This kid has the right idea. There just needs to be more of him, yelling more in unison and/or harmony. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
If you're interested in a preview of tonight's game, please scroll down. This is about something I've been thinking about for the past few days.
Professional sports serve a dual purpose. It is a competition, and so most everyone involved is focused on whether the team succeeds or fails in their sport. It is also a business, and the goal there is to please the customer, the ticket-buyer that experiences the game whether for the first time or for their entire life. Generally, the two go hand-in-hand. Winning teams please the home crowds and gives them an easy reason to see them again. Losing teams, like the New Jersey Devils have been to start the 2010-11 season, frustrate, disappoint, or anger crowds and the business suffers regardless of having a fairly new and sweet arena, easy access to mass transit, and other perks.
While the Devils - the hockey team - sort out their on-ice problems (and need to do so A.S.A.P.); the business side that's focused on the "game experience" can certainly try to improve it further in the meantime. One idea to do just that is to have more noise at games. Actual, from-the-heart-of-the-fans noise. From a group of hardcore fans who are willing in their vocal support of the team whether they are winning or losing. Fortunately, for the Devils, they don't even have to start from scratch to accomplish this task of boosting the atmosphere at the Rock.
Why More Noise?
Let me take a step back and explain my reasoning for wanting more noise first.
Too often at too many arenas, someone over the PA will demand to "Make some noise" before playing some song you've heard a hundred times, with a matching video on the screen over center ice. It's not that this doesn't work, but the noise dies shortly after the music stops and the game begins on the ice. Then there's some random chatter in the crowd but overall, usually not a lot of energy. Someone begins a chant, usually "Let's Go Devils," more people pick up on it - and more passionately than if it's directed from PA. That lasts for a few seconds. Then we're back to a more quiet environment, where fans only cheer in support of their team if something good happens.
I understand that some prefer their game experience to be more muted, but last I checked; this is sport not a library. If the fans who spend so much money to get a seat to see the game play live are sitting on their hands for 80% of the game, then the lack of atmosphere weighs on people.
Especially if you follow soccer or college sports, where the fans do get rowdy and certainly "make a scene." Like Utah State fans informing the visiting basketball team who is and isn't winning. Like when the Empire Supporters Club & Garden State Supporters along with the rest of the South Ward leads (emphasis on leads, the club puts this up on the video screens when done in the 50th minute or so) an "I Believe That We Will Win" chant in Harrison, NJ. Like the Cameron Crazies of Dukes, the erstwhile Kirk's Jerks at UCF, the Black Hole for the Oakland Raiders, the Dawg Pound in Cleveland, and so many others. Yet, it has not really translated into NHL arenas for some reason (with one exception).
Some may think this is stupid or inappropriate; and I'm not going to deny that all supporter's groups or actions by them are all good. I see the concept is a good thing for all involved. The home players can know they are being supported just by hearing them. The arena becomes a tougher place to play for the visiting team. Those fans making the noise feel they have a role in the game beyond just being spectators; and everyone else at the game can discuss how much fun it was at the game beyond just the action on the field. Such chanting, singing, noise-making, and so forth can certainly be memorable. The team may eat it on the ice, but there would be an actual atmosphere that boosts the experience for both hardcore and casual fans at the game, and perhaps lifts the team's spirits a bit.
It could also have With high definition cameras making TV viewing more like the real thing, teams need to offer more than just the game to get people to come. A fan culture that is passionate and vocal can't be replicated elsewhere but at the arena. You really can't yell things to support your team or insult the opposition at your TV - I've done it myself at my Samsung TV, it doesn't have any effect other than looking silly.
It's not only organic but also contagious. Not many want to be the one loud jackwagon trying to get something going by themselves. But when a group gets going, that fear of silence/embarrassment goes away and others join in. That's why it's louder when the fans firing up themselves instead of following the PA's orders or whether everyone got a thunderstick or a towel or some other trinket to wave/bang upon entering the arena. The best noise comes from the true believers regardless of the sport or general sport culture of the country.
