Variety of factors contributing to lower Canadian NHL attendance

Ottawa Senators' Chris Tierney (71), bottom right, celebrates his second goal against the Dallas Stars as he skate past the bench with teammates while fans look on from the stands during second period NHL action in Ottawa on Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

TORONTO – In some ways, the Toronto Blue Jays’ mid-summer return offered an optimistic leading indicator on the comfort of fans attending live events again for Canada’s remaining pro sports.

Across 30 home dates following 670 days of pandemic exile, they sold 96 per cent of available tickets, including 98.2 per cent over their final six games when capacity was increased to 30,000 from the initial 15,000. Eleven of their dates were sellouts, the majority before a provincial vaccine mandate went into effect.

Still, it’s worth remembering that the Blue Jays arrived in the heart of their season, with a wildly entertaining offence, several players enjoying award-calibre campaigns, in contention for a playoff spot and offering up an open-air environment, weather permitting.

Even with all that going for them they were left with some ticket inventory and now are hopeful of trying to sell all 48,000 seats next summer.

“There's no question that there is some lag effect on people's comfort in coming out to a sold-out stadium environment. There's no question it's going to take time for the demand to fully recover,” Mark Shapiro, the Blue Jays president and CEO, says. “I think we’ll be able to speed that timeframe up because of how exciting and compelling our team is to watch and where the expectations are going to be for us next year. What I would caution is looking at anything now and saying that has any relevance in April. What we've learned is we could be a world away from this in April, or something surprising could happen in April that's an unanticipated challenge. I can tell you one thing – I'm not going to forecast what April looks like.”

In that vein, it shouldn’t be surprising that attendance through the first four weeks of the new NHL season is down from pre-pandemic levels for all seven Canadian NHL teams. The drop ranges from negligible (Vancouver) to substantial (Calgary) and it’s worth noting that each market faces different circumstances.

The Ottawa Senators, for instance, have had declining attendance for several years now while enduring a rebuild, a fan disconnect with ownership, a failed proposal to build a new downtown arena and the departure of countless top players, Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau among them.

In Alberta, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames are staring down a combination of economic distress and the reluctance of fans on both ends of the current COVID-19 divide.

“We think some people are likely waiting to see where COVID goes, on one extreme,” says Tim Shipton, executive vice-president Oilers Entertainment Group communications and gaming. “And on the other extreme, you probably have some fans – when we implemented the mandatory proof of vaccine or negative COVID test – people said, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to come to the building.”

That’s also in spite of the Oilers having the generational brilliance of Connor McDavid and fellow superstar Leon Draisaitl to sell. Still, there’s also a reluctance Edmonton as a city is facing in generally getting people back downtown again and there were “challenges in the economy before the pandemic,” adds Shipton. “(COVID) has only exacerbated the situation. We knew that, Oilers fans, some of them have been hurting and the economy has not been clicking along on all cylinders.”

Even the Toronto Maple Leafs, for whom attendance beyond capacity is considered a given, are in the unusual position of having a few hundred tickets available a game. Tom MacDonald, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment’s vice-president, ticket sales and service, attributes that mostly to the scramble caused by Ontario’s last-minute approval for games at full capacity.

“We got approval at 4:30 on a Friday before the Thanksgiving long weekend and only went on sale with tickets on the Tuesday, with Wednesday being our Leafs home opener,” he says. “So it was a very, very short turnaround time between when we got approval and when we actually played our first game. In a normal year, we go on sale 6-8 weeks in advance of our first game with tickets. We're still making sales that would normally happen well in advance of our first game.”

MacDonald described the renewal rate of season-ticket holders as being “in line with previous rates and very, very strong,” with the caveat that both Maple Leafs and Raptors subscribers uncomfortable attending games had the option of passing on their tickets for the season.

That’s led to the limited yet eyebrow-raising inventory.

“It's something a number of sports teams have done over the last 18 months,” MacDonald says of the subscriber hiatus. “We're talking about a few hundred seats that got parked for the season that now are available on a single-game basis. It was received really, really well from those members that weren't comfortable, just having that option.”

By and large, though, MacDonald feels the Maple Leafs’ playing to less than capacity is more a by-product of disrupted timing. With both the NHL and NBA returning to a normal calendar, MLSE will return to its normal ticket-selling cycle this year, with season-ticket renewals in February/March, “I have every expectation that we're going to be back to our regular sales results and capacities.”

“I don't think there is an issue there with comfort level,” he says. “The vast majority of our fans were and are and continue to be comfortable coming to the venue.”

What’s clear is that for any team already facing challenges drawing fans, COVID-19 has only added another layer to overcome.

The Senators’ average gate from 2005-06 to 2015-16 was 18,800, with five seasons over the 19,000 mark. Attendance has dropped sharply since and an Oct. 17 gate of 8,067 for a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars was especially jarring.

Perhaps that was a bottoming out for them and the tide is turning with new captain Brady Tkachuk recently signed to a seven-year contract worth $8.2 million per season, put in place alongside other cornerstones like Thomas Chabot and Drake Batherson and budding stars Tim Stützle and Josh Norris.

Presumably a better team and increased progress in containing the coronavirus will lead to more fans at the rink.

“I hope so. I mean, that’s your personal choice, it’s a different time than anyone ever knew,” head coach D.J. Smith recently said. “You know, we’re just happy to have fans. I know that our guys verbalize to me just how good it is to have the fans back and we have some good, young, exciting players that we want this fan base to grow with.”

At the same time, pandemic habits need to be broken in all realms of life, from returns to the office to returns to the rink and some of the slack in ticket sales may be attributable there, too.

The Oilers, for instance, typically have had a season-ticket renewal rate in the mid-to-upper 90s but dropped into the 80s for this season, says Shipton.

“We still feel like we have a strong season’s seats base. But the reality coming into this season is that we have tickets to sell. We had tickets to sell on home opener, and we’ll have tickets to sell throughout our regular season,” he adds. “You talk to people across the league, and it’s a common theme.

“We’ve been very fortunate in Edmonton to have one of the most stable and significant season seat bases across the league, but we’ve certainly seen a significant change in ticket buying dynamics over the last several years. People are looking to be a little more flexible than in the past and we’ve adjusted our strategies to that.”

As all the different factors continue to play out in the market, the Blue Jays go from leading to lagging indicator, preparing to adjust their strategy to the realities of the moment. They’re modelling out several different revenue projections based on different attendance scenarios, seeking to plot their way back to their century peak of nearly 3.4 million fans in 2016.

Between Dunedin, Buffalo and the 36 limited-capacity games in Toronto this year, they drew 805,901 fans, the second-lowest total in franchise history (excluding the TV-only 2020).

“I just hope that things continue to improve,” says Shapiro. “And if they do, I expect us to maybe not be right back to 2015-16 levels, but I expect us to be quickly growing towards those levels here.”

With files from Mark Spector in Edmonton and Wayne Scanlan in Ottawa.

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