Success is a funny old thing. It can take many forms, some more obvious than others. And what is a success to one person, can be a failure to another.
I’ve been prompted to write this by a discussion I recently had on Twitter. It began when I mentioned that I felt that the Cardiff Devils are the exemplar of how to successfully market a club. Rather predictably, there were those who felt that I was wrong in stating this. The discussion became a back-and-forth about what does and does not constitute a “success”.
So, let us have a look at why I consider the Devils a success, and the responses to this that would claim otherwise.
If you go back 6 seasons, to 2012-2013, Cardiff were playing out of their temporary rink, affectionately known as the “Big Blue Tent”. They were averaging a crowd of 1,459, in a building that held roughly 2,300 spectators. That is an occupancy of 63.4%. They were firmly “middle of the pack”
By 2016-2017, they had moved into their shiny new home, the Ice Arena Wales (IAW from here on). They had increased their average attendance to 2,970 in a building that holds 3,000. That is an occupancy of 99%. Last season they managed to up this to 2,986, or 99.5%. Impressive, right?
Not according to one commentator. Apparently, this was “struggling, and moreover worrying” by “any definition”. Pardon? Filling 99% of all available seats for all available games is “struggling”? And “worrying”, too? Now, call me odd, but this makes no sense. Most clubs in the UK (or even the NHL) would consider in essence playing to capacity crowds for every home game a success. And not just a success, but a major one at that. The reasoning? Well, it made little sense. The person seemed to think that being so close to capacity was somehow having a negative impact on the club. I don’t actually understand their argument for this, as like I said, it makes no sense. Apparently filling a 3,000 seat venue to capacity isn’t a success, only filling a larger one is. (Funnily enough, the commentator who made these claims supports a team who rarely fill their own building much above 65%, but that is a success according to them. Like I said, it makes no sense)*
You see, I would strongly argue that the Cardiff Devils have the best marketing of any hockey club in the UK, bar none. Their social media presence is incredibly professional. Far more so than the majority of clubs. As a club they have clearly grasped the importance of a strong, easily identifiable social media presence as being core to spreading brand awareness.
Their local promotion also seems to be highly effective. Afterall, if they didn’t promote the club in and around Cardiff, then 3,000 people wouldn’t just spontaneously show up each week. People need to know that the club exists. And having a high profile sponsor in the shape of Peacocks doesn’t exactly harm. Peacocks is a national chain of value clothing stores, a bit like Primark but with a more focussed range, and less chaos. And not only do they sponsor the Devils, but you can buy Devils merchandise in the Cardiff branch of Peacocks. Now, I think I’m right in saying that the Devils are the only club in the UK with any kind of presence in a major high street retailer. And that is another indicator of the clubs success, in my estimation.
Now, there are those who seem to believe that these factors are either wrong, or inconsequential, as when I asked a wider audience to define success, with reference to the Devils, quite a few responded with “Well, it’s the free ice time, innit? Gives them more money to pay players”. And it does. You can’t deny that. But to claim it is the sole, or main reason is laughable. Free ice time doesn’t put bums on seats. Marketing does. Free ice time doesn’t attract sponsors. Marketing, and thus brand awareness, does.
Cardiff have created a “perfect storm” for their success. Great performances on ice, solid recruitment, a stunning venue, and exemplary marketing are allowing the club to cement itself as one of the marquee names in the sport once more. And I truly believe that other clubs should sit down with them and discuss their marketing strategies, see what advice and inspiration they can take from them. If all the clubs, and leagues in the UK worked as hard as Cardiff, and aimed to achieve a similar standard of professionalism (yes, even NIHL clubs. Good marketing doesn’t need to cost the earth), then surely everyone would benefit, right?
*Now, before you think I’m just criticising this fan and his club (Sheffield Steelers), let me state that the fact that they have increased attendances at their building by 35% in the last 7 years is impressive. But not as impressive as having a sell out for pretty much every home game. Not by a long chalk.