Chicago Blackhawks: Master Marketers

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The Chicago Blackhawks franchise was founded in 1926 as the NHL first expanded into the United States. The Blackhawks enjoyed early success winning the Stanley Cup in 1932 and 1934. During the NHL original six era, a 25-year period between 1942 and the 1967 in which just six NHL franchises existed, the Blackhawks won a third Stanley Cup championship in 1961. Although the Hawks’ would enjoy many winning regular seasons and several years of playoff success afterwards, the Chicago Blackhawks 49-year Stanley Cup championship just ended in 2010.

This Stanley Cup championship coincided with arguably the greatest sports marketing turnaround in the history of professional North American sports. One of the few constant aspects of Chicago Blackhawks marketing has involved the nostalgia surrounding their logo. The logo was originally designed in 1926 by Irene Castle, the wife of the founder of the Chicago Blackhawks, Frederick McLaughlin. The original logo featured a disparaging looking Native American in a circle. The logo would then go several slight changes over the years until 1965 and has remained constant since.

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The Blackhawks logo is source of great pride for the franchise and its fans and it is arguably one of the coolest looking logos in professional sports. The marketing effects in terms of merchandise are enormous, as even non Blackhawk or hockey fans buy Chicago Blackhawks memorabilia simply because of the logo. The Blackhawks logo commemorates Black Hawk, a Native American of the Sauk Nation and a prominent Indian of the early 1800’s, but the color scheme has no meaning behind it. Black Hawk lead a battle against what he thought was an illegal seizure of his people’s land in 1804 in Illinois and Wisconsin.

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Black Hawk then lead a war against American forces to consume land that Black Hawk felt rightfully belonged to the Sauk nation. Although Black Hawk’s revolt was ultimately unsuccessful, it gave Black Hawk a legendary status as heroic, fighting hero against overwhelming odds. Original Chicago Blackhakws owner, Frederick McLaughlin, thought honoring that mentality would be a perfect fit for his new professional hockey franchise. Overwhelming, Mr. McLaughlin has been proven correct in assertions. However, in our increasingly sensitive era with matters regarding Native Americans, the logo has its fair share of controversy.

As the NCAA has adopted a policy that in effect bans the use of Native American mascots without the specific permission of a Native American tribe, pressure has built upon the Chicago Blackhawks among some groups to drop the logo entirely. In fact sports reported Damien Cox, wrote, “At a time when sports leagues and schools around North America are either debating the dubious values of having native peoples used as mascots entirely, the NHL and the Chicago Blackhawks seem awfully casual about it, supremely confident that one will dare question the racial sensitivity of the large aboriginal likeness that serves as the logo of the hockey club.

But, since the positive marketing implications of the logo appear to far outweigh the controversy, the Chicago Blackhawks logo figures to stay for decades to come barring any legal action. For the 2002-03 season, the Chicago Blackhawks introduced a team mascot for the first time, Tommy Hawk. Although this could be deemed inappropriate as well, Tommy Hawk is actually a giant bird wearing a Blackhawks jersey. Unlike the Blackhawks logo, Tommy Hawk has caused little controversy among the masses.

Tommy Hawk looks like a friendly approaching bird and has much appeal to kid fans. At Blackhawks games, Tommy Hawk can be seen getting many pictures with big smiling kids. Tommy Hawk has helped make attending a Blackhawks game more exciting for children as many kids could get bored watching an average hockey game of about three hours. Tommy Hawk has been proven to be a good marketing tool by the Chicago Blackhawks. Of the many legititmate criticisms leveled towards Bill Wirtz, Tommy Hawk was a smart addition to the game experience.

One of the other few events attributed to Bill Wirtz was the establishment of Blackkawks charities in 1993. Blackhawks charities has donated thousands of dollar to such organizations like the Boys and Girls Club and the Amateur Hockey Assoication of Illinois. Bill Wirtz was so terrible at public relations and marketing the Blackhawks that few people were aware of the kinder, gentler side of Mr. Wirtz. Current owner, Rocky Wirtz, has built the Blackhawks charities legacy of his father and taken the organization to the next level.

