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With tough economy and team ‘rebuilding’ efforts, both Wolves and Wild face new business challenges

The snow had finally stopped, but a frigid wind knifed across First Avenue outside the Target Center last Wednesday night. A single scalper stood across the street, shivering, alone.

At the arena box office, an hour before the Timberwolves played the New Orleans Hornets, ticket-sellers sat with their arms folded, chatting with each other. There were no lines of waiting customers. Ticket-buyers walked directly to the windows, even those picking up online and phone orders at will call.

A confluence of factors — a lousy opponent, a school night, the first traffic-snarling snow of the season, the Wolves’ 3-18 start, and the lack of a major promotional push tied to the game — contributed to a weak crowd announced at 12,056, well below capacity of 19,356. Thanks to several thousand no-shows, the place looked half-full. Several upper-level sections stood vacant.

It was neither the smallest Wolves crowd this season nor the largest. An Oct. 30 visit by Cleveland and LeBron James reached capacity, and Kevin Garnett’s return with Boston fell about 200 short of that.

But it illustrates the challenge of selling single-game tickets in a tough economic climate, especially for a struggling franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004, traded its biggest star (Garnett) two years ago, and replaced its coach and top basketball executive after last season. Through Monday, the Wolves ranked 22nd out of 30 NBA teams in attendance, averaging 15,077 per game, according to ESPN.com.

 And the Wolves aren’t alone.

Wild face new challenges, too
Although the Minnesota Wild claimed capacity crowds at all 382 games the team has played at Xcel Energy Center — preseason, regular season and playoffs — team officials anticipate the inexactly named “sellout streak” will end soon, because the Wild likewise are rebuilding after their own front-office overhaul.

The streak nearly fell on Dec. 2, when the crowd of 18,071 exceeded capacity by seven people. Best guess? It will end on a weeknight, against a crummy team, in the dead of winter.

Of note: Both the NHL and NBA base attendance figures on tickets distributed, including “comps” — freebies, discounted tickets, in-kind trades with sponsors, etc. — rather than tickets sold, or the actual number of spectators in the arena. NBA and NHL teams do not release turnstile counts, but the Timberwolves report theirs to the city of Minneapolis, which owns the arena, for sales tax purposes. According to data arena managers submitted to the city, from January through April 2008 — the most recent figures available — the Wolves’ announced attendance of 377,565 included 33,372 comps (8.8 percent of the total) and 128,775 no-shows (34.1 percent).

For the Wild, announced capacity crowds continued through the preseason partly because the team offered special packages, such as one included in Valpak coupon packages that are mailed to Twin Cities homes. Even the Minnesota Vikings tried Valpak, offering two tickets, free parking and a $20 concessions coupon for Metrodome games with Detroit, Seattle and Cincinnati, if tickets were purchased through Tickermaster.com.

That’s the nature of the Twin Cities market, and the economy. Wolves President Chris Wright acknowledges that consumers have fewer discretionary dollars and more choices on where to spend them. “It could be another sports team, it could be the Ordway, it could be the movies, it could be a lot of different things,” he said. So the Wolves must be more creative and more aggressive, at least until the team starts winning more.

Wright says the Wolves begin with research to determine the traits and likes of their fan base. He divides Wolves fans into five groups: superfans; party people, who love hoopla; traditionalists, attracted by superstars and marquee franchises; experientialists, who want something more than a game for their ticket buck; and naysayers, who someone less diplomatic than Wright might call front-runners — former ticket-buyers not interested in watching a bad team.

“We don’t go fishing in that pond very often,” Wright said. “What will change their opinion is when the team becomes successful.”

With a season ticket base of about 7,000, including all full and partial plans, the Wolves offer more than 12,000 seats for each game. Single-game tickets run from $1,700 for the exclusive Courtside Club (with leather-padded seats, valet parking and complementary food and beverage among the perks) to $15 and $10 for upper-level end zone and corner seats. The Wolves did not raise their ticket prices this season. Most nights, the Wolves offer a laundry list of discount tickets and deals.

