SPRINGFIELD, MA – Attendance in the American Hockey League in Springfield struggled over the last few years when the Springfield Falcons were playing at the MassMutual Center.
But, a new team and a new era started last month in Springfield when the Thunderbirds started playing at the MassMutual Center. Attendance has improved with a sellout crowd on opening night and drew over 6,100 for their second Saturday night game of the 2016-17 campaign. The average attendance has been 4,802 people per game through seven home games this year.
“It’s been exciting to be around. The staff has worked really really hard over that short time to get the team up and going and so it’s a rewarding thing. I think we’re also not losing sight of the fact that we’ve worked hard for those numbers as well and we’re going to have to continue to put in that work and keep moving forward. I think that’s the message we’ve sent from the get go with the entire staff,” Thunderbirds Executive Vice President Nathan Costa said. “It’s changing as far as you can tell by everything that we’re trying to do from a promotions standpoint and an events standpoint. So we kind of have to stay true to that and we have to keep working because the minute we take our foot off the gas and just assume that people are going to come out and support us. It’s going to be a bad day.”
When compared to last season, attendance for the October slate of home games (this season had two fewer home games) was up 212.2 percent (5,905 average this year vs. 2,783 last year). Through November 15, the average attendance for the November slate of games is up 137 percent compared to last season, but the team has benefitted from two Friday and two Sunday games this season, compared to 1 Friday and 1 Sunday game each during the same time last season.
The Springfield Thunderbirds staff put in a lot of effort through the summer months, working to implement Costa’s vision of ingraining the Thunderbirds into the fabric of Springfield.
“We’ve taken that on as an organization and we fully recognize that we are the only American Hockey League franchise here in Massachusetts. We’re really the only professional sports team in the Greater Western Mass area.” Costa said.
Costa’s background is in marketing and ticket sales. One of the things he and his staff are trying to do is to make the team appealing to groups of all ages.
“As you can see by everything we’re trying to do. We’re going for cutting edge. We’re going for modern. We’re going for informative. We want to make sure that we’re doing our part to inform the local public that ‘hey we’re here and we want to be apart of this and that we’re playing games and here is when our games are.’ I think that was a big part,” Costa said.
Another thing the staff is trying to do is raise awareness of when the where and when the team will be in the community, games are played and working with other business leaders in the community.
“I think the challenge was that sometimes you never knew when the team was playing and if you don’t know when the team is playing, you can’t sell tickets to it. It was really kind of fundamental in that regard and we thought it to be very, very important as you can see we’ve partnered with a lot of our local ownership group. We’ve partnered with a lot of the local businesses in the marketplace. We did a lot with the Springfield Business Improvement District to really try to create an event outside of hockey which was our Thunderbird Thursdays.” Costa said.
The number of season ticket holders are up from the Falcons days, but, it has been a challenge. When you look across the league (and minor pro hockey as a whole,) season tickets are becoming more of a challenge for families and individuals.
Costa says he and his staff took a hard look at what their season ticket package included and one of the things identified was convenience. He surmises that being a season ticket holder can sometimes be a drag on people’s time and not everybody can get to 38 home games a year. One of the benefits of having a Springfield Thunderbirds ticket package is that season long supporters should never waste a ticket. From the team’s perspective, if a season ticket holder can not make it to a game on a particular evening. That season ticket holder should not be penalized for that.
“We wanted to make good with our season ticket holders who are most passionate and loyal fans and so that was a big part of what we want to do again was try to reinvent the season ticket model in a way and really try to show as much value and appreciation to our supporters as possible so that became the never wasted ticket. We’re trying to do more exclusive events. We’re going to give your ticket to the first round of the playoffs for the first game free. We’re really trying to give back. I think that was a big part of it. Making sure that our benefit package from a season ticket perspective was one that was enticing and that was one that people wanted to be apart of.” Costa said. “We’re nowhere near where I want to get to. I think we’ve just sort of scratched the surface and the hope that people see now through our games that we mean what we say when we say it. We’re really trying to put every little thing that we can towards improving the game night experience becoming a Thunderbirds fan and ticket holder and we’re hopefully providing that value that people are seeking.” Costa said.
