Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Brampton and Bollywood goes together like aloo gobi

A winning major junior hockey team smack dab in the middle of a huge South Asian enclave is brain candy for a sports obsessive, or at least the ultimate how-not-to from Marketing 101.

Toronto Star junior hockey reporter Sunaya Sapurji, over at Loose Pucks, is calling on the OHL's Brampton Battalion to have a Bollywood night next season in an attempt to get out new fans, just as Hockey Night in Canada telecasts are now available in Punjabi. The suggestion sort of hits on the mild obsessions with the OHL's endless expansion experiment in Toronto and the question of whether major junior hockey can be sold to a to people whose cultural frame of reference doesn't involve ice, snow and skates.

Brampton is a perfect storm in those regards, although there is no one catch-all for why it struggles to get fans out consistently despite being a solid team year-in, year-out under coach Stan Butler. (The Battalion did have a very respectable official attendance of 3,975 last Sunday, when they, ahem, lost 3-2 to the Belleville Bulls and Kingston-born Mike Murphy in a matchup of first-place clubs.) It has been touched on here, first by the bald guy in in November and by the other bald guy -- face the facts, Sagert -- in in January.

Sapurji is challenging this notion that junior hockey teams should only concentrate on the core audience of middle-class white parents and their hockey-playing daughters and sons, since those with roots in non-HPNs (hockey-playing nations) cannot be won over:
"Sorry, but that argument is lazy. If anyone is to blame it's the marketing people who either can't think outside the box, or have neither the desire nor the funds to reach out to said community.

"My Indian grandmother, who had never seen snow before moving to Europe in the late 60s, was a die-hard Montreal Canadiens fan. I'd find her watching Habs games all the time (mostly on French CBC) and I remember asking her why she watched them, since she didn't speak French and it was clear she had no clue what going on.

"She said she liked the Habs because they were fast and because they were 'fair'-- which I guess meant they weren't always penalty box. If my 70-year-old Parsi gran can fall in love with hockey, anyone can.

" ... In order for people to buy your product, they first have to know that product exists. Take out ads in the magazines and newspapers geared towards the South Asian community. Buy an ad during one of the 1,000 Indian TV shows on cable. Make an effort.

" ... Newcomers to Canada want to fit in. Kids in a new country want to be just like their Canadian friends.

"That's how I started going to OHL games, back when the Marlies played out of Maple Leaf Gardens. At that time you could go to Becker's and get coupons for discounted tickets. All my friends went, so I went. And I loved it. Hook the kids and you'll have fans for life.

"Next year when JK Gill and the Sudbury Wolves come to Brampton hold 'Bollywood or Bhangra Night in Brampton.' Invite local vendors to sell samosa and pakoras (if they're allowed), invite the local South Asian community, play Panjabi MC during the stoppages and get ex-OHLer and current Vancouver Canucks scout Harkie Singh to drop the puck for the ceremonial faceoff."
Sapurji is bang on (and, so much the better, her post referenced a 2007 Toronto Star article that our own Neil Acharya wrote about NHLer Manny Malhotra, whose dad is Indian). The Battalion have never been marketed properly. It's a huge market; ask Rupert Murdoch what reaching out to the Indian market has done for the English Premier League.

It's shortsighted not to make any effort to reach out to a visible minority group which has dollars to spend. (Part of the reason the Blue Jays were the first MLB team to draw four million fans was that they were very ahead of the curve when it came to appealing directly to female fans; Stephen Brunt noted in one of his books that the Jays, back in the '70s, even considered a marketing campaign aimed at the gay community, which many teams even today wouldn't do on a bet.)

At least these questions are starting to get asked by some journalists with a good-sized platform.
Of course, another suggestion for getting more fans out to OHL games in the GTA is to have play out of Maple Leaf Gardens again, like Eugene Melnyk wanted to do years ago with the now Mississauga St. Michael's Maors, but that's another post.

Bring Bollywood to Battalion (Sunaya Sapurji, Loose Pucks)
NHL play-by-play in Punjabi scores big time; Hockey Night in Canada experiment so successful it's likely to be expanded (Raveena Aulakh, Toronto Star, Feb. 16)

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