Sports biz: The CHL’s next stop: Denver

A Boulder business executive is betting that the Central Hockey League can play in a big-league market. And that market happens to be Denver.

Ball Corp. CEO John Hayes is putting up a significant personal investment to reintroduce professional hockey to the Denver Coliseum on the faith that hockey’s popularity among youth will translate to ticket sales.

The last time they laced up the skates at the venerable Denver arena, perestroika was in the news and Michael Dukakis was running for president. Then, in 1988, it was the Denver Rangers of the International Hockey League who took the ice. Starting this October, it will be a new CHL team with the supposed name of the Colorado Cutthroats. (The actual name unveiling hadn’t happened by our press date, so there was still some mystery surrounding the identity.)

No matter what the team is called, Hayes and team president Brad Lund, former GM of the CHL’s Bloomington (Ind.) Blaze, will face challenges in cultivating a loyal fan base in a geography where competition comes not just from the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, but the ECHL’s Colorado Eagles, who frequently sell out the 5,300-seat Budweiser Events Center in Loveland, and the University of Denver Pioneers, who routinely top the 5,000-fan mark at home games.

At a press conference to introduce the (then-nameless) team, Hayes talked about youth hockey players and their families as a main market target, noting that in the Denver area, there are more than 9,000 members of the player/coach organization USA Hockey who are 18 or younger.

On the “plus” side for the CHL team, Denver has been extraordinarily supportive of professional sports, with each of the four major U.S. leagues represented in the metro area, along with a healthy array of secondary leagues and teams, including Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids, the National Lacrosse League’s Colorado Mammoth and Major League Lacrosse’s Denver Outlaws.

At the $16 average ticket price that Hayes mentioned as a target, the team is following an affordability formula that has been used successfully by teams including the Colorado Mammoth, which hinged its introduction on tickets that cost little more than the price of a movie.

If the team can work its way toward the top levels of CHL attendance, the mathematics could be attractive. Three CHL teams (Fort Wayne, Wichita and Missouri) each averaged more than 5,000 fans over 33 home games last season. Similar performance would mean the Colorado team could generate ticket revenue of more than $2.5 million, providing a reasonable revenue base for a team whose league requires a minimum player salary of only $425 per week.

But achieving sellout crowds is no easy feat in a market where there are plenty of alternatives for live sports. One important ingredient for success will be fundamental professionalism, says Dan Price, the president of Denver sports marketing firm Adrenalin, which is developing the graphic identity for the new team. “This may sound odd, but you cannot run a minor league team like a minor league team,” says Price, whose firm designed logos for the Colorado Avalanche, the Mammoth and dozens of other teams. His point is that the (supposed) Cutthroats must deliver a satisfying fan experience across every touch point, from parking lot access to on-ice performance.

Price says the new Colorado team will have a much larger population base to draw from than, say, the Laredo (Texas) Bucks or the Evansville (Ind.) Icemen of the CHL. Also, the appeal of living in Denver may help the team recruit strong players. But the presence of the Avalanche, in particular, may make it challenging to build a season-ticket-holder base.

When we spoke with him, Price and the Adrenalin team were putting the finishing touches on the logo and uniform design in preparation for a May introduction. He wasn’t hinting at the outcome, but acknowledged that at least one color scheme is out. “When it comes to colors for a team here,” he said, “you’d never want to use orange and blue.”