Q&A: Chicago Blackhawks President on Challenges of Branding a Winner

The novelty of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres battling to a shootout during a snowstorm at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium last season attracted the biggest crowd to ever attend a National Hockey League game (71,217). The event also attracted one of the biggest TV audiences for a league game last season. John McDonough, who was hired last November as president of the Chicago Blackhawks (after serving as chief marketer for Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs), watched the game. He was struck by the “once in a lifetime” feel and decided to pull his team and fan base into a historic event. Several conversations later, the league decided to stage the NHL Winter Classic 2009 on New Year’s Day at Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs.

Yesterday, under a hot July sun, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Blackhawks players (past and present), stepped inside a makeshift ice rink spanning from left field to right field to promote the game between the Blackhawks and the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Redwings.

NBC will promote the game for several weeks, leading to the telecast. Sponsors have yet to be finalized. (Amp Energy beverage was the title sponsor last season.) But for McDonough and the Blackhawks, nailing the Winter Classic is the offseason culmination of several outreaches to bring back fans that have been alienated by a team that did not televise home games, had a roster of unfamiliar players and one that didn’t make the playoffs since 2002. (Next season all 82 games will be televised for the first time through a deal with Comcast SportsNet and WGN.) The Blackhawks recruited legends Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito to be ambassadors. Brandweek senior reporter Mike Beirne caught up with McDonough to discuss his game plan.

Brandweek: When you stepped into this job what did you see as your biggest marketing challenge? Was it brand awareness; was it relevance with the fan base?
John McDonough: That is such a multidimensional answer. Before we became relevant we had to dissipate the anger that was there. The fan base was furious for the most part. So we had to get them curious and interested. Really, the only way we see this going forward — and the ultimate goal — is to win. We don’t anticipate out-marketing anybody or outselling our way to prominence. We’re going to have to win. We’re thrilled with the recent pickup of (goalie Christobal) Huet and (defenseman) Brian Campbell. That’s going to be terrific, but off the ice we have assembled what I think will be one of the premier front offices in all of sports.

BW: To dissipate the anger, was that where the TV contract and the former player ambassadors came in?
JM: It would have been very difficult to go forward if we didn’t have a relationship with the greatest players that ever played. They are the pillars of our franchise. Not to have the majority of your home games on television, it somewhat alienated our fans. They wanted to see the product. Probably a watershed moment was a conversation I had with Bobby Hull on the second day I was on the job (Hull had a falling out with the previous ownership and left the Blackhawks in 1972 for the fledgling World Hockey Assn.). There were pretty tough things that were said and pretty tough things I had to listen to. I did all the listening but when we were done, I asked Bobby in light of all of that, do we have a chance to move forward? And he said, absolutely.

BW: The Blackhawks have a marketing affiliation with the White Sox too. Was U.S. Cellular Field considered for staging this game?
JM: We talked to everybody. We talked to U.S. Cellular Field, Soldier Field. For the Bears, Jan. 1 falls on a Thursday. They could have a playoff game potentially on Saturday and wouldn’t be able to turn the field around fast enough. We understood that. We talked to the folks at U.S. Cellular and for a variety of reasons, it wouldn’t work for them. But they were all very receptive and understood the international flavor of what this event is going to be and if it weren’t for the Cubs and the relationship that we have, this game wouldn’t be here. For me today it’s like a homecoming. Just to come back here at Wrigley Field and stand out here, it’s very emotional. It’s surreal.

BW: One of your Cub marketing strategies was hiring senior citizens to be ushers so visitors would feel like they were stepping into a vintage baseball stadium. What’s on tap for enhancing the game experience at the United Center (home stadium for the Blackhawks)?
JM: Certainly we want the United Center to be the friendliest place during the winter. It’s the home of the Blackhawks and the Chicago Bulls. We’re building our staff. We’re going to be striving for excellence in every aspect of our franchise and the game experience certainly is one area. We want the United Center to be friendly, inviting and for people there to see winning hockey. Going forward there is going to be a Blackhawks way of doing things.