The Chicago Blackhawks four years ago were losing fans to the Chicago Wolves.
This season, the Hawks are the National Hockey League's biggest draw. Team owner Rocky Wirtz is mining the world of Facebook and Twitter to keep it that way.
"People my age aren't the ones you go after," Wirtz, 57, said in an interview before heading to his seat, a padded folding chair amid the fans, for the playoff victory that sent his team to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1992.
"The question is how do you get the 20-year-olds?" he said. "We want to work more with social media than ever before. We want to recruit them to be fans for 30 more years."
The Blackhawks, whose 49-year championship drought is the longest of any current hockey franchise, are schooling others on and off the ice this season as the NHL struggles to boost a fan base that remains the smallest of the four major professional sports.
The team, a 4-11 favorite at U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc, takes on the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 1 tomorrow in a stadium packed with many fans who were drawn through marketing, expanded television exposure and use of social networking websites.
The team's official Facebook page has 207,000 fans, the third-most among NHL teams, behind the Montreal Canadiens and last year's champion Pittsburgh Penguins, according to the website of Coyle Media, a sports marketing consultant in Indianapolis. The Flyers's Facebook page has 172,000 followers.
The irony of the Blackhawks helping set the standard for media savvy isn't lost on longtime fans. Wirtz's father, William, who died in 2007, alienated them by refusing to allow home games to be broadcast on local television. His philosophy was that if people wanted to see a game, they could buy a ticket and sit in the stands. A younger owner is improving the team's image, fans said.
"Rest in peace Dollar Bill, but when the son took over, he changed everything," said Dave Summers, 42, from Naperville, who invoked the elder Wirtz's nickname during Game 4 of his team's sweep of the San Jose Sharks. "He brought a whole new generation with him. We're behind him all the way."
The NHL's social media push helps the league make up for a television contract that pays a fraction of what the National Basketball Association makes.
While the NHL and NBA play a similar number of games and their attendance is comparable, their television contracts aren't. The NHL deal with Comcast Corp.'s Versus cable network is worth about $233 million through next season, said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's sports marketing center. The NBA's agreements with three networks total $7.4 billion, he said.
After beating the NBA in attendance last year, the NHL fell back this season with 20.9 million, according to data from ESPN.com.
The league is trying to offset a lack of TV exposure by pushing videos on Facebook and its own site.
Wirtz is combining Internet outreach with the marketing heft of his family's liquor-distribution business, Wirtz Beverage Group. The team website promotes its official Blackhawks bars, which get signs and other promotional items, including the music and videos played before and during games.
The site draws customers who otherwise wouldn't find Theory, a sports lounge in Chicago's River North area, said Joel Sorinsky, managing partner.
"If I have someone in for the Blackhawks game and they tweet that they're here and it's a good place to watch the game, that's great for business," said Sorinsky, 28.
The Blackhawks' website has a multimedia tab that links to game video, news conferences and interviews of players by players.
More than 30,000 people follow the team on Twitter, according to Coyle. About half are women, said Adam Kempenaar, director of new media and publications for the Blackhawks.
The exposure helped Chicago lead the NHL in regular-season attendance, drawing 854,000 fans to 40 games at the United Center, filling the arena to 108 percent capacity, according to ESPN.com. Just three years ago, when Wirtz took over for his father, the team drew 522,000 fans, the second-fewest in the league.
Longtime fans who sat through years of losing are now enjoying season tickets that, 30 minutes before the start of Game 4 in the best-of-seven Western Conference Final, were selling for as much as $3,300.
"If you go back to the era of the Michael Jordan Bulls, there was just a lot of energy in the building," said Murray Savage, 59, a season-ticket holder who is chief executive officer of Professional Service Industries Inc., an engineering firm in Oakbrook Terrace. "Right now the Hawks are generating that kind of energy. It's an entirely different atmosphere."