Getting a fan to walk through the doors of an arena once is one thing. Getting them to stay is something else entirely.

It’s fairly easy to get people’s attention with a cheap gimmick. Celebrities, sports teams, businesses, even universities…it seems like every organization resorts to the cheap sell every now and then.

Sure, a racy billboard might grab a few more comments than normal on a local website. A publicity stunt might increase Google searches for a week or two. A graphic ad with shock value might result in an uptick of sales for the quarter. All of those things work in the short-term.

But what keeps people coming back?

On the flip side, once fans are lost, what might get them to return?

To me, those are the big questions organizations should be asking themselves. It shouldn’t be about the cheap gimmick that gets a few hundred more people through their doors one time. For organizations to do well, to succeed, it has to be about making long-lasting connections that keeps people coming back.

It seems like I get asked at least once a season what I think my team, the Syracuse Crunch, can do to stabilize their attendance. Although I have thought about it, I’ve never really been able to come up with much on my own.

Honestly, my mental block is probably related to my own personal story about becoming a fan. I got a ticket I didn’t have to pay for through my best friend. I went. I got invited to go a few more times. I went a few more times. I got involved in online communities, I started attending games regularly, and I eventually became hooked.

Of course, there was a bit more to it than that, in between the lines. I was a sophomore in college at the time, and had been searching since high school for something to fill the space in me that the loss of my alma mater’s marching band, and the community around it, had created. I had also recently lost my job at a small family corner store (it closed because a name-brand gas station opened up down the block) and had some time to kill.

Frankly, I don’t remember the exact moment 15-ish years ago when I started self-identifying as a Crunch fan. I also don’t remember the exact moment I became known as The Crunch Fan in every social and professional circle I’m a part of. It just sort of happened.

This will never be the story for every person who walks through an arena’s doors. Not every person has a friend with a free ticket. Not every person will be at a point in their lives where they can automatically start investing time, energy, and money into a team of their choosing. Not every person will be searching for something to fill a void in their heart.

The trick, of course, is grab the attention of as many people as possible – and then hold onto it – regardless of each person’s personal circumstances. But, how? It’s certainly not an easy thing to accomplish. Every team in every sport would pay dearly for an automatic, easy answer to it all.

Knowing my lack of insight on this topic, but also knowing that it was one I was really interested in answering in the face of my team’s most recent gimmick, I reached out to some real fans. I asked a variety of questions: how they came to love what they did, if they walked away and why, and, if they had walked away, what that organization could do to get them back.

Their answers were fascinating. I hope they’ll be taken into consideration.

Michael

Michael was a season ticket holder with the Crunch for many years before he decided to stop attending their games. He had been active in a few online communities about the team during his tenure as a fan, and has attended a few games after giving up his ticket package.

When I asked him what made him stop attending games, Michael admitted that the process was not one he took lightly, nor was it a decision made overnight. He had noticed that the social aspect had become more important than the game itself, and started to wonder why he was spending so much money when he could see the same people on non-game nights and still enjoy their company without the game going on.

“After about two years (the Anaheim years) of wondering if my money and my time could be better spent, I realized that I was basically just hanging on out of rote because the actual game itself had become secondary,” he told me. “I could always hang out with (people) outside the confines of the rink, get the same (if not more) enjoyment out of doing so, and at a far smaller investment of money and time.”

Money and time are probably two of the most important things in our lives. Most of us wish for more of both, at least occasionally. As the lives of fans change, it is paramount that teams keep the fans interested enough that they keep coming back, despite the lack of one or the other (or both).

Nathan

When I asked another AHL fan, Nathan, about how he felt teams could keep people’s attention throughout the twists and turns of their lives, his response came quick and easy:

“Community service, customer service, (and) creative and original promotions on game nights.”

I know that the Crunch does an immense amount of community service. But I’ve also always felt that the amount of time spent doing good deeds in the Syracuse community isn’t publicized enough. Maybe, if the team was looking for a positive direction to take their advertising, this could be a good place to start.

What interested me most about Nathan was not his AHL experience. Nathan has a second side to his “fan self” that is different than Michael’s: he was once a die-hard Michigan football fan. His opinion of the organization soured as a collection of odd coaching decisions and disturbing discipline issues piled up.

Nathan was an out-of-market fan, so as his disillusionment with the direction of his team grew, he found it easier to walk away than others might. When I asked if Nathan would ever go back to his former fandom, he admitted that he still checks the scores every Saturday. However, he also added on, “I think I’ve just matured a lot and moved onto other things.”

Donatella

“Donatella” is a Crunch fan of more than a decade who has often been frustrated with her team’s direction, but was willing to share her thoughts on this topic. She thinks that the team needs to lean more heavily on their status as an AHL club, and use that to their advantage. Education could just be the key to keeping fans from moving onto other things.

“When the product isn’t great (as it has shown to be so far this season), you’ve got to give people other incentives. I think they should start by educating people that the Crunch is a professional hockey team that isn’t affiliated with Syracuse University. That many of these guys on our team will play in the NHL someday very soon, and that people in the Syracuse area and beyond can come see them up close.”

Personally, I would think that this could be a great advertisement direction for the team, instead of some of the billboards they’ve come up with in the past few seasons.

Educate fans, don’t condescend

Speaking of billboards, both Nathan and Michael brought up the billboards without me having to ask, and each of them had disparaging remarks to make about the most current ad.

“I was in a position this season to start going to games again after six years away, but I won’t give a nickel to such a backward operation,” Michael told me. “I’m only one man and I can’t force changes, but I can sure as hell express my disdain with my wallet..I wouldn’t feel right about putting money in Howard’s (Dolgon) pocket when he’s consistently shown himself to be sexist.

“The billboard was not only misogynistic, it was also unoriginal and not clever at all,” Nathan added. During a discussion about being a fan in general, he also said, “If I felt they were disrespecting me or didn’t care whether I was there or not, I’d have to really think about bouncing.”

There are other fans who might like the billboards, but that is not the greater point.

Not feeling cared about is the biggest issue that fans might come up against. Granted, it’s impossible for an organization to know every single fan that walks through its doors. But sometimes little things really make the difference.

One small example is that the team could work with the arena to make sure the seating area is clean. This detail might go unnoticed by most, but teams can be darn certain that visitors notice if the seating area isn’t clean (I’m looking at you, OnCenter and SMG). A clean facility makes fans feel cared about, whether they consciously realize it or not.

When I asked Michael to follow up on his thoughts about leaving the organization as a season ticket holder, he told me that he didn’t feel like the Crunch cared that he was leaving. “Nobody honestly ever reached out to (myself) to even TRY to get (me) to come back at first. I remember that to this day, and it makes me feel like they never really cared about me at all, they just cared about my credit card.”

I’m not saying that these thoughts or experiences reflect what every fan goes through. But I think that they deserve to be listened to and at least considered.

It isn’t easy getting people to stay. For the Syracuse Crunch, promoting a positive image for your team around their community service, how much they care about each fan, and campaigns centering around their position as the second-most-skilled hockey league in the world won’t be easy or cheap. But the consensus among these fans is certainly that it would be worth it.