The Lehigh Valley SteelHawks couldn’t complete a magical road-run to the Championship, losing in Nashville last night 64-43 in the league’s final game. They began the game a bit flat, at one time down 24-4. Just like the whole season, though, they battled back and closed to within a touchdown several times. The offense, though, just wasn’t made to come from behind by that much–and forced into that role ultimately made enough mistakes to prevent a come-from-behind victory. The 12-2 Nashville Venom were the better team all season and certainly showed it yesterday.
But the SteelHawks competed. QB Shane McSweeney played very well over the past few games as the SteelHawks made their run. He was filling in for the suddenly-retired All-PIFL Adam Bednarik. The Defense was lead by outstanding lineman Larry Ford and All-League DB/KR Dwayne Hollis. They were a fun team to watch this past season, and we certainly wish them well as a franchise, going forward.
And the future certainly is bright–if a bit uncertain–for the established local professional football team. It’s been a foregone conclusion that the team will move into the beautiful new arena in Allentown for next season. However, as I understand, nothing is official yet. To that end, I have some thoughts.
First, let’s take a look at the arena move, good and bad:
- Fans: The arena may make checking out a game more palatable to a number of fans who may not have had the opportunity yet. The antiquated Stabler Arena is no great place to visit, and not so comfortable for fans. On the other hand, some established fans may not wish to battle the downtown traffic and parking which will be a problem for all events there–on some level. While they may attract new fans, they will have to battle to keep some of the old ones, too.
- Additional Revenue: Parking won’t be free downtown, we all know that. And, the SteelHawks won’t get a piece of it–it’s Allentown’s. But, I’d hope the ‘Hawks would get a piece of the concession game–including beer sales. I’d also hope the SteelHawks could get a small corner of the Phantoms’ team store to sell merchandise–expanding to the concourse as needed on game days. Additional revenue for the team may allow for some franchise stability, player recruitment and coaching, and promotion. Better game day experience => More fans => More advertising => More revenue =>Better game day experience. It will build on itself. But, as I said, some things may be a little more difficult. Parking, and perhaps higher rent, and the need for additional game-day staff and facility expenses (ie: new field).
- The Partnership with the Phantoms: Phantoms management has already mentioned the possibility of one or two fellow-tenants for the PPL Arena. Indoor soccer, indoor lacrosse, and minor league basketball have all been mentioned. However, all of those leagues overlap with hockey quite a bit. And, they all want the weekends for games. It can be done, as it is in places like Syracuse and Rochester and Norfolk. However, the PIFL schedule starts just as hockey is ending, and provides for additional arena event nights throughout the early summer. The partnership is as close to perfect as you can get. The SteelHawks play a maximum of one game per week which can easily be scheduled around trade shows and concerts and graduations and other arena events.
A couple of background things: I admit I was skeptical about indoor football. I also admit that I was wrong. The pace of the game and the quickness of the scoring make for a very exciting evening. I also admit that I HATE Stabler Arena. I don’t like the seating. I don’t like the concessions. I don’t like that I can’t enjoy a beer during the game. It’s not comfortable. It’s 1980’s technology. Access and parking are about the only good things it has.
So, given the move is imminent, let me a few suggestions going forward. If I was General Manager Mike Clark, here’s what I would do–or try to do–to get ready for next season in the Arena:
- Put a good team on the field: The SteelHawks have done this already–fielding a competitive team the past couple seasons. However, I think it’s even more important with the move. A winning team will build buzz in the community. Just like other minor-league teams, though, anyone really good will probably have the opportunity to move up either to the AFL (Arena Football League, above the PIFL) or even an NFL camp. Depth is also a key–having some guys who can be called on to fill roster spots if needed. Work hard on recruiting, and talent.
- Find good local talent, if possible: If the local community recognizes names from previous High School Football games, they might be more likely to come out and check a game. Adam was a particular example of this. Reach out to former HS stars to see if they are interested in playing following their college careers. Also, if these guys are local, it can be easier to get them on board if they are needed to fill the roster spot of a player who moves up or gets injured.
- Take advantage of the Arena features (“Sell Those Groups”): The new arena will have more group areas, and luxury boxes and the like. Selling groups is a key way to fill a stadium or arena. Just ask the IronPigs–playoff games and exhibitions without groups in attendance are usually noticeably less-well supported. Most luxury boxes will be owned, but some may be able to be rented out on a game-by-game basis. There’s a group area near the field where the players enter which will be good to sell. In addition, with the larger space, sections can be set aside for certain things: Set aside a “family” section with no alcohol sales. Set aside a peanut-free section. Set aside a section of “cheap seats” for the Noise Nation. 😉 Set aside sections for the other groups, especially the youth teams.