The Blackhawks charities now raised hundreds of thousands of dollars annually and is affiliated with over 30 different Chicagoland organizations. Although now intended, given the marketing and promotional skill of Rocky Wirtz, Blackhawks charities has created much goodwill towards the Chicago Blackhawks organization. This is one of ways that has helped make the Chicago Blackhawks the great fan attraction that it is today. Another long standing marketing tradition of the Chicago Blackhawks is their fight song introduced in 1966, “Here Comes the Hawks. The song was written by a huge Blackhawks fan named Jay Swayzee.

Most people don’t know the words but it is a catchy toon that has nostalgia attached to it. When casual Chicagoans hear the musical sounds of the song, they instantly think of the Blackhawks making the song a solid marketing tool. However, in recent years, a song called “Chelsea Dagger” played after every Blackhawks goal has become more associated with the Chicago Blackhawks. The “Chelsea Dagger” song will be discussed later in the paper as one of the many tools to become a brilliant sports marketer.

Although the Chicago Blackhawks logo has remained a fixture of the franchise’s marketing efforts for decades, many other aspects of the Blackhawk organization has changed. Arthur Wirtz teamed up with James Norris in 1952 to purchase the Chicago Blackhawks. In 1954, the Wirtz family assumed majority control of the Blackhawks ownership that included a young Bill Wirtz. Arthur Wirtz’s son, Bill Wirtz, became heavily involved in the management of the Blackhawks at a young age eventually becoming the team President in 1966 – a position Bill Wirtz would hold for 41 years.

Upon the death of Arthur Wirtz in 1983, Bill Wirtz became the sole owner of the Blackhawks and he would run the franchise only one way, the Bill Wirtz way. Upon Bill Wirtz death in 2007, it is estimated that his new worth in all his combined business dealings were between 3 to 4 billion dollars. In addition to Bill Wirtz longtime Blackhawks ownership, Bill Wirtz was also the owner of Wirtz Realty and Judge and Dolph Ltd. , a huge liquor distributor selling about 1/3rd of all liquor in Illinois. Bill Wirtz also had banking and insurance interests that added to his massive wealth.

Given the diversity of Bill Wirtz business interests and the massive financial assets associated with them, many questioned Bill Wirtz commitment to the Chicago Blackhawks. Did Bill Wirtz really want the Blackhawks to win? Did Bill Wirtz really care about the Blackhawks fans? Did Bill Wirtz care about past and present players and attracting future players? But, most of all, did Bill Wirtz really care about marketing the Chicago Blackhawks in a prudent way? After conducting extensive research, the answer to that question appears to be a resounding no!

Bill Wirtz developed a reputation for stubbornness and frugality that would plague him throughout his reign as the Blackhawks owner. Many people concluded that Bill Wirtz cared far more about the profitability of the Blackhawks than making the necessary investments in the team to win. Bill Wirtz seemed to content to let many high skilled free agents leave and/ or trade them for lower priced players. This was first evidence back in the 1970’s when Bill Wirtz let the legendary Bobby Hull leave the Blackhawk teams.

History than repeated itself in the 1990’s after the Blackhawks made the Stanley Cup finals before ultimately losing the series. Over the next decade, great Blackhawks players such as Dominik Hasek, Dennis Savard, Chris Chellios and Jeremy Roenick were allowed leave or were traded away. The result was a franchise that was ruins as 21st century began. Further enraging fans was Bill Wirtz steadfast refusal to televise Chicago Blackhawks home games with a few exceptions. One of those few exceptions consisted of high priced monthly fee that was considered way overpriced for its time.

Although Bill Wirtz claimed that televising home games was an affont to season ticket holders, greed and a seemingly disregard for fans in general appeared to be the more likely reasons. The idea that someone could turn on a TV and watch a Blackhawks game for free rather than pay for a ticket was outrageous to Bill Wirtz. The irony is that Bill Wirtz couldn’t realize that televising home games was a great marketing tool for the Blackhawks that could actually lead to great profitability – something that will be explored later in the paper under the new ownership of Bill Wirtz’s son, Rocky Wirtz.

In 2004, ESPN ranked the Chicago Blackhawks as the worst professional franchise in all of major sports. At that time, season tickets holders had fallen to about 5,000 fans. The United Center was at best filled about half to capacity and the team constantly missed the playoffs. The Bill Wirtz model clearly wasn’t working but he refused to change any of his marketing. The man had a net worth of billions of dollars so he was going to run the Chicago Blackhawks his way only. If the media, the Blackhawks players and the fans didn’t like it, that was their problem, not the problem of Bill Wirtz.

