By Peter Schwartz
» More Columns
Those two words signal excitement for fans of any team in any sport. It means not only the start of a new season, but a time to reconnect with a team and reunite with fellow fans.
For supporters of the Devils, that feeling will come Tuesday night when they play their home opener against the Anaheim Ducks at the Prudential Center (WFAN, 6:50 p.m.).
The Devils are not only excited to have this year’s team play in front of the hometown fans for the first time, but they also get to unwrap all of the improvements made at “The Rock” and roll out their new marketing campaign.
“The home opener for us and our fans is a time when we get to unveil and launch our strategies for the upcoming year,” said Hugh Weber, president of the Devils and Prudential Center. “It’s a time when people have been away from hockey for a long time, so there’s a sense of excitement that’s different.”
This season, the Devils are celebrating their “One Jersey” campaign, saying in a release: “We are dedicated to inspiring and uniting New Jersey’s people, townships, counties and communities under the one jersey proud to wear the name.”
The Devils have been aggressive in going out into the community and engaging fans from the 4.9 million people that make up northern New Jersey.
“What we see is the strength of the community that we represent,” Weber said. “It goes beyond hockey. What we stand for together, it’s what’s important and that’s the spirit behind ‘One Jersey.'”
For the home opener, the Devils have a fun night planned for the fans, with doors opening at 5:30 p.m. and faceoff at 7 p.m.
As part of the “One Jersey” initiative, the Devils will have 12 New Jersey Olympians in the building as well as various celebrities. The first 10,000 fans in attendance will receive a “One Jersey” t-shirt and there will also be a red carpet arrival for the Devils players and the unveiling of this year’s on-ice 3D projection video.
“Two years ago, we were one of the first teams to do the projection and therefore we’ve learned a lot the last two years about what works,” Weber said. “It’s all about building excitement and energy in the building. It’s gotten better every single year and I can actually tell you that this year is going to be, by far, the best.”
In addition to the video, Devils fans will also notice a number of improvements around the Prudential Center, including the upgrading of a few of the concession stand areas. There will be different menus and dining options, but the Devils have also been hard at work making sure fans don’t miss any action while they’re on line for food and drinks.
“The area we’ve been focusing on more than anything is wait times,” Weber said.
On the concourse, you’ll also see a number of new areas and some new ways that fans will be able to connect, take pictures, respond to social media, and take part in a number of fun activities.
From a business standpoint, the Devils are on the upswing despite the fact that they haven’t made the playoffs the last four seasons. According to the team, sales numbers have actually grown by double digits each season, a stark contrast from the 5 or 6 percent a year decline one would expect during tough times on the ice.
“This team actually has been able to engage our fans’ business to buy season tickets,” Weber said.
A big part of the Devils’ success selling season tickets is due to the introduction of the “flex membership” option last season. Since fans want to have a plan, but can’t necessarily commit to a whole season or a partial plan, they can pick the games and the number of tickets that they want.
“People in this market have money, but the challenge people had in terms of buying season tickets is time,” Weber said. “You may love the Devils and want to be able to call yourself a member and yet you couldn’t tell me what you’re going to be doing in the middle of March on a Tuesday and I really empathize with that.”
The team estimates that about 75 percent of all new sales can be attributed to the flex memberships. Of course, the best way to entice someone to buy season tickets is putting a winning team on the ice.
Or is it?
You could find teams that do well on the field, court or ice but still have a hard time drawing fans. The Devils are an example of that as they have made the playoff in 20 of their 28 seasons in New Jersey, including 13 consecutive seasons from 1996-97 to 2009-10. Many of those seasons were at the Meadowlands, but, even with a new arena like the Prudential Center, winning doesn’t necessarily translate into tickets sold.
There still has to be a good connection between the team and the fans.
“Although winning is important, it’s not the only thing,” Weber said. “Our philosophy has always been that we have to create a product which includes how the team performs, a product that businesses see value in, and also that fans can connect with and look at Devils games as something that’s fun to do win or lose.”
The Devils, off to an 0-1-1 start, should be fun to watch this season with a core that includes Mike Cammalleri, Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri, Cory Schneider and newly acquired left wing Taylor Hall. It marks only the second season for general manager Ray Shero and head coach John Hynes, but they have come in and made an immediate impact.
“They changed the culture and seeing the style of play which is more fast and attacking, all of which our fans are telling us is more entertaining and exciting,” Weber said. “We believe that if we can get on a run here this year it certainly would accelerate our ‘One Jersey’ campaign.”
There is always a tremendous sense of optimism for fans on opening night. You have that sense of excitement as you put that jersey on in your house and make your way to the arena for the game. A home opener always seems to have a playoff-type atmosphere and that is expected to be the case in Newark on Tuesday night.
The Devils hope to find their way into the postseason after a four-year drought and if they do, they will certainly excite their fan base. But win or lose the franchise plans to unite “One Jersey” and make the Prudential Center a fun place to visit.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @NJDevils, @PruCenter and @hughweber1