WHL: Where have the fans gone? . . . Some of them respond . . .

With a number of WHL teams hurting at the gate, I recently asked readers for reasons why they no longer attend WHL games or why they don’t go to as many games as they once did.

Going into weekend games, the WHL has featured 622 games with an average WHLannounced attendance of 3,046. In 2019-20, a season that was shortened by the pandemic, the average was 4,154 for 694 games.

The last season that was played to its completion was 2018-19 when the average attendance for 748 games was 4,361.

So, yes, the WHL is experiencing a downturn in attendance.

Granted, what follows hardly is scientific or all-encompassing. But it was an interesting project.

Most of those who responded mentioned one of two things — COVID-19 and the cost of attending games. However, there also are concerns about, among other things, the schedule, especially from fans of Western Conference teams, in-game entertainment and concession prices.

So let’s get to it . . .

——

It now has been more than two years since COVID-19 arrived on our doorstep and changed lives forever.

I heard from one fan who estimates that he has spent more than $1,000 on team merchandise since March 2020. “I did what I could to ensure something was Covidstill going to the organization so that when this passed we still might have a team to watch,” he explained. But now he is contemplating bringing all that to and end.

Why?

Because of the way his city’s team has dealt with COVID-19.

His father is recovering from a stroke so game outings are a big deal for the two of them. However, his father is considered high-risk when it comes to COVID-19 so they know they have to be careful.

“When this season started,” this fan explained, “he and I were regularly attending home games. We did cut back on the concession purchases just because eating meant taking a mask down for my Dad, who is fully vaccinated, including booster, but has some added risks in terms of COVID.

“When Delta hit, we stopped going for about six weeks. At the time, the risk didn’t seem like it was worth taking. . . . We started back to games in mid- to late-December.”

But they stopped going as soon as the province in which they live dropped its mask mandate and the need to show proof of vaccination, and the team quickly followed suit.

“What is frustrating is that the second the organization could drop any restrictions and open up to unvaxxed and (unmasked fans) they did,” he wrote. “But even when masks were required it was hardly enforced because most of the volunteer ushers refused to get in the fight.  Why would a 60-year old woman fight with a belligerent 250-pound 20- or 30-year-old guy over him refusing to pull up his mask? I don’t blame her.”

He also recalled seeing a player who had been ejected from a game standing on the concourse chatting with friends and family “in a tight circle” late in the second period one night. His mask was “totally down along with everyone else in the circle. . . . This was happening as a quarter of his teammates were in protocol and the team was getting ravaged by positive COVID tests.

“It feels like the organization itself is trying to be like the provincial government and pretend COVID is over as soon as they possibly can without making themselves look bad.”

What really has angered this fan is that, as he put it, “my Dad has paid his season tickets, they already have his money. He made the commitment already and the organization thanks him for that by dropping any/all possible restrictions as soon as they could to try and welcome back un-vaxxed walk-ups.

It’s frustrating and, quite honestly, I’m doubting that I’m going to keep my season tickets after this season based on the ownership group and how it has just abandoned any pretence of creating a safe environment for special needs and immunocompromised season-ticket holders.”

The experience of attending a recent mid-week game didn’t help, either.

“I’ve taken my Dad to one game since the mandates dropped,” the fan wrote. “After seeing only about 15 per cent of the people wearing masks, social distancing out the window and knowing full well the random (person) standing behind my Dad who sits in his disabled persons seat (he uses a walker) could very well not be vaccinated . . . how can I in good conscience keep bringing my Dad to games even if we are both wearing N95 masks all game?”
Meanwhile, another fan, a season-ticket holder “for about 20 years,” and his wife have decided that the risk of attending games and being among mask-less people just isn’t worth it.

“My wife and I have had season tickets for about 20 years. The previous 20 years, I would go to several games a season with my son,” he wrote. “We did get season tickets for this season in the flush of post-vaccination, pre-Delta variant that occurred late June, early July last year.

“While not ruling anything out, I doubt we’re going to get playoff tickets this season) and I doubt we’re going to renew our season tickets for next season.

“I found that I am nervous being indoors around a lot of people, a lot of whom aren’t wearing masks. Now the vaccine requirement is gone and mask-wearing is optional. It seems like we start to get comfortable and then one of what we view as a protective measure is eliminated.

“My wife has a few health issues, and we’re both ‘at risk’ simply by being old.

“I like hockey and I know the risk is low but it’s a risk I’d rather not repeatedly take.”

