Liberté! Equalité! Hocké!

The St. Louis Blues want you back. And this year, they even have Ice Girls!

Oct 11, 2006 at 4:00 am
Despite a busy off-season signing highly skilled free agents, the St. Louis Blues remain a troubled franchise. In the midst of last year's dreadful play, team owner Bill Laurie virtually dismantled the club in an effort to slice payroll. The Blues finished with the worst record in the National Hockey League and missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years.

Dave Checketts, the former Madison Square Garden CEO who purchased the Blues this summer, knew a bold new plan was necessary — a plan that could fix the team and win back the fans, many of whom are still bitter about the 2004-'05 lockout, when not a single game was played. Between the'03-'04 and '05-'06 seasons, attendance plummeted 25 percent.

The team, which last season compiled a dismal 21-46 record (with 15 ties), has adopted a dramatic slogan: "Blue Revolution." And Checketts has drastically revamped the roster, acquiring such players as defenseman Jay McKee, goalie Manny Legace and former Blues Martin Rucinsky and Doug Weight, as well as inking top-flight free agents Radek Dvorak and Bill Guerin. Checketts also brought in a new management team, headed up by popular ex-broadcaster John Davidson as team president and former Anheuser-Busch executive Peter McLoughlin as CEO of St. Louis Blues Enterprises, the club's business arm.

"We have expectations that we'll be able to return to the kind of attendance levels that the team enjoyed in years past," says McLoughlin. "We know that if we provide an entertainment environment here and a good quality product on the ice with the team, the fans will return."

McLoughlin's major focus is on entertainment, which may be a prudent fallback, considering the latest Vegas odds list the Blues as a 500-to-1 shot to win the Stanley Cup. In any case, McLouglin's handiwork will be on display during the October 12 home opener against the Boston Bruins. In addition to providing a new scoreboard and a scrolling LED screen, Blues management is introducing the Ice Girls — young ladies clad in Blues jerseys and long black pants who will scrape the ice during timeouts.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports columnist Kathleen Nelson recently wrote dismissively of the Ice Girls, saying they represent a "lack of reward and respect for women as athletes." But McLoughlin stresses that the Ice Girls are not cheerleaders. "They won't be doing any dancing," he says. "They will be doing the league-required function of scraping around the goal, in front of the penalty boxes and the benches."

New perks for premium-season-ticket holders this year include in-seat waiter service, question-and-answer sessions with coaches and management on off-days, and "skating parties" with the players. Details for the parties are still evolving, but McLoughlin doesn't anticipate fans facing off against Keith Tkachuk. "I don't envision stick and puck," he says.

Long before his purchase of the Blues was finalized on June 30, Checketts and his strategists met with the team's longtime St. Louis marketing firm, Schupp Company, to devise an all-new advertising strategy.

"They wanted to communicate a new vision for the team, energize the city and create a sense of urgency to support the team," explains Mark Schupp, the firm's president.

In recent years fans have seen a number of memorable promotional campaigns. In a 1998 effort to trumpet the skills of team toughs Tony Twist and Kelly Chase, beat-up-looking mannequins dressed in opposing teams' jerseys were plastered across a billboard. Two years later, the "Do You Bleed Blue?" catchphrase was so popular that a local Methodist church and Paul's Bait and Tackle ("Our Bait Bleeds Blue") cribbed it for their marquees. In 2003 the team publicized its ticket-price rollback with a 1950s retro theme.

This season the team launched a viral marketing effort, intended to blur the lines between a corporate and a grassroots advertising campaign. The team hopes to duplicate the buzz created by St. Louis Cardinals radio affiliate KTRS (550 AM) earlier this year. In that campaign, also the brainchild of the Schupp Company, a dozen giant redbirds on billboards around town were "kidnapped." (This was all part of Schupp's plan, though many fans were left scratching their heads in confusion.)

In early July, ersatz homemade banners trumpeting the "Blue Revolution" went up around town, including one at City Hall. Schupp also created a Web site, www, which used a minimalist design aesthetic to make it look like it had been created by a Blues enthusiast. "Every team decision should respect the interests and concerns of the fans," read a section of the site called the "Fanifesto."

"I don't think anybody understands the Blue Revolution marketing concept," observes Post-Dispatch sports columnist Bernie Miklasz. "How is this a revolution? I don't think this rates up there with the overthrow of Somoza in Nicaragua. I don't think it generated much, if any, buzz — so from a marketing standpoint it was kind of a flop."

"I think [the campaign] had a very good start," counters Schupp. But he admits that "some of the wind came out of the sails when [the Blues] increased ticket prices."

The bump in seat costs was announced in mid-July, with the average ticket price rising about 10 percent over last season's. Mezzanine-level cheap seats went from $8 to $13, while the $110 front-row seats, the most expensive in the building, jumped to $120.

McLoughlin concedes that many fans are angry but defends the increase as necessary to keep pace with Checketts' financial investments in the team; he reportedly paid Bill and Nancy Laurie $150 million for the team and the arena lease.

"Last year Blues tickets ranked 27 or 28 out of 30 teams, and we'll still be in the bottom third," McLoughlin says. Last season the Philadelphia Flyers had the NHL's highest average ticket price at $54.81, while the average Blues seat cost $39.92. "Certainly, some of the fans that had stuck with the team were surprised ticket prices went up, but I think most of the fans who expressed that sentiment have come back."

Many season-ticket holders re-upped after the team reversed course in September and dropped some mezzanine-section prices from $13 to $7. The price was chopped after locally based discount brokerage firm Scottrade — which specializes in $7 online stock-market trades — bought the naming rights to the Blues' arena.

In perhaps the most unorthodox move to increase sales, the players themselves were recruited to call potential season-ticket buyers. Team captain Dallas Drake, as well as Barret Jackman, Jamal Mayers, Dan Hinote and Bryce Salvador, sat in the team's sales office and hocked tickets over the phone.

"The reps said, 'How would you feel about talking to Dallas Drake about buying tickets?' and the fans were incredulous," says McLoughlin. "'Dallas Drake isn't really there,' they would say, and then Dallas Drake would pick up the phone. He actually closed quite a few sales."

Miklasz believes the extensive marketing effort is unnecessary.

"I think the team's overall prognosis is very good, and that's why they don't need a schlocky marketing campaign. Checketts is a very engaging guy. And John Davidson is an articulate guy, and his love of the Blues and hockey always comes through when you talk to him. They ought to let their personalities sell the team. I don't think they need the Ice Girls."

Says McLoughlin: "I think Dave Checketts has a very winning attitude and very dynamic approach to business. He's just got a very creative mind, and a creative eye as to how to create an environment enjoyable to the fans."