By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Seven years is a long time.
It was 2007 when Rex Grossman and the Bears lost in the Super Bowl, Barry Bonds hit home run No. 756, and the final book in the Harry Potter series was published. It was the year that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane debuted in the NHL, the year Bill Wirtz died and the year John McDonough assumed the presidency of the Blackhawks – the clear marking point of a franchise’s rebirth.
With success and exposure came newly curious fans wondering what all the buzz was about, and you’ll remember the grumbles from some resentful old-timers and the possessive hardcore few who had braved the wilderness years. These interloping kids don’t own this, some felt, as they also decried the marketing tactics of McDonough as too shallowly populist or simply “too Cubs.”
Since then, however, what has mattered are two Stanley Cups.
A toddler in 2007 is now in fourth grade. A fourth-grader in 2007 is now applying to colleges. That college freshman just passed the bar exam and is practicing law full time. They all have lived their ‘Hawks fandom over that period and don’t have to care about any other person’s memories of Alpo Suhonen, Eric Daze or Alexei Zhamnov.
It’s about right now, and McDonough understands that more than anyone. These fans are the furthest thing from dismissible bandwagon dilettantes: They are in fact the new lifeblood.
“I would say the sweet spot of our demographic is anywhere between six and 45,” McDonough told us on WSCR last week. “This may not be your parents’ or your grandparents’ Blackhawks team.”
He described what they understand about this critical cohort and its key role in creating a sustainable business, saying, “We never wanted to be that comet that just came and went and, ‘Whatever happened to the Blackhawks?’”
“They’re very young, impressionable, somewhat engaged now,” McDonough said. “I think that what’s transpired over the last five or six years, the interest is really there. I think it’s important that they understand the nuances of the game, because in the future they’re going to be your sophisticated fan and they’re going to bring their children to the game.”
Data from Scarborough Research shows the rapid growth that McDonough wants to lock in for the future, with an estimated one million new fans from just last season alone. Much of the new connections are a simple function of connectivity, driven by Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
”This younger generation feeds very well into social media,” McDonough said. “Our players are very relatable to that generation. In many instances they look like kids they might have gone to college with. So I think you put all of that together, and it speaks well to that target generation.”
Among Chicago teams, the Bulls’ official Twitter feed leads the pack with 1.51 million followers, powered by the league’s global footprint. It’s significant that @NHLBlackhawks is second with 561,000 followers, outstripping the account of the Bears (472K), and boasting more than the Cubs (347K) and White Sox (195K) combined.
Not your parents’ or grandparents’ team, indeed.
There will always be the party people around the fringes of the hot sports thing, particularly for a social event that makes it look easy to know what to do: show up at the bar in a jersey, and when that red light goes on just jump up and down and sing the song that has no lyrics. But many thousands of those doing only that beginning around 2007 have become something so much more significant.
A new legion of Blackhawks fans has arrived, with social and economic power to be tapped in the years to come. Already seven years into a new modernity, they are in every way legitimate and vested, having been welcomed and cultivated by a perfect storm of great hockey and intelligent business.
As McDonough puts it, “They’ve embraced this franchise and they’ve put a stake in the ground. They’ve said ‘This is mine.’”