It is hard to fully assess the success or failure of a sports brand after only one season. The feeling-out process is still ongoing and can take extra time in a market as saturated as San Jose is with entertainment options for both families and individuals. One thing is becoming quickly apparent, however. It is puzzling that the San Jose Barracuda are not putting themselves into a position to grow as a brand or as an option for people to choose in their social ventures. Their lack of direction is evident and people can see right through it.
Even with only seven months to plan before the inaugural season, the Barracuda had the benefit of witnessing a successful sports business model right in their own back yard and, for one reason or another, chose not to run with a similar blueprint. For nearly 30 years, the San Jose Giants, the high-A affiliate of Major League Baseball’s San Francisco Giants, have built a strong fan base using well-strategized advertising and promotions. In this, they do exactly what every minor league sports franchise needs in order to survive — they draw in the casual fans to fill their stadium, regardless of the cost. Therein lies the biggest failure of the Barracuda through season one — knowing the market.
Last season, Barracuda management seemed to assume that “because it’s more hockey,” that would be the main drawing factor to bring in fans. Ticket sales were abysmal no matter what level of minor league sport being played. Sure, the average listed attendance for games was 4,432. If one was present for a game, though, it would be immediately apparent that sliding the decimal point to the left would calculate a much more accurate reflection of the actual turnout. When the December 12 matinee game drew approximately 1,600 in attendance, at that time it was their largest crowd to date, aside from opening night. Attendance was so poor throughout the inaugural season that just two weeks later, the Barracuda and Charlotte Checkers played to a crowd of around 330. No, folks. This was not supposed to be the “empty-arena” game that the Checkers played later in the season, but it may as well have been.
One can almost always find free tickets to San Jose Giants games and going about it is not tremendously difficult. Their management recognizes that while the team may lose revenue on overall ticket sales, getting people into the ball park is the top priority. Then they allow the product to sell itself. Most of the team’s income is brought in through their bevy of concessions, promotions, and activities. The philosophy has worked, as the Giants have consistently brought in thousands of fans for games and occasionally surpassing the stadium capacity of 4,200 depending on the promotion. Granted that the gameday operations costs at SAP Center easily exceed those of San Jose Municipal Stadium, but when the Barracuda are trying to build their brand from scratch, the number one focus should be on putting butts in the seats. You cannot earn a profit if nobody attends your games. Just get them in.
Low-end prices for tickets were actually not bad for Barracuda games. Fans could get in for $12 at the door and still sit in the upper ends of the lower bowl. On one hand, it was a pretty nice bargain compared to paying seven times that amount for the same seats at Sharks games. Still, when you consider how illogical the rest of the seating grid was, it is not too surprising that people did not flock to games on their own accord. Why would anyone want to pay as much as $50 to go to a minor league hockey game when they could spend the same to see the Sharks play?
This, of course, is assuming that people even know that there is a hockey team called the San Jose Barracuda. I am approached every month or two by someone who asks about the San Jose Rhinos, the former successful roller hockey team of the late-90s. In these conversations, the worst that I have heard about the Rhinos is, “Those games were a lot of fun.” The biggest key to that? Most people who tell me this are not hockey fans. Yet, they found immense enjoyment out of going to the games. Typically in these same conversations, people will then ask me if there was a hockey team recently up in San Francisco. Yes, while the Bulls did not leave an overwhelming mark, people at least knew of the brief stint the ECHL had in Daly City. If you ask most residents of San Jose if they have been to a Barracuda game, they will have no idea what the Barracuda are, let alone if they have seen them play. I even know of casual Sharks fans — some who play hockey — that while they at least know of the Barracuda, they have to ask where the Barracuda play. That is a pretty huge sign that the team is not spreading by word-of-mouth around the Bay Area!
Marketing of the team was virtually non-existent and still continues to be to this day. Inexplicably, there have been no television spots to promote the club, nor advertising across local radio stations, except for on KDOW 1220 AM — the radio home for the Barracuda (that I cannot even get a signal for, despite living in San Jose). The Barracuda were almost never mentioned during the Sharks television broadcasts, not even when the team reached the Calder Cup playoffs. As a brand new sports franchise, the Barracuda should have been shoved down everyone’s throats to excruciating levels to ensure that everyone knew about them, whether people wanted to go to games or not. All that the team ended up with was and occasional 1-2 page article in the Sharks magazine, if they were lucky, though no actual promotion to attend games was done after a one-page ad in the October, 2015 issue.
It is not to say that certain individuals have not attempted to promote the Barracuda. In spite of virtually no outside marketing assistance or resources, ticket sales agents pushed hard to connect with folks (when they could actually get people into the building). If you ever saw someone in a suit who was bouncing around from section to section throughout a game, that was a sales agent trying to ensure that their fans were pleased and accommodated for. Efforts were made by these representatives to hold promotional events at schools and group outings with businesses, as well as a partnership with Silver Creek SportsPlex. The team’s work in the community was admirable, with several visits by players to local hospitals, the Barracuda Math Class program, and the ‘Cuda Kids Club.
