Despite being plagued by injuries and call-ups, the Abbotsford Heat enjoyed their best season since moving the team to British Columbia under new head coach Troy Ward. They finished 4th in the AHL’s Western Conference with a record of 42-26-3-5 and swept their first round series in three games (best of five).
Unfortunately, the success off the ice has not translated to success at the ticket office. The Heat officially drew a crowd of just 1,704 for their second round match-up versus the Marlies last night, which, according to some of the photos I saw of the stands, is probably an overstatement. The small showing isn’t a fluke occurrence either – Abbotsford finished second last in the league in terms of average attendance during the regular season (3,545), more than 2,000 tickets short of the AHL mean (5,638).
As I explained back in March 2010, lackluster revenue isn’t a concern of the Flames organization owing to a deal the team struck when they moved into Abbotsford’s publicly built arena: for the first 10 years of the deal, Abbotsford township is on the hook for the team’s $5.7 million operating expenses should revenues fall short. In addition, the subsidy allows the Flames to waive the $200,000 annual rental fee for playing in the Abbotsford rink.
As a result, the Flames don’t lose a dime even if the club attracts nary a soul.
As Cam Tucker of The Abbotsford Times noted last September, the Heat cost Abby tax payers as much as $1.7 million through the first two years of operation. And although the team went through a major shake-up in the front office last summer (adding Ryan Walter as team president) and experienced more success on-ice than ever before, attendance fell for the third straight year and has paradoxically bottomed-out in the post-season. Meaning – Abbotsford residents can expect to reach into their pockets for three years in a row.
Things aren’t likely to improve in the immediate future either. I was contacted today by a BC native who had this to say:
The real blood bath with the Heat financials in Abby will start next year. All the private boxes are currently sold out at big dollars because the Heat required a minimum 3 year commitment when they first sold them. That commitment for many boxes runs out this year and from I’m hearing their renewal rate on the boxes will be very low. My uncle has a box and won’t be renewing and both boxes on either side of him won’t be back next year. Watch for the numbers to take a big nosedive next season. Will be interesting to see what happens.
That is some grim news for club who has seen falling numbers each season despite gradual improvement of the on-ice product.
If You Build It…
It’s easy to understand why the Flames pressed for such an advantageous deal they wrung from Abbotsford city council – the AHL tends to be a hard sell due to its lower profile and ever-shifting rosters. Almost every star on the team is inevitably scooped by the parent squad, so the locals end up cheering for an ever shifting array of fringe players, cast-offs and fresh-faced rookies. Putting a club in enemy occupied territory as it were (Vancouver Canucks country) probably didn’t help things either.
As a development league, the AHL works. As a business model, it’s usually less successful.
As a result, Calgary’s AHL affiliate led a nomadic existence before landing in BC. Since 2005, the club moved from Omaha to Quad Cities to Abbotsford. Clearly the Flames saw an opportunity to lend some stability to their minor league team by leveraging the freshly built "Entertainment and Sports Center" in Abbootsford – a project that was desperately seeking a reason to justify its $82 million price-tag. City council’s need for a recognizable anchor tenant allowed the Flames to construct what can only be considered a completely one-sided arrangement with the town’s tax payers.
From a pro sports management perspective, it’s an impressive bit of business. From a tax-payer, public management perspective, it’s a disaster. The object lesson here is that building big expensive structures and being held hostage by celebrity tenants is hardly a sure path to either prestige or financial success.
*photo courtesy the Grand Rapids Griffins facebook account