OTTAWA — In my experience, having gone to many Ontario Hockey League games growing up, there have historically been two main fan demographics. There are the old-timers who, out of sheer love and devotion for hockey, will go to every home game of their local team, chat with all the other old-timers about the good kids on the team, eat a billion peanuts, and go home. And then there are the middle-class hockey parents managing a big group of young boys, often in matching jerseys, who won’t stop drinking sugary pops and flossing/dabbing/play-fighting. It’s actually a charming mixture of folks, if you can tolerate it. And that very suburban and very white core market has always been the OHL’s bread and butter.
The problem is, this traditional fan base is beginning to age out and die off, and catering mostly to one demographic is no longer as commercially viable as it once was (in 2016, the Hamilton Spectator said bluntly, of the average OHL player, that the “odds of them crossing paths with someone living in poverty are extremely low”). Attendance is now slumping, especially in some of the smaller markets, such as North Bay. Low attendance has always been one of the biggest disruptive forces in the league, often leading teams to relocate in search of greener pastures. The Peterborough Petes, for instance, have been grappling recently with the prospect of having to leave town due to low attendance — and they’re not the only team in that situation.
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That’s why some OHL teams, such as the Ottawa 67’s, are trying out a zany, cartoonish, and ironic way to draw new spectators: theme nights.
Ottawa is a city that knows all about hockey-attendance woes. The NHL’s Ottawa Senators have boasted some of the worst numbers in the league for the past few years: the team struggled to sell tickets during a deep playoff run in 2017 and infamously had several thousand seats covered with a tarp in an effort to "right-size" the rink.
The OHL’s Ottawa 67’s, owned by Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (which also owns the successful Ottawa Redblacks), saw their attendance plummet to its lowest point ever in 2015. Fortunes have improved since then — they’re now in the middle of the league in terms of average attendance — but management still sees room for growth.
One obvious reason for the turnaround is that the team has been getting better. But since 2015 — a season that reportedly served as a wake-up call for the organization — there’s also been a renewed emphasis on the fan experience.
That’s why I found myself at Ottawa’s TD Place in early January talking to a man dressed in a blue button-up shirt and tie with a name tag reading “Asian Jim” — a one-scene character from the sitcom The Office.
“It’s entertaining; it’s fun,” says Ryan Wong. His first hockey game ever will be a particularly memorable one — because it’s the second annual Dunder Mifflin Night.
“We were planning it for a while,” says Wong’s friend Daniel Lafreniere.
“It just happened that it was Dunder Mifflin night, and we watch The Office, so we got dressed up,” says Wong.
At roughly the midpoint of the game, Wong says he thinks the concept of throwing funny fan-promotion nights could be good for the OHL: “It’s good to have these special nights — get people out and get people to have a different experience.”
That’s basically the whole idea, says the 67’s lead marketer, Jon Sinden. The idea, he says, is to attract “that casual fan who might not be coming just for hockey.”
OSEG, which has plenty of marketing resources, was an early proponent of the idea. Last year, it jazzed up a hockey game with the first Dunder Mifflin Night (The Office takes place at the fictional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Inc.), and this year it’s expanded the lineup to include Britney Spears Appreciation Day, Friends Night, and Ugly Christmas Sweater Day, among others.
“We’re in a very competitive marketplace,” says Sinden. “Not that we feel we need gimmicks, but we have to cut through, have to be unique.”
The approach is based on a venerable and much-loved American tradition that sees minor-league baseball teams concoct zany promotions and absurdist giveaways to generate whatever buzz they can. Promotions have been part of organized baseball since the beginning of the sport, but they’ve gone a little sideways — in a good way — as minor league attendance has stalled over the last 20 years. They’re now calendar events all their own. Teams plan them early. Promote them hard. This year, the Bowling Green Hot Rods hosted Sinkhole Night (dedicated to a famous town sinkhole), and the Charleston RiverDogs held a night devoted to Helen McGuckin (a mystery woman who posted a poor Google review of the ballpark that read ‘Just drove by’); for more than a week in June, the AA Pittsburgh Pirates changed their name to the Allegheny Yinzers. Sinden, and other OHL organizations, have cited that culture as a major influence on the way they’re starting to market their games.
And, of course, there’s a family angle to it all. If you’re an OHL organization, you want to attract families. Families are a double whammy: good for the team, since kids love to cheer, and good for the organization, since kids also love to eat. Parents (I assume) enjoy a night away from iPads and their kids’ TikTok accounts and the 100,000 other things they have going on all the time. (The clean family fun is what distinguishes these nights from other promo cash grabs such as, say, $2 beer nights, which the 67’s also offer.)
And the players get into it, too. For Dunder Mifflin Night, the team play in (genuinely cool) grey jerseys that say “Schrute Farm Beets” (devotees of The Office will recognize this as non-canonical; in the show, it’s called Schrute Farms Bed & Breakfast). Before the game, the players notice a rink staffer who looks like Pam Beesly from the show and start calling her Pam. It would be easy to forget that the enthusiasm can seep down to ice level. As much as it changes things up for the fans, it also breaks the mould for players, too — these are, after all, 17- and 18-year-olds who have Netflix accounts and binge The Office just like anyone else.
The Hamilton Bulldogs, now in their fifth season since relocating from Belleville, are also playing around with minor-league-ball-esque ideas. They’ve done a series of bobblehead giveaways. They held a night to celebrate the release of the latest season of Stranger Things. At a Disney Princess game in November, the players were decked out in princess-y jerseys.
“It was a conscious and/or organic development,” said the team’s play-by-play announcer, Reed Duthie. “Coming into the 2019-2020 season, we thought we needed to see more emphasis on fun.”
Attendance at OHL games has never been great in the Greater Toronto Area (Mississauga has had more teams over the years than I can even remember), but the Bulldogs have done relatively well, and Duthie says that the more they focus on the hockey game as an event, the more the numbers improve.
“The feedback has been extremely positive,” he says, ballparking the theme-night attendance boost at around a couple hundred people. That may not sound like much, but when your average attendance is only around 4,000, it adds up. “One of the things we’ve found is, once we get people through the door, they will generally come back.”
Sinden and the 67’s agree that theme nights are a great way to introduce people to the sport. But, he emphasizes, at the end of the day, it’s still the hockey that matters.
“It’s a hook to come,” says Sinden, of the theme nights. “But it’s not the reason to come.”
On Dunder Mifflin Night, it was like everyone showed up for Dwight Schrute quotes, and a hockey game broke out. And what a hockey game. The 67’s, riding a 17-game win streak they were hoping to defend, clawed their way back from a 4-1 deficit and notched a wild 9-6 win. Anyone there for the first time got arguably the best possible intro to the OHL: fast, exciting, and a ton of fun. Junior hockey at its best.
“This is great,” opines Maggie Kinkaid — a younger woman, so not exactly a member of minor hockey’s traditional fan base — just after competing in a paper-airplane contest during the second intermission.
“It makes it fun,” says her co-competitor Molly McIntyre. “We appreciate it. It’s a great idea.”
“They’re killing it. The detail they put into it has been amazing,” Kinkaid says. “I probably wouldn’t be here if this wasn’t Office-themed.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that the Ottawa 67’s were planning an upcoming Disney Princess game; in fact, they held one in November.
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