Good Year For Heat Not Matched Off the Ice

 

 

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

  • SarahM

    I do think that one of the issues for the Heat is that the Lower Mainland is Canucks country, not hockey country. Giants’ attendance is still over 6,000/night, but has been trending downward for the past four or five years, and the Bruins were among the worst in the WHL before they left Chilliwack. Honestly, this is a tough market for sports in general — lots of empty seats for the Lions and Whitecaps, too.

    It’s also a trek for Vancouverites to get out to games in Abbotsford. It’s 45-60 mins each way from the city, traffic-dependent, and getting out of the arena after a game is nightmarish. Game tickets are cheap but parking isn’t, so it often doesn’t seem worth the trip, especially during the week, when a lot of time is spent sitting in rush hour traffic, wasting $1.45/litre gas.

    But yeah, tax payers in Abbotsford are getting royally screwed. As counter-productive as it might be, I can’t help but wonder if some potential fans stay away just out of spite.

  • I know some people will say that putting the AHL affiliate into Calgary would cannibalize the Hitmen, but I think it would work, especially if the Flames ever build a new arena and can’t remove the existing one. WHich could happeb, since I understand it’s now a Heritage sight or something.

    So, it may be down the road, but I think it could be done. The biggest problem is access and parking. Maybe the Flames should build a smaller arena outside of downtown for those 2 teams. Maybe a 10,00 max. capacity.

    Just throwing ideas out here. I know there may be agreements and contracts with the Stampede Board and parking revenues, etc., but my gist is I think the Calgary market, under the right circumstances, could support all 3 teams.

  • RexLibris

    Anyone interested should take a look at the OKC Barons (Oilers affiliate). They are drawing a pretty small crowd despite having one of the best AHL teams in the league. A playoff push by their NBA team hasn’t helped, but they only drew 2833 in Game 1 and 2962 in Game 2. This could simply be par for the course when it comes to many AHL venues.

    Financially the Barons don’t look viable right now, however there have been suggestions at Copper and Blue that it would benefit both the Barons and Oilers for the promotional staff in Edmonton to try and lend a helping hand to stir up local interest in the Barons.

    I would argue that a more long-term development plan with respect to prospect can also help. Pitlick and Hamilton seem likely to spend another whole season in the AHL and that would probably address one of the concerns raised by Kent.

    If the Flames were to let Reinhart, Ferland and some others play out their first contracts in the AHL, or at least the first two years, then some fan loyalty may begin to develop.

  • It would also help if you could go the AHL as soon as you hit 19. Which, of course, creates a whole slew of new problems in the junior ranks, but I think that they should amend the rules to allow each NHL team to be able to add one 19 year old to the farm each year. 30 players among the entire CHL wouldn’t hurt too much in the larger picture., though certain teams losing their 19 year old superstars would scream bloody murder.

    There’d have to be an out-clause for guys to attend the WJC as well.

    Of course, Radek Bonk going to the IHL at 18 didn’t help his development too much.

    But something has to be done to add a little more spark to the minor pro level.

  • The only time I know its been even over half full is when Vancouvers affiliate is in town or Montreals(I always seem to go to Bulldogs games). However, Abbotsford couldn’t give a crap about Calgarys farm team doesn’t matter how well they do. Other than the Canucks, the Lower Main land fan base is very fickle it seems, they do love to bandwagon however, the fluctuation in the Lions crowds shows that.

    The arena for the Heat is great, the atmosphere is good the games I’ve been to, and theres good action on the ice, all the right components to draw fans, it’s just not happening. However I don’t think the Flames give a ****. They have a 10 year agreement with Abbotsford to cover all loses and I’m pretty sure there are no outs. So the Flames have another 8 years. They don’t care about the crowds (I don’t think so anyways) they care about developing their prospects.

  • I’d be sruprised if the Flames didn’t at all care about the Heat’s success. That said, Calgary obviously has higher order priorities and the current deal with the city means they don’t have to bust their butts if things aren’t working.

    • MC Hockey

      I think they care about the Heats ON ICE success, however, their off ice success, I really don’t think the flames care until that 10 year agreement is over.

  • MC Hockey

    Interesting ideas for the Abby team. Given the favorable agreement with City of Abbotsford, I think the Flames stay there at least 2-4 more years until a real “anti-Flames hate” gets really strong.

    And while I sort of like the AHL team in Calgary idea, I think NOT with the Hitmen here (too much competition for hockey dollar and the Flames own the Roughnecks and most of the Stampeders too so those are competition also).

