A late-season surge in attendance