Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tick, Tick, Tick

The clock is ticking on the Phoenix Coyotes.

23 days until opening night and we still need to learn much about this team.

For starters, who will own the team and where will they play this season?

I am still certain opening night will be in Glendale, the team will play here all season and the NHL will control the franchise either as the (congratulations, it's a mess!) new owner, debtors in possession or interim managers while any award to Jim Balsillie is appealed.

The first two scenarios will give a measure of stability to the team. It will also give fans reason to start investing emotionally in the team. Right now both are absent and both are necessary. The third option? Don't ask.

I can't imagine a bankruptcy court handing over the team to Balsillie knowing that the ensuing legal turmoil will run the asset into the ground. It would also create significant new legal precedent and start years of continuing court cases. Just doesn't seem like Judge Tom's (yawn) style. But as I have been warned by my legal experts, surprises do happen in court. Until the ruling is published, we'll just have to be patient.

And then there is the question of who will coach the team.

Wayne Gretzky is still (officially) the coach of the Coyotes. At least in name. Once Judge Tom wakes up from his nap and makes his ruling, the NHL will control the franchise either by outright purchase through bankruptcy, no sale (debtor in possession) or staying any award of the team to Jim Balsillie. If the NHL wants to make a deal with Gretzky, they need to do so within 24 hours. No more time to ponder. Its now or never.

And if The Great One is not going to coach the team, Ulf Samuelsson immediately needs to be named head coach. He's running the team right now. He's the voice of authority players have been listening to through camp. And frankly, there's little available in the way of alternatives given the time and the tenuous state of the franchise. Let's hope that Ulf doesn't get the dreaded "interim" label. Everything with the Coyotes is day to day right now. There's no need for further reinforcement. Ulf is competent and the best choice under very difficult circumstances.

Who will be on the team?

Mostly the usual suspects. Very few roster spots are up for grabs. We'll have more on this after Friday's game.

And finally will anyone come to the games?

An opening week road trip to Los Angeles, Buffalo and Pittsburgh is not exactly the recipe to get the season off to a fast start. This year, it is fortunate for the Coyotes. A nice trip (3 points?) some exposure (at a minimum, the Penguin game will be on NHL Network)could help take the focus off this summer of turmoil and put it back where it needs to be, on the ice. It is far preferable to a first game at home with no build up in advance of the game.

So how can this mess be fixed?

Fixing will take time. Short and long term decisions need to be made that look at the situation frankly and decisively.

I've lived in Phoenix for almost two years now and followed the Coyotes for the last four. As a hockey fan, I've never been excited by the promotion of the team. As a career marketing executive, I've been appalled by the lack of imagination and clarity in the team's message. Some of the team's marketing messages are just not appropriate for an emerging hockey market. How we got to "Pierre the Fanatical Snowman" and "Be Coyotes Cool" (running concurrently) is beyond me.

No single marketing campaign or program is going to fix the Coyotes. Good marketing can create awareness and interest. Winning teams create desire and action.

But let's be frank here -- there is not a lot of interest after what has happened this summer. There's a lot of work to do.

Here are a couple of random ideas. In coming days I'll have a few more suggestions.

There's an exhibition game on Saturday September 26th vs. San Jose. Unless Judge Tom has passed away and I missed it, his decision will have come down by then. And as such, we'll begin to have some clarity for the teams and fans. I'd suggest that whoever is in charge throw the doors open for $5 a head to get some people in the building, expose the players to the fans and generate some energy. Pre-season games aren't going to draw big crowds under the best of circumstances. This isn't the best of circumstances. Sacrifice the gate (ahem) and get some people in the building.

Something similar, albeit not as dramatic might be in order for opening night. Buy everyone a hot dog and a beer to thank them for bearing with what went on this summer.

The Coyotes need to build a message that speaks directly to what has happened this summer. "We Play For You", the contemplated 2009-10 advertising theme is cliched and uninspiring. A slogan like this might work in an established market but it does not communicate what needs to be said here.

Hockey fans in Arizona, casual or hard core, need a pointed message that builds on what happened this summer. The Coyotes got more publicity than ever this summer, although most of it was not positive. Nevertheless, publicity of any kind can be good. I'm not the first person to say that, P.T. Barnum was.

When the NHL sent a lettered to the fans this summer, it was pointed. We know the NHL can succeed in Arizona, but we need your support now. There are ways to tie the urgency of the situation into the promotion of the hockey team without belaboring the points. If done in a clever and imaginative way, it can set up the market for success. Of course, a winning team is a necessary ingredient in this equation but you got to start somewhere. The key is developing a message and a theme that incorporates the issues with the team but builds on them rather than belaboring them.

And finally, the Coyotes need to ask for help. The advertising business sucks right now. Radio and TV stations have more time than ever available to do cross promotions. In fact, this is pretty close to a once in a lifetime opportunity in the Phoenix market. Why not ask each media outlet in town to take one night, make it their own and build a promotion to create publicity and enthusiasm? The Coyotes have plenty of inventory they can offer for now. So do TV and radio stations. There's a deal to be made here. Misery does love comnpany, you know.

More on the team, promotion and Gretzky coming this weekend.

Tomorrow, I'll get my first look at the 2009-10 Yotes. Stop by and say Hi. I'll be the guy wearing the New York Don Maloney jersey. I'm afraid I'll be easy to find.

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