This is how Bill Wirtz became known as Bill “Dollar Bill” Wirtz. Long before Bill Wirtz became sole owner of the Blackhawks upon Bill Wirtz’s father’s death in 1983, Bill Wirtz had served as team President since 1966. The long, slow demise of the Chicago Blackhawks franchise was decades in the making. The first major marketing mistake Bill Wirtz made was in 1972 when Mr. Wirtz let Blackhawk legend Bobby Hull leave the team. Bobby Hull had helped lead the Blackhawks to their third Stanley Cup title in 1961 and a Stanley Cup finals appearance in 1971..

Bobby Hull was beloved by fans and had a great reputation among Blackhawk fans and the Chicago community. He was also considered the preeminent star in the NHL at the time. However, Bill Wirtz refused to pay Bobby Hull his market value causing Mr. Hull to bolt the Blackhawks for the World Hockey Association. Fans were outraged that Bill Wirtz had let the star of the NHL leave the Blackhawks. In Bill Wirtz eyes, he only looked at profitability and risk. There was more of guarantee that the Blackhawks could be profitable without Bobby Hull than with Bobby Hull.

The fact that this turned off current fans and attracting new fans was something Bill Wirtz accepted. This was the first evidence of the “Dollar bill” nature of Bill Wirtz. After losing Bobby Hull to the WHA in 1972, the Chicago Blackhawks struggled to stay relevant throughout the 1970’s. However, the 1980’s brought an influx of new talent and hope and opportunity for the franchise. Future stars such as Chris Chellios, Dennis Savard and Jeremy Roenick brought excitement back to Chicago Blackhawks fans. This would coincide with the death of Arthur Wirtz in 1983 giving Bill Wirtz complete control over the wnership of the Blackhawks.

Despite the abundance of talent giving hope to future Stanley Cup championships, Bill Wirtz again showed his true colors in 1990 by trading away Dennis Savard. The Blackhawks would ultimately make the Stanley Cup finals two years later but would lose. Would have keeping Savard on the team have made the difference? It is impossible to say for sure but the marketing opportunities of a Stanley Cup championship could have changed the face of the franchise. Bill Wirtz could only look at his current balance sheet and was unwilling to take the risk associated with keeping higher priced players.

This would begin a slow, steady decline of the franchise leading to futile attendance and a dispirited, angry fan base. This was no way to run a professional sports franchise. Despite the dispirited fan base, Bill Wirtz just didn’t seem to care. One of the most basic things Mr. Wirtz could have done to promote the Blackhawks was to televise the home games – or atleast 15 to 20 a year. Bill Wirtz would not budge. Eventually, every team in the four major professional sports decided to televise their home games. Bill Wirtz did not care. He consistently stated that televising home games was an affront to season ticket holders.

He didn’t understand why any owner would “give away their product for free. ” This reflected the narrow marketing strategy of Bill Wirtz. Televising home games would have brought in rights fees to the Blackhawks and would have increased their visibility in the convoluted Chicago sports market. It would have also created goodwill among the fans and would have encouraged them to attend more Blackhawk home games. Bill Wirtz simply could not think outside of the box. Bill Wirtz eventually did experiment with pay-per-view cable called Hawkvision for the 1992-93 season.

This did allow for the televising of Chicago Blackhawks home games for a monthly subscription fee of $29. 95 – a hefty fee in 1993. It is unclear of Bill Wirtz thought this would created some goodwill towards the Chicago media and Blackhawks fan critical of Wirtz’s refusal to televise home games. It is clear that Bill Wirtz thought Hawkvision would make him money, so that appears to have been his main motivation. As it turned out, Hawkvision was a colossal failure that ended upon completion of the 1993 season.

Hawkvision was such marketing disaster hat it actually created more hostility towards Bill Wirtz than already existed. Fans were enraged that they had to pay a hefty fee to watch home Blackhawk games on TV while fans in other hockey markets regularly watched home games for free. Even if the monthly fee of Hawkvision was significantly less than paying for a ticket to attend every Blackhawks home game, Hawkvision simply made Bill Wirtz look like a greedy, selfish owner. Hawkvision would never return and Chicago Blackhawk home game would not again be televised on a regular basis until after Bill Wirtz death in 2007.

