A state historically not accustomed to hockey is about to get just a bit chillier this spring with the incoming 2017 Kelly Cup Playoffs.
And with college football champions in the Clemson Tigers and women’s college basketball champions in the South Carolina Gamecocks, the Greenville Swamp Rabbits and the South Carolina Stingrays are hoping to take advantage of the winning streak in the Palmetto State.
The Swamp Rabbits (40-26-5-1) and Stingrays (40-28-3-1), both of which had successful runs in the regular season, will play game one in Greenville at 7 p.m. Thursday.
The Swamp Rabbits, an affiliate of the New York Rangers and AHL Hartford Wolf Pack, ended a successful regular season on Saturday against the Atlanta Gladiators with a 6-2 win.
“I tell the staff here, we will work all season long, but the playoffs are different. It brings a different kind of atmosphere into the building,” said Swamp Rabbits President Chris Lewis. “Because every game in the playoffs is the biggest game.”
The Swamp Rabbits are no amateur to the playoffs, but particularly this year, the team has seen growing momentum and support in its fan base and in the greater Greenville community.
In August 2015, the team rebranded, changing names from the Road Warriors to the Swamp Rabbits. A year later, the team introduced a mascot, Stomper.
Lewis said those changes elicited a stronger community response.
“We ended with our attendance up last year over the prior year,” he said. “We did a lot of great things with merchandise. As the season wore on, the brand embraced more fans in the community at large. I think the Swamp Rabbits moniker in the Greenville area captivated folks who are more casual fans than the diehards. It’s made us relevant with them.”
At the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, the Swamp Rabbits brought in just under 3,900 fans on average during the regular season. The year prior brought in less, roughly 3,656 per game, Lewis said.
Fan Appreciation Night on Friday brought 6,216 fans to the Well, the team’s website said.
Like most ECHL teams, the Swamp Rabbits aren’t just selling hockey. Every season, managers and their staff look at ways to create top-of-the-line entertainment and affordable option for families, with hockey mixed in.
“It’s not indigenous to the area, it’s not a sport most people have grown up with,” Lewis said, adding for new hockey goers the experience can be somewhat intimidating with the whistle blowing and lines and circles. “We realized that our existence couldn’t just be about selling hockey in South Carolina. We needed to become an entertainment option for families. It became about creating a great experience, a fun environment.”
That also rings true for the South Carolina Stingrays, said President Rob Concannon, who added this year the Washington Capitals affiliate saw attendance and revenue grow.
Concannon said theme game nights brought around 7,000 to 7,500 fans to the North Charleston Coliseum. An average regular season game could average roughly 4,000 fans.
“I hired a VP of sales, we’ve restructured the organization in terms of sales staff. We have more people selling, more people on the phone, which contributed to ultimately more people in the building,” he said. “Knock on wood, I’ve seen an uptick in group sales, season ticket sales, merchandise sales and concessions.”
But in South Carolina, a state dominated by college sports, there can be challenges.
“So, when you talk to somebody, ‘Did you hear about the hockey game?’ It’s, instead, I’ve never been to a hockey game,” the Massachusetts native said. “Once you get them in here, though, it’s different. It’s tough to watch hockey on television. But at Bon Secours or the North Charleston Coliseum, you get into the environment and cold air, you see the ice is pink for breast cancer awareness and the guys wearing pink jerseys and it becomes addicting, it becomes fun.”
Throw in specials for food, beer, add a fight or two on the ice, “and you’re winning. You’re gaining exposure with folks who haven’t been there before,” he said.
ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna said with 27 teams in the league, more than half are up this year in attendance.
“But we’re never satisfied. We always want to see attendance growth,” McKenna said. “An interesting side note, whether it’s minor league baseball or minor league hockey, surveys in research that we do show majority of people are not hardcore hockey or hardcore baseball fans. To a large degree, they are entertainment fans.”
In all leagues, McKenna said team management and marketing staff work hard to find what ideas and promotions work in their market. Once a year, ECHL teams also come together and listen to industry speakers talk ways to expand the brand.
One way is by intertwining a team in the community. In short, giving back.
Within the past year, Lewis said the Swamp Rabbits organization has given back more than $100,000 toward charitable causes and increased its partnership with area nonprofits and organizations, that include the Girl and Boy Scouts of America and the Greenville County school district.
“We’ve also developed a really good, broad partnership with the first responder community and the military community in the area,” he said. “Heroes night was our biggest crowd over the season.”
Could a solid South Carolina team and great fan and community support translate into a championship win?
Judging by Clemson and the Gamecocks, it could be contagious, McKenna said.
“Both are very competitive teams this year, so I certainly would not be surprised if one or both had a good playoff run.”
Playoff tickets are now available at swamprabbits.com, ticketmaster.com or the Bon Secours Wellness Arena Box Office.
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