Ottawa Senators shooting to win over millennial fans

Senators
Ottawa Senators chief operating officer Nicolas Ruszkowski and chief marketing officer Aimee Deziel. Photo by Mark Holleron.

In a Q&A with OBJ, new Ottawa Senators chief operating officer Nicolas Ruszkowski and chief marketing officer Aimee Deziel discuss the NHL franchise’s efforts to attract a broader audience to the Canadian Tire Centre.

What do you see as your key priorities for marketing the Senators?

NR: The first big thing was that from a marketing and sales perspective, we had made the mistake for the first 25 years of the franchise of treating a hockey game and a ticket to a hockey game like a commodity. We lost sight of the fact that it was an experience, it was a reason to believe in the community.

The business operation had also been very reactive to events. There was very little resembling a coherent plan to move us in one direction. The third big need that sort of emerged in my analysis was for the Ottawa Senators to take back some of their own mojo, pride, confidence, pride of place.

We’re open for business. We are going to be very unapologetically aggressive about an ambitious B-to-B strategy that’s designed not to get us sponsors, because that’s too passive and doesn’t demand anything from us, but how to we build partnerships with businesses.

AD: We want to create a world-class, downtown experience in the building we have now so that when we’re moving (to LeBreton Flats), we’re worthy of that station in our city. It’s going to take us some time to get there, and I think we’ll all feel a lot more confident knowing that we’re already providing a really fantastic experience in Kanata until we get into a downtown (arena).

I think in order to move towards a downtown stadium, we’re going to need much stronger business ties with our partners. We have to create connections. We have some disconnection currently with our brand, but more importantly with our players. We have a brand-new roster of players, and some of them are getting known faster than others, like Brady Tkachuk. As an organization, we owe it to our fans to create connections between them as players and our fans, so that they know more about who these guys are.

Senators Lebreton
A rendering of the proposed new stadium for the Ottawa Senators at LeBreton Flats.

NR: We’re a 1.5-million person version of Green Bay, of the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Regina, etc. That’s what I think our sweet spot is, and if we can get to the point where we rely more on our small-town values and culture to relate to people and less on the big-city sort of, we’ve got a nice, rational, cold business, we’ll be better off.

AD: We understand that we need to do a better job of appealing to a much wider audience. I think our organization needs to modernize in a whole bunch of ways. It needs to modernize in terms of the way that we market to people. It needs to modernize in terms of the way that we are putting on our in-game experience.

You will see investments into equipment and lighting and creative thought behind our in-game experience. We also need to modernize in terms of how we view our fan base. I think we viewed the fan base as being very male and being older. We know that females consume hockey; I’m a female and I love hockey. We know females play a huge role in terms of fandom, in terms of purchase decisions for families and businesses.

"We need to do a better job of appealing to a much wider audience."

And kind of broadening that fan base in terms of age as well. Younger people have a greater affinity to us because they were here at our inception. We need to provide better experiences for them. So we’re looking at how do address the transportation issue while we’re out in Kanata. Many millennials don’t own cars ​– they rely on ride-sharing primarily. How do we put programs together to make ride-sharing easier a​t getting to and from our games? The Molson Fan Deck is an amazing social experience ​– it’s basically like a club, a bar. We have a DJ, there’s a big bar in the centre, everybody’s standing, they’re socializing, there’s a bar rail. We currently have some of those experiences; we need to add more of them.

Music, we’re looking at new partner. It’s a huge part of a our in-game experience even though it may not seem that way. Parking and music are incredibly resonant with our fan base. This year we’ve reduced our prices of parking. I don’t want to make too many promises, but I know there are efforts in place looking at how we can get people out of the parking lots faster. All of those things are on the table for us right now, and I think you’ll see some interesting, fun things happen over the next year in terms of making those pain points a little less painful.

We need to have some fun. There’s almost a very apologetic vibe in the building right now. We’re so quiet and it’s so serious. Hockey is a serious business, don’t get me wrong, but everyone wants to leave the arena and say, ‘Wow, no matter (whether the Sens won or lost), I had fun.’ I think we’ve just lost sight of that a little bit in terms of energy and the opportunity to kind of do things a little bit differently. I think we’ve fallen into a little bit of a rut.

We might come up with some crazy ideas. On the first night, we dropped illuminated beach balls from the roof and people were playing with them. We’ve never done it in Ottawa before. We got a lot of great feedback from it; we got some feedback that wasn’t so great. But I think ultimately what I’m hoping fans are going to start to realize is we’re going to try some things that we’ve never tried before.

Canadian Tire Centre
The Ottawa Senators' current home, the Canadian Tire Centre.

What do you see your partnerships with businesses looking like?

NR: I’ll give you a tangible example of how certain partnerships have worked really well. We just signed the Hard Rock casino as a partner. The partnership comes alive where in exchange for Hard Rock’s investment, the team makes an investment ​– a capital investment in radically transforming square footage in the arena into a much more premium, social gathering place that doesn’t have the constraints of hockey seating, that feels a lot more like a bar and a lounge and becomes a place where you have a good time.

The reason that kind of partnership works is because at the end of the day, they’ve made their investment, we’ve made our investment, we benefit from it and they benefit from it. We already know that over the first four games of the year, they’ve almost doubled the revenue in that space and they’re tracking to exceed the revenue of the Molson Fan Deck on a piece of square footage that’s roughly a third (the size).

The Ottawa Redblacks have a huge hit with fans since the CFL’s return to Ottawa. What can you learn from their marketing approach?

AD: In terms of that party atmosphere, I think starting to look at that younger generation. I think by virtue of their location they automatically attracted a younger audience. They needed to be reactive to that and make sure they were feeding the beast, so to speak. I think that we haven’t fed the beast because we haven’t done a great job of attracting that target audience yet.

The other thing the Redblacks have done well is their merchandise mix. What I like about what they’ve done with their merchandise mix is they’ve looked at trends from a fashion perspective; plaid was very trendy and they’ve picked up on it. We haven’t been as proactive in terms of looking at fashion trends.

And then lifestyle. I think we’ve done a great job of creating a jersey culture, but in terms of wearing Sens merchandise and wearing your Senators pride in other areas of your life, we haven’t made that very easy with our current merchandise mix. We definitely need to look at, what does our merchandise mix look like so that it’s more attractive to women, to children, to men.

We’re not looking at it as a pair of mittens ​– we’re looking at it as how does that allow you to show your spirit in ways that are relevant to you? I feel they’ve done a great job and we will be learning from their efforts.