- Partner with local youth leagues: I know they’ve tried to do this already somewhat, but it’s a great source of fans and groups. Have youth exhibitions prior to the game and at half-time. Let the youth leagues sell tickets as a fundraiser–football teams always need money. (Other minor league teams do this: Sell a block of tickets to the team at a low “bulk” price. They then re-sell them at a higher price and keep the profits for their club. It’s a win-win.) And, as long as you have that turf set up, if you can’t get youth football, give soccer clubs and lacrosse clubs a shot at the half-time exhibition, if there’s not another arena tenant willing to work with them.
- Promote at other arena events: This may be difficult to negotiate, but even a little bit might go a long way. Every Phantoms game and concert and trade show should have some information available to promote the team and the games. Even if it’s just a small kiosk or some banners. Anything you can do to let everyone know that you’re a tenant there, too. You know, a championship banner in the rafters might look nice… 🙂
- Sell that gear! As I mentioned above, a small corner of the team store with a jersey, T-Shirt and hat for sale every day of the year, will help promote the team. Even if you have to turn the profits over to the Phantoms as rent. Additional quality items on sale game days, as well, of course.
- A new field: I was watching an AFL game on TV the other day, and there they were gluing the field down between plays. I guess it’s not just us. A nice quality field will make the games more fun to watch and safer for the players. Advertising is a necessity, of course, and a partnership with another “turf” tenant like soccer or lacrosse may be necessary. Or, just charge them rent… Or, get the Arena to buy the field, and then THEY can charge rent and you won’t have the overhead. And for the love of all that’s good in sports: PLEASE, no electric blue or red or yellow or black turf. Please just green. My retinas thank you.
- Create an event: Here’s an idea. The Phantoms and the City of Allentown should be on board for the buzz it will create: Have a SteelHawks game the same day as a Phantoms game. Hear me out, now: Let’s pick a Sunday near the end of the Phantom’s season. They’ll have a matinee at 1:30 or so. Arena management has said that they like 24 hours to cover the ice for an alternate event, but that it can be done much quicker if need be, with additional man-power. Have a SteelHawks game in the evening following the hockey matinee. Keep folks downtown, and allow them to patronize the restaurants and hang out in the arena to watch the changeover, and all that. You might have to get creative with the ticketing for that part. An “event” like this will create buzz and a transition from hockey season to indoor football season. If the City really wants to get on board, close some of the nearby streets and create a “fest”-type Spring atmosphere in late March or early April.
- Tap in to the Phantom’s ticket base: This can be a little tricky as well. However, the Phantoms have LOTS of season ticket holders. Trust me, I saw them (more on that later). The ability to market to these folks who are already accustomed to coming downtown to the arena should be explored. Even if it’s only a tag on the end of an email, or one email promo per season, or whatever. A discount for Phantoms season ticket holders would also be a way to tap in. Advertise on the Phantom’s web site. All that stuff.
- Keep the party going: Some of the stuff the SteelHawks do is really cool, and I hope they continue. The on-field meet and greet following the games, and the “after parties” that have been held–all cool. And, they can be continued in downtown Allentown. There will be plenty of venues for the after-parties–or just dinner–following games.
- Get the PIFL to do better with the schedule: I understand there are difficulties with franchises coming and going, but let’s not have 5 away games in a row again. Or 5 home games for that matter. If need be, consider other nights for the games if the weekends get too difficult to schedule. NFL plays on Thursday and Monday. High school football is on Friday. All these nights could be used for games, as well as plenty of Saturday and Sunday afternoons when the kiddos can come out. And don’t even get me started on the officials. Please, PIFL, do better.
- Promote the parking: I’ve already said this a ton of times about the Phantoms. There are real concerns about parking and traffic downtown. The SteelHawks will have the benefit of a whole season of hockey and concerts under their belt before the 2015 team takes the field. Still, make parking and traffic maps VERY available both on the web site, via mailings, in advertising, and the like. Don’t minimize it–make sure that folks who need help finding their way downtown to park will be able to.
- Make use of the technology: The new arena will have state-of-the art video and sound capabilities. Use them to their maximum potential for replays and promos and whatnot. Look at the way IronPigs games have changed since their inaugural season in 2008: no more small town “swing it like an iron pig.” All big-town flash and energy. It plays well here. Use it.
The indoor football is a fast-paced exciting game, played by outstanding and enthusiastic athletes. It’s been successful in this area, and I look forward to it getting even better in the seasons to come. Best wishes to the Clarks and the SteelHawks family as they move into a new era for the team–I hope.
See you at the arena,