The good news for the WHL is that there have been some great crowds of late. The Spokane Chiefs had their largest crowd (7,918) since before the pandemic on Saturday night for a visit by the Tri-City Americans. The Moose Jaw Warriors drew a season-high 4,895 that same night with the Regina Pats in town.
But there is a long way to go before things get back to where they once were.
Granted, we are in the middle of a pandemic and teams have had to deal with mandates and restrictions. But this season, using figures compiled by the WHL, its 22 teams have combined to play 642 games through Sunday with an announced average attendance of 3,080 — that’s actually up 34 fans per game in nine days. Hey, baby steps . . .
In 2018-19, the last time the WHL was able to play a complete season, teams played 748 games with the announced average at 4,361.
But the warning signs were there before this season.
In 2019-20, teams got in 694 games before the pandemic brought the season to a close. The announced average for those games was 4,154, which was down 207 from the previous season. Eighteen teams experienced a decrease in attendance from 2018-19, with only the Everett Silvertips, Kamloops Blazers, Kelowna Rockets and Prince Albert Raiders showing an increase.
Last season, a number of teams received government funding due to the pandemic, with six teams in Saskatchewan counting $600,000 apiece among their revenues. The Prince Albert Raiders, for example, received $1,081,179 in government grants and were able to announce a profit of $25,891.
Richard Doerken, the WHL’s vice-president, hockey, told Hartley Miller on his Cat Scan podcast earlier this year that none of the teams has received any government money this season.
We can only imagine how much some of the other teams bled last season and how large the puddle on the floor is this season.
Recently, I asked fans why they no longer attend WHL games, or perhaps are going to fewer games than they once did. A number of Portland fans referenced the hassle of getting into Winterhawks games. The above video, which was posted on Twitter on Sunday evening by Chad Balcom, a regular at Portland games, is an example of to what they were referring.
And it is that kind of thing that WHL teams have to deal with as they work to get fans to return to their games.
They also have to deal with the lifting of so many things pandemic-related that now some of those fans who choose to continue to wear masks are concerned about being around the unmasked and even anti-vaxxers. Back in the day one of the biggest beefs likely had to do with the in-game music. Too loud? Not loud enough?
But as things continue to inch towards some semblance of whatever normal is going to be, we wonder what WHL teams should be looking at in their attempts to get fans back into their buildings.
One person who has been on the front lines in the WHL and maintains a love for the league contacted me and offered up some suggestions. The Insider has been deep inside a team’s front office — on the business and marketing side — so has a feel for what is happening there. As well, The Insider remains in the game; he now is in the front office of a pro team.
In writing to me, the approach was: “I thought I would focus on the ‘what to do about it.’ ”
With that, The Insider approached the situation from three angles — teams needing to show patience, teams needing to take a long, hard look at the fan experience, and teams needing to look at the overall cost of attending games.
“First,” The Insider wrote, “it is going to take time for fans, particularly casual fans, to get back into their pre-pandemic habits, so understand that the further the pandemic and mandates recede into memory (let’s hope there’s not another variant around the corner) the more likely fans are to return . . . Teams should understand that it isn’t going to correct itself overnight so set some realistic timeframes for attendance growth.”
When you think about it, as we go through life a lot of what we do is dictated by habits. There is a reason why your favourite TV show is on at the same time every week. Marketers want to create a habit. Once they are able to do that, they know that should you ever break that habit you may never come back. That is what WHL teams are up against now.
“Second,” The Insider wrote, “teams need to raise their game when it comes to the fan experience, not only in-venue but also with their streaming video production . . . Give kids in particular plenty to do on the concourse, offer fun experiences like Fanboni rides and puck shoots, let them meet the players after games, etc. . . . As for the video production, bad lighting, poor camera work, lousy graphics and unstable streaming platforms aren’t going to help any team/league monetize their video content, and in-home viewing continues to grow and grow.”
One season-ticket holder who emailed me on Sunday seemed to echo The Insider, writing about his favourite team: “It’s also the same thing every season. Same promotions. Same giveaways (first 500 or 1,000 people). Same first- and second-period intermissions. They really need to jazz it up and make changes.”
“And third,” The Insider wrote, “teams and the league need to re-examine their pricing structure/value proposition to bring in new fans to the sport, particularly younger families . . . As gas prices and other ‘basics’ increase in price, junior hockey needs to price the game-night experience (tickets, parking, food, etc.) so that a family can attend a game at a reasonable investment. Otherwise they’ll stay at home and stream Disney+ for the evening . . . cheaper and less hassle.”
From where I sit, WHL teams have to learn to put a whole lot of attention on game operations and presentation. They need to get to a place where even if the home team gets blown out the fans go home feeling that they still received good entertainment value and that not only would they return, but that they would spread the word.
“I don’t know that enough WHL teams are thinking that way,” The Insider wrote. “And you don’t have to spend a lot of money to do it.”
In closing, The Insider added:
“It takes creativity. Thinking outside the box. Looking at other sports like minor league baseball and events like music festivals. The sport itself is a great product, but these days fans want more if they are going to pay the prices and fight the traffic and deal with the hassles at the doors. Otherwise you’re right . . . fans will watch from home whether it’s WHL or NHL or Schitt’s Creek or whatever.”
And if the fans are going to stay home, some teams are going to be up the creek without the proverbial paddle. If they aren’t already, that is.