How Facebook spurred the rebirth of a minor league hockey franchise

I began my career as a newspaper sports reporter, and still dabble in that field some. One of my beats (subject areas that I covered) during those years was the ECHL minor league ice hockey team in Trenton, NJ. And the story of its revival yesterday after ceasing operations three weeks before is a testament to the power of social media, and specifically Facebook.

First, a little background. The franchise was born in 1999 as the Trenton Titans. It was affiliated with the nearby Philadelphia Flyers (who, not surprisingly, have a huge fan base in the area), but was owned by a local family and marketed an entertaining and affordable family fun experience to the area. That’s the ticket to success in marketing a minor league sports franchise, and not surprisingly, business thrived. While attendance did slip after the first season, it remained in the top tier of the ECHL.

Then the New Jersey Devils NHL franchise bought the Titans in the summer of 2006, decided to rename it as the Trenton Devils, use it as a tool to develop a few players in their system (a notoriously dull system at that, but I won’t bore the non-sports fans here with that story) and to grow their brand in the state of New Jersey. In the process, they ignored all of the things that make minor league sports franchises – particularly ECHL ones – successful. Throw in the Devils’ remarkable ineptitude when it comes to marketing (a long story unto itself), and it was a recipe for disaster. Attendance plummeted to barely 2,300 per game – dead last in the league, and the actual number of fans in the seats was often much lower. The relationships between the franchise and the surrounding community languished.

I covered the team during the first three of its four seasons under the Devils name, and it was indeed a disaster. This July 6, the Devils decided they had had enough and pulled the plug.

Photo Credit: The Times of Trenton (NJ)

Along came a group of season ticket holders going back to the franchise’s beginning, led by Bernie Haney. They formed a Facebook group called“Bring Back The

Titans” to rally support and a potential customer base that would attract a new investor to save the franchise. Hundreds joined this group, and more than 300 people pledged to buy full season tickets. Eileen and John Martinson of Bucks County, Pa., who both head successful businesses, were alerted to this group by Haney, area sports marketing expert Rich Lisk (the Titans’ GM from 2001-05) and the ECHL. The Martinsons were sufficiently impressed by the support that they bought the franchise and brought back the original Titans name and branding.

This story and its happy ending demonstrate the power of Social Media to build a successful grassroots effort. This outcome came about not through expensive TV advertising, but through Facebook. And it engaged people of all ages.

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