Posted on Wednesday 13 November 2013 by Ulster Business
Whether due to the early involvement of television networks or just the sheer scale of their markets, American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey teams are run as huge commercial enterprises, attracting massive sponsorship deals and huge audiences.
But when those sports are transported across the Atlantic to new territories such as Northern Ireland and are up against other sports ingrained in the fabric of local culture such as football, rugby and GAA, they don't have the same draw.
That requires innovative thinking on behalf of those running teams, says Todd Kelman, general manager of ice hockey franchise the Belfast Giants.
The Giants were formed in 2000 and have enjoyed relative success since then in the Elite Ice Hockey League, which features teams from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
But Kelman says they've made a conscious decision not to go toe to toe with the established sports, pitching ice hockey instead as a fun and entertaining Saturday night out for people of all ages.
"We're not competing with other sports, we're competing with other forms of entertainment on a Saturday night – going to movies, staying in watching X-Factor, going to dinner – so how do we get them to choose us over other things," said Kelman
"It can't be that serious and just about ice hockey because if it was there's a limited amount of ice hockey fans in Northern Ireland. We need to make sure we're providing entertainment and fun for the whole family and that's what we try to do."
In his playing career on the ice, which included seven seasons with the Giants, Kelman was known as The Killer, a nickname that was down to his offensive style of play, uncompromising defending and strong penalty record. When I ask if it's an approach he's taken into the business world since transitioning into the role of General Manager in 2007, he laughs.
"What we preach to our staff and volunteers is that sometimes sports at all levels takes itself way too seriously and you have to understand nobody cares as much about the outcome as the players and coaches," he said.
"Fans get passionate, they follow their teams religiously, but at the end of the day if we get 5,000 people at a game 1,500 are probably die-hard Giants fans and the other 3,500 are there for a night out. Maybe it's the first game they come to, maybe the fifth, maybe it's a yearly treat. We have to make sure they all have fun before, during and after the game and give them options to make sure it is an entertaining night out," he adds.
"Sometimes sports lose track of the fact that it is entertainment first. When it gets to the point where it is just about wins and losses, where there are millions of pounds on the line, that's the Premiership, that's where Ulster Rugby are. I'd love to get to the point where we are selling out every game, our players were making big money and it was a huge commercial business but we know where we fit in Northern Ireland, we are entertainment first. The reason our fanbase has grown for seven years in a row is that we're doing a pretty good job of it."
While fun and entertainment are the watchwords, that's not to say the Belfast Giants isn't aiming to be successful in business. After some well documented ownership issues over the years, the team is now owned by the Odyssey Trust, owners of the Odyssey Arena, where the Giants play their home games.
Kelman says he and his team are constantly trying to find new ways for partners such as title sponsor Stena Line to engage with fans and get their message across in ways that go beyond the traditional billboards around the arena. Some of that follows the American model – for example the firing of Subway sandwiches into the crowd from a cannon – but other methods are more innovative.
"Rather than just having static advertising we have the ability to, say, for a sponsor like Tayto, we do a quiz on the big screen in the arena so fans can win crisps for a whole section, or Stena will do competitions during the game where people can win ferry trips. It is more engaging than just static advertising, which I don't think works any more," said the GM.
It is, he says, about trying to make sure a sponsor feels it is important to be part of the team in the sense that they don't want to lose it because it is a unique and engaging sponsorship deal that fits their needs. He notes, for example, that Pizza Hut gives away pizzas in the crowd because the smell encourages more people to buy pizzas at their outlet next door after the game.
"If people just want to advertise at a sporting event and they want their brand to be seen by the most people, then I'm pretty clear they should go to Ulster Rugby. They're on TV every week, they get 14,000 people at their games. But if people can't afford that and they want to be involved in a sport that is going to give their brand as much hit for the money they can spend, come to us," said Kelman.
"We're not just a bunch of fools firing food into the crowd, there is a plan behind it. We check what other sports are doing, we check what other family events are doing."
The product has also been a big hit with corporate Northern Ireland, with companies surprised at the affordability of hiring their own suite with a waitress and bar (which Kelman notes is warm, despite being at an ice rink) and the Electric Ireland suite offering an attractive option for larger gatherings.
One unique attraction among the sports on offer here is that the Giants' fanbase is fairly evenly split 50/50 between men and women.
"A lot of options for sporting events end up being a guys night out so it's not that easy to invite female colleagues or people's wives. I always say everyone equally doesn't understand ice hockey the first time they come, that's the big selling point, it is for everyone. You don't need to understand hockey here to have a good time," said Kelman.
It is an attitude that seems to typify the Giants ethos. The team has won a lot of friends in Belfast for the way it engages with fans, particularly children and that responsibility is something the players have all bought in to, even if it means disrupting match day rituals, says Kelman.
"Players have to accept they have to meet and engage with their fans. Our players are really good at that. As a player you maybe want to focus on the game rather than commitments off the ice. But what we've done is made sure we get the right type of guys who understand what they're signing up to when they sign with the Giants," he said.
"I always tell the guys the day the Odyssey is sold out every game with 7,000 season ticket holders and a waiting list of 1,000 we don't have to engage so much. In top level sports, like the Premiership, you can see why players have to be removed from the fans, but in minor league sports like ourselves it is so important to build personal relationships and give people that access they don't normally get to sporting clubs."