ORLANDO, FL – As a Sin Bin writer, I like to check in regularly on other writers’ works. One recent article that stood out to me was the piece by Barry Janssen on this year’s ECHL attendance. The Orlando Solar Bears have seen one of the biggest drops from last year. While they still rank fourth in the league with an average attendance of just under 5000, this number represents a 17% drop from last season.
Why Numbers Are Down
This drop in attendance is caused by several factors. One, of course, is the number of games played on weekdays. The Solar Bears this season have had a number of weekday games, including a school day game and a Thanksgiving Day game. While the Amway Center is a great venue, the Solar Bears’ schedule plays second fiddle to the Orlando Magic to other headline events, and this regularly causes the team to lose some of those prime Friday and Saturday night game slots. Orlando also has a host of other entertainment options, so the Solar Bears face some pretty stiff competition when it comes to attracting a crowd.
But this year has brought on other challenges. The departure of Jason Siegel as president and CEO of the Solar Bears in May left Joe Haleski and his staff with a hill to climb, and the struggling home performances of the team at the start of the season did not help matters. The switch to Drake Berehowsky as head coach, a change which occurred in November, has brought more home games into the win column, and the Solar Bears hope to leverage this upward trend into more ticket sales.
But in minor league hockey, there is an unclear and mysterious relationship between winning on the ice and filling the stands. You can find examples of winning teams who struggle with attendance, and other examples of struggling teams who have solid fan support. Much rides on such factors as advertising, team visibility, game-day experiences for the fans, and word of mouth. Since the Solar Bears are in the midst of a lengthy road trip which is taking them to Alaska this week, it seems like a good opportunity to consider what the team might do to regain some attendance ground when it returns to its home base.
Starting with the Positives
Consistent Community Focus: The Solar Bears have maintained a genuine commitment to the Orlando community. This was evident on opening night with its soulful tribute to the Pulse nightclub shooting victims. Shades, the team’s mascot, is busy hopping around town to assist other nonprofits, and the team maintains a full schedule of special events such as the upcoming night in February when the team will entertain the Autism Society of Greater Orlando
Haleski’s Heroism: Haleski has done a commendable job of keeping the Solar Bears moving forward. When news of Siegel’s departure hit the news, many were concerned about the fate of the club. But Haleski rolled up his sleeves, and his staff has kept its hands steady on the helm. The city of Orlando should be proud of what the team continues to accomplish for the community on and off the ice.
The Game Experience: This year, the Solar Bears’ management has done a wonderful job of keeping the game day experience fresh and the entertainment value high. The team has been playing well, and the intermission periods are filled with delightful tidbits, including the “Spin to Win” contest and the always-popular “Bear-aoke” singalongs. The Amway Center is a superb venue with a thunderous sound system and a massive, high definition jumbotron that the Solar Bears put to good use. The family-friendly atmosphere of the games is also a huge plus, and Paco Lopez (the Amway Center public address announcer for Solar Bears games) can be counted on to keep the atmosphere upbeat and energetic.
Effective Ways to Improve the Numbers
Magnetize to Energize: Many can agree that the Solar Bears have one of the best logos in the ECHL, so putting that signature image on fans’ cars seems like a great way for people who have no idea about the Solar Bears to become aware. A couple car magnets should be standard issue every year for season ticket members: You can bet almost all of them will put them on their vehicles where many eyes will view them. A few years ago, this was the case, and you could drive around seeing Solar Bears staring at you during your cross-town trips. But Florida summers are not kind to car magnets, giving them a short life expectancy, and today, those magnets are rare sights. The team has missed out this year on a golden low-cost opportunity to keep its signature logo in front of the eyes of Orlando. Giving the season ticket holders their own specialty magnets would be a nice touch. The team should also consider selling car magnets at cost (or just above cost) through the team shop, and they should try to have at least one sponsored car magnet giveaway during the year.
Ongoing Watch Parties: Season ticket holders have enjoyed the occasional watch parties for away games which the team has set up, but the Solar Bears might be able to take that one step further-and at a low cost if they could find a sponsoring restaurant to subscribe to ECHL.TV and to play the team’s away games on a regular basis. Fans would be drawn to the restaurant, and the move would again increase visibility for the Solar Bears in the community. This would especially be the case if the restaurant had a number of locations about town.
Sharing the Bigger ECHL Picture: Many fans showing up at the Amway Center have little understanding of the professional league that the club is part of. The organization should consider small ways to increase knowledge of the ECHL among the more casual fans. One step in this direction would be to flash a chart of the South Division standings on the jumbotron during the game and to give updates of other scores around the league. Adding the league’s top plays of the week feature or a league report on the jumbotron during intermissions should also be considered.
Orlando Sentinel Coverage: The Orlando Sentinel, the newspaper for the Central Florida area, recently ran a front-page sports story on Solar Bears forward Joe Perry. The club should continue to push for this type of coverage, especially in a year like this one when the team is performing well. Most of the time, the Sentinel features teams like the Orlando Magic and Orlando City Lions. Even when the Lions are out of season, they often trump the Solar Bears. One understands that the Magic would get top-shelf billing during the winter and spring months, but the newspaper should especially be alert for situations when Orlando has a strong hockey team while its NBA team is sputtering and its soccer teams are in the off-season.
Cross-Sports Synergy: It is likely that many fans who attend one professional sport event in Orlando would be interested in the events of other teams. The Solar Bears should work with the Orlando City Lions, the Orlando City Pride, and the Orlando Magic to explore ways to cross-promote professional sports. With this year’s demise of the Orlando Predators, the city’s arena football team, the Solar Bears should consider tapping into some of the energetic operational and promotional talent of that organization.
Reaching out to UCF and the Attractions: Orlando is the home to the second largest public university in the nation, and attractions like Disney and Universal Studios bring in a sizable tourist population looking for a good entertainment value. The Solar Bears should continue to find creative ways to attract both college and tourists crowds.
As the energy of the out-of-hibernation season (2012-13) fades into the past, the club is entering its adolescence, which certainly comes with its challenges. The fact that there are people in Orlando who are still only vaguely aware of the team’s presence, however, means that this is a city which gives the Solar Bears growth potential in terms of the fans.
One hardly needs to mention that a good run at the Kelly Cup this year would help to draw in some new spectators to enter the den and rock