Hockey / Sports

In land of Bulls and Bears, Blackhawks' popularity surges

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bears introduced their newest player courtesy of the NFL draft Thursday as fans mustered hope for a more promising season ahead.

The Cubs, meanwhile, are slogging through another apparently fruitless season, and the White Sox again are underdogs in their division.

The Bulls, of course, have already been sent home after a dismal NBA playoff exit.

That takes us to the Blackhawks.

Apparently, Chicago sports fans are already there.

On the eve of Game 4 in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the team's pursuit of a second straight championship has captivated the city.

The Blackhawks face the Wild on Tuesday night in Minnesota, and a new legion of fans will certainly be tuned in.

The team that was once the most anonymous in the city among the giants of the Bears, Bulls and baseball teams is now the second most popular behind the Bears. In fact, the Blackhawks are the only team in town that gained fans this year with an all-time high 47 percent fan rating, according to data released last week by Scarborough Research.

The bump from 32 percent last season indicates more than 1 million people became new Blackhawks fans.

Since 2007, when just 8 percent of Chicagoans surveyed watched, listened to or attended a game, the fan base has skyrocketed. In 2009, the season before they claimed a Stanley Cup championship for the first time in 49 years, their rating was still a lackluster 16 percent.

"Overall a rise like that is really pretty unprecedented," said Bill Nielsen from Scarborough Research. "For the No. 3 media market, even approaching half the market is impressive. To have a hockey team at No. 2 in any market is pretty rare."

Nielsen's research found only one instance where a hockey team had a higher percentage of fans than an NFL team in the same city. In 2003, the Red Wings (58 percent) surpassed the Lions (49 percent).

Winning obviously has a way of multiplying fans. The Blackhawks are aiming at a third Stanley Cup championship in five seasons.

Nielsen said the data annually reflects the previous year's team success.

"This is just a simple what-have-you-done-for-me-lately," he said. "The best, hottest, most successful team in the city has been the Blackhawks."

Still the year-over-year increase is a sign to the Blackhawks that they're doing something right.

But the team's structural organization, marketing, increased media presence, relatable players and fan outreach also are credited for the rise in popularity, according to the team's top brass.

"We said in 2007 we wanted to be relevant because we weren't relevant," Blackhawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz said. "You've got to build relationships. From relationships, you get trust.

"First, fans were curious. Then we were able to get people watching. ... Now we have word of mouth. 'You go to the United Center, you'll have a good time and you're treated well."

The Blackhawks' rise has been steady and substantial:

They have led the NHL in average attendance each of the last six seasons.

They led American NHL teams in average television audience this season with about 159,000 viewers per game.

All nine playoff games this season have been the top-watched program of any kind in the Chicago market on the day the game was aired, according to the Blackhawks.

The Hawks ranked highest among all Chicago teams and 14th out of 122 overall in an ESPN The Magazine annual ranking of fan satisfaction. Just six seasons ago, they ranked 118th among all major professional teams.

A cohesive collaboration between the hockey and business side of the organization is the less obvious catalyst behind the numbers, said Blackhawks President John McDonough, who served in the same function for the Cubs at the end of his 24 years on the North Side.

"One side doesn't weigh more than the other," he said. "If everyone is fully invested and fully committed, that's the best approach."

The Blackhawks strive to make their players accessible to media and the public, and they're always promoting the brand. The players, who mostly live in the city rather than suburbs, are required to wear their hats facing forward and encouraged to use reporters' names and be prepared for interviews.

All the pieces fit, McDonough said.

"I think the players are very relatable," he said. "They're very respectable. It's just the system that we have in place. (Coach) Joel Quenneville is a force of nature. He's a great face for that hockey team. It's a very healthy organization."

Wirtz said players on the current roster used to have to wait in line for tables at local restaurants. Now they're recognized and stopped for autographs nearly everywhere they go in the city.

"You walked around the city or if you went to O'Hare, you'd never see a Blackhawks emblem," he said. "Now it can be 90-degree weather on Michigan Avenue, you see people walking around in Blackhawks gear."

The Scarborough Research report, which is released every six months, showed other Chicago sports teams declined in fans. The Bears dropped slightly to 59 percent, as did the Cubs to 44 percent. The Bulls were down to 44 percent, and the White Sox dipped to 37 percent to finish last among the big five in the city.

"If you look at those numbers over the years they certainly move up and down based on winning," White Sox senior vice president of communications Scott Reifert said. "It would make tons of sense with the Blackhawks having the year they've had and two Stanley Cup championships, and hopefully a third. It's not like it's a net 100 percent. We could all go up. That would be the best case."

Does Reifert believe that the Sox's numbers will rise?

"Yes, and in '06 (after the World Series win) when they took a snapshot we were as high as we've been. I think we were tied for second, or right around second in the city. So those numbers bounce up and down. I certainly think we're rising."

Cubs spokesman Julian Green did not respond to a request for an interview.

Could the Blackhawks one day surpass the Bears?

McDonough says he is more interested in keeping the Blackhawks from returning to their gloomier days of "indifferent" fans.

"People were very dubious and skeptical that this could happen," he said. "We have to make sure it never goes back to that. We just can't take any of this for granted. We have to use this to springboard to greater heights."

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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