Blackhawks Tickets: A $uccess $tory

Blackhawks 2012-13 tickets go on sale this upcoming Monday and they are probably the most expensive tickets in town of any kind. Separate of any success on the ice, the price of tickets is the ultimate validation of a five year plan by management to transform the organization. According to their new pricing plan, rear 300 level seats (where you definitely need to know your player numbers) are $54. Standing room only tickets are $27 (where you are basically paying for the privilege of attending the event, but you really shouldn’t hope to make out most of the action on the ice). Sitting anywhere other than the 300 level will cost you in excess of $120.

To put this in perspective, the United Center seats somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,500 spectators and the Hawks play around 42 home games per season. Theoretically, you could top 850,000 in ticket sales in a given year if you sell out every game, which the Hawks have done for a few seasons now.

By contrast, Soldier Field, where the Chicago Bears NFL franchise plays, holds 61,500 spectators and the Bears play eight home games each year; if the games sell out (which happens frequently) the Bears will never exceed 500,000 tickets sold, the fewest possible among major sports teams in Chicago.

If you consider the potential for selling tickets only, the Bears tickets should be many times the value of the Hawks tickets, but they aren’t. Cheap seats for the Bears tickets are only about $100 dollars, and all but the most expensive tickets are under $200.

Five years ago, before the Hawks were marketed by John McDonough, you could only watch a handful of home games on television because their much maligned owner, Bill Wirtz, wanted to drive up the market for ticket sales. It was an idiotic and greedy strategy that only discouraged fans from attending. Bill Wirtz was so hated in Chicago that during a eulogy before the 2007 Hawks home opener which I attended—a ceremony, mind you, where his recently bereaved family was present—fans actually booed during the moment of silence, loudly.

Keep in mind you could literally show up to the box office with a student ID the night of a game and get $8 seats; not standing room tickets, actual seats.

I agree that Bill Wirtz was a money-grubbing fool, but I also remember that tickets to that 2007 game were $25, less than half the current price. Poor sales accounted for some of that low pricing, but keep in mind you could literally show up to the box office with a student ID the night of a game and get $8 seats; not standing room tickets, actual seats. There’s something to be said about frugality when it keeps the cost of tickets down.

What we’ve exchanged with the new ownership (the much-loved Rocky Wirtz) and new president (John McDonough, formerly employed by the Cubs) is a more talented team with bigger salaries that wins much more often. However, regular season wins came for Hawks teams in the past under “Dollar Bill” Wirtz (the 91-92 team went to the Cup finals) and there is no sign that the Hawks will be in prime contention for a Stanley Cup championship this season unless something changes significantly. While the Cup win was extraordinary, the Hawks are not the Yankees and any chance of a dynasty era was crushed the minute the salary cap driven fire sale started post-championship. In a way, we can thank Bill Wirtz for that fire sale as well, since severe public backlash to his policy of trading top echelon players directly influenced management to adopt the reverse policy of paying top dollar for current fan favorites.

McDonough’s policy was always to make the Hawks into the Cubs of the west side of Chicago, with tickets sold to wealthy urban professionals and suburbanites who can afford to bring their kids to the game. People pay for the generic experience of going somewhere to drink and possibly keep their kids mildly entertained; the quality of the team and facilities becomes optional, as do the wins (eventually).

Tickets to sit in the first row on the glass are now $450, more than the most expensive Bears ticket and, in all likelihood, the most expensive ticket of any kind in town. By way of comparison, first row opera tickets at the Lyric, on opening night, when the show is sold out, go for $400. I can’t think of anything more expensive, can you? Possibly there is some kind of secret society of billionaires who gather to watch two men fight each other to the death.

In any case, the enduring success story for Blackhawks was not the turnaround of the team and quality of play, but the way they were able to take a franchise desperate to sell tickets and use brilliant marketing to jack up prices and sell out games. The Cup win was, in some ways, the ultimate marketing ploy as it will continue to fill seats long after the team disintegrates.