Photo: Utica Comets
We are in the back half of the American Hockey League (AHL) season, with playoffs up next as the season culminates. “Fan experience” continues to be a buzz word in the sports world. With the minute to minute improvements in technology, this can both enhance and hinder the fan experience that sport teams try to create for the fans.
Media coverage has improved so much, that for some sport leagues that is their main source of revenue. When a game or event is televised, it can be hard to justify trading the comforts of home (complete with expert opinions and views of the event from commentators) to venture out in potentially harsh weather conditions, struggle with traffic and parking, enjoy high-priced concession items and possibly poor customer service. For these reasons we continuously see sport facility upgrades and teams offering behind-the-scenes experiences.
More and more sport facilities are looking to out-do the next (or just to stay competitive), by offering tickets to suites that resemble living rooms, car service, unlimited concessions, etc. Other teams are offering access to the teams via locker room visits, meet and greets, and access to the teams media. In a day in age where we are used to having information at our fingertips, fans have become more accustomed to having access to their favorite players, which is why holding events such as the AHL All-Star classic can be so important to the league.
The 2015 AHL All-Star Classic was held in Utica, New York, the home of the young 18-month old Utica Comets, AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks. The strong fan base of the Utica Comets jumped at the opportunity to attend. Having your hometown as the hub for such a high-profile event, especially for a young team, can be a great way to put a spotlight on your organization. Their geographic accessibility to other teams and fans in the league also drew in a fairly well-rounded, sellout crowd. Teams such as the Syracuse Crunch, Rochester Americans and the Albany Devils are only New York State Thruway stops away. Three players represented the Utica Comets and at the Skills Competition garnished an enthusiastic fan reaction during introductions.
However, a friendly rivalry with the Syracuse Crunch (AHL affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning) who most notably had won in a contest against the Utica Comets at the first ever hockey game played at the Carrier Dome on the campus of Syracuse University (the attendance of 30,715 also set a new United States indoor professional hockey record), also garnered quite the fan reaction. When Vladislav Namestnikov and Jonathan Marchessault of the Syracuse Crunch were introduced they also received possibly the loudest fan reaction of the night – of “boos.” After the event, three-time All-Star Classic participant Marchessault summed it up by saying, “It was fun, those weekends are always fun. It’s fun to meet the other guys. I was happy to be a part of it. It was a good honor.”
As a first time attendee of a sports All-Star Classic, I was especially impressed with how the personalities of the athletes were able to be showcased, along with the fan interaction elements. For the Skills Competition, the players all wore jerseys representative of their home teams, however the competition elements were still categorized by their conference. After the event, the players were accessible to fans for photos and autographs, again creating that connection that fans are unable to receive from watching the event from coverage through a television. Fans requested autographs from players on rival teams, just as many of the rival mascots in attendance joined together for light-hearted stints of air boxing.
Many of the players who are active on social media also were encouraged to have their phones accessible on the bench in order to utilize their social media accounts. The historic Utica Memorial Auditorium, which hosted all the on-ice action, was able to display all of its facility upgrades as well. The utilized their video boards for player interviews and up close action shots.
Its easy to be cynical about professional sports when your team is having a tough season. However sports allow us the opportunity to connect with others and have experiences that can last a life time. Fans having the same experience as you, no matter what your background is in your daily life, can bring strangers together for that emotional moment of connection. Having events such as the AHL All-Star Classic is another way to not only see the most successful players in one place, at one time, but to have that experience with fans of your favorite sport, a sort of fan community, from around the league, even if you are never going to see them again.