    Basically moving another team here probaby requires moving the juniors to Airdrie or High River…I think all good ideas would require moving another team away. If that’s the case, why not REGINA or SASKATOON by buying up the Pats or Blades…makes more sense to me as those places would probably draw very well and extend your fan base (plus souvenir sales) further in Saskatchewan and steal the increasing number of Wpg Jets fans.

    • SarahM

      I have been to the arena – very good, product is good, people are good. But this market is wired to the Knuckleheads, and no matter what we do, this will not be a real winner in this location.

      Has to be real discouraging for the players to play a playoff round in the 2nd best pro league in North America in front of 1500 people!

      I think the Saskatchewan idea is the best answer. Trying to compete as a 2nd pro team in another teams’ market simply doesn’t work from what I can see.

  • Truculence

    SarahM,

    As a B.C. resident I can tell you that you are way off on your estimation of the Caps and Lions. I am a season ticket holder for both and they both do pretty good numbers. The caps have averaged 18615 in attendance for every game in the 2012 season. For the sake of comparison, the Toronto FC averaged 19022 in a stadium that houses 2000 more people compared to ours. This figure is up from the 17872 they averaged last year, so support is growing. As for the Lions, I don’t even know where to begin if you think they have less support relative to other Canadian teams.

    • SarahM

      I live in Vancouver too, so I’m pretty familiar with the attendance for the sports teams here. I wasn’t comparing either the Lions or the Whitecaps to their counterparts elsewhere in the country. But STH or not, you can’t deny that the Lions attendance has been below what the organization would like — there was talk about blacking out a playoff game last year because they couldn’t sell seats. BC Place is rarely full and (particularly last season) Empire had some dismal showings. If the Caps keep winning the attendance will probably be maintained, but Vancouver tends to be a fair-weather market.

  • Greg

    It’s too bad that coyotes team didn’t get moved to Quebec like they should have; that’d open up another nice alternate location in phoenix for the heat: multiple direct and short flights daily, lots of vacationing calgarians throughout the summer. Probably wouldn’t draw any better than in abbottsford, maybe even worse, but logistically for the flames it would be about the same and if it opened up Abby for a Vancouver farm team that might be better overall for the AHL.

  • SarahM

    As a City of Abbotsford resident and season ticket holder for the past three seasons, the attendance numbers are disheartening. Tonight, the crowd was just over 1300, as the Heat closed out the season. I don’t think too many people are turned off by the parking rates (there is some free parking to be found), or getting out of there after the game. Concerts at the arena do sell out or come close to it. A lot of people say it’s good hockey and they enjoyed the game they went to, but probably couldn’t name one player on the team. There’s little to no identity with a team that looks like the Calgary Flames, but calls themselves Abbotsford’s team. Abbotsford has no local sports radio show, no TV channel for highlights or team updates, all that is out of Vancouver so no significant media coverage.I suggest, for starters, if the contract is set for 7 more years, to change the look and colors of the team uniforms and name to something more in line with this region and try to restart this whole thing. The only option that really has any chance of real success here with corporate support and a season ticket base is a deal with the Canucks. Hopefully that day comes sooner than later.

  • RexLibris

    My condolences on the Heat losing to (ouch) the Toronto Marlies.

    I’m not sure what changes Feaster may try to effect on the Heat roster but it will be interesting to see if there are any announcements for either Troy Ward, or his opponent Dallas Eakins, in the next few weeks.

  • SarahM

    Team 1040 has had a poll on the Heat’s attendance issues on the afternoon show today, and has been taking calls on it. The vast majority of responders say that the affiliation is the main reason they don’t make the trek to Abbotsford. Fair enough, but I’m a Flames fan and I only get out there a few times a year, so the distance/associated costs obviously factor in as well.

    On the plus side, nearly every caller was complimenting both the product and the in-game, so maybe Wiggy is right, and with some creative marketing they can turn things around somewhat.

  • SarahM

    Too bad about the Heat. Not only does Abbotsford lose money and tarnish their reputation, but they allegedly drove the WHL’s Chilliwack Bruins out by competing for scarce hockey fans.

    Maybe the Fraser Valley just isn’t good territory for minor hockey.

    Saskatoon with their big arena is a great opportunity. Quick, before the Jets decide that calling up players from St. John’s to games on the west coast is way too slow and grab the Saskatoon location first.

    And, once Calgary moves the Heat, don’t bet against the Canucks relocating their farm team from Chicago. ‘Nucks fans will surely embrace the Abbotsford Wolves where they disdain the Heat.

    BTW, the ‘Nucks should call their (eventual) new Abbotsford affiliate the “Admirals”. You can never have too many Admirals. 😉

  • SarahM

    Better idea: the Flames and Canucks should just trade their AHL teams. Then the Heat could stay in Abby, and the Flames could move the Wolves to Saskatoon. Problem solved.