It’s not just on the ice that the Brandon Wheat Kings have struggled this season.
On pace to post their worst record in 21 years, the Wheat Kings have taken a big hit at the box office in 2012-13, down an average of more than 400 fans per game. Combined with the fact that the Wheat Kings are paying four times more on their new lease to the Keystone Centre and will pocket no playoff profit this season, the WHL club is taking a sizable financial hit.
“It’s a significant impact,” Wheat Kings owner/general manager Kelly McCrimmon said.
“Our attendance is down … and our costs have gone up, not only in our arena lease costs, but also everything that relates to hockey operations increases annually. So it’s a combination that made it a much more challenging year.”
McCrimmon wouldn’t talk specifics about the state of team finances — and as a private business owner, he is clearly under no obligation to do so. But, it doesn’t take a business degree to understand that a 10-per-cent drop in average game attendance — down from 4,143 last season to 3,739 this year with four home games left — is having a significant impact on the team’s bottom line. And while the club did increase season-ticket prices this season by $50, to $425, most of that increase was swallowed up in the terms of the new lease.
It’s not just the privately-owned Wheat Kings who have been affected this season. The publicly-funded Keystone Centre, which pockets a share of ticket sales and the vast majority of concession sales at Wheat Kings games, is also not profiting nearly as much as it could due to the drop in attendance. However, Keystone Centre general manager Neil Thomson admits that the improved terms of the new lease have largely offset that loss.
“We’re obviously impacted by lower attendance … there’s no doubt about that,” Thomson said. “But I think overall there would have still been probably a positive impact because of the new contract.”
It would be easy to blame the drop in attendance on the Wheat Kings’ dismal 22-38-4-3 record this season. However, despite offering the lowest average season ticket prices in the WHL — equating to less than 12 bucks a game — the Wheat Kings were feeling the pinch before the year even started, having sold 370 fewer season tickets (down from 2,973 to 2,603 this year).
“Our season ticket numbers have fallen the last two years and I really feel strongly that our organization gives fans great entertainment year-in, year-out,” McCrimmon said. “I think our fans are far more fortunate than fans in almost any market in our country in terms of consistency of product and entertainment, and value, so I would be disappointed if (the poor record) was the reason (for the drop in attendance). And again as always, when we talk about attendance and not being satisfied with attendance, we’re not talking about the people that are coming to the game, we are talking about the people that aren’t. Because we have plenty of people that are certainly sticking with us.”
Whatever the reasons for the off-ice issues, there is no doubt that the Wheat Kings have hit rock bottom on the ice, as a rookie-laden team battled through typical growing pains while some of the club’s veterans didn’t elevate their games as the club had hoped.
“We’re currently in 12th place, so we’ve got work to do,” McCrimmon said.
“It’s the first time since 2000 when we missed the playoffs and I think only the second time in 22 years that we missed the playoffs. … This year we were eliminated from the playoffs much earlier (than in 2000) and it’s not something that we’re happy about and it tells us that we’ve got to get better.”
Fortunately for Wheat King fans, the future does look promising. The top talent on this year’s team is 18 or younger, led by the likes of captain Ryan Pulock and fellow blue-liner Eric Roy — generally projected to be picked in the first and third round, respectively, in this year’s NHL draft — and rookie standouts Jayce Hawryluk and Tim McGauley, who are both in the top three in team scoring. Waiting in the wings are the likes of blue-chip 15-year-old prospects like Braylon Shmyr, who scored in his WHL debut as a call-up this season, and Jesse Gabrielle, who has joined the team for the last two weeks, as well as a trio of 16-year-olds who made their WHL debuts this season in goaltender Jordan Papirny and forwards Ryley Lindgren and Brandonite Tyler Coulter.
With their additions, the Wheat Kings will be looking for a bounce-back season in 2013-14 — both on the ice and in the stands.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 8, 2013