Here's a go at what can be done; Other teams facing attendance woes (and there's many of them across the WHL) can just do what's done here a lot: win. That part of the equation is never in question and really can't be. This season will be the toughest ever, at least on paper. It could be the first time the team misses the playoffs. They're teams in the WHL that haven't seen the post-season for five years; never won a championship, never won a Memorial Cup. That base is clearly covered.
1. The story is, timing-wise, not good. The club is in the midst of its season ticket drive and news like this doesn't help things. Then again, it's never a good time for news like this.
2. The question remains: will the support be there going forward? I renewed my season ticket last week. My youngest has his eyes on a roster spot with the Kimberley Dynamiters Junior B this upcoming season. If so, I guess I'll hold season tickets to both....
3. Before we rip into Robison's comments, there are a few things I've been told that will be a little better this season. Take them for what they're worth as I haven't had confirmation from the club or WFP of this;
- New sound system for WFP
- Goal Horn (an actual one, not recorded; apparently the place was always wired for one but somehow was never wired up)
- The software for the spotlights have been fixed and they will be in place this year so a lights-off intro for the players should be on-tap
4. Some ideas from myself courtesy other fans that care:
- Bottom rows of WFP: make them for kids and make them cheap; $5-8 max. They'll bring their parents. I would say that kids eat and parents have a "pop" or two but the team doesn't get the concession proceeds, but it would still put more bums in the seats.
- I know about the adage about pissing off the season ticket holders with discount seats. I'm not buying it (actually, I do, season tix that is); We season tickets holders will, for the most part, always be as such. The fan base needs to be expanded. The 25-40 year-olds need to be brought into the building (see above) and then they may get hooked.
- Do whatever you can to jazz up the in-game experience; Blimps that drop things for the kids; T-shirt guns; whatever: I don't care how gimmicky it is. If it can be done, do it.
- Progressive 50/50 updated as tix are bought; on screens around the rink; If there's one thing in this town that people like to do, it's win money. The progressive 50/50 is a good way to boost those revenues. The system is expensive but I don't think it's cost prohibitive. It's done in many arena around the league and at least deserves a trial here to see the response. The Curling Event a few years back had it and it was a success.
- City: Explore the cost of updating and placing big screens around the rink; Advertising; 50/50 etc. And a real effort to explore the cost of a new/used video screen clock should be done. WFP is the only WHL rink without one. It is a staple of the Major Junior hockey world. At the Memorial Cup in Le Colisee in Quebec City they might have one for sale. I know they're a lot of money. Maybe a community fund-raiser, whatever, it needs to be looked into.
- Update the windows of the restaurant. They need to swing open or open up completely so that patrons can hear and experience the game.
- Approach Canfor and Teck; having the ability to pay for season's tickets by money off the paycheque for employees is an easy sell. Shiftworkers (days/afts- four on, four off) have the ability to share tickets etc. It used to be done with Tembec up until about 2007.
5. Okay, I get it, the attendance is down, but what purpose does it serve by having the commissioner chime in with the deathknell of the Kootenay franchise without any real solutions? The team is a private enterprise and the books aren't available publicly but it's hard when the public can't see what the dollars and cents are. Or what the bottom line is. The lease of a public facility isn't available to the public - although an Freedom of Information request would do it but really, shouldn't have to. If the owners have had to put money into the franchise to keep it afloat, say so. Costs are up, attendance is down, I get it. I know it's a private enterprise but keeping the fans informed of the real costs of a franchise at this level may give them a real idea of why things are done the way they are.
6. The club did a $399 season ticket price a few years back that boosted numbers. Why not a special price all around? Get the fans back in the seats during a projected down year.
7. Why does Robison pour it all over Cranbrook and surrounding communities for lack of support but his tone is considerably different when talking about other troubled franchises (Lethbridge) or there's no mention that Swift Current, a equally-sized market that draws less fans than Kootenay, is ever in trouble? I know Swift is a publicly-owned team and the financial return is different but at the end of the day, is the return on the investment (Private vs Public, which only has to break even, I guess) the only thing that matters here? Robison states in the story that 3000 fans a night is the line needed. Why isn't he in every city with less than those numbers (Prince Albert, Moose Jaw, Swift, PG) stating the same or more?
8. The team name is the Kootenay Ice but really, how much support is coming from the Kootenay's anymore? We've talked about the great support the Junior B franchises enjoy all within an hour's radius of Cranbrook. Are those fans coming? Are they? I'd say, for the most part, no. Lots from Kimberley but I suspect the amount from the outlying (Fernie, Creston, Invermere) isn't much these days. Is this, for the most part, just a Cranbrook-fan base team now?
9. How will the fans/public in Cranbrook respond? There's some real threats to moving this team from the commissioner of the WHL. He specifically names Nanaimo, Lower Mainland (Abbotsford/Chilliwack), Winnipeg and "Northern Alberta" as possibilities. I mean, Nanaimo doesn't' have a suitable arena yet and no plans to build one; Abbotsford is empty but presents it's own challenges and is more realistically is going to be Vancouver's AHL team in the next year or two with the AHL exodus to the West Coast to support their NHL franchises. The Canucks won't wait long to do the same. And with Seattle building their new rink, an NHL franchise will be there soon enough which will also present more challenges. Northern Alberta? Not a chance. Expenses and the map make that choice more than prohibitive. Winnipeg? The AHL is already there. That ship has sailed.
10. Threats aside, we have a problem with attendance but threats doesn't fix it. Ideas do. Exhaust every possibility. Small markets can work in the WHL, including this one.
But if this is it.... if this very well could be the last season of the Ice in Cranbrook. Let's everyone know about it. Not if, not maybe, but a solid: This team is moving or will be sold and moved.