Yet, as attendance finally started to grow little-by-little into the second half of the season, ticket and group promotions conspicuously halted entirely once agents finally had a few fans to build relationships with. The announcement of the ‘Sharks 365’ program thwarted their efforts. Barracuda representatives were actually told to stop selling Barracuda tickets and focus only on the Sharks. Unfortunately, the sudden flip in business philosophy seemed to reflect similarly to what Nicole Sorce described in her blog series about her 2015 departure from the Portland Pirates. Eventually, all Barracuda ticket sales representatives were let go or quit by the end of the season, without being replaced.
If the organization’s sales efforts are 100% focused on the Sharks, that cannot be so much of a surprise. The Sharks are the big money-maker in town for very obvious reasons. Nonetheless, if there is no active attempt being made to build the Barracuda brand, then why was the farm team moved from Worcester, MA to San Jose in the first place? How are the Barracuda ever expected to draw people to their games when there is no promotion of the team, even to die-hard hockey fans, let alone casual fans?
I had hoped that with Fan Appreciation Day being such a huge hit last season, followed by an immensely-fun playoff viewing party at Stanley’s Sports Bar, and better offseason preparation, this would be the launching point to turn fan development around for the maligned Barracuda. Unfortunately, the changes seen for the upcoming 2016-17 season are still a very mixed bag, some changes of which I have not been able to get an answer for from club representatives.
The seating grid has been restructured beyond row 12 from sections 103 through 113 to become General Admission, as what always should have been. The back five rows of sideline seating may also see a minimal price drop. However, management has incredibly decided to raise ticket prices for all other arena seating for 2016-17, even after the aformentioned attendance calamity. Additionally, some season ticket holders have vocally grumbled that they were forced to relocate their seats to other sections, being ousted by incoming Sharks 365 holders.
Last season, ticket voucher booklets were among many of the promotions recommended by sales representatives that were rejected by upper management. Earlier this week, the Barracuda announced these booklets will now be sold for the upcoming season, allowing fans the freedom to attend games at the last minute without hassle. This may be the smartest thing that the team has done in their 18-month history. Yet, when inquiring about this, I was stunned to find that the Barracuda hotline forwarded me (coincidentally) to my Sharks account representative, who knew absolutely nothing about the booklets, nor any conditions such as blackout dates. I actually had to direct him to where he could find the information on the Barracuda website because he had not been briefed by management about the program.
While apparently the sales group is still yet to be replaced, it appears that the Barracuda are going forward with their plan of having a dedicated street team to venture out into the community. The promotional functions that the account agents ran last season should remain intact. How this will all come together, though, is a bit conflicting. Indications are that the Barracuda marketing budget has been cut by 75% for this season. If that is true, it also virtually guarantees that the Barracuda will again see no attempts made to advertise on major local media outlets.
Using barebones marketing and with no public presence, can the Barracuda survive at this pace? It is tough to decipher what Sharks Sports & Entertainment’s end-game is for the team. If the Sharks simply want the luxury of having a farm club close by, they could have just as easily moved the franchise to Sacramento, who opens a new arena in just a few weeks and is an untested market with plenty of room to grow when it comes to hockey. There must be other motives for why the team has remained in San Jose for a second season but their flawed methods are preventing any goals from being achieved. Why allow Barracuda operations to falter so unjustly? They are a professional hockey team and if they are not presented as such, the general public will never buy in.
It is time to increase the efforts by the organization to make the Barracuda a relevant brand. Advertising needs to be pumped up dramatically. People who genuinely care about the product need to be retained and hold roles that benefit the team in the public eye. The calendar of Frenzy, the mascot, should be completely filled with public appearances that range from visiting schools to stopping by a local McDonald’s restaurant. Most importantly, the Sharks need to publicly acknowledge that this is a team deserving of interest instead of shoving them under the rug. If they do not care about the team, the Barracuda will continue to play home games in a near-empty building.
The Bay Area is predominantly a football and baseball (and bandwagon Warriors) market, but the hockey fans are there and the “feel-good” folks of the Bay Area are receptive to events that are enjoyable, big or small. The Sharks are San Jose’s gem and it shows with their rabid fan base and the continual rise of local hockey programs. The 7,000 fans who attended the Barracuda’s opening night are proof that the interest is there if the organization chooses to tap into it. The games are quite enjoyable and are a good time out for families and groups of friends. Hockey should not fail in San Jose. Yet, with the way things are heading, the Barracuda look like a franchise waiting for the plug to be pulled, because of what they are not doing to help themselves succeed.