When the puck dropped on the Blackhawks’ 2021 home schedule Friday against the Red Wings, the maroon seats of the United Center were empty from Section 101 to the nosebleeds.
But that didn’t mean the Hawks weren’t planning for the eventual return of spectators. In fact, this socially distanced season provides the perfect opportunity for innovative overhauls to the fan experience.
New Hawks business operations president Jaime Faulkner, given her seven years of background in that field before officially assuming the presidency Jan. 4, will drive that innovation. She and new CEO Danny Wirtz talked extensively about their plans in December.
Even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, heightened expectations about cleanliness and seamlessness in public places such as the UC will remain.
The Hawks will design their concourses, concession stands, stores, booths and more around that new reality.
“One of the things we have heard, over and over again, from our fans is that they want a frictionless experience,” Faulkner said. “Frictionless from ticket-purchasing to getting to the arena on game day and engaging with the brand on non-game days.”
What does that “frictionless” buzzword actually mean?
“If we think about what it’s like to actually go to a game, the competition we have is the at-home experience,” she said. “If I want to get off my couch and grab my hat, grab something from the kitchen, that’s completely frictionless, and I control that experience. There are a lot of new technologies that fans will see across the country in many venues, and hopefully at the United Center, that will feel just like that.
“You will navigate and walk through the concourse and grab what you want, when you want it. We’re transacting with you the whole time. You can leave your seat, go grab something and be back at your seat and not have to worry about missing a minute of the game.”
Faulkner admits that speed factor is particularly important in hockey, a sport for which most fans prioritize seeing most or all of the game action higher than they might at, say, a baseball or basketball game.
With the Hawks sharing the UC with the Bulls, though, Faulkner’s innovations will likely affect the fan experience somewhat for both teams.
And that statement also relies on the assumption that most people attending a Hawks game are locked-in, dedicated fans.
That’s obviously not universally the case, and the Hawks will seek to improve other parts of their in-game experience — from commercial-break and intermission entertainment to amenities at restaurants, bars, suites and lounges in the arena — to appeal to the more casual fans.
“There’s a spectrum of fandom,” Faulkner said. “There are those that will not leave their seats and are very focused on the actual game of hockey, all the way to the other end of the spectrum, where fans are very social and there because they want to be in an exciting environment with their friends. And there are experiences that are in between.
“What we have to do is recognize, what are all those different experiences? How do we best serve those up to our fan base? How do we find and offer those to a new fan base?”
Along those lines, reaching out to potential new fan bases has quickly become one of the Hawks’ biggest organizational goals.
Wirtz immediately made that a priority when he became interim president in April, and it featured heavily in the comprehensive vision he unveiled in July.
As the NHL tries to reform aspects of hockey culture that have long fostered racism and homophobia, and as youth leagues seek to overcome the high costs of equipment and ice time, the Hawks, too, hope to gain the eyes and ears of a wider range of Chicagoans.
“We aspire to welcome new audiences in, and that cuts across dimensions of race, economics, age,” Wirtz said. “There’s so many people that aren’t engaged with our brand right now, and that’s really the opportunity.
“But to do that, you . . . [have to prioritize] knowing more about those different audiences. What are the barriers [keeping] them from being fans right now? What are the things that they need to get on board with being a Blackhawks fan? And then it’s about very specific things to service those customers. . . . That’s going to be one of the larger initiatives we’ll be looking at.”
Becoming more involved in the community — locally in the West Loop as well as in other neighborhoods — is one way the Hawks can reach those new audiences.
Faulkner has seen in recent years a trend emerging among pro franchises: making use of facilities for purposes beyond sports.
Levy Restaurants, the concessions giant that Faulkner’s previous company was a part of, helped the Las Vegas Raiders use Allegiant Stadium’s kitchen space to sell “game-day-to-go” meal packages to fans and helped the Milwaukee Bucks repurpose Fiserv Arena as a ghost kitchen for a chicken-tender brand.
Bringing the Hawks up to speed with that movement will be one of her first objectives, and that will benefit the communities making use of the Hawks’ facilities. Faulkner mentioned game-day-to-go and ghost-kitchen services as possibilities for the UC even in a post-coronavirus world.
And in this coronavirus-is-everywhere world, even as the Hawks play in front of no one, the first brainstorming sessions are already taking place.