Posted: October 05, 2012

Sports biz: Want ice with that, Denver?

Stewart Schley

With the debut of the Central Hockey League’s Denver Cutthroats at the Denver Coliseum this month, Denver becomes one serious playground for hockey fans.

Here’s the math: Including the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, the Cutthroats and Denver University’s men’s ice-hockey team, an inventory of 1.1 million seats for live hockey are waiting to be filled this season in the metro area. (That’s the number of regular-season home games X the number of available arena seats per game.)

Blame the new guy for inflating the numbers. As the new arrival on the scene, the Cutthroats have added 269,000 available tickets, or roughly 24 percent of the total inventory, courtesy of 33 home games in the 8,000-seat Coliseum.

Among other things, hockey fans, that means you can brace yourself for harmonic hockey-convergence evenings when all three Denver teams will by vying for your affections. One example: Saturday, Oct. 20. The Cutthroats face off at 7:05 p.m. against the Missouri Mavericks at the Coliseum, while the Avalanche will host the Calgary Flames at Pepsi Center starting at 8 p.m. Or, you can ditch the pro teams and opt for DU’s Pioneers, who will play Air Force at Magness Arena, 7:07 p.m.

Wait, there’s more. That same evening at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland, the Eagles of the East Coast Hockey League play the Idaho Steelheads. Game time is 7:05 p.m. I suppose if you’re a true hockey fanatic with a sweet credit limit and a full tank of gas, you can hit all four games.

But seriously. The hockey feast provokes some big questions: Are there enough fans to go around? And how will the market disperse around three metro-area teams with full-season schedules?

DU approach

DU hopes to solve the competitive hockey puzzle by adopting a new mantra: It’s all about the experience. From the technical workings of a revamped ticket-sales website to in-game giveaways to revved-up performance from the pep band at Magness Arena, the university’s athletic department is being extra-mindful of the holistic fan experience it’s responsible for presenting.

"We sometimes get caught up in the ‘go-go, win-win’ mentality," says Angel Field, DU assistant athletic director of marketing. "But it’s also the small things that count."

Not that the quality of play is secondary. Field thinks the speed and skill levels exhibited by DU’s men’s team and its NCAA Division 1 opponents produce an outstanding spectator experience. The fact that DU has won seven national championships doesn’t hurt, either. But the "experience" theme extends beyond scoreboard results to encompass things like concession-stand food quality. One motivator: DU has concluded that despite the flood of hockey-watching opportunities, the bigger competition is the broader entertainment market. "What we’re saying is, ‘Let us be your night out.’ Instead of dinner-and-a-movie. It’s fun for the family, and it’s affordable."

To keep loyal fans streaming in while attracting newcomers, DU is turning to partnerships. A new website powered by sports-software developer Paciolan Inc. is designed to improve the way season and single-game tickets can be searched for, booked and ordered. To help with advertising and in-game event sponsorships, DU signed an eight-year agreement last year with CBS Collegiate Sports Properties, which represents schools including Louisiana State University, the University of Utah and others. Internally, DU has started a new "Denver Kids Club" that gives kids up to 11 years old admission to two hockey games this season.

So far, DU’s approach seems to be working. Season-ticket renewals were tracking at close to 90 percent through early September, a level Field calls "phenomenal." Several games are certain to be sellouts this year, and single-game tickets may be scarce when students are on campus.

Does that mean DU can rest easy despite Denver’s hockey world-of-plenty? Not so much, says Field. "You’ve got to get fans here," she says, "and provide the best in-game experience to get them back."

Stewart Schley writes about sports, media and technology from Denver. Read this and Schley’s past columns on the Web at cobizmag.com and email him at stewart@stewartschley.com

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