Annual attendance at Winterhawks home games this year was up about 2,500 people per game from 2008, and sellouts--like the series versus Edmonton--are on the rise.
// Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina
The new crew wasted little time in resuscitating the franchise. Johnston’s approach to hockey — “He’s more teacher than coach,” Piper says — coupled well with Green’s on-ice experience, and the team slowly started to pick up wins. The organization beefed up its sales and marketing team, replaced the Coliseum’s sound system and introduced a new mascot as well as the Portland Rosebuds dance team. At the same time, the Hawks started reaching out to the community, sending players to children’s hospitals and getting them involved in other local events.
The team also set up the nonprofit Winterhawks Amateur Hockey Association as a way to introduce more kids to the sport. As part of that effort, the Hawks invested $750,000 in upgrades to a community ice rink in Beaverton and renamed it the Winterhawks Skating Center. Ninety percent of the center’s time is now booked for youth hockey, according to Piper.
Additionally, Piper says the team worked to build a “mystique of popularity” by focusing on a handful of games each season to sell out by offering special promotions, such as the “Dash for Cash,” which finds lucky fans scrambling over the ice for silver dollars. The first season, the new ownership focused on seven games to sell out; the next year, 10. Now, Piper says, the team is on its way to selling out half of its home games every year.
According to Robison, the Hawks averaged 6,075 people per home game this year for a total of about 218,000 — the sixth-best attendance in the entire 22-team WHL. Season ticket holders have doubled to nearly 3,600 and membership in the team’s booster club has gone from 135 members four years ago to more than 400 now.
“We have a lot of very passionate fans who have stuck with the Winterhawks through the highs and lows,” says Stuart Kemp, president of the nonprofit Portland Winterhawks Booster Club. “We’re seeing a lot of new fans, too, and people who may have forgotten about it have started coming back because they realize that there’s something going on here again.”
Corporate sponsorships have tripled in the past three years, as well. Piper is hopeful that trend will continue, especially after the Coliseum gets its much-needed renovations. Whereas the city just a few years ago considered tearing down the building to make way for a baseball stadium, now the Portland City Council is poised to approve a plan for the $32 million overhaul. The Winterhawks will shoulder $10 million of the cost; federal tax credits and urban renewal money will cover the rest. Renovations will include a larger ice sheet, new seating and a high definition scoreboard and screen, all of which should be ready for the start of the Hawks 2013 season.
Piper says not only will the renovation be good for fans and the team, but it might also spur redevelopment projects throughout the entire Rose Quarter.
“This is just the first step in a much grander urban renewal project,” he says, “one that we’re going to be right in the middle of.”