The Bloomington Blaze attribute better in-game promotions with boosting attendance during the 2012-13 season. (Photo by B Corbin/WJBC)
By Eric Stock
BLOOMINGTON - Bloomington Blaze officials are pleased to see an improvement in attendance in the franchise's second season, but say it's going to take more fans in the stands to dig the team out of the red.
Attendance at Bloomington Blaze games at U.S. Cellular Coliseum is up eight percent this season compared to 2011-12 totals. The Blaze are averaging 2,455 fans per game this season, compared to 2,276 fans last season. The Blaze rank eighth in attendance in the 10-team Central Hockey League.
Blaze President David Holt attributes the increase at the gate to a better game experience for fans (including new video elements and intermission contests) and a better hockey team. The Blaze and their predecessor, the Prairie Thunder, have qualified for the postseason just once (Prairie Thunder in 2011) since hockey began in Bloomington in 2006.
Holt says the 2011-12 season was a difficult one for the Blaze as new management took over just weeks before the start of the season.
"When the ownership steps in in September and you are playing in November, you really don't have time for any of that stuff," Holt said. The team finished in last place in the Turner Conference in its opening season with a 24-35-7 record.
Holt says the team also benefitted from having an entire summer for new coach Brian Gratz to recruit and sign players.
"He worked diligently all summer. He has a great reputation and players enjoy playing for him," Holt said.
Holt added that the rise in attenance isn't good enough. He says the standard benchmarck for a Class AA hockey franchise to be successful financially is to draw between 3,500 and 4,000 paying customers per home game.
"I don't see that happening this year. Our goal right now is to get in the 3,000 to 3,100 range by the end of the season. That would be a realistic goal," Holt said.
Holt said he is encouraged to see that the Blaze is one of only two CHL franchises that have attracted more fans compared to last season, given that attendance typically lags in the first half of a season.
Holt didn't give financial numbers for the hockey team, though he confirmed the team is losing a ''significant amount" of money. The franchise is privately owned and leases use of the city-owned Coliseum.
"It's my understanding just from talking to people that hockey in Bloomington over the last five to six years has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. So we are working to stop that," Holt said.
Blaze owner Sandra Hunnewell took over the Bloomington Edge, the indoor football team that shares the downtown venue with the Blaze. Holt says having the team sharing resources and staffing has streamlined operations and given the football team a head start on its upcoming season.
"Here we are, four months out and we've already started our season-ticket campaign and started our renewal campaign." Holt said. "In sports, it's so important in the off-season to get off to a good start and I feel very comfortable with where we are at doing that."
Holt is also encouraged by the explosion of youth hockey in Bloomington since the coliseum opened in 2006.
"When we have so many parents and so many kids that are playing hockey, that gives us a trememdous fan base for years to come," Holt said.
The Blaze will open the 2013 portion of the season with four straight home games, starting with Jan. 4 and 5 against the Arizona Sundogs.
The Edge opens play in the new Champions Professional Indoor Football League on March 15.
Eric Stock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.