This article was initially published to Pucknology.net on April 21, 2016
For the San Jose Barracuda, Fan Appreciation Day could not have gone any better. It goes beyond their big 6-0 victory on Sunday over their closest regional rival. It even goes further than clinching a playoff spot on the last game of the season. The Barracuda had their biggest win of the season for something they desperately needed more than anything — they won new fans.
In the inaugural season of AHL hockey in the Bay Area, there has been a laundry list of issues to gripe about. The marketing team has completely failed on every level to promote the brand, resulting in measly crowds of 800-1600 per night. The presentation team has shown a lack of hockey knowledge and experienced major growing pains. The sales group has been instructed not to sell tickets and saw every single one of its account representatives either be let go or leave the organization during the season. The media department has even seen part-time color commentator David Maley say on live radio, “I don’t pay any attention to the team when I’m not doing the broadcasts.” So when the Barracuda social media pages promoted, “Exclusive Prizes and much more,” leading up to Fan Appreciation Day, it was pretty easy to take that with a grain of salt, given the promotional track record of both the Barracuda and their parent team, the San Jose Sharks.
Boy, did they flip the script.
From the moment fans walked into the SAP Center on Sunday, there was a completely different vibe than usual. The most noticeable difference was that the Barracuda drew their largest crowd — estimated at 6,000 — since opening night (which was the only game the team reported a legitimate attendance total for). It might be the first time I have ever been happy to stand in line for concessions, just seeing that a healthy amount of people finally came out for a game.
Several tables were set up by the North entrance for various promotional activities, including the giveaways of the popular orange alternate game-worn jerseys. There were about a dozen available to choose from by raffle and many more to bid on in silent auction, with the opportunity to get the jerseys directly from the players on-ice after the game (exactly like how the Sharks have done).
It all sounds like what you would expect from a typical “fan appreciation” game, but it did not stop there.
After a ceremony to commemorate Barracuda center Ryan Carpenter as the recipient of the Yanick Dupre Memorial Award for his outstanding contributions to the community, the team then honored their hands-down most-loyal fan “Cuda Phil” Casella, who dropped the ceremonial first puck at center ice.
During the first media stoppage of the game, a fan won a prize pack just a few rows in front of where I sat. Then another fan won one in the next stoppage. Then another in the next. And another. Then two more. And another. And they just.. kept.. coming! The prize packs varied, but consisted of mass combinations of Barracuda bobbleheads, t-shirts, beach towels, scarves, other small freebies, and a jersey. Not “just” a blank replica jersey like what one could win at a Sharks game. These were authentic, fully-customized jerseys (apparently game-worn) and they were included in every single prize pack.
The first intermission saw what I consider as my personal favorite game – center-ice jousting. Normally, this prize is two general admission tickets to a future Barracuda game. For this day, the winner walked away with $100 worth of Barracuda merchandise.
More fans were honored during the game, including Marlon Stewart, a 12-year-old with a rare disease, who is considered as the Barracuda’s “first fan,” and Will MacNeil, one of the fans in the section 109 group who started the wacky Barracuda goal dance that has caught fire with fans over the second half of the season. They were also presented with prize packs.
Oh yes, there was the game, as well. The Barracuda came out on a mission to dominate. Wingers Barclay Goodrow and Jeremy Langlois each scored 88 seconds apart as the Barracuda had a 2-0 lead less than seven minutes into the game. Goaltender Aaron Dell had a 41-save shutout, though it may have been the easiest 41-save shutout that you will ever see. In fact, things went so right for the team cloaked in orange and black that every member of the Barracuda lineup was at least plus-1 on the stat sheet.
After all of this excitement, perhaps the moment of the game occurred with under one minute remaining. If you are unfamiliar with Alex Gallant, he is a left wing who has become a fan-favorite after supplanting Frazer McLaren as the team’s top gladiator. His role as a pure fighter was so apparent that the running gag for some time was whether he would have a shot on goal this season (he finished with seven). With fans getting set to cheer on the final 30 seconds of the regular season, center Jordan Sims won an offensive zone faceoff straight to Gallant, who sniped in a shot and popped Heat goalie Nick Schneider‘s bottle cleanly off the top of the net. The fans went into complete hysteria. It was Gallant’s first goal and point in his 27-game AHL career to go with his 122 penalty minutes. What a moment.
— @Jon_Allred April 18, 2016
The Barracuda cannot afford to do promotions this grand over the long-run. Even if they are owned by an NHL team, they still operate on a minor league budget. Plus, prizes should not be the primary reason for fans to attend games. However, you must find a way to get fans in the building and keep them there. A lot of fans walked away with a lot of merchandise on Sunday. For a team that has struggled so mightily this season to establish their brand, the Barracuda can finally say that they marketed themselves perfectly. They showed true appreciation to the fans and if business operations continue to move in this direction, it will not be long before that appreciation is reciprocated.