Eskimos 50/50 chaos could be CFL’s opportunity

dmonton Eskimos' Nate Coehoorn (85), Shamawd Chambers (17) and Adarius Bowman (4). Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

The midweek talk out in Edmonton was about whether or not the 50/50 draw would reach $200,000 at the Eskimos-Stampeders game on Thursday night. A big rivalry, more than $70,000 held over from last week’s unclaimed pot, two unbeaten football teams…

Wouldn’t a $200,000 50/50 pot be interesting?

And so the groups began to form. Couples who attend one game a year came together to make this the game, as it fell on a Thursday night and didn’t conflict with any weekend plans. The boys at work snapped up the company tickets, and bought a few more.

If you couldn’t get there, you gave someone who was going to the stadium a $20 bill, giving you 10 chances to win. It seemed easy, at the time, to say, “Sure, I’ll pick that up for you.”

In the end, 40,066 fans showed up at Commonwealth Stadium seeking common wealth, or personal wealth, depending on the size of their pool. The game delivered, a close-to-the-finish, 26-22 Calgary Stampeders win. But the 50/50 program was overwhelmed.

“Ridiculous. Epic fail,” one frustrated fan told Global TV, early in the football game. “I’ve already invested more than an hour in line, I’ve got to go through with this.”

Money raised goes to football in northern Alberta. Junior football teams like the Edmonton Huskies and Edmonton Wildcats. The University of Alberta Golden Bears, Football Alberta and the Eskimo Alumni Association all benefit from a pot that, most nights, splits from $120,000-140,000 between amateur football and the lucky winner.

But with a pot that opened at $71,732 — because someone at last week’s game left early and did not claim their prize within the allotted four days — a frenzy ensued. And the ticket sellers, football players over 18 years of age, coaches and other volunteers, were under attack from the moment the gates opened.

“It’s Black Friday,” ticket seller Brett Semenok told Global. “I’m in customer service, and it’s Black Friday.”

People actually are said to have lined up for three quarters and — wait for it — never got to the front of the line before ticket sales were cut off early in the fourth quarter.

Travis Currah, speaking to the Edmonton Journal, best summed up the optimism of those who waited for over an hour in line. “I have this weird belief that if I somehow get to the front of the line, it’s meant to be,” he said.

Alas, the crush was so severe that the Eskimos could not even announce the winning ticket during the fourth quarter, as is traditional. The team listed the winning ticket — 280731C — on its web site sometime over night.

It paid exactly $348,534. That’s right, nearly $350,000.

Ticket sellers who usually restock the paper in their vending machines once per night put six or seven rolls in on this night. People were butting into the line, then nearly getting into fist fights with someone who butted in ahead of them.

As the joke went, whoever wins will be the third-highest-paid player in the CFL.

That total, as amazing as it seems for a night at a football game, is in the neighborhood of what the Toronto Maple Leafs hand out — in total — over the first three-quarters of their home schedule.

The 50/50 is a Western Canadian phenomenon. A Toronto Star article published in February of 2013 listed the average 50/50 pots at Canadian NHL arenas, and the four Western Canadian teams ranked first through fourth (Vancouver, then Edmonton, Winnipeg and Calgary).

The Flames’ average of $36,000 per game was twice that of the Ottawa Senators ($18,200), who topped the Eastern clubs. The reason is partially due to Ontario gaming rules that do not allow sellers to use computerized, hand-held machines that chart the pot in real time, thus inducing sales as the pot climbs.

But as long as we’ve been covering sports, the pots out East have never compared to those in the West. On an NHL Saturday night in Edmonton or Vancouver it isn’t uncommon for a winner to take home $70,000. In Toronto that number sits at around $10,000.

So, the question becomes, if a bloated 50/50 draw can help attendance in a good CFL town like Edmonton, can it do the same in Hamilton or Toronto? What if a team added the first $50,000 to the pot? Would the increased ticket and concession sales offset that investment?

Then, would that exposure to the product produce new fans?

Like a baseball promotion, maybe we will see “50/50 Night” at a CFL stadium near you sometime soon. When, or if, that happens, they’ll be more prepared for the onslaught than the folks at Commonwealth were on Thursday night.

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