Entertainment and Sports

Where Are The Fans?

Rather than asking why fans aren't attracted to the Bulldogs' games, we should be examining what is repelling them.

By Chris Sanislo
Published May 14, 2011

A few nights ago our hometown Hamilton Bulldogs defeated the Manitoba Moose in game seven of the North Division finals – a game needing triple overtime to yield a winner. An impressive script that only about 2,500 souls witnessed.

 “Where are the fans?” everyone cried, quickly pointing to the 9,400 that streamed into Winnipeg’s MTS Centre for the Bulldogs game 6 visit to a city poised to see the NHL return. Instead of the usual scapegoating and fan-blaming, perhaps there’s a more productive question that should be answered. Rather than asking why fans aren't attracted to the Bulldogs games, we should be examining what is repelling them.

(And here is the part where I hop over the boards, line up beside a member of the Bulldogs brass and inform them that “we’re goin’” when the puck drops.)

The key issue and/or marketing challenge the ‘Dogs face is that there is absolutely no emotional attachment to their brand. Zip. Zero. And to turn off 700,000 people in a hockey-soaked market takes some effort. But here are just a few ways this feat can be achieved:

Wear the uniforms of a hated rival.

Whether the Bulldogs administration, their Montreal Canadien-parents, the proud-Hamiltonian, or the AHL want to admit it, the Toronto Maple Leafs are king here. A befuddling NHL-imposed monopoly since 1925 has, naturally, resulted in a prevailing allegiance to the Buds. Here is an insight that, somehow, has been overlooked -- Leaf fans hate the Canadiens. Almost amazingly, the black and gold that permeates throughout the city thanks to the 140 years of Tiger-Cats history – not to mention the old NHL Tigers – hasn’t been pursued as a means to garner some attachment by association.

Make the gameday presentation irritating to hockey fans.

 Yes, this is definitely the most subjective – that said, you wouldn’t have to go far to find someone who would echo this point. Since the late-‘90s, there has been a fervent push to make sporting events – especially minor league ones – fun for the kids. And that’s great, so long as it doesn’t come at the expense of everyone else. Too often, the Bulldogs game presentation has left the actual game feeling like an afterthought. So, you have to hope Mom loves her AHL hockey; otherwise the knowledgeable fan won’t be renewing their season’s tickets.  

Make prospective fans feel bad about themselves.

 I’ve been in the ad-game for a while now and I’ve yet to see a strategy document or a briefing that includes guilting prospects into buying a product – informing them that by choosing a competitive product they are negatively affecting the brand being advertised. But this appears to be a cornerstone of the Bulldogs public relation efforts. During the heights of Jim Balsillie’s attempt to bring the Phoenix Coyotes to Hamilton, the entire region was in a tizzy about the prospects of NHL hockey coming to Copps Coliseum. Media attention went beyond obnoxious and water-cooler discussion was extensive to the point of exhaustion. Did the ‘Dogs leverage this long-shot attempt and join in the excitement? Nope. Instead they took a “What about us?” approach and scoffed at the lack of attention.

 When 6,000 people showed up at an NHL rally in downtown Hamilton, the only Bulldog presence was…get this…protesters. Yes, you read that right.

For as long as I can remember, this city has been chasing the NHL dream. But, wait!?! Chasing the NHL dream….hmmmm. Isn’t that the exact function of the Hamilton Bulldogs? Isn’t the AHL positioned as NHLers-in-waiting? That sounds like a fine way to weave a brand story into the lives of prospective customers.

Threaten to move.

Related to the previous point, professional sports teams are famous for using the “show up or else” argument. In this country, anyway, that rarely results in a stampede for the ticket wickets. The Bulldogs have proven that point. Sabre-rattling about a move to Laval, Quebec has done nothing but further erode the potential for generating an emotional attachment to the brand. Representing the hometown is the basis of spectator sports. Calling that connection into question by inferring that it’s only a tenuous relationship only increases the perceived distance between the city and the team.

But, there is one thing that can mitigate the alienation and adversarial approach to fan relations – winning. Winning is a nearly-universal cure-all. While it’s usually temporary, it has an incredible ability to cause amnesia. (The Ticats may be banking on this to smooth things over as well.) Right now, the Bulldogs are winning.

 As we lead up to their conference finals against the Houston Aeros, I wish them all the best on the ice and at the box office. By the way, game 3 is here at Copps Coliseum – May 17th, 7:30pm. Tickets only $21.50. 

Chris is currently a copywriter at Burlington ad-agency JAN Kelley Marketing. He has worked in the Canadian advertising industry for over 10 years, providing communications for blue-chip brands such as Labatt Breweries, Toronto Blue Jays, Johnson & Johnson, Navistar/ International Truck & Engine, H&R Block, Firkin Group of Pubs, among others. Chris was born in Hamilton, spent his childhood living in Dundas, has lived downtown and currently resides in Lloyd Ferguson-land.