The decision among Bill Wirtz successor, his son Rocky Wirtz, would be a brilliant marketing strategy that would rebuild excitement in the Chicago Blackhawks. This will be explored in great depth later in this paper. In addition to refusing the televise home games (atleast for free), Bill Wirtz did little to promote the Blackhawks franchise around the Chicagoland area. Few dollars were spent on TV or radio ads. Billboard ads were not to be found along any of the major expressways. Few ads were placed in the major Chicago newspapers, the Chicago Sun-times or Chicago Tribune.

If Chicago had been a strictly hockey town, Bill Wirtz frugal approach may have made more sense. But Chicago is a major sports town with highly enegized fans in all sports. The Chicago Bears were the team on the 1980’s, winning a Super Bowl and characterized by larger than life personalties, Coach Mike Ditka and quarterback Jim McMahon. Also, in the mid 1980’s, a certain basketball played by the name of Michael Jordan joined the franchise, who would eventually lead the Chicago Bulls to become the team of the 1990’s.

The success of these other Chicago professional sports franchises wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for the Blackhawks. They brought to Chicago sports fans. But, the Bulls and the Bears constantly promoted their teams through the media, aggressive advertising and self promotion and made fans feel like a part of the team. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the Blackhawks were actually successful on the ice, reaching the Stanley Cup finals in 1992. Yet Bill Wirtz couldn’t capture the imagination of the city. He didn’t promote his players and didn’t get the necessary coverage in the Chicago sports media.

Bill Wirtz frugality prevented him from doing what it took to make Chicago a hockey town. Nevetheless, given the reputation of Bill Wirtz, it coul be argued that staying under the radar screen was the best thing for Bill Wirtz and the Blackhawks. Given Bill Wirtz terrible reputation among so many different groups of people, the few times the Chicago Blackhawks did get traditional media attention was usually negative in nature. The media would interview disgruntled fans consistently complaining about the tactics of Bill Wirtz.

The media would report periodically how cheap and cold of man Bill Wirtz appeared to be. The media would mock Wirtz as a greedy, uncaring owner due to Wirtz refusal to televise home games. To make matters worse, when Bill Wirtz did make a rare public appearance, his demeanor appeared so cold that it just seemed to solidify so many negative comments about the man. Bill Wirtz was a public relations nightmare that made marketing of the Blackhawks nearly impossible. It was almost if Bill Wirtz intentionally did everything he could to destroy the Blackhawks and anger the local media and fans.

If Bill Wirtz weren’t the owner, he certainly would have been fired by the Blackhawks. But since and owner can only fire himself, everyone was seemingly stuck with Bill Wirtz for better or worse, with the worse part overwhelmingly emphasized. Another criticism of Bill Wirtz is that he didn’t seem to appreciate or care about past or present Chicago Blackhawk legends. Bill Wirtz was routinely blamed for letting Bobby Hull leave the team in the early 70’s and Wirtz did little to bring Hull back into the fold after Hull’s playing days were over.

The Chicago Blackhawks, an original six NHL team, had a rich history doing back for decades. One of the main attractions of the New York Yankees is the nostalgia created due to their past, rich history. Imagine if the New York Yankees simply failed to mention that Babe Ruth and Lou Gerig played for their team. Bobby Hull was essentially the Babe Ruth of the NHL in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Bobby Hull defined what being a NHL hockey player was all about. However, Bill Wirtz let him leave and did little to nothing to get Bobby Hull back into the Blackhawks fold.

Bill Wirtz could have hired Hull to be a Blackhawks ambassador and tap into the nostaligia of past Blackhawk teams. This could have excited current Blackhawk fans and motivated the casual Chicago hockey fan to give the Blackhakws a chance. Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and other Blackhawks legends were a great missed marketing opportunity for Bill Wirtz. But, Bill Wirtz simply couldn’t think outside the box or just didn’t care. Eventually, the new ownership of Rocky Wirtz would realized the invaluability of those Blackhawk legends and bring them back into the fold. This will be discussed in detail later in the paper.

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Chicago Blackhawks: Master Marketers. (2017, Feb 11). Retrieved from

Chicago Blackhawks: Master Marketers

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