One of the big stories this off-season has been the revival of one of the Original Six franchise, the Chicago Blackhawks. Before last season, Rocky Wirtz (son of then owner Bill Wirtz) was informed by the team’s finance department that they needed immediately $34 million to make payroll and start the season. That was quite the wake-up call for Rocky. His father passed away later and Rocky quickly made changes off the ice. He recently told Sports Business Journal, “I knew the Blackhawks brand had a pulse. I just didn’t know how strong it was.”
He first brought in John McDonough, who was the Cubs president at the time, and handed the reins over to McDonough in much of the business decisions. But before he could accept the position, he told Rocky that certain elements would have to be changed off the ice.
WSJ: Did you set any conditions, such as, “I want to see the games on television?”
Mr. McDonough: Without that, in my opinion, we had no chance. I gave him a list of things I thought were critical. There had to be structure. There had to be an ambitious approach.
I walked in on day one and there was no receptionist. Then I said to somebody, I want to see the director of human resources. We don’t have a director of human resources. People say, “Did you start from scratch?” Whatever it is before scratch, that’s where we started.
WSJ: Yet now you talk about building one of the best front offices in sports.
Mr. McDonough: The Blackhawks all of a sudden have been the resume Olympics. There’s a certain type of person I look for: somebody bright, somebody willing to achieve, somebody not concerned about hours. People hearken back to the 16,666 [seats at the former Chicago Stadium] that I fondly remember as a child, being one of the fans standing in the second balcony. This building [the United Center] is 5,000 seats larger. We have a tough task.
As you can see, the team had to turnaround not only its on-ice product, but its personnel as well creating an enormous task for R. Wirtz and McDonough. He then made a smart decision telling the team that the hockey and business operations were to operate as one from now on.
At the end of last season, when we missed the playoffs by three points, we gathered the hockey team and the front office together over a luncheon. The message I sent was, we are no longer going to have a hockey operation and a business operation. There is going to be one Chicago Blackhawks. There is going to be a certain type of player that is going to play…They are going to be congenial. They are going to understand the big picture. We’re not the premier sport in the United States or in Chicago. But if we sign integrity guys and players that understand the media and the importance of developing a relationship with the community, we’re going to get this job done.
I thought his mention about signing players who understand why it’s important for them to talk to the media and be active in the community was key. When you are struggling for attention in a big market like Chicago, you have to give the media a reason to write about you. Creating events like the Blackhawks Convention for fans and a Street Fest for training camp were great ways to get some print during the baseball season.
Last year, the team only had about 3,400 season ticketholders. This season, they have around 14,000 and are considering capping the season ticket amount. Talk about a turnaround. Now the question is if they have made enough changes on the ice to equal their off-ice sucess this year.