Wild About The Wild In only its second year, expansion Minnesota is a model NHL franchise

December 03, 2001

Perhaps if F. Scott Fitzgerald were alive and back in his
hometown of St. Paul, witnessing the reincarnation of NHL hockey
in the Twin Cities, he would reconsider his observation that
there are no second acts in American lives. Eight years after
Norm Green, the maligned owner of the Minnesota North Stars,
pleaded poverty and relocated the team to Dallas, the Minnesota
Wild has emerged as a model franchise. A second-year expansion
team, the Wild has sold out every home game it has played and,
with the league's lowest payroll, is among the NHL's few
profitable teams. "I could have told you that putting hockey
back in the Twin Cities would be a good idea," says center Darby
Hendrickson, a native of nearby Richfield, Minn., who played two
seasons at the University of Minnesota, "but this goes beyond
what anyone imagined."

The success of the Wild is remarkable given the fate of the Twin
Cities' other pro teams. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has all
but administered last rites to the Twins. Unable to coax
Minnesotans into underwriting a new stadium, Vikings owner Red
McCombs is considering moving the NFL team to Los Angeles. The
NBA Timberwolves have made the playoffs five years running and
have a huge star in Kevin Garnett, but they couldn't sell out
their home opener this season.

Meanwhile, across the Mississippi in St. Paul, the Wild has
16,100 season-ticket holders--with a waiting list of 2,200. All
74 corporate suites in the dazzling, 18,064-seat Xcel Energy
Center are leased. The Wild has the league's best-selling team
jersey and ranks second in merchandise sales, despite a 9-9-4-2
record through Sunday and a roster heavy with journeymen. "It's
still early," says Pat Forciea, a Minneapolis-based
sports-marketing expert, "but management has made all the right
moves."

The first was joining with St. Paul's mayor, Norm Coleman, and
appealing to the state legislature--and not the voters
directly--to approve a plan to finance construction of a
downtown, hockey-specific arena. The city and state put up $82
million, and the Wild chipped in with $48 million. Rather than
pay that money up front, though, the team pays $6 million
annually, much of which is offset by parking revenue, a fee the
Wild receives to manage the arena, and a naming rights deal
worth roughly $3 million a year. Hockey Night in Canada rated
the Xcel Energy Center the NHL's second-best arena, behind
Toronto's Air Canada Centre, which, as Wild CEO Jac Sperling
says, "is like getting a 9.5 from the Russian judge."

Minnesota's rich hockey tradition is also a factor in the Wild's
success. While NHL expansion teams in other markets often have
to give locals a crash course in hockey for dummies, Minnesota
fans immediately took to debating the Wild's use of the
neutral-zone trap and gave standing ovations for penalty kills.
A survey of season-ticket holders revealed that 40% of them play
hockey at least once a week. "Twins fans are fans of major
league baseball; our fans are fans of hockey," says Sperling.
"We realized that our brand is the sport at every level, not
just the NHL."

To that end, the Wild has become very involved in youth hockey
and amateur leagues throughout the state. The jerseys of every
Minnesota high school team ring the interior of the Xcel Energy
Center. Further, the executive director of the state's youth
hockey programs keeps an office in the Wild's headquarters.

The Wild's logo contains a small white asterisk in homage to the
North Stars, who were based in the Twin Cities for 26 years.
However, Wild management is well aware that its predecessors
were perceived as having frozen out the fans. By contrast,
Minnesota offers more $10 tickets--nearly 2,000--than any other
NHL team. Team reps send about 75 handwritten notes daily to
season-ticket holders, soliciting suggestions for improvements
on and off the ice. Club employees, including the executives,
regularly greet fans as they arrive at the arena. Small touches,
to be sure, but put together, they give a sense that the Wild
operates as a kind of public trust.

Will the bonhomie continue when the novelty fades and the team's
ticket prices inevitably escalate? Will Minnesota's notoriously
fickle fans continue to support the Wild should the Stanley Cup
remain a pipe dream? Wild executives acknowledge they're
enjoying a honeymoon, but they believe the equity they've built
with fans will transcend Minnesota's record.

"We're trying to create a winning attitude," says Wild president
and COO Tod Leiweke, "without the expectation that we're going
to win every game."

COLOR PHOTO: ERIC MILLER/REUTERS Wes Walz (above) and his Wild teammates sport the league's best-selling jerseys.
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