T Dog’s Think Tank – Follow Up: Hawks got with the program

The very first Think Tank yours truly wrote back on November 28, 2006 dealt with the follies of the National Hockey League and its Chicago franchise, and those of broadcasters (over-the-air TV stations and networks), sharing the same tale of missteps and woe. After the Chicago Blackhawks fired head coach Trent Yawney, yours truly wrote this on a comment board regarding the state of the franchise:

“Everything about this team SUCKS, including the management. Now I can see why the NHL is behind NASCAR, Golf, and “Deal or No Deal” in popularity in this country. I would rather watch a Britney Spears video than this poor excuse of a “hockey” team.”

My oh my, how times have changed. Ratings for golf and NASCAR have declined (but are still potent), Deal or No Deal is nearly dead (and deservedly so), and Britney Spears is still… Britney Spears.

But the Hawks are definitely not the Hawks – and that’s a good thing.

Since owner William Wirtz died in October 2007, the once-moribund franchise has been rejuvenated, thanks to Mr. Wirtz’s son Rocky, who took over the franchise and turned it around to become once again a hot ticket in town.

Taking a page from Mark Cuban, who turned a Dallas Mavericks basketball team from a laughingstock into a perennial playoff contender, Rocky Wirtz implemented huge changes within the Blackhawks organ-i-zation to boost attendance and its profile in the nation’s third-largest television and radio market. In the last two years, he has done the following:

Lifted a decades-long policy on not televising home games, realizing putting them on the tube actually promotes the team’s product, not hurt it.

Struck a deal with WGN-TV to carry games in high definition, marking a return to Blackhawks hockey to Chicago over-the-air broadcast television on a regular basis for the first time in 28 years.

– Struck another deal to carry games on WGN radio in a standard rights deal after buying time on WSCR-AM for the last few years.

– Hiring the Cubs’ John McDonough to market the team and to connect the Hawks with fans of other Chicago sports teams (i.e. letting Jonathan Toews throw out the first pitch at a Cubs game, and such)

– Promoting the team’s young and rising stars – notably Towes (a 2006 third-round draft pick) and Patrick Kane (a 2007 first-round draft pick).

– Being selected by the NHL to host the Winter Classic on January 1 at Wrigley Field against its longtime rival Detroit Red Wings. The outdoor game was a ratings smash and the highest-rated hockey telecast in 34 years.

– The Hawks went from as low as 29th in the league in attendance to first – averaging more than 21,000 a game and drawing a million fans to the United Center alone this season – unheard of for a hockey team.

– Successfully reconnecting with Blackhawks legends from the past including Hall of Famers Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull.

– Though it fired Dennis Savard as coach earlier this season (and replaced him with Joel Queenville), they kept him in the organ-i-zation as an ambassdor.

– Correcting an error by hiring back Pat Foley as Hawks’ play-by-play man.

– The Hawks’ playoff run has boosted Comcast SportsNet ratings, with numbers not seen for hockey in Chicago in a long time, if not ever.

– Hawks’ players appearing in commercials – and that even includes Pat Foley!

– And the ultimate OMG moment: with the Hawks in the Western Conference Finals against the rival Red Wings, NBC has decided to showcase the series instead of the one featuring Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby (whose team plays the Carolina Hurricanes) – the “golden boy” of the NHL.

Wow, what an impressive list. And just a couple of years ago, ESPN ranked the Chicago Blackhawks as the worst organization in professional sports.

The resurgence of the Hawks’ popularity in Chicago is quite amazing. Granted, the team was a potent Stanley Cup contender from the late 1980’s to the mid-1990’s, with sellout crowds at the Chicago Stadium and near-capacity crowds at the United Center. But some serious flaws were exposed when the team’s fourtunes went south in the late ’90’s, and the fans literally fled for the exits.

Between 1998 and 2008, the Hawks made the playoffs only once and won just one playoff game. All that changed this year when they beat the Calgary Flames and the Vancouver Canucks in the first and second round respectively, and now this young, exiciting team faces the defending champ Red Wings to see who goes to the Stanley Cup Finals. And even if they lose this series, the Hawks should be commended for a great season and should be Cup contenders for years to come.

The Hawks’ fortunes have also helped the NHL, whose ratings are up on Versus this year. However, the channel is hard to find on cable and satellite systems, and some MSOs don’t carry the net at all. Hopefully, the NHL can strike a deal and return to ESPN so the league can reach a larger audience.

So the lesson learned here is – if the Chicago Blackhawks can turn themselves around, so can any other organization – the Los Angeles Clippers and Oakland Raiders (like the Hawks, it might take removing the owner to achieve this goal), the Detroit Lions, Washington Nationals, and even NBC and The CW.

So in essence, the Hawks got with the program, and to a lesser extent, so has the NHL. Now, as for broadcasters… Well, two out of three isn’t bad.