The Elbert Files: Making Des Moines a hockey town
Friday, February 14, 2014 7:00 AM
Todd Frederickson faced a formidable challenge last April when he was named president of the newly formed Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League.
The team’s owner, the Minnesota Wild of the National Hockey League, had to quickly find a new home for its minor league franchise when its Texas team lost its lease on Houston’s Toyota Center.
The team chose Des Moines, and Frederickson arrived here on May 15. The first Iowa Wild game was scheduled for Oct. 12, giving him just five months to accomplish a job that usually takes 12 months to 18 months.
His goal for the first year was to put enough bodies in the seats at Wells Fargo Arena to make a respectable showing and convince the Wild’s management team that they’d made the right choice in selecting Des Moines over other Midwestern cities.
They chose Des Moines because they liked Wells Fargo Arena and because of the close ties many Iowans have with Minnesota. Also, with players expected to shuttle between the parent team and the minor league franchise, it didn’t hurt that Des Moines is only a 3 1/2-hour car ride from St. Paul. One disadvantage was that professional hockey had been tried before in Des Moines from 2005 through 2009 with the Iowa Stars and Iowa Chops, and it had failed.
In fact, Frederickson was warned that Des Moines was a basketball and football town. “There was this perception that hockey is a foreign sport,” he said.
But Frederickson embraced the challenge. He’d spent the previous five years in the AHL home office in Springfield, Mass., as league vice president of team business services, helping produce five consecutive years of growth in ticket and corporate sponsorship sales for the entire league. If anybody could teach Des Moines about hockey in five months, it was Frederickson. He hit the ground running, bringing in 13 employees who had already worked for professional teams, including some in the AHL.
“We had a completely different marketing model,” which put a heavy emphasis on ticket sellers, he said. “We kept hearing that being a part of the community was essential and that the previous hockey teams did not do a good job of that.”
He created programs that were two-pronged. First, he would teach the community about hockey. Then, after he had gained people’s attention, he’d get them to an Iowa Wild game, knowing that once fans understood the game and attended a live match, professional hockey would sell itself.
“As people become more comfortable with hockey, they become bigger fans,” Frederickson said.
“Last summer, we invited 80 to 100 business leaders, and we had a luncheon in the locker room. It was standing room only,” he said. “We told them why we would be different.”
In mid-August, he held a “rookie camp” for season ticket holders. More than 900 attended, met the team and skated on the ice. They even rode the Zamboni. In mid-September, the public was invited to a free “green and white” team scrimmage.
The Wild went into elementary and middle schools last fall with a “Wild About Reading” program. More than 5,000 students were given scorecards designed to look like a hockey rink with lines where they could write the name of books they had read.
“It’s like they are going down the ice to score a goal,” Frederickson said. When three books were read, the reward was a free ticket to an Iowa Wild game. Most went with a parent, who, of course, bought another ticket.
The Wild also introduced floor hockey into the physical education programs of 60 area schools, providing sticks and 10 jerseys for each school, creating another connection.
The bottom line: With a third of the Iowa Wild’s first season remaining, average attendance is about 5,900, or about 800 better than the overall AHL average.
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