When the Ottawa Senators host the Arizona Coyotes at Canadian Tire Centre on Thursday night, there will be plenty of attendance-related jokes on social media wondering if the game is being played in a Canadian market or at the Coyotes’ home rink in Glendale, Ariz.
The Senators have plummeted to the bottom of the league in attendance during the 2019-20 campaign, averaging just over 12,000 fans per game. Thursday’s contest against the Coyotes will struggle to crack the 10,000 mark.
The sparsely attended games in Ottawa have led to the Senators being a punchline for many hockey fans who used to save those attendance-related zingers for franchises like the Coyotes, Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers.
With the spectre of another poorly attended game on the horizon, the club’s new CEO, Jim Little, made his first public appearances on Wednesday, granting interviews to Bell Media properties in Ottawa.
Little – who has officially been on the job since Jan. 10 – is well aware of the stigma surrounding the franchise.
“As I’ve said to the owner, it’s a small business that has a big brand problem. It’s not that complicated. The fix is right in front of us and it’s going to be a lot of hard work to fix,” Little told TSN 1200. “The one big fix we have to make, is our season ticket base is very low. We’re amongst the lowest in the league. Number one, over time, we have to get the fan base back. And that’s not a quick fix.”
If it were a quick fix in Ottawa, one of Little’s predecessors from the past couple of seasons – either Nicolas Ruszkowski or Tom Anselmi – would still hold their senior management position. Instead, instability has been a common theme in the Senators front office as they continue to seek ways to re-engage the fan base.
As a private company, the Senators aren’t compelled to release their internal revenue information, but a conservative estimate would place their season ticket base in the neighbourhood of 4,000. That means, on a nightly basis, the Senators need to move an inventory of roughly 14,000 single-game tickets – a tall order for a small-market team.
The concern in Ottawa is that the rage and anger that was palpable in the marketplace 12 months ago has evaporated into apathy. It’s Little’s job to resuscitate interest in a franchise that has alienated a large portion of its fan base.
“You need to understand the fan base, the customer base and where we’re falling short,” said Little. “Frankly, over the last few years there have been some areas where – as every company goes through – you lose sight of the customer. My first and foremost job is to get the customer back.”
The business community in Ottawa has clearly lost faith in the direction of the organization, with the decreased season ticket numbers serving as tangible evidence of the disconnect.
Many local retailers and shops have shied away from renewing or purchasing season tickets, not wanting to align themselves with a distressed entity that has languished near the bottom of the league standings in each of the past three seasons.
“It’s the local corporate community that has kind of put us on pause, vis-à-vis the season tickets,” Little admitted. “We need to go out and get that business community back.”
To that end, Little is going to be pounding the pavement himself, shaking hands and trying to close deals with reluctant corporate leaders. With a wealth of experience for RBC and Shaw Communications, Little prides himself on being an honest, communicative dealmaker.
While he’s worked his magic on a national level on Bay Street in Toronto, the questions linger over whether he can duplicate that success on Bank Street in Ottawa.
“I will become the face of the franchise. It’s not a role that I’m seeking, but it’s a role that I’m told is required,” he admitted.
Perhaps Little’s toughest challenge will be to bridge the chasm between a skeptical business community, a restless fan base and team owner Eugene Melnyk. Many have pointed the finger directly at the owner, placing sole responsibility on his shoulders for the disastrous run the club has been enduring for the past couple of seasons.
Little said he’s had several private dinners with Melnyk, where the owner has indicated that he wants to rebuild the faith within the fan base.
“He is a passionate guy. He’s a successful business guy who is impatient with failure. He’s asked me to come between that story and the city and reconnect,” Little said of Melnyk. “The owner has asked me to do a specific job. He knows where we are. We know what we’ve done to put us in this situation and we’re going to rebuild it.”
Little described the senior management structure with the Senators as a triangle – where he is in charge of the business side of the organization and Pierre Dorion oversees the hockey operations – with both men reporting directly to Melnyk.
He currently schedules a weekly meeting with Dorion to ensure the two are constantly on the same page.
“We have agreed to never be disconnected,” Little said of his relationship with the general manager.
It’s interesting to note the Senators have hired PJ Loyello to serve as the club’s senior vice-president of communications, in an effort to improve relations with the local media and broadcast partners.
Loyello worked directly for Jeffrey Loria with the Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins for almost two decades, giving him an intimate knowledge of working in challenging situations.
With two seasoned communications professionals in Little and Loyello, the Senators appear to be poised to unveil a polished and targeted marketing plan in the months ahead.
“To be a little self-critical, we really haven’t had a plan. We’ve been fighting fires and been kind of running around,” says Little. “Brands and business and marketing come from planning.”
To that end, much of the Sens new marketing campaign will be rolled out in the summer – with the 2020 NHL Draft playing a significant role in the direction. If the club should happen to land Alexis Lafreniere with the No. 1 overall pick, it stands to reason that a significant portion of the marketing will revolve around him.
There is talk of the club re-introducing the old 2-D logo from the 1990s in an effort to reconnect with millennial fans who grew up with an affinity for that look on the sweater. The Sens will also try and reduce beer prices at the concession stands and have more themed nights inside the Canadian Tire Centre in an effort to liven up a stale atmosphere.
For an organization that has endured a number of controversies over the past two seasons, Little is trying to rekindle the passion for pure hockey in this market – remembering that fans are not interested in soap-opera storylines that extend beyond the ice.
“They don’t want drama. They want an on-ice product that makes them excited,” Little says of Sens fans. “We have to remember that people go to work and then want us to be as their after-work release. They want it to be pure fun.”
Over the past couple of seasons, the Senators have bandied about a number of marketing slogans and taglines that have been met with skepticism in the marketplace – whether it was ‘Ottawa Rising’, ‘Unparalleled Success’ or ‘The Kids Are Alright.’
Little, however, didn’t want to tip his hand for a future tagline or slogan for the hockey club in the fall of 2020.
He said the top priority was to re-establish a healthy dialogue and trust with the fan base.
“And then we’ll come up with a tagline,” he said.