It’s a disturbing trend, and the Western Hockey League head office has certainly taken notice.
For the fourth straight season, the Brandon Wheat Kings are struggling through a significant drop in season-ticket sales, with average attendance per game also taking a huge hit.
From a high of 3,661 season-ticket packages sold during Brandon’s Memorial Cup season of 2009-10, Wheat King season-ticket sales have slipped for four years in a row to 3,100 in 2010-11; 2,973 in 2011-12; 2,603 in 2012-13 and now down to only 2,361 this season.
That huge drop in season-ticket base — close to 700 over the past four years — is a big reason why the Wheat Kings are averaging only 3,607 fans per game through six home games so far this season, down a whopping 9.7 per cent from the first six games last season. As expenses continue to rise around the league, that drop in ticket sales results in a huge revenue hit for small-market clubs like the Wheat Kings, who are starting to feel the pinch.
While total attendance is down six per cent across the league this year, WHL commissioner Ron Robison is most concerned for the league’s small-market teams.
“We are a ticket-driven industry and obviously any time there is a decline in attendance, it’s a concern to us, and particularly in smaller centres such as Brandon,” Robison said.
“Those smaller markets we monitor very closely and they understand that they must really overachieve, from an attendance point of view, in order to remain viable.”
Unfortunately, for the Wheat Kings organization, attendance numbers are going in the wrong direction, despite the club holding the line on season ticket prices this year and continuing to offer some of the lowest prices in the league — with season ticket packages averaging only $11.81 per game. Compared with tickets around the league, that’s a remarkable price for an evening of entertainment, enjoying watching the likes of first-round NHL draft pick Ryan Pulock.
Now, to be clear, there is no immediate threat that the Wheat Kings are preparing to pull up stakes and leave. The club has a proud tradition in Brandon stretching back decades, even before joining the Western Hockey League back in 1967-68. Head coach/GM and owner Kelly McCrimmon has lived here for 24 years and was the driving force in turning the organization around from the dark days of the early 1990s into one of the most consistent and successful franchises in the league. He is driven and determined to make the Wheat Kings work in the Wheat City.
But the drop in attendance and ticket revenue is quickly becoming a serious concern, particularly with the club paying close to four times more to the Keystone Centre under the terms of a new five-year lease that was signed a year ago.
“I am disappointed,” McCrimmon said. “Last year we were 17th in the league in overall attendance. As a Brandonite, that bothers me. We want people to be proud of the Wheat Kings and support their team.”
So does the league. While the party line is the WHL is committed to keeping all 22 franchises in their current markets, teams have moved before and will do so again. And the next time they do, it will likely be a small-market club like Brandon, Kootenay, Prince Albert, Swift Current or struggling Prince George, which is dead last in the league in attendance again this season. It’s a fine line now to remain financially viable for many of those teams and at some point the numbers simply won’t add up anymore.
With a plethora of potential owners with deep pockets anxious to bring a club to a big market like Winnipeg or move a second team to Vancouver Island in a place like Nanaimo — both cities the league is very interested in — it’s only a matter of time before another small-market city loses its WHL franchise. And make no mistake, once it’s gone, those small markets will likely never get it back. Here in Brandon, the current 2,361 season-ticket holders, in particular, are doing their part to ensure the Wheat Kings remains viable in this city. It’s the other 700 who have stopped purchasing season tickets over the past four years that are the real concern.
Six home games into the season, there is still time to reverse this troubling ticket trend in the Wheat City, which should soon get a financial boost from the bumper crop being harvested in Westman this year. If only growing a fan base was as easy.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 18, 2013