At the same time, there are fans who aren’t especially bothered by the COVID situation.

“I’m sure there are a lot of people not comfortable being in arenas this year and I understand that,” one fan wrote. “I’m not one of them, and I hope those people come back because I’d love to be in a rink with 4,000 or 5,000 other fans rather than in a place where I can have an entire row to myself.

“But those people need a reason to come back and the WHL certainly isn’t giving them one.”

Another long-time fan admitted that he hasn’t been going to games during the pandemic because, well . . .

“I was (and am) strongly in support of mask mandates,” he wrote. “However, I had no desire to go watch a game for 2.5 hours while wearing a mask.”

——

It certainly wasn’t a surprise that a number of fans mentioned the cost of going to games, especially with the price of seemingly every necessity in our lives on the way up.

As one fan put it: “Can’t have the current price structure while the world is trying to recover. People just can’t be bothered now and they strategically need to allocate funds elsewhere. That’s why pricing is important.

“Add in COVID recovery, and with the technology of live feeds, people are more inclined to stay home. Inflation with everything hurts the average family. Taking a family out for $100 on a Wednesday isn’t going to happen.”

At the same time, this avid fan added: “It’s hard to see the crowds like this.”

Another fan told of being at an arena watching his daughter in a minor hockey game while planning to go from there to a WHL game.

“Originally, I planned to walk over to the (WHL) game by myself,” he explained, “but at over $30 a ticket I decided to take my wife to a movie instead (for the same amount of money).

“I used to go to 20-plus games a season and this season I have been to two. Most of the people I know have been driven away by the ticket prices. . . . There have been several times this season when I thought I would go but decided not to because of cost.

“I won’t ask my 12-year-old daughter if she wants to go. Just not enough value when I consider the other $40 options out there for her.

“Don’t try to sell yourself as family entertainment when it would cost over $200 to take my family of five.”

Considering the financial situation in which a lot of families now find themselves, he added: “Entertainment will be one of the first things to go as inflation hits fuel and groceries so we’ll see how it plays out.”

Another fan wrote that he has been attending and “enjoying” WHL games since 1979, but has yet to attend even one game this season. One reason he gave for his change of heart is “cost.”

“The cheapest ticket is $29,” he wrote, “and parking is $16. A hot dog and a drink will run you $20. How often am I really going to get $65 worth of entertainment for my 3.5 hours of time, travel included?”

——

There also was a lot frustration about the WHL’s regular-season schedule shown by fans in Western Conference cities. In an attempt to cut down on travel and expenses in this pandemic-riddled season, the WHL chose to have teams play strictly in their own conferences.

One fan attended a pair of recent mid-week games and admitted that it really wasn’t an uplifting experience.

“Each night they announced just over 2,000 fans, but I’d estimate that there were about 1,200 tops each night,” he wrote. “It’s a pretty depressing atmosphere when the play is going on and you can hear the air-conditioning running in the building.”

This fan, a season-ticket holder “for many years,” also wrote that his team’s up-and-down season hasn’t kept him from the arena; rather it’s the schedule.

“This is the first season I’ve missed a meaningful number of games, and I can tell you that the main reason is that (my team) plays 24 of their 34 home games against four teams. Twelve of the 21 other teams in the league won’t set foot in our building this season.

“This feels like a five-team league with the occasional visit (on back-to-back nights) from the U.S. teams. Meanwhile, in some far-off land, there are players like Connor Bedard and Matt Savoie, who we . . . can only dream of seeing.

“If the WHL does this again next season, I’m seriously considering dropping down to half-season tickets, where I can pick the 17 games I want to go to.  It’s just not interesting seeing (one team) multiple times a year, and having two teams play each other four or five consecutive games is a farce.

“In my ideal world, the eastern teams would all come here once (12 games), the U.S. teams twice (10 games), and the B.C. teams three times (12 games) — there’s your 34 home games, and lots of variety to attract the casual fan to more games. We’d get more than 1,200 fans out to see Connor Bedard and the Regina Pats, and so would every other rink.”

Another fan also had a beef with the schedule.

“The league must get back to having ALL the teams involved in the schedule,” he wrote. “The story of economics is getting old as are we, waiting to see the Bedards, (Brayden) Yagers, etc. . . .”

