What it takes to just not lose any money in Swift Current

WHL commissioner Ron Robison joined Hockey Central at Noon to talk about the minimum wage lawsuit against the CHL and how it could affect the league and player development going forward.

A late harvest, the price of oil or a rash of Mad Cow Disease.
 
If only it were wins and losses that determined profitability for the community-owned Swift Current Broncos, the team that resides in the Canadian Hockey League’s second-smallest market. Of course, it’s never been that simple. Even if the bar isn’t set unreasonably high.
 
“We don’t need to make money,” Joe Arling, the former chairman of the Broncos board of directors, once said so famously. “We just don’t want to lose any.”
 
Swift Current is a city of about 17,000 people in Southwest Saskatchewan, located along the Trans-Canada about 165 km from the Alberta border. Most Canadian hockey fans know two things about its major-junior franchise:
 
This was the team that lost four players in the tragic crash on Dec. 30, 1986, when the team bus rolled off an icy highway and four young men—Trent Kresse, Scott Kruger, Chris Mantyka and Brent Ruff—were killed; and this is where the sexual predator and hockey coach Graham James did most of his damage.
 
But the Broncos also have history worth celebrating. Joe Sakic played his junior hockey here. So did Bryan Trottier, who moved to Lethbridge with the Broncos back in ‘74 when private ownership decided the grass was greener three-and-a-half-hours down the road in southern Alberta. The franchise returned 12 years later as a community-owned team, and has stayed that way ever since.
 
Today, under threat of a lawsuit that declares CHL franchises in the Western and Ontario Hockey Leagues financially capable of paying their players as employees, and suggests other labour rules be enacted that would sharply drive up the cost of doing business for CHL teams, the Broncos still trundle along their traditional path. Trying to stay afloat while playing out of the 2,862-seat Credit Union iPlex isn’t easy in the current financial climate. And should that climate change markedly, as the pending suit threatens, it’s fair to ask where the added revenues would come from.
 
Swift Current isn’t going to suddenly have a spike in population, and corresponding jump in ticket sales, nor a greater base of business from which to draw sponsorship. When you can’t sell out the iPlex, it would be poor business practice to markedly raise ticket prices. And it’s not as if the team is leaving a bunch of profits on the table with off-season fundraisers, some of which are barely a step up on church bake sales.
 
Forget about adding money to the bottom line. As Arling said, the Broncos are just trying to stay out of the red.
 
“I suppose you could define that as making one cent per year,” says current board chair Liam Choo-Foo. “But … if we’re going to be able to field a competitive team, we’ve got to find a way to generate revenues so that we’re competitive on that side as well.”


 
Any small business owner knows you have to bring in more dollars than the budget sets out, because there are going to be unexpected costs—there are always unexpected costs.
 
“In our case we’re hoping that’s travel costs to the Memorial Cup,” says the eternally hopeful Choo-Foo, who is also the director of education for the local Chinook School Division.
 
Swift Current sits alongside Prince Albert at the small end of the WHL’s economic scale. Average WHL seating capacity is somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 fans—67 to 100 percent more inventory than the Broncos have to sell—and the National Hockey League-owned Oil Kings and Hitmen play in NHL rinks in Edmonton and Calgary that can seat more than 18,000.
 
That greater capacity allows other WHL teams more room to discount group sales, and to put on bigger promotions like a t-shirt or cap night. They get more fans through the turnstiles, then collect more money at the concessions, the team store, in parking. And that leaves the Broncos at a distinct disadvantage as the costs of running a team are relatively even across the league.
 
“We’re a ticket-driven industry,” says Tri-City Americans governor and general manager Bob Tory, “and season tickets aren’t as popular as they used to be. People’s lives are busier. Teams focus more on groups, but in the smaller centres you can’t get the crowds of 10,000 on a Saturday night to make up for those weekday games.”
 
The Broncos are forged and maintained in that time-honoured Saskatchewan junior hockey tradition that brought us the “Mega Bingos,” where folks paid $100 just for the right to a seat in the bingo hall. Or the “Harvest Lottery” that promised a new, $150,000 combine to the winner.
 
“Everybody in that community finds a way—even if you aren’t a hockey fan—to support that team in some way, shape or form,” says Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan, a Melville, Sask., native who coached the Broncos for six seasons, serving double-duty as GM for four of those years. “There was fundraising, volunteers in the concessions—which the team owns—bingos.
 
“They had the first NHL [fantasy] draft that paid out, I don’t know, $50,000. It was huge. The [arena] lease from the city was obviously very favourable. The bus drivers volunteered their time … It was a complete community effort to keep that team afloat.
 
“We always tried to operate in the black, but there were years when you didn’t. A lot depended on if you got into the playoffs.”


 
The hockey operation only pays about 47 percent of the bills in Swift Current, so the team has to get busy in the off-season to bump up revenues. Fittingly, the Broncos host the Cody Snyder Professional Bull Riders Invitational each summer. The team also sells 50/50 tickets at the local summer fair known as Frontier Days, and has delved into events like cabarets and tractor pulls.
 
“We just can’t afford to get involved in a large-scale fundraising activity and have it not turn out for us. There is risk,” says Choo-Foo. “What we’ve started to realize is, what we do best as an organization is hockey. The unsold inventory of seats is probably the most important thing to us. If we could sell an extra 300 seats every night, we would be [profitable].”
 
In a time when families are busier and the Saskatchewan economy is on a downturn, selling 300 extra seats is no small feat in a city of less than 20,000.

The team, at the time of this writing, is pretty solid, in third spot in the East Division and likely playoff-bound. And the bank account is stable enough, with the money necessary to honour the Broncos’ education commitments. That’s in the current climate, though.
 
“If our WHL Clubs were required to provide minimum wage in addition to the benefits the players currently receive,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison wrote in a late-October statement on the pending lawsuit, “the majority of our teams would not be in a position to continue operating.”
 
Swift Current would likely find itself in that majority.
 
“Multiple six-figure losses would be catastrophic for us. We are operating very tight to the line,” says Choo-Foo, who like all WHL personnel is forbidden by the league from directly addressing the lawsuit. “We’re starting to focus now on getting more bums in the seats. How can we sell a 10-pack? A 12-pack? Then, how can we increase the experience at the rink? We have to make sure the event itself is an experience.”
 
How’s it going so far?
 
“We’d be lucky to be approaching 2,000 [fans per game] this year,” he says.