There are a few things different about this season compared to what to Dallas Stars fans have experienced over the past several years, not the least of which is the team's desperate fight for the Pacific Division crown and a playoff berth. As the season has progressed and the new ownership and front office regime has started to put their footprint on the team, the Stars are making a concerted effort to reconnect with the fanbase that essentially felt abandoned the last three years or so.
We've documented the financial hardships of the Stars in detail and how it's affected the on-ice product, limited GM Joe Nieuwendyk in how he has been able to build the team. What we haven't talked about quite as much is the fact that those same financial restrictions on the team also placed limits on the marketing that was available to the franchise. With the Stars struggling to make the playoffs and the team unable to adequately market the players and the team, it's understandable that interest from the "casual fan" waned as local teams like the Texas Rangers and Dallas Mavericks fought for their respective league championship.
We've discovered after the bankruptcy filings last fall that the financial issues of the franchise went back further than we ever expected, with Tom Hicks turning to the NHL for aid as early as 2009 -- well before any of the financial hardships would become public and Hicks Sports Group would default on $525 million in loans. As we all know, the sale of the Rangers was not nearly enough and for nearly three years the Stars had incredible limits placed on the finances of the team.
This affected not just the ability to build the team on the ice but also the ability to market the team -- with the continuing financial restrictions and the impending sale of the team, the Stars lost several high-ranking front office employees that directly affected the franchise's ability to market the team to the fans.
Since the sale of the team to Tom Gaglardi and the return of Jim Lites as President & CEO, all of that has changed. More after the jump.
If you live in Dallas you might have seen more and more commercials like the one above. There's another great commercial featuring Steve Ott and a slow motion punch to the face that's another great example of the new marketing strategy for the team, as they work diligently to bridge the gap that's grown between the fans and the team. For the first time in years the Stars are finally able to properly market this team, at a level that hasn't existed since the 2007-2008 season when the Stars had just traded for Brad Richards and was headed to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The combination of lack of postseason appearances and the lack of any sort of marketing built a void between the team and all but the most hardcore fans. This didn't just result in diminishing attendance at games but an overall destruction of the general interest in the team and the sport around Dallas.
What had helped to build this sport so well in the 1990's wasn't just the winning ways of the team but how the Stars were able to build the sport itself in Dallas. So many Stars fans from today grew up as kids learning to play hockey around Dallas in one of the many Dr Pepper Starcenters or ice arenas in the area, or even in of the many inline skate leagues that existed at the team. All of this was built around the the Stars ability to connect with the youth in a sport that so many of us loved.
Those good times have had some great results, and you can go no further than top prospect Austin Smith to see just what can happen in that environment. Born and raised in Dallas, Smith is now a Hobey Baker finalist and it's obvious in how he plays that he idolizes Mike Modano -- all the way down to the tucked-in jersey and #9 on his back. The area has revealed a number of top hockey prospects, all build because of the Stars' imprint on the area back in the 'glory days'.
This is exactly what the Stars are attempting to rebuild. With the financial hardships of the past few years came the inability to properly operate and maintain the Starcenters. There have also been reports of displeasure with the relationship between the team and local hockey leagues the past few years, with most saying there has been no relationship at all. We've heard from Jim Lites that the Stars are interested in not only building back the Starcenters to the levels they were at before but possibly building new facilities, especially considering the loss of the Duncanville rink a few years back.
It all starts with publicizing and marketing the team and for anyone that lives in Dallas, the past six weeks you've seen a veritable media blitz by the Stars and the players.
Multiple bobblehead nights (Kari Lehtonen bobblehead night on the 20th) that feature legitimate, collector-worthy bobbleheads for the top players on the team have been incredibly successful. Endless promotions to bring all sorts of fans to the arena have been pushed forward and if you've been to a weekend game over the past few months, you've no doubt seen the vast numbers of school-age kids in the upper levels -- all likely attending the first hockey game of their life.
The promotions have been plentiful and incredibly engaging -- the Hockey For Heels promotion was aimed specifically at women and teaching them the sport, while the upcoming Steve Ott Bike Ride will help fans get to know the most popular player on the team while also supporting a worthy charitable cause. All of these have included opportunities for the fans to meet and talk to the players, something that you'll rarely find with other teams in the area.
The season ticket base for the Stars has diminished and they're working hard to build that relationship back up as well. Some STH fans were put out by the drop in prices in the middle of the season after the sale but we've received word that starting with this year's playoffs, the Stars are taking several measures to repay their loyal ticket holders who have stuck with the team all of this time.
More than anything, however, the Stars are pushing their players and their team back into the public eye. Great, great video productions on the team website have shed light on what happens off the ice and the Stars have done a tremendous job of marketing the players in a media blitz around the area. A few weeks back every player on the team was sent to a different radio station in an effort to hijack the airwaves all at one time. We're talking every radio station in Dallas, not just the sports stations, in a genius move designed to inform the area that the Stars are back and more importantly -- they care about the fans.
It's been interesting to see how the players have embraced this as well. Talking to several of the players over the past few weeks it's become clear just how invested they are in building the franchise back up, not the least of which would be through winning and making the playoffs. They honestly care and they know that while the past was out of their control, they are willing to do whatever it takes to bring those fans back to the AAC.
It's tough to say the strategy isn't working, especially when you consider the sizable crowds at the AAC over the past month. A lot of that has to do with the recent success of the team, but the crowds weren't that great at the beginning of the season when the team was winning. Instead, it's a combination of all strategies. The area is much more aware of the team now, thanks to some actual local media attention but moreso to do with the grassroots blitz by the team to get the word out that the Stars still exist and truly care about the fans of this franchise.
The crowds at the AAC have been loud, rowdy and instantly bring back memories of how it was just a few short years ago. What we've seen from this franchise over the past few months is just the beginning and it's going to be fun to see just what the marketing department can do with a full budget and a full summer to plan.