Last Friday was a good night for new Portland Winter Hawks co-owner and president Jack Donovan: biggest crowd of the season, his team won and nobody yelled at him.
Donovan, one of three owners who took over the 30-year-old major junior hockey franchise in March, spent the evening wandering the Memorial Coliseum, chatting with fans and pointing out all the improvements he'd like in the 46-year-old building. Among the updates: lighting added, advertising updated, hockey pictures hung to replace 1990s-vintage Trail Blazers photos, food upgraded, debit-card machines installed, ATMs updated, replay screens hung.
"We can't get it all done," Donovan says. "But if we can keep chipping away at it and make improvements step by step, then I think we have an opportunity to show fans that we are for real, and that we're trying to do the best we can to make this their home."
So far, one month into the season, a lot fewer fans have accepted that invitation.
While a season-high crowd of 5,101 watched the Hawks beat arch rival Seattle 3-2, overall attendance through the first eight home games has dropped more than 30 percent this year, from an average of 5,718 at this point last year to 3,964.
Last year's numbers at this stage included five games at the Rose Garden, the Coliseum's larger, newer neighbor. Donovan put all but six of the team's 36 home games this year at the Coliseum, saying it's cheaper to rent and there's more scheduling flexibility because the Hawks don't have to compete for dates with the NBA Trail Blazers and other events. Last year, the Hawks played 18 games in the Rose Garden.
The decision leaves diehard fans with a mixed opinion. Eric Harden, who drives from Albany with his family to almost every game, prefers the "electricity" at the Rose Garden. But Paul Eddy, who has season tickets right behind the goal, prefers the Coliseum because "it's ours."
Yet the decision to play most games in the Coliseum isn't even what has the Winter Hawks' fan base questioning Donovan loudest. He says he gets "yelled at" most about replacing radio game broadcasts with streaming audio on the team's website.
"Some people are hot about that," Donovan says. "We were on a directional AM station with a small footprint [970 AM], so I asked myself, 'How can I better spend that money to get us out to a broader public?' That's why we televise just about all our home games and are working on doing road games."
But televising 30 home games this year compared with six last year also seems to lessen the chance that fans would feel the need to attend. Defending this decision, Donovan refers to the Atlanta Braves/Chicago Cubs model from baseball: Put your team on TV and people will want to come see it in person.
"We need to develop new fans all the time," he says.
The first broadcast, on Comcast Cable Channel 14 opposite an NFL game, drew a 0.6 rating, which the team's publicist said translates to 3,000 households.