Sport biz: No fishing

Ben Rifkin realized the Denver Cutthroats had an image problem.

“Two or three times a day we’d get phone calls from people asking about the fishing trade show,” says the affable president and general manager of Denver’s newest professional sports team, which is poised to begin its second season in October. The culprit was a two-word tag line displayed on the Cutthroats’ website and on a large banner hanging from the side of the Denver Coliseum. It said, “Go fish!”

For a little-known team in a competitive sports market, it was a confusing line that failed to get across a basic idea: The Cutthroats are a hockey team. One of Rifkin’s first moves was to banish the “fish” slogan and replace it with the more direct line, “It’s a great day for Cutthroats hockey,” that will appear on advertising and promotional materials this summer.

That’s just one of the changes Rifkin, who previously headed marketing for the USA Pro Challenge bike race, has instituted as the front-office leader of a team that went from formation to ice in six months. Rifkin took the job in March, succeeding Brad Lund, a longtime hockey executive who helped Cutthroats majority owner and Ball Corp. CEO John Hayes launch the team.

As the Central Hockey League team looks forward to season two, Rifkin is counting on a more intimate connection with fans and a more nuanced marketing approach to help fill seats and attract corporate partnerships. In last year’s inaugural season the Cutthroats attracted slightly fewer than 100,000 fans over 33 home games at the Denver Coliseum, building a base of loyalists drawn by a blend of competitive hockey and a high level of player accessibility. Rifkin says it was eye-opening to see how many fans came to games bedecked in Cutthroats jerseys – a sign he takes as a positive indication that the mix has potential.

On a good night, like the Cutthroats’ Dec. 1 game against the Wichita Thunder, close to 6,000 fans came to the Coliseum  to cheer on a team that ended its first season making the CHL playoffs and exiting in the first round after losing to the Allen (Texas) Americans. On the flip side, only 1,200 showed up for a Nov. 25 game against Rapid City.

For the coming season, a season ticket base of 2,000 would be considered a huge success, Rifkin says. That means most sales will come from single- or mini-plan game packages plus on-the-spot walk-up traffic.

It’s not an easy sell, but Rifkin said he thinks the Cutthroats are onto a winning formula with a strong appeal to families, especially those with kids who play youth hockey. With ticket prices starting at $9, it’s possible for a family of four to enjoy an entertaining afternoon or evening game with food and drinks for less than $60. “The family aspect
for us is huge,” Rifkin says. (And by the way, parking’s free!)

Rifkin also is working his connections in the Denver business community to come up with win-win partnerships that are about more than just selling signage. An example is the Cutthroats’ partnership with Sage Hospitality Corp. Cutthroats players are regulars at the nonprofit “Concerts for Kids” series Sage supports.

Oh, and there’s some hockey going on, too. CHL teams like the Cutthroats feature a mix of NHL hopefuls, former college stars and veteran players with big-league skills and a love-of-the-game attitude. The weekend before he started his new job, Rifkin watched the minor-league baseball classic “Bull Durham” on television. “There’s a lot about that movie that is spot on,” says Rifkin, who likens newly named Cutthroats assistant coach Brad Smyth to Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis character from “Durham.”

The Cutthroats are in business with a goal to become profitable. But owner Hayes hopes to make an equal impact in the community while cultivating interest in a game he loves, Rifkin says. Getting there will require a determined effort, given that options for live sports in Denver are plentiful. But if nothing else, Rifkin seems to sense that being direct is the best way to win. That means steering the conversation to hockey and family fun – and away from fishing.