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By Henry and Joe (anonymous) | Posted May 14, 2011 at 12:25:30

I tend to agree that this product isn't marketed very well. However, I disagree that the uniform is an issue. The Montreal Canadiens are the most storied franchise in North American sports, and like most original 6 teams, have a large fan base in all cities. Given the Leaf-veto, the Toronto Maple Leafs should be the most hated team from Hamilton to Windsor. They, like our team that was stolen in 1925 (Rangers) have had to live with the curse of the Tiger, and are doomed to go over 50 years without a championship. How is that for a grudge? But seriously, the lack of promotion in the oligopoly style N. American sports, makes AHL hockey largely irrelevant. If we had the glimmer of hope to make it to an upper tier, every game would sell out. Only certain people are allowed to make money on sports in the US and Canada. For this reason, it is hard to get behind a potential NASL team. If there was a chance for Hamilton United to be promoted and play against Toronto FC, it is an easy sell out.

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By peter (anonymous) | Posted May 14, 2011 at 23:00:53 in reply to Comment 63510

Incidentally, the Tigers became the New York Americans, not the Rangers. They played on in NYC until the 1940s.

I don't know what to say about this problem. With some exceptions, we've never supported this team. Nothing's more depressing than watching a game with two thousand of your closest friends...it makes you wish you stayed home.

That said, I'll never forget the Calder Cup final in 2007 - amazing.

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By DavidColacci (registered) | Posted May 14, 2011 at 12:51:28

I've been to BullDogs games, great experience, great hockey. But it's a farm team. How can I embrace a team whose stars can be plucked up the following day by the parent team?

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By MikeP (registered) | Posted May 16, 2011 at 17:30:06 in reply to Comment 63511

I guess if it ain't big league, it doesn't count, eh? What a profound lack of appreciation for our national game.

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 14, 2011 at 13:04:57

Changing the name to the Hamilton Canadiens would do wonders, even with the crappy marketing and rest of the list. I know just as many Habs fans as Leaf fans. Having Montreal's farm team should be a huge draw.

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted May 16, 2011 at 09:29:08 in reply to Comment 63512

See, personally, I really like the Bulldogs moniker -- and I think it's built up a decent amount of equity. That's why it blows me away that the team (and the Habs) don't treat this as it's own entity. Something like the Hershey Bears...probably the most successful minor league teams of all time. Another success story (...until recently) is the Rochester Americans. Neither of those teams change their colours with their parent team.

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted May 14, 2011 at 14:44:35

I've gone to many Bulldogs games over the years, and fewer and fewer to none now.

This team/league just can't capture my interest when I'm enjoying NHL playoffs on TV so much more.

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By MikeP (registered) | Posted May 16, 2011 at 17:27:15 in reply to Comment 63515

This remark is typical of the hype-driven, entertainment-consumerist attitude of the GTA sports enthusiast.

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By Hauberk (anonymous) | Posted May 14, 2011 at 18:32:13

I agree wholeheartedly with the farm-team-of-the-habs and kiddy-style game day points. Why am I going to go nuts for someone who could be scoring goals against my favourite NHL team next week? People over the age of 14 want to see either first-rate hockey, or enjoy a Charlestown Chiefs type atmosphere; not feel like they're at some fruity Chucky Cheese birthday party. I want to be able to scream "hit him with your purse you p***y" without worrying that I'm going to offend some mom in front of me.

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By MikeP (registered) | Posted May 16, 2011 at 17:25:41 in reply to Comment 63527

How short-sighted can you be if you actually beleive you are breaking some feeble self-imposed blood oath with your "favourite NHL team" by supporting the development of the games future stars?!?!?!?!?

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted May 16, 2011 at 23:08:32 in reply to Comment 63582

You're making a rational assessment of an emotion-based issue. I feel similar and my buddies who are die-hard Bruins fan share similar sentiments. I think that goes away if the team becomes less about the parent club and more about Hamilton. Ditch the bleu, blanc et rouge. Go with black and gold. Keep the Habs connection in the background. We all know where these players are going, but we may not want to be reminded about it. Think fast..who's the Hershey Bears parent club?? That's the distance, I believe, the Dogs need from their parent club.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted May 14, 2011 at 20:32:02

I haven't read all of this yet, but I am writing about it tonight during the Boston/Tampa series.

Comment edited by lawrence on 2011-05-14 20:32:23

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By bigguy1231 (registered) | Posted May 15, 2011 at 19:50:34

It doesn't matter what arguements people make about why people should support this team, it all comes down to the team and the league being the minor leagues.

This is where a few up and comers, come to hone their skills and move on. The rest are just the guys who couldn't make but keep playing because they make good money to do something they love. Otherwise, most of these guys would be working in some low paying, low skill blue collar job.