Now that opening night has come and gone and the season is starting to find a rhythm, Thunderbirds staff has begun the process of reaching out to fans, finding out what their game experience was like and how they bring them back. The one-on-one with fans has really been the focus, along with being one of the best in the AHL at selling groups and group sales and providing fan experiences to specific groups in the area.
“Our staff did a fantastic job of getting out and selling groups, selling opening night packs, selling season ticket packs and getting out into the local market grabbing people and physically bringing them into the building. That’s whats needed in this market and really in every AHL market is that group experience. We’ve put a lot of focus on specific games on our calendar. You can’t get too high or too low after some of these games because it’s such a marathon. This is a process. It’s been great.” Costa said.
While there have been some initial successes, longevity and being adept to the ever-evolving sports climate and striving to meet the needs of fans will serve this franchise well.
“The attendance has been fantastic early on but there are going to be some nights as you look around the league and you see some attendance numbers early on in the year. It’s a very, very challenging time for us as a business. We’re competing with not only just other sporting properties but the entertainment dollar in general. There are going to be some ups and downs as we go through the season here. Our projections are that crowds will continue to pick up and hopefully get better as we get through December and then January and on.” Costa said.
Weekend game times are something that the organization is looking at. Some of the teams in the American Hockey League will do matinee games on a Saturday afternoon. Costa has talked about doing that, but it is a challenge because Saturday nights are the best-attended night of the week. Before shifting around game times on Saturday, Costa says Costa would like to collect more data from some of the other teams as to how they are doing and if the data shows that it sells better as he is always a guy that looks at the data and if the data tells him that then they will take a look at it deeper as its inclusive right now as Saturday nights are working for the team. They have taken a look at their Sunday start times for games. The team played their first home Sunday afternoon game last weekend, it started at 5:00. The rest of the Sunday afternoon games for the Thunderbirds at the MassMutual Center will begin at 3:00. The hope is moving forward that all Sunday afternoon games will begin at 3:00. There are things that have to be worked out behind the scenes from a player safety and satisfaction standpoint.
They have taken a look at their Sunday start times for games. The team played their first home Sunday afternoon game last weekend, it started at 5:00. The rest of the Sunday afternoon games for the Thunderbirds at the MassMutual Center will begin at 3:00. The hope is moving forward that all Sunday afternoon games will begin at 3:00. There are things that have to be worked out behind the scenes from a player safety and satisfaction standpoint. In a perfect world, the team would like to have their Sunday games at 3:00 P.M. because they have created a ticket package with local business Friendly’s. Both sides are hopeful that Sunday becomes the new day for the team where families can come out and have a great time and they are home no later than 6:00 P.M. so families can enjoy Sunday evenings at home together.
Looking ahead, the emphasis for the 2017-18 season is to get a weekday matinee school game where turning a midweek night game into a day game and trying to give back to the local community specifically school kids and create an educational component to one of their games. The Hartford Wolf Pack and Bridgeport Sound Tigers had a weekday matinee game last week and drew good crowds for their games. The team makes the intermissions an educational experience to kids. The students will have a workbook that is specific to hockey, with science, math, and English subjects. It’s something Costa and the Thunderbirds are working to coordinate with area schools and provide them with a day out that there not used to experiencing while trying to expose the product to some kids that might not be able to come out in other areas.
“If we can draw 4,000 on a Tuesday day or night. I’ll take that in a heartbeat. It does work if you do it properly and you coordinate with the right people in your local market. We’re hopeful to something similar to really try to create a yearly event here that would be specific to school kids and really try to expose them to our product.” Costa said.
The Thunderbirds will finish their road trip against the Utica Comets tonight. They will round out the weekend with a home against the Providence Bruins on Saturday at 7:05 P.M.
There will be a Bruins alumni game this Saturday beginning at 4:00 P.M. Fans that purchased a ticket to the game can get a free parking spot at the Civic Center Garage across the street from the MassMutual Center. The doors to the MassMutual Center will open at 3:45 P.M.