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Disney Moves to Unruffle the Feathers of Duck Fans

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Losing games is one thing. Losing ticket holders--losing their faith, goodwill and dollars--is quite another.

For even the most loyal fans of the Mighty Ducks, this is the summer of their discontent.

“Why don’t we have a coach? Why haven’t we signed any free agents? Why can’t you give us a team we can be proud of?”

These are the questions that came from about 100 season-ticket holders assembled by the Walt Disney Co. Tuesday at the Arrowhead Pond.

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Two days later, Disney announced Pierre Gauthier will serve as team president. Although fans of Disney’s hockey franchise may yawn at the news because it didn’t answer their most pressing questions, the move comes out of a standard corporate playbook: Heed your alienated customers, or lose them.

“They can’t do anything about what happened last year,” said David Carter, who teaches sports business at USC. “But they can be proactive.”

And the club’s actions this week, from soliciting ticket holders’ advice to adding another layer of management, show Disney is worried about losing its large--and lucrative--base of hockey customers.

“We know if we have another season like the last one, next year you won’t be here,” Anaheim Sports President Tony Tavares said to the crowd Tuesday.

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One man told Tavares, who oversees both the Ducks and the baseball Angels, that he had a ticket invoice for $9,000 and didn’t know whether to bother to pay it. Said another: “You say, ‘We’ve made mistakes.’ But each time you make a mistake, our ticket prices go up.”

The Ducks declined to reveal whether renewals for season tickets this year are lagging last year’s pace. But the routine sellouts of the early years evaporated into blocks of empty seats by the end of last season, the worst in the Ducks’ five-year history.

What started out so well--the honeymoon of the inaugural year and the thrill of the 1997 playoff run--dissipated into a series of public-relations disasters over the past year.

Popular coach Ron Wilson was fired at the end of the club’s only playoff season. Then, the team and its superstar, Paul Kariya, became locked in a protracted contract dispute. This summer, the free agents the Ducks promised to acquire signed elsewhere, and as Wilson led the Washington Capitals into the Stanley Cup finals, the team fired two assistant coaches, then fired head coach Pierre Page three weeks later.

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The latest mess erupted Wednesday, when minor-league coach Butch Goring said he had rejected a take-it-or-leave-it offer to replace Page. The Ducks announced a five-year contract for Gauthier the next day, but Tavares said the timing was strictly coincidental.

“I get the impression everybody thinks we have this master plan: Let’s release this to the press right now,” Tavares said. “You do things when they’re available. Pierre was available. We went out and got him. And we went out and spent money, which you guys say we never do.”

Gauthier’s expertise in both administration and hockey operations is unchallenged. Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, in particular, admires Gauthier.

But Tavares stressed that, as part of the new job, Gauthier will replace him as Disney’s primary spokesman on hockey matters. Gauthier has not been pierced by the arrows publicly fired at Tavares for Wilson, Kariya and other matters.

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“I don’t think this is crisis management,” said Rick Burton, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “Managing two teams simultaneously has got to be difficult, and this is a form of relief that allows everyone a little more attention to detail.

“But a new person in this role may decrease some of the negative press. It sounds like a pretty logical move.”

So, too, are the meetings with season-ticket holders. While gathering customers and soliciting opinions is common in the corporate world--at Disney and elsewhere--Carter said such groups are “a little out of the norm for professional sports.”

Ducks spokesman Rob Scichili said the team has had occasional fan sessions in previous years but did not begin a monthly schedule of fan meetings until last month.

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Said Carter: “On the face of it, this is a very proactive, let’s-work-with-our-customers approach. But they can’t just do it for appearances’ sake. If it’s only lip service, that would be a tremendous marketing mistake. Ill will would focus very quickly.”

That fan who asked whether to bother to pay for his tickets? Tavares told him to hold onto the invoice, that moves in the coming weeks will point to a better season.

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DUCKS REHIRE GAUTHIER: Pierre Gauthier is returning to the Ducks as team president. His first task: Find a coach. C1

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