There’s a certain atmosphere about a hockey rink, starting with the crisp chill of the air surrounding freshly scraped ice. It’s the smell of buttered popcorn and cheap beer. Sharp specific sounds of skates cutting into the ice and pucks ringing off the crossbar.
These rinks are not just places to watch hockey; they are hockey.
Travel about 1,500 miles south of “The Great White North”, and you’ve stumbled upon Southern California. A chill in the air in SoCal means an air-conditioned room and the only thing getting ice time are beverages.
While the NBA’s Lakers and baseball’s Angels have been big SoCal sports draws for years, the Los Angeles Kings’ Stanley Cup wins in 2010 and 2014 caused a significant spike in the popularity of hockey.
Among the factors bolstering hockey’s profile in Southern California is the Ontario Reign, an East Coast Hockey League team that plays at Citizens Business Bank Arena and in its seventh season has a lot more going on than player development, goals-against averages and winning streaks.
The LA Kings affiliate team kicked off its inaugural season in 2008, but while other teams in the league have often failed and folded, the Reign has grown stronger due to its hands-on staff and community outreach.
When team president Justin Kemp – who was hired as the team’s first employee – started creating buzz about the team in the area, he recognized they were putting a product in a non-traditional market that had statistically speaking just seen the worst of the economy crash. Residents of the area had lost homes and money was tight, causing an overall depressing time for a lot of people. Kemp and his team took advantage of that realizing that they could be an escape for those affected by giving them an affordable entertainment product that they could enjoy.
“We kind of coined the phrase, ‘We’ll give you a $100 experience for about $10,’ ” Kemp said. And it worked. “It worked that way because people were able to come in and forget their problems. They were able to experience something that they felt like they were a part of.”
People in the community were able to be a part of naming the team, naming the mascot and attending the logo unveiling. And at this level because player access is everything, they were able to give people in the area more access than at the NHL level, which allowed them to get to know the players. All of this allowed the community to be a part of something really from the ground up.
Working on a small minor league budget can be tough, but Kemp told his staff in order to grow this thing they were going to need to operate this like a major league team. Affordability and access was key but so were professionalism and a high level of customer service that is seen at the major levels.
The Reign’s commitments to Kemp’s philosophy and community involvement off the ice while still putting a competitive product on the ice have translated into more fans in the seats year after year.
“Sure enough we’ve continued to grow every year since [the first],” Kemp said. “And I would expect that to grow this year too. Basically a philosophy and a system in place is why I think it works.”
With an average attendance of more than 5,800 per game in the first year, which was good enough for third, the Reign has topped the ECHL attendance records four times. According to the ECHL, in the 2013-14 season the Reign saw a total of 293,670 fans in attendance in 36 games. That was over a seven percent increase from the season was good enough for another ALL-ECHL attendance winner. Both years the team raised a Pacific Division Champion’s banner.
Despite being division champions four times out of the previous six seasons, Kemp doesn’t see that as the key to their fan base.
“The scores of the game don’t matter to as many people going to our games as they do going to Kings games,” Kemp said. “Our focus is on the game experience and the access we give to people.”
There will always be that core group of avid fans that live and die by the standings. For the remaining fans who come to a game in this league, they are not concerned with what team is coming in next or the politics of what goes on off the ice.
A good example of that shows up in the playoffs when attendance drops dramatically due to a lack of group sales. Kemp explained how group sales take a lot of time to cultivate and build, therefore you don’t see that turnout come post-season.
“That’s when you see how many die-hards you have,” Kemp said. “And how much work you’re really putting in over the course of the season to really get people in.”
One of the most popular charity events the Reign does is the ‘jersey off the back’ auction that takes place once a month. The program has ballooned over the years and really boosts how the team gives back and invests in the community they exist in.
The jersey auction is not new to minor league hockey or any major sport for that matter. The Reign have taken it a step further however by trying to put a unique spin on it. Each month the design is completely new. Each jersey has a charity attached to them where they get 100 percent of the proceeds. The logistics bode well for both the team as a business and the charity involved. But it is the fan’s benefit that is most special.
“They are getting something unique that no one else will have,” Kemp said. “Because you have given them that access, people have been able to get to know these guys on a personal level and they feel like they are a part of this whole process.”
Not only has this worked really well, but also it has been great publicity. Senior Director of PR and Community / Corporate Sales, Laura Tolbirt, has watched fundraisers come full circle. The wide draw and success of community involvement is very much present when you see fans wearing the many different jerseys.
“It’s fun and as you can see walking around here there are all kinds of Reign jerseys,” Tolbirt said. “People take pride in that.”
Other recent buzz surrounding the Reign includes bringing their top affiliate, an American Hockey League team, to the area. For the overall landscape of pro hockey this is a great move and speaks wonders about the Ontario market and what they’ve done to help support an ECHL team.
The one thing that often comes with more elite teams in any sport is less access. But Reign fans are not to worry because Kemp would “fight tooth and nail” to keep that alive because it’s certainly been part of the success they’ve had in Ontario.
“It’s important because it’s still a minor league team and you cannot let go of the fundamentals of what made you successful in the first place,” Kemp said. “Because when the years get lean again you’re going to rely on those people to keep coming back.”