The team expenses every year are X; the revenue is Y and the owners have Z, which isn't enough to subsidize the team through extended losses - which are ????.
Then ultimately it will be up to the fans/community to support the team.
The future of the Western Hockey League in Cranbrook is on thin ice.
According to WHL commissioner Ron Robison, should attendance woes, financial struggles and corporate support of the Kootenay Ice not improve over the course of the 2015-16 season, the league may be forced to relocate the franchise.
“Our position is that we want to maintain our current markets where our clubs have operated, especially in the case of the Kootenay Ice who have operated in Cranbrook for many years,” Robison said over the phone from the WHL head office in Calgary on Wednesday afternoon. “Our hope is we can find a way to improve the fan support to keep the franchise in Cranbrook.
“But if that doesn’t change, we’ve got to look and explore options. We continue to be very concerned about the low attendance and the challenges that the club faces.
“It’s reached a very critical stage. I think it’s something we’re going to have to determine this year. If things aren’t improving, I don’t believe ownership or the league will be in a position to continue to support the franchise remaining in Cranbrook. It’s a very critical season coming up. We need to see more support in order to get us to a position where we have confidence in the market moving forward, but at this stage, we’re very concerned about the future of the franchise.
“[Cranbrook] has to be a viable market moving forward. We’re concerned right now, under any circumstances. It’s going to be a challenge, regardless of the ownership group.”
Upon relocating to Cranbrook from Edmonton ahead of the 1998-99 WHL season, the Kootenay Ice played its first two campaigns out of the 1,704-seat Memorial Arena before moving into its present-day home -- the 4,264-seat Western Financial Place.
According to the Internet Hockey Database (hockeyDB.com), the inaugural season at Western Financial Place (2000-01) was a success at the gates as a nightly average of 3,635 fans piled into the brand-new building to support the defending WHL champions.
Unfortunately for the franchise, attendance hasn’t been the same since then, declining by approximately 38.4 per cent as of the 2014-15 season.
Numbers at the Western Financial Place gates hit a franchise-low mark of 2,227 during the 2013-14 campaign before improving slightly to 2,239 during 2014-15.
Only the Swift Current Broncos registered lower average attendance (2,162 fans per game) than the Ice during the 2014-15 season.
Despite a quality on-ice product that includes three WHL championships (2000, 2002, 2011), a Memorial Cup championship (2002), 17 consecutive playoff appearances, 16 straight seasons with a regular-season record of .500 or better, the attendance woes have not shown significant signs of improvement.
Robison said the slight bump in average attendance from 2013-14 to 2014-15 isn’t enough.
“We recognize Cranbrook is a small market in relation to other markets,” Robison said. “I think back to when the franchise moved into Cranbrook and the goal and certainly the requirement at that time was to draw a minimum of 2,800 fans. What we see now, is it’s going to have to be something in excess of 3,000 a game. When you look at the attendance this year, that’s certainly a long way from where we need to be.
“We’re a ticket-driven industry. That’s what determines, ultimately, the viability of a franchise in a certain market.”
With that in mind, Robison said the fate of the franchise lies in the hands of people within Cranbrook and its surrounding communities. Without improved fan support and corporate support, the league doesn’t see Cranbrook as a viable market for WHL hockey.
“We have to determine whether the ownership is prepared to continue under these circumstances and that’s a challenge unto itself,” Robison said. “All of our franchises are committed to their current markets provided they can run a viable franchise. That’s been a real challenge for several years. Anytime you have losses sustained by a club over an extended period of time, you have to consider your options.”
Robison said the league works to support its small-market franchises in many ways including monitoring financial performance, assisting with league-wide marketing programs and sponsorship arrangements, communications and broadcast support, as well as a special-events revenue-sharing program.
But those support systems alone aren’t enough to keep a franchise afloat.
“At the end of the day, it just comes down to the local support, from a ticket-sales and sponsorship standpoint, that will ultimately determine the fate of the franchise,” Robison said.
“Our hope would be we can get things turned around. But that will depend largely on the level of support that’s going to be forthcoming. If that doesn’t happen, we may not have any other alternative but to consider relocation.”
Should the fate of the franchise be relocation, Robison said there is no shortage of demand for franchises across western Canada, listing the Lower Mainland, Nanaimo, Winnipeg and “other markets in northern Alberta” as a selection of potential relocation options, should push come to shove.
At the end of the day, the WHL commissioner hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“It’s largely up to the community to step forward and support the team,” Robison said. “The team is prepared to do whatever it takes to preserve the franchise there, but it’s ultimately going to come down to ticket revenue and level of sponsorship to maintain [the franchise in Cranbrook].”
As it stands, the Chynoweth family owns a controlling interest in the Kootenay Ice.
The early bird deadline to purchase Kootenay Ice season tickets came to pass May 29.
Adult season tickets can be purchased for $585, a cost of $16.25 per games (36 games). Walk-up cost for an adult ticket is $23.
Senior (65 plus) season tickets can be purchased for $485, a cost of $13.47 per game, versus walk-up price of $18.
Finally, a season ticket for a child (ages four to 17) can be purchased for $385, or $10.69 per game, versus walk-up cost of $11.
Representatives from the Kootenay Ice were unavailable for comment as of press time Wednesday evening.
Kootenay Ice attendance (Attendance records courtesy HockeyDB.com)
Western Financial Place capacity: 4,264
1998-99: 1,611*1999-00: 1,528*^2000-01: 3,635
2001-02: 3,473^2002-03: 3,440
2010-11: 2,501^2011-12: 2,805
2001-02: 3,473^2002-03: 3,440
2010-11: 2,501^2011-12: 2,805
* = played at Memorial Arena (capacity 1,704)^ = won WHL Championship