They may attract 8 or 9 thousand a game in Winnipeg but what else is there to do in Winnipeg in winter. We on the other hand have choices, do I go to a Bulldogs game and put up with the screaming kids and amatuerish promotions or do I drive to Buffalo or Toronto and watch the big boys play. You can be sure I will be spending my money to watch the real thing.

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted May 16, 2011 at 09:38:12 in reply to Comment 63551

I don't think people 'should' support the team -- as if it's a civic duty, I think a case has to be made as to why people would want to support the team. "Minor league" is a hurdle, and would likely prevent getting 17,000 in the barn every night, but it sure shouldn't keep 5 or 6k from showing up consistently.

I do agree with the player issue -- since, they are only here begrudgingly. (This is why, I believe, OHL hockey has a far better chance of success...) That's why, I think, the marketing needs to be about name on the front of the jersey, and identifying with the community.

I'm not sure the NHL has that much direct competition. I've been a Leaf fan all my life (unfortunately) and have been to very few games. For most, those tickets are either impossible to get or far too expensive. As for Buffalo, the hassle of getting to their arena still leaves it as more of an on-occasion endeavor.

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By MikeP (registered) | Posted May 16, 2011 at 17:22:17

The smug and elitist tone of some of these responses and the fact that many fans only view NHL as the "real thing" speaks volumes of the lack of sophistication of sports followers in this community. If it is not "big league" (translation: if it is not endorsed by Big Brother south of the border), then it is not worth our attention.

The truth is this - people who call themselves sports fans in Southern Ontario are not REAL sports fans. They are entertainment consumers searcing for the greatest return on investment among the range of options that include sporting event, concerts, movies, theatre, human cock-fighting (MMA) and even church. They may demonstrate a blind two-dimensional emotional attachment to a brand like the Leafs, but this does not necessarily mean they are a devotee to the adjacent sporting activity.

Real sports fans possess an appreciation as well as a passion for all levels of competition of their preferred sporting endeavour. Hence, true hockey fans are not repelled by a league simply because its best players will be scoring against your favourite team later that year. Real hockey fans realize they are afforded a rare opportunity to witness the development of future stars up close as regular patrons of AHL contests. I have long hypothesized that the mosty unsophisticated sports fans on the planet reside in the Golden Horseshoe. Clearly the comments mentioned above validate this theory.

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted May 16, 2011 at 23:20:19 in reply to Comment 63581

Hilarious. So you think all 6.5 million people - and the sports fans within -- are the unsophisticated ones? I'm not so sure that a geographical region has the ability to become a unique psychological dicotomy. A look at the sports-scape of this region will reveal one of the more active on the continent.

Being a true hockey fan (of which, I am...I've lived and breathed the sport since I've been born) does not impose an emotional attachment to a brand. Which professional hockey teams are...nothing more, nothing less. Sure, the casual observer will stumble into the rink now and again, but unless there's a heartfelt attachment...an intangible belief that you are somehow a part of what's happening on the ice, your attendance will be infrequent.

Go see the Kitchener Rangers play, or the Owen Sound Attack. Those fans live and die by what happens on the ice. Gaskets are blown when a ref misses an offside. Will the 'hockey enthusiast' get that involved when they are simply going to see skills showcased? Hell no. We can see skilled hockey rather easily.

A successful pro franchise is completely dependent on the how much emotion your community will invest. You are making rational inferences on a very irrational category. (Think about how almost-illogical it is for people to rant and rave down at Ivor Wynne, screaming themselves nearly hoarse, when a call goes against us. There's nothing more trivial, but rarely would you ever see people become so hostile in any other part of life.)

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By Presence (anonymous) | Posted May 17, 2011 at 14:49:44

The Bulldogs have zero presence in this community. You go to other cities and the downtown is plastered with logos, banners, bus-shelter ads, etc. of the local team. You need to raise exposure of the brand and the legacy of all the players that it represents.

I don't consider the Bulldogs a failer in Hamilton because they aren't really trying to sell the brand like the could. Where are the ticket promotions in the local Tims, Fortinos, etc? Where are all the banners on hydro poles with all the Hamilton hockey greats in and around the downtown core that see literally thousands of cars drive by each day. Those are opportunities to build the Bulldogs name in everyone's head, day after day after day. That said, I am partial to a name change to create more of a link to the community - I like the Hamilton Habs, or going back to the Hamilton Tigers (the synergies with the Ticats would be huge!)

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By MikeP (registered) | Posted May 18, 2011 at 23:14:49 in reply to Comment 63617

Excellent points, Presence! The Bulldogs do seem to go out of their way to remain invisible in this area. They should replicate what Bob Young did in 2002 when he took ownership of the Cats and went full boar in instilling the team as part of this city's fabric. Only with a greater brand presence can we expect this town to develop an emotional attachment to the team.

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