a strong appetite for 5 p.m. starts on Sundays. We had 3 p.m. on Sundays and Family Day and that was perfect. We have asked the AHL not to play the Marlies on a weekday, but we recognize that might be a requirement from the league end and we would support that.
“Next season we will put more emphasis on theme nights. I underestimated how powerful they would be, they resulted in some of our biggest crowds of the season. It’s important for us to have good promotional items too. We need to work to get the students from Mohawk, Brock and McMaster. There’s no reason a Bulldogs game can’t be a destination for those students. It’s all about value. I’m not going to stand still. I am focusing on continuous improvement. We need to be on top of what’s going on. This is entertainment, we can’t get comfortable.”
The Bulldogs signed a three-year lease extension in January and Ostaszewicz said the uncertainty about the clubs’ future that surrounded much of last season is gone.
“People know we will be here for the next three years. The lease comes with a two-year option. We don’t need to talk about that anymore, people can now make a commitment with us.”
Ostaszewicz said the club is also looking well into the future with an eye towards its 20th season.
“We have some ideas that might not be realized for a couple of years, but by the time we get to our 20th season I hope we have achieved them. We will work with Global Spectrum to have a sellout streak in our 20th season. We will work together to ensure that happens. It’s an aggressive goal, but there is no reason we can’t average seven or eight thousand fans a game.”