Pirates aim for comeback on ice and off

The Portland Pirates have put together a season like none other in team history. Led by goaltenders Maxime Ouellet and Rastislav Stana, they are poised to shatter a host of franchise defensive records.

Admittedly, the Pirates’ offense has not matched the prowess of its defense but lately, the team has mounted a different kind of offensive aimed at re-invigorating the franchise and the fan base.

Back in February, the Pirates joined with McClain Marketing, a firm in Portland, to uncover the public’s view of the franchise. The results ˆ the good, the bad and the ugly ˆ were unveiled on March 4 after nearly 3,000 respondents filled out a lengthy on-line questionnaire covering topics ranging from ticket prices and concessions to media coverage and community involvement. The reaction from both the organization and the public was immediate.

“The data far exceeded our expectations,” said Brian Petrovek, Pirates’ managing owner/CEO. “We went into this with the hope that we could get a 500-person sample, and to come away with almost 3,000 people participating was, to us, astounding.”

In an effort to win back fans that over the years had been lured away by other entertainment options, the team launched a “comeback campaign.” The effects of the campaign were sweeping ˆ from ticket pricing, to an aggressive media campaign, to making both the players and mascots more “fan friendly.”

Rather than waiting to implement a new ticket pricing structure with the start of a new season, the Pirates immediately slashed prices across the board. The new prices reduced nearly 4,000 seats in the 6,733-seat arena from $11 to $6, hearkening back to the team’s first season in Maine. Youth ticket prices went down while the definition of a “youth” went up from 12 to 16 years old. Adults and senior prices also went down by $1 in the Main Deck.

“On the pricing side of it, what we have done, once and for all, is eliminate price and economics as a barrier to entry,” Petrovek said. “We feel, with such dramatic moves on the ticket end, there’s no reason why any member of this community can’t attend a Pirates’ game.”

Season ticket holders in 2004-2005 will be the biggest winners, with seats in the newly named “Crow’s Nest” reduced $100 ˆ nearly one-third less than the cost for the same seats during the current season. “Main Deck” season ticket holders with children will also see a substantial savings for their youngsters. Youth tickets in the arena’s premier sections will be reduced from $300 for a full-season package to just $199.

“What it’s also going to do is change the atmosphere for our team. We all know what its like to be in that building when it’s full,” Petrovek continued. “We all know what it was like when championships were won. We also know what home ice advantage can do for our club.”

In an era when players move up and down between the AHL and the National Hockey League on a weekly basis, the Pirates are attempting to make the team’s players less anonymous, another item cited by the survey’s respondents. To do so, they’ve further increased their already considerable community efforts. After a three-games-in-three nights set this past weekend, the players took a turn skating with the fans following a hard-fought Sunday afternoon game with the visiting Philadelphia Phantoms. Following the open skate, fans were invited to join the players at a reception at a new sports bar and restaurant located just steps from the back door of the Civic Center. Two days later, the players modeled clothes from area retailers as part of the team’s annual “Evening with the Pirates” charity fundraiser.

From in-game promotions to post-game events, the organization is striving to make “Hockey Night in Portland” a phrase that carries extra weight. After doing away with much of the pre-game hoopla from earlier seasons, the organization has reintroduced spotlighted introductions of the starting lineup. Head coach Tim Army is interviewed briefly in-arena following the first period of each home game, and Pirates’ radio broadcaster Dave Ahlers and injured defenseman Nolan Yonkman address the crowd during the second intermission with notes on players or strategies to the game.

The team’s three stars of the game are also interviewed over the PA system, and players meet with fans in the building lobby following every game. Even the team’s gruff mascot Salty Pete will undergo an extreme makeover in an attempt to make the bedraggled buccaneer a little more “huggable.”

Among the most noticeable initiatives is the team’s sustained media blitz. The print, television and radio initiative kicked off the “comeback campaign” with a variety of advertisements featuring Pirates’ players in prominent roles. It is yet another effort to reconnect fans with the team.

“As we analyzed the data, it led to some very important conclusions, the most important being that there is so much support in this community for professional hockey,” Petrovek said. “We hope that the community and the marketplace understand how significant that is to us in terms of the aggressive position we have taken.”

The impact has been immediate. A near-capacity crowd of 6,323 packed the venerable Civic Center as the Pirates took on their border rival, the Manchester Monarchs, in an important division match-up. It was the first home game after the team announced its new marketing plan. Since that time, crowds have remained well above the team’s season average. With just four home games remaining and the team battling for entrance into the Calder Cup 2004 Playoffs, the off-ice enthusiasm will continue to be tied to the team’s on-ice fortunes.

“One of the major reasons we’ve done this now is because we feel so good about our club, in spite of some of its recent struggles,” Petrovek said. “We’ve watched how it’s developed and how disciplined and focused it has become on defense, and at the end of the day, defense wins championships.”