Attendance issues are at the root of the Abbotsford Heat’s annual budget shortfalls, and ticket sales have been trending in the wrong direction this season.
The franchise has seen its attendance decline significantly in 2013-14 – through 18 home dates, they’ve drawn an average crowd of 2,490, according to the AHL. That’s 34 per cent less than the 3,778 per game they drew last year.
“As it stands right now, we all know that (supply fee) number will most likely rise,” Abbotsford mayor Bruce Banman said.
Lane Sweeting, part of the Fraser Valley Sports and Entertainment (FVSE) group which operates the Heat, identified a variety of reasons for the decrease.
They lost momentum, he said, because their first regular season home games fell on Thanksgiving weekend and the weather was warm.
In addition, the team did not have any of its popular “loonie toonie” nights, featuring $1 hot dogs and $2 beers, over the first three months of the season. That’s because, according to Sweeting, the city wanted the team to review the promotion due to concerns about over-serving and whether it was creating an negative atmosphere for families.
The team has tweaked the promotion, and is offering $3 beers, $2 hot dogs and $1 pops at six games during the last four months of the season.
Furthermore, Sweeting believes the rumour last spring that the Vancouver Canucks were poised to move their AHL affiliate to Abbotsford has had a detrimental impact on the Heat. That move never came to fruition – the City of Abbotsford and the Canucks were unable to reach an agreement. Banman said at the time, “the city is not going to do a deal unless it’s in the best interests of the taxpayers.” The Canucks ended up stationing their farm team in Utica, New York.
The Heat also benefitted in 2012-13 from the absence of NHL hockey during the lockout, but Sweeting believes the biggest obstacle this season has been the economy.
“The analysis that we’ve done is, all leagues are down right now,” he said. “The overall American League, the ECHL, the Western Hockey League – they’re all off a bit, and some significantly.
“People just don’t have those disposable dollars to take in any entertainment, never mind Heat or hockey or anything else.”
A Canucks affiliate, given the NHL club’s popularity in the region, would presumably be a better draw than the Calgary Flames-owned Heat. Asked whether rekindling talks with the Canucks was on the radar, Banman said the city is “looking at all possible variations of options to try and improve this situation and get it off the backs of taxpayers.
“What I’ve learned about the hockey business is, not much happens during the regular season, until you get into the last few months,” he said. “Time will tell what that brings.
“Whatever we do has to be a better deal for the taxpayers than currently what we have.”
Last spring, Sweeting said that the FVSE gave the city and the Canucks “the opportunity to make a deal,” and he reiterated that willingness on Monday.
“All we want is good hockey in the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, and we’re quite happy to be there or not be there,” he said. “But as far as I know, there’s no discussion on it at this time.”