Seriously gonzo: Hockey in the desert is a tough sell
The method to hockey ringmaster Billy Johnson’s madness
Stephen Sylvanie/Special to the Sun
14 November 2011
Leave it to Las Vegas’ hockey team, the Wranglers, to capitalize on the end of the world. Where Christian broadcaster Harold Camping saw the apocalypse, the Wranglers saw revenue.
On Oct. 21, the night of the minor-league team’s 2011-12 home opener, stacks of T-shirts memorializing the event as “The Last Hockey Game on Earth” were running short midway through the second intermission.
“I’ve had a lot of people buy one or two extra for friends,” said Wranglers’ bookkeeper Terry Blalock, who was pulling double-duty as a merchandise vendor during the promotion. “I’ve only had, like, two people say, ‘Why would I spend money on a T-shirt when I won’t be around to wear it?’ ”
Welcome to the three-hour carnival of irreverence that was Rapture Night, the promotion dreamed up by Wranglers President Billy Johnson after hearing that Camping had predicted the world would end Oct. 21. From that coincidence grew a production that included confessional booths in which fans were invited to repent their sins, a series of video clips mocking the prediction and a ceremonial puck drop by Camping (as portrayed by a member of the team’s staff) and his hot nurse (as portrayed by Johnson’s wife).
Doomsday? Nobody at Orleans Arena, the team’s home venue, seemed too worried.
“They’re making a lot of fun of it, which is great,” said Kamryn Mock, of Las Vegas, who proudly pointed out that she appears in the pregame video shown on the scoreboard at every Wranglers home game.
The spoof on Camping was designed partly to give fans a chuckle, but mainly for another reason — to grab attention for the team, which for a small operation like the Wranglers is an enormous challenge in a city awash with entertainment options.
No question: Promoting the team is one of the toughest marketing jobs in Las Vegas entertainment.
To get on the radar in a place where you have to scream especially loud to be heard, particularly when working on a tight budget, Johnson has developed a gonzo strategy revolving around one big idea. At least once a year, he stages a promotion that is themed on a national news event and, he hopes, is so outrageous or so clever that it will attract widespread media attention. The idea is to reach an audience beyond the regular crowd and lure them in.
“What I sort of stumbled on was that the best way to generate local interest is this: When the local media is ignoring you, as sometimes they do in our business, when they read about you in the national media, all of a sudden now you really have their attention,” Johnson said. “So that’s sort of been the philosophy.”
At times, the strategy has worked brilliantly. Dick Cheney Hunting Vest Night, which made fun of the former vice-president’s 2006 accidental shooting of Texas attorney Harry Whittington, got Johnson face time on Countdown with Keith Olbermann and drew notice in other national media. Rod Blagojevich Prison Jersey Night got a fair amount of play, too, as the team goofed on the former Illinois governor’s conviction on corruption charges.
It’s a smart strategy, said Paul Swangard, managing director of the James H. Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon College of Business.
“They’ve recognized that the ability to tap into something that’s culturally relevant helps you reach an audience you wouldn’t otherwise talk to,” Swangard said. “It’s like having sports figures on ‘Dancing With the Stars’ — you’re in front of a whole different group of people. It’s savvy public relations, more than anything else. They’ve found a formula that gets the locals to pay attention from the media side.”
Tweaking the model
The Wranglers compete in the biggest market of the 20 teams in the ECHL (formerly the East Coast Hockey League, before it expanded West), which is comparable to a Double-A league in baseball. Although the ECHL sends a handful of players to the National Hockey League every year, it’s safe to say casual fans won’t recognize the names on the rosters.
The ECHL’s teams, which stretch from Alaska to Florida, have averaged 3,900 fans per game this season. Las Vegas’ attendance has been just below the league average at Orleans Arena, which seats 7,773 when configured for hockey.
The team is owned by San Diego businessman Gary Jacobs, managing director of Jacobs Investment Co. and son of Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs.
Johnson’s marketing strategy is no revelation to the Wranglers’ few thousand regular fans. They’ve seen the high-concept promotions, which Johnson intersperses with traditional minor-league attractions and events with a Vegas twist — like midnight games and performances by a Billy Idol impersonator and Minikiss, a Kiss tribute band made up of dwarfs.
But what others might not know about Johnson is that for all the circuslike qualities of his marketing, his approach is based on sound marketing principles.
It’s true. A guy who got his start in the sports business as a mascot for a minor-league baseball team and who calls “The Gong Show” creator and host Chuck Barris his hero has legitimate lessons to offer other businesses about promotions and public relations.
Jack Schibrowsky, a longtime marketing professor at UNLV, credited Johnson for recognizing that the traditional minor-league marketing model wouldn’t work for his team. In smaller communities where hockey is more popular and there are fewer things to do, Schibrowsky said, the formula relies heavily on purchasing media advertising and doing community outreach — forming philanthropic partnerships, volunteering in schools, etc.
But there’s no way the Wranglers could buy the kind of advertising they’d need to move the needle on their attendance. And as far as outreach goes, there’s only so much of a splash the team can make. As Johnson says: “Are we going to out-fundraise Andre Agassi? We’re not.” Johnson declines to divulge details about the team’s budget and finances, but describes it as a small- to medium-sized business that employs about 20 people its front office and spends roughly $2.5 million on payroll and team operations annually.