Wolves offering ‘added value’
Last Wednesday was college student night, with upper-level tickets for $5, and the first 100 buyers upgraded to lower-level tickets behind one basket. (With the crowd so small, the Wolves upgraded everybody, Wright said.) More than 200 adults took advantage of Guys Night Out, which included a $20 lower-level ticket, one soda or beer, a hot dog, and a halftime meeting with the Timberwolves Dancers. (The team also offers a Ladies Night Out, with a wine option but no Dancers.)

Russell Daye, Bree Edwards and J.D. Suddarth, three friends from Minneapolis, picked up lower-level tickets a friend left for them Wednesday. They attend several games a year, usually paying full price. The cheapest lower-level seats are $50.

But budget-conscious Tom and Cindy Germain, with their teenage son Brady and two of his friends from Concordia Academy along, took advantage of the autographed merchandise special. For $20, each received a $25 upper level ticket, an autographed Jonny Flynn poster, and game statistics delivered to their seats. The five tickets, plus parking, came to $110. (As a bonus, the boys took pictures of each other with two Timberwolves dancers in the lobby, leaving their amused parents to talk to a reporter.)

“We try to come to as many games as we can, but we can’t always afford it,” Cindy Germain said. “When you get the poster, and the stats, you’re getting more for your money.”

Over in St. Paul, the Wild claim many more season ticket holders (about 16,000) and fewer single-game tickets to sell than the Timberwolves. But with a new general manager (Chuck Fletcher, replacing the fired Doug Risebrough), a new coach (Todd Richards, after Jacques Lemaire quit) and no Marian Gaborik, club officials worried about an attendance drop-off.

Even before the changes, the Wild froze ticket prices. A little more than 90 percent of season subscribers renewed, fewer than in recent years, according to Jamie Spencer, the Wild’s vice president of sales and service. Many of the 7,000 fans on the standby list known as the “warming house” passed up options to buy, or purchased the cheapest packages. In late September, the Wild still had tickets available for every game, a franchise first.

Often, the Wild have so many empty seats in the lower bowl that critics have long claimed the capacity streak is a fabrication. Some are no-shows; Spencer added that some ticket-holders prefer to watch from the concourse rail, where the sightlines are good, or one of Xcel’s bars.
 
To fill in, the club again offered discounted “rush tickets” at game time, partly from the pool of tickets unused by the teams. Spencer said up to 50 rush tickets are put on sale per game, usually during the national anthem. They cost $43 each, $48 for a premium game, and students get a $10 discount. Regular price for the cheapest lower-level seat is $75. If the season ticket-holder walks in late, ushers will re-seat the rush buyer.

Fans can sign up for text alerts about rush ticket availability, which Spencer said go out about five hours before game time. For a Dec. 4 game with Anaheim, 18 people bought rush tickets within the first 10 minutes the windows opened. Jesse Lake and his wife, Beth, of South St. Paul, said they’ve bought rush tickets five or six times already.

“We had friends who came in from out of town,” Jesse Lake said. “When they came in, we said, ‘Let’s see if we can get rush tickets.’ ” 

Like the Wolves, the Wild surveys its fans for likes and dislikes. And no detail is too insignificant. Spencer said, for example, that the team will eliminate cone-shaped popcorn bags because fans claim they won’t stay in the arena’s cupholders.

The Wild’s 10-3-1 home record and better overall play lately kept the streak limping along. Through Monday, the Wild ranked 11th in the NHL in average attendance at 18,205 per game, and are one of 11 teams running at or above capacity. But that average, if it holds for the full season, would be the lowest in Wild history. The team averaged 18,239 in its first season, 2000-01.

Spencer said the Wild owe it to its season subscribers to be honest about the streak’s imminent end, while letting casual fans know they might actually be able to attend a game for the first time. “We didn’t want people to show up and say, ‘How did this happen?’ ” Spencer said. “We want to keep them informed about our business.”

These days the Wild, and the Wolves, can use every new buyer they can get.

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