Monday, February 16, 2015

Chill Factor: A lesson in how to market a minor-league hockey team


As of 2013, Columbus, Ohio, was the 15th largest city in the United States.
But that didn’t stop it from being a graveyard for professional sports franchises . . . until the arrival of the Columbus Chill on July 25, 1991.
The Chill was a minor league hockey team that spent eight seasons in the ECHL, eventually departing after the NHL awarded an expansion franchise to the city.
Chill Factor (subtitled How a Minor-League Hockey Team Changed a City Forever) is the story of how all of that transpired — how the Chill came to be wonderfully successful in a city dominated by Ohio State University and how it all led to the construction of a new downtown arena and the arrival of the Blue Jackets.
The Chill was owned by Horn Chen, a name recognizable to Canadian sports fans as a one-time owner of the Ottawa Rough Riders. Ultimately, he sold the Chill for seven figures (the franchise now is the ECHL’s Reading Royals) and ended up owning two per cent of the Blue Jackets.
Chill Factor was written by David Paitson, who was the Chill’s president and general manager, and Craig Merz, who was a sports writer with the Columbus Dispatch during the Chill’s run.
The Chill left no stone unturned when it came to marketing. There were people with marketing expertise in the front office who had ideas and understood the importance of forging relationships with the media. They were given ample room to carry their ideas to fruition.
The advertising campaign that the Chill put together with a local firm was out of this world. One ad began: “For $5, we can help you with all that unresolved anger you have for your mother.” Another opened with: “Assault someone, you get five years. In hockey, five minutes. Is this a great game or what?”
If the Chill didn’t go over the line, they certainly walked it.
Still, owners of minor league hockey franchises and people working in their front offices should read this book. In fact, the anecdotes involving the marketing of the Chill should be mandatory reading for those folks.
But there is more to this book than that.
As one might expect, there are plenty of stories involving minor league hockey, although nothing that would compete with Slap Shot. Still, the team’s first captain drew a lengthy suspension before the first season even began. A few seasons in, some players walked out in a labour dispute.
Paitson and Metz tell all of those stories and more.
Paitson also details the efforts that went into getting a new arena built in Columbus, as well as the birth of the Blue Jackets, including the politics and in-fighting, some of which involved Ohio State, which apparently didn’t like the idea of losing its sporting monopoly in Columbus.
Even if you aren’t from the Columbus area and weren’t familiar with all that happened, you will find this an entertaining and enlightening read.

(Chill Factor: How a Minor-League Hockey Team Changed a City Forever; Sports Publishing, 304 pages, US$24.99)

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