“They have a limited budget,” Schibrowsky said. “And at the same time, in the media market here, there’s a lot of clutter. The fact is, you can do something really neat at a Wranglers game and 75 percent of the population will never know it happened.”
That being the case, Schibrowsky said, Johnson’s Vegas-flavored tweak on minor-league marketing was deft. Swangard agreed.
“In talking to people around the league, there’s a general appreciation for how hard it must be to advertise and promote in that market,” Swangard said. “Other teams are trying things similar to what the Wranglers are doing, trying to find that market-specific idea that would resonate with consumers.”
What tips can other businesses take from Johnson’s playbook? Don’t base marketing efforts solely on a product or service — focus on the overall customer experience, as the Wranglers do by highlighting the entertainment aspect of their games as opposed to what happens on the ice. Also, find a creative way to stand out from the competition, understand the local advertising market and don’t assume an effective marketing campaign requires an expenditure.
“From my outsider’s perspective, it looks like they have done a really good job of trying to push the envelope and stay relevant in a marketplace that makes it hard to be relevant from Day One,” Swangard said.
Showman to executive
Johnson got his first look at the sports business from inside the costume of Billy Bird, the mascot he created for the Louisville (Ky.) Redbirds in the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system. From there, he built a career as an executive with several baseball organizations.
The native Kentuckian’s marketing approach started by accident during 1992 in Kinston, N.C., when he staged a promotion involving a baseball player who looked like Jerry Seinfeld. “Entertainment Tonight” picked up on it, as did other national media.
“It was one of those things where you go, ‘What’s going on? I don’t know, but I’m just going to ride with it,’ ” he said.
In 2003, he heard from a longtime friend in the hockey business that the Wranglers were forming and needed a top administrator.
Thrilled at the prospect of living in Las Vegas and intrigued by the chance to work in a new sport, he joined the organization and helped bring the Wranglers to Southern Nevada.
One newspaper suggested he might as well try opening an amusement park in Afghanistan, he said.
Johnson quotes survey results showing 94 percent of Las Vegas residents have no interest in minor-league hockey — a higher percentage than in northerly cities where the sport has traditionally been more popular.
Hence the zany promotions and the guerrilla marketing ploy of trying to get national media attention — for free — to punch through the wall of indifference and convince the locals that a hockey game would be worth seeing.
“We want to be E.F. Hutton,” Johnson said. “When we do something, we want to be heard when we do it.
Not all the cards are stacked against the Wranglers, though. The city’s anything-goes attitude lets Johnson get away with stunts that might not work elsewhere. (Rapture Night in the Bible Belt? Uh, maybe not.)
The Billy Idol impersonator, for example, was chosen because he was the worst one the staff could find. Johnson and his staff knew the audience would get a kick out of heckling him, and they were right.
“By the second intermission, I can remember this poor guy just being booed by everybody,” Johnson said. “Before he could even start singing, he was on the mic saying, ‘Oh, come on guys, give me a chance.’ He was begging the audience for a chance. It was right out of ‘The Gong Show.’ ”
But there’s still a danger of going too far, even in Sin City. Schibrowsky said an overabundance of promotions can turn off fans who come for a game, not a spectacle. Making fun of politicians carries the risk of angering people who strongly support the mocked lawmaker’s party.
So are the rewards worth the risk?
The fact that the Wranglers have been around for eight years and counting — in a city where other minor-league startups have come and gone — suggests Johnson’s approach has helped the team survive, Schibrowsky said.
“The Wranglers are a long-term success story here compared with other minor-league teams, and part of that is their business model,” he said. “But it’s also because they spend a lot of time and effort trying to make that experience special for people.”
But James Cross, a colleague of Schibrowsky’s on UNLV’s marketing faculty, said the franchise was well-designed financially to endure — even in Las Vegas. He said ECHL teams keep overhead low by maintaining a hard salary cap and signing obscure players on the cheap.
“The financial model of the league pretty much guarantees survival unless you really screw it up,” he said.
Whatever the case, Johnson said his promotions have worked even when they didn’t create a splash in the national media.
“Everything puts a brick in the foundation,” he said. “So whether it’s as big nationally as we thought it might be, that’s great if it is. But regardless, it does help build a reputation. It does build us as a fun place to go. And that’s really our brand.”
Rapture Night, by the way, didn’t create the hype Johnson had hoped it would. Maybe it was because Camping’s prediction got some attention at the outset but quickly went off the radar. Maybe it was because the news in Las Vegas leading up to the game was dominated by the Republican presidential candidate debate and the death of IndyCar racer Dan Wheldon.
But the game drew nearly 6,000 fans, making it the second-best opener in team history behind its debut in 2003. Afterward, Johnson said, spectators asked for DVDs of the game and video snippets.
“The publicity was a little disappointing,” Johnson said. “But it’s one of the best ones we’ve done.”
Another benefit was purely personal for Johnson, the source of all of the team’s stunt concepts. The promotion amused him, which is a key part of his strategy — to have a good time.
“My passion is telling a joke, doing a setup,” said the guy who once wore a bird costume.
For Kamryn Mock, the Las Vegas fan who appears in the pregame video, it works.
“Oh, yeah, that’s part of the reason I come,” she said, after purchasing a “Last Hockey Game on Earth” shirt. “They do a lot of things to make it fun here.”
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