Mighty Ducks Are Not So Lame

At the cash register and on the ice, Disney scores again

THE corporation that gave the world Disneyland, the greatest people trap ever built by a mouse, has always done famously with creatures (birds, genies, wicked witches, and so forth) who lend themselves well to animated cartoons.

It was not inevitable, though, that one of Disney's next ventures would be to spend $50 million for an expansion franchise in the National Hockey League. But about the time the NHL had new horizons on its mind, Disney was grossing $50 million from its kid- ice-hockey movie, ``The Mighty Ducks.''

This triggered the showman-businessman side of Disney chairman Michael Eisner, who saw the drawing power of this movie as enough of a test market to justify putting an NHL franchise in Anaheim.

Actually, Disney's research went deeper than that, including an extensive look at Orange County's average household income, which is among the highest in the United States. In fact, the average income of a sports-and-entertainment patron in Orange County (according to Disney) is $56,000 a year.

Since all expansion teams start with a grab bag of players almost nobody else wants (overage vets, misfits, malcontents, underachievers, and so forth), many thought the Mighty Ducks would struggle for a while. The 1992-93 expansion Ottawa Senators won only 10 of 84 regular-season games, for example. But so far, the Mighty Ducks have done surprisingly well, with a 2-3-1 mark as of Oct. 21. They are fourth in their division, ahead of Edmonton and San Jose.

At the box office and in sales generally, where Disney's high-powered marketing techniques have been winners for years, virtually nothing of a commercial nature has been overlooked.

``Yet we never want to do anything that will take away from our product on the ice,'' explains Bob Wagner, the organization's marketing director, who made the jump across the street from baseball's California Angels. ``Our hockey franchise and the responsibilities that go with it will always be our first consideration,'' he says. ``We want to build a lasting foundation.... We want to develop a warm feeling between fans and the Ducks.''

Wagner also feels it's important that season ticket-holders know that the people dealing exclusively with the hockey part of the Mighty Ducks - the executives, coaches, scouts, and so forth - ``all have extensive National Hockey League backgrounds.''

Entrusted to put jet engines on the Ducks are general manager Jack Ferreira and head coach Ron Wilson. Ferreira, who helped feed the San Jose Sharks through their expansion season as vice president and general manager, has more than 20 years' experience in the NHL. Wilson, a former NHL defenseman and assistant coach with the Vancouver Canucks, has a reputation for knowing the whereabouts of the best amateur players in the country.

Meanwhile, fans will watch the Mighty Ducks' home games at the freshly minted Anaheim Arena, also known as the Duck Pond, a $122 million, state-of-the-art facility owned by the city of Anaheim and run by the Ogden Corporation. Early interest in the Ducks was so strong that within 30 days the team exceeded the NHL's requirement that 10,000 season tickets be sold.

Approached from California's Orange Freeway, the Anaheim Arena looks like the largest train station in the world, also the most elegant. It is filled with granite, glass, marble, and the latest in design and technological wizardry. It also has exceptionally good sight lines, even from the $16 seats. It holds 17,500 ice-hockey fans, 18,000 for basketball (a fact not lost on the National Basketball Association's restless L.A. Clippers), and 19,000 for general arena events.

The palace of NHL arenas also has two levels of luxury suites (82 in all) that carry a yearly price tag of $60,000 to $100,000. This includes all arena events, not just hockey, as well as special parking privileges.

MERCHANDISE that bears the Ducks' logo sold well in the pre-season in every NHL arena. In Anaheim, Disney is operating a fully equipped retail hockey store in its new facility, plus a second retail store at a nearby mall.

Additional revenue for the Mighty Ducks will come from cable TV (Prime Ticket), regular TV, plus radio rights. Cartoon characters from Disneyland are expected to visit Anaheim Arena frequently during the regular season. Indeed, the opening-game show included a number featuring characters from Disney's ``Beauty and the Beast.''

``While we are building our fans a competitive NHL franchise,'' Wagner says, ``we also plan to provide them, including kids, with a high level of Disney-style entertainment.'' To ensure at least a 10-minute spectacle between periods, the Ducks have purchased two ice-reconditioning machines to do the job faster.

What Mighty Duck fans can look forward to are live singers and dancers, cheerleaders on skates, contests involving fans on ice, and a roving organist who strolls through the stands between periods playing the organ by means of a remote-controlled keyboard strapped to him.

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