The Devils Sort of Attempted to Do This Once Before
To their credit, the Devils have at tried to heat up the crowds before (even during game action) by hiring a "Superfan" named Cameron. Yes, he's hired for multiple teams to do this. Yes, he's the dude who wears like 7 t-shirts underneath a jersey, throws the sweaty shirts of cloth to people who at first want them and then go "ew" at how drenched it is. Yes, he's not really a Devils fan. Yes, I know typing that out make it incredibly lame.
The thing is, Cameron worked. He would start making noise and everyone within 3 sections of him would follow suit. He has a certain charisma where he can get thousands excited. Whereas if I did the exact same things Cameron does, I'd probably get nothing but eye-rolls, stares, and someone from security asking me to leave quietly. That's the problem with the "superfan" approach; you need to have that one-in-a-million person leading the way.
Proof of Supporter's Groups - Squad 6 and Section 303
I don't believe the Devils need to do that to proverbially raise the roof at the Rock. There are two examples that serve as a kind of a blueprint that I would like the Devils to at least consider for improving the fan experience: Squad 6 and Section 303.
Per this Charles Gardner article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, Squad 6 was created by Milwaukee Bucks center Andrew Bogut last year. He wanted more fire from the fans, he wanted more excitement from the crowd, he wanted more noise. Last year, he decided to purchase 100 season tickets in the lower bowl of the Bradley Center and give them out only to fans who bring the noise all night long. The section's watched to ensure no one is just getting a free ride.
And it worked.
The Bucks official website touts the group, it's gotten national attention, and I'd be shocked if the Bucks faithful didn't appreciate the extra buzz. It could conceivably work for the Devils too. I mean, the Devils are terrible now and yet there are still thousands going to games, discussing them online, and so forth. I don't think it's impossible that there could be a group of Devils fans interested in letting out all that stress by going crazy for 2.5 hours at a game. There's nothing stopping Ilya Kovalchuk (among other multimillionaire Devils) from buying up most of an upper-level section and giving those seats to some verbal hell-raisers. Has anyone else tried it? Well, the Detroit Pistons have and, well, early returns weren't so good. But someone's trying which speaks to the desirability of a Squad 6 like group at games.
The Devils may not even need to go that far. They may not need to do anything. Section 303 (a.k.a. Cell Block 303) in Nashville is a more traditional example of a supporter's group. They are a group of fans who sit in the same area who decided to yell in support of their Predators on their own terms. Their manifesto says it all - they do this for their own entertainment; yet their amusement has been contagious. The players, coaches, and management support it; and that's huge since their approval emboldens them to keep doing what they are doing. Their passion has had some impact on the game. There actually is a relationship between the Predators and 303. As far as I know, they keep it fairly clean and all involved have a good time - the perfect model for a supporter's group in my view.
I don't know about you, but what's stopping the Crazies in 232 and 233 from doing the same?
Those fans are definitely hardcore, they even lead a few chants (the D-E-V-I-L-S one comes to mind, I know "KILL!" is recent which is a good start). If they just speak up more often, come up with a few more chants (do what other groups do - steal the good ones from others), and get a bit more organized (is there a leader? Maybe there should be just to commence the yelling?), then they would be a bona fide supporter's group as well. Maybe the Devils can encourage them to do just that (discounted seats? more attention on the site/video board? etc.). But if they get it together on their own, then they should definitely support them all the way through.
Such a group would yell, chant, and sing whether the Devils are winning or losing - and everyone involved would benefit. It throws a bone to the hardcore fans; it creates a more pro-Devils anti-opposition atmosphere at the Rock; based on evidence of other chants, and even the most casual of fans would leave the game knowing that Devils fans are quite passionate in their team. If not 232/233, then see if 209 or some other section would be willing to take a chance of organizing something. The team can certainly help facilitate that by explaining what they can and can't do, but encourage them to bring the thunder.
The powers that be that are concerned with the entertainment part of the game experience should embrace more noise and encourage that the fans make more of it on their own during the game. It would make the Rock a little tougher place for visitors and add an additional appeal in going to games. Given how bad the Devils are playing, any additional appeal would definitely be desirable - especially if there's a group of fans willing to step up with support from the organization. Anything to enhance the experience for any fan that steps into the Rock.