Opinion: The Blue Jackets Should Road Trip to Cleveland
I was walking down East Fourth Street in Downtown Cleveland heading to an early season Indians game versus Seattle when I passed the Cleveland Clothing Company’s flagship store.
On display were several Cleveland hockey shirts for all to see in the heavily foot trafficked area a block away from Quicken Loans Arena and Progressive Field.
As a Columbus native and lifelong Blue Jackets fan, the shirts immediately caught my attention and sparked an idea.
My girlfriend happens to be a Cleveland native who now lives in Columbus. She’s not the biggest hockey fan (yet), but when I asked her the simple question, “Wouldn’t it be cool if the Jackets played a ‘home’ game in Cleveland?” she responded with a resounding, “Yes.”
This is when I started to ponder over the idea. Why don’t the Jackets play one game per year in Cleveland? It would grow the sport of hockey throughout the Buckeye state. In a similar sense to how Clevelanders love Ohio State, the Blue Jackets could secure a more prominent position in the Cleveland sports scene by heading up 71-North for a game per year.
So, why should the Blue Jackets trek up to Cleveland each year (and the Cavs should return the favor to Columbus)?
Minor League Connection
First, the Clippers became the minor league affiliate of the Indians. The Blue Jackets followed suit and made Cleveland’s minor league hockey team, the Monsters, their AHL affiliate.
The Monsters won the Calder Cup (the minor-league equivalent to the Stanley Cup) in 2016, just a year after becoming an affiliate to the Blue Jackets.
The success of the minor-league Monsters piqued an interest in hockey in Cleveland. Cleveland’s minor league championship came in front of a sellout crowd of 19,665 at Quicken Loans Arena, the largest crowd in Monsters franchise history and the second-largest crowd in the 80-year history of the Calder Cup Playoffs. It was also the largest crowd ever for a professional hockey game in Ohio.
Oliver Bjorkstrand scored the game winning goal in overtime. He was one of many Monsters players part of that Calder Cup run who are now key contributors on the Blue Jackets young and exciting roster.
Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, also owns the Monsters. You would think he would not be opposed to filling Quicken Loans Arena for another night of the year, which would help grow interest in Cleveland for the sport of hockey.
Let’s face it, if the idea was proposed of the Blue Jackets playing one game per year in Cleveland when they were bottom dwellers, it would be a big concern of whether the Q would fill up.
When you have a successful team on the ice, more people become interested in the product. The Blue Jackets saw a 118% increase in TV ratings during the 2016-2017 campaign versus the prior season, when they were bottom dwellers. There was a direct correlation in viewers on television as the Jackets set a franchise record for most wins and points in a season.
Something else went under the radar — Cleveland was one of three markets that launched “The Athletic,” which is premium sports journalism for diehard local fans. When the Blue Jackets approached the playoffs, there was such a demand by Clevelanders for Blue Jackets coverage that the Athletic decided to start covering the Jackets.
The Blue Jackets are a team on the rise. Their prospects often play in Cleveland before arriving in Columbus. A game per year in Cleveland would just add increased interest to the Jackets.
Cleveland’s a Hockey Market
Gilmour. St. Edwards. St. Ignatius. Hunting Valley University School. Padua. Avon.
Cleveland is loaded with great hockey programs. Before the Blue Jackets came to Columbus, schools near Lake Erie dominated hockey in the state of Ohio.
Cleveland was born to be a hockey market. The weather is cold enough where starting in August, the ponds start to freeze over (sarcasm, if you didn’t pick up on it).
In all seriousness, people forget Cleveland once had an NHL franchise, the Cleveland Barons, who played at the Richfield Coliseum from 1976-1978. The team had to move due to lackluster attendance.
To give Cleveland the benefit of the doubt, the team was moved to Cleveland on short notice and there wasn’t ample time to promote the product to truly grow the sport. Additionally, the team was awful, never amassing more than 25 wins in their two seasons in Cleveland.
Hell, the Pittsburgh Penguins played regular season games in Cleveland! See the excerpt below from the Cleveland Barons Wikipedia page.
The NHL worked to keep interest in hockey alive in Ohio. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who from 1978-1991 were owned by Northeast Ohio native Edward DeBartolo, Sr., would play two “home” games at the Richfield Coliseum in the early 1990s before the arena was demolished.
This tactic by the Penguins to play games in Cleveland clearly worked as there are pockets in Cleveland that still carry Penguins games over Blue Jackets telecasts! In order for Cleveland to truly become a Jackets town, a regular season game needs to take place each year at the Q.
There is a reason the Browns are shown more often on TV than the Bengals in the Columbus market. It definitely isn’t because of the wins the Browns have compiled over the years. I know it upsets Cincinnati fans but there are simply more Cleveland sports fans in Columbus.
According to Crain’s Cleveland Business, Columbus is the third-largest source of season-ticket holders for the Browns, behind the Cleveland and Akron areas.
Columbus had the third best TV ratings in the entire country for Game 7 of the NBA Finals when the Cavs downed the Golden State Warriors. The only markets that surpassed Columbus were Cleveland and San Francisco.
Columbus also had a monstrous ratings for Game 7 of the World Series when the Indians played the Cubs. Columbus’ 34.1 rating only trailed Chicago, Cleveland and Kansas City.
When Ohio State defeated Oregon to win the National Championship in 2015, Cleveland produced a monstrous 26.5 rating, ranking only behind Columbus in terms of viewership per city.
The point I’m trying to make is there are a ton of fans in Columbus that support Cleveland sports teams. Cleveland also supports Columbus with its love for Ohio State. If the Jackets had a weekend game in Cleveland during a cold winter month, it would only grow the fan base in Cleveland for the CBJ.
Also, Clevelanders hate everything Pittsburgh. The rivalry that is building up between the Jackets and Penguins would be easy for Cleveland sports fans to get behind.
The Cavs play a preseason game at the Schottenstein Center each year, as of late. The defending champions know that Columbus is a big market and they make a concerted effort to grow the fan base in the 614.
The strategy is clearly paying dividends. Just look at the massive TV ratings for the Cavs in Central Ohio.
Here’s the deal though. The game at Value City Arena each year where the Cavaliers come to Columbus is a preseason game. It is meaningless. Fans are lucky if LeBron James even suits up.
The Blue Jackets could learn a lesson from the Cavs on how to grow interest in their sibling market by playing a game there. The Jackets need to take it to the next level though and play a meaningful game in Cleveland if they want this to work.
I don’t know the contractual obligations of Nationwide Arena and Quicken Loans Arena. It is possible this could never work because of certain language in the contract of each respective arena’s contract.
The NHL manages to remove a regular season game from the arena of the team that hosts the Winter Classic, the popular outdoor game each year. I’m confident they can figure out a way to make this Columbus and Cleveland connection work.
Moving past the legal hearsay, below is my proposition.
The Blue Jackets and Cavaliers switch arenas during a cold January evening every year. To appease the season ticket holders, anyone who has season tickets would get first dibs to the “home game” in the sibling city. There is already rapid discussion in both the NHL and NBA that there are too many regular season games. Removing one game from the calendar isn’t going to ruffle any feathers.
By the Blue Jackets and Cavaliers each partaking in this “swap” there wouldn’t be any financial loss to the bars, restaurants and local businesses in either market.
The Blue Jackets would choose a weekend game versus either Chicago, Buffalo, Detroit, Toronto or the New York Rangers. Sorry Pittsburgh, we don’t want you to invade the Q! People from Columbus would be able to make a weekend trip out of the game. Opposing fans could also make the trek to Cleveland to watch an NHL game in a new venue.
The Cavs would choose any night of the week to play at Nationwide Arena. Let’s face it, if LeBron comes to town, they can play Charlotte and it would be a tough ticket to snag.
The Cavs are already Columbus’ NBA team. The Blue Jackets are slowly becoming Cleveland’s hockey team.
An NHL game on a yearly basis at Quicken Loans Arena would be a move that grows the fan base for the Jackets in Cleveland. This would increase their following and grow TV ratings in a major market, which all have financial benefits to the team. Additionally, more Clevelanders would be enticed to head down south to Nationwide Arena for a couple of games each year after they experience an NHL hockey game.
Mr. Gilbert and Mr. McConnell — What are your thoughts?