He added that he “gets” that Tom Gaglardi, the majority owner of the Kamloops Blazers, Kelowna Rockets owner Bruce Hamilton and Ron Toigo, the majority owner of the Vancouver Giants, and “the poor souls trying to keep (major junior) hockey alive in Prince George believe we are all (excited as we wait) to see these great (divisional) rivalries.

“But I’m thinking the proof is in the pudding . . . it’s not working.”

Another fan said he and his wife stayed home one night to watch the Canadian women’s hockey team play in the Olympic Winter Games because their favourite WHL team was playing a division rival “for the 12th time.”

“If it had of been one of the Eastern Conference teams that might not have happened,” he added. “But I find it pretty phoney when the WHL decided to only travel to Saskatchewan and Manitoba every second year citing costs, then they take a team out of Chilliwack and move it to Vancouver Island. Now they have saddled teams with ferry and hotel costs. Plus the phoney move of the Ice (to Winnipeg where) they are now drawing less than Cranbrook’s (BCHL team).”

——

In Portland, the Winterhawks are faced with a situation unique to WHL teams — they share the Rose Quarter with the NBA’s Trailblazers. While the WHL team plays in Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the Trailblazers call the Moda Center home.

Some followers of the Winterhawks expressed dismay at what they see as the hassle involved in attending some games.

One fan wrote that he has given up attending games and now enjoys hassle-free viewing from the comfort of his couch.

“It didn’t have much to do with the price of the seats or, for that matter, the quality of the games and the boys participating. It was everything else around it,” he explained, adding that “the commute to games always takes place at rush hour (except Sundays) and the trip routinely would take two or three times longer than the regular trip” that he said was 20 minutes from his home to the arena.

There also was the frustration brought on by having WHL and NBA teams sometimes playing home games at the same time.

“The co-ordination of the Winterhawks and Trailblazers on scheduling games was incredibly frustrating,” he wrote. “Getting into and out of the Rose Quarter during those nights is just horrible. There isn’t enough parking to accommodate both buildings being full at the same time.”

Still, this fan continued to go to games, until . . .

“It was a slow and steady build up of reasons to not go. The stress of getting in and out of the game — don’t get me started on the long lines outside while awaiting a poorly functioning security check . . . The idea of going to the game was to relax and enjoy myself and it just wasn’t that anymore. Then the pandemic hit.

“Now I subscribe to WHL Live and drink my own beers and eat my own food in the comfort of my own couch. I do miss the rink, but I don’t miss the hassles.”

Another resident of the Portland area indicated that he “used to be a season-ticket holder,” but now hasn’t “been to a game in more than two years.”

Why not?

“The first season was due to pandemic issues . . . no one could attend.

“This season? The Winterhawks only play in the dilapidated Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Parking is not available if a competing event (NBA, PBR rodeo, big-name concert) is happening simultaneously at Moda. . . . with Ticketmaster fees, ticket prices are nearly doubled with schedules often not a sure thing during COVID.

“Sadly, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze these days.”

One other Portland fan pointed to something else as being part of his decision to stop attending games.

“The Rose Quarter has gone completely cashless,” he wrote. “I am old-fashioned and still pay with cash for many of my everyday expenses. I want to be able to walk up to a ticket window, select a seat, hand the worker a couple of twenties and get a paper ticket. I just don’t feel as though I should have to use a card to make all my purchases.”

——

Yes, there were complaints about concession prices. As one fan who no longer attends games put it: “A beer . . . ran you close to $10. Food prices were just as scary.”

Another fan said the in-game experience was among the reasons for his decision to stop going to games.

“I had never seen out-of-town scores during intermissions,” he wrote. “The music is always way too loud. The team always seemed more interested in attracting the one-time fan who would spend their week’s pay on beers and food than building a true fan base along the way.”

——

OK. So what does all this mean?

Well, for starters, you have to feel for the WHL’s 22 teams. Because, let’s be honest, they didn’t ask for a lot of this and, not having gone through this before, you can bet they are searching for answers.

At the end of the day, it could be that winning cures all that ails you. But it isn’t that easy to win in the WHL. In the 10-team Western Conference, the difference between fifth and sixth place is 25 points.

In the 12-team Eastern Conference, there are nine points between sixth and seventh spot. Five teams are separated by three points in the race for the last two playoff spots. But does that kind of thing sell tickets during a pandemic — despite the actions of a lot of people it isn’t over — and with the price of gas and various foods on the rise?

On Monday, I will talk with someone who used to work in a WHL team’s front office, on the business side, about what might be going on inside the league these days and some of the things teams could do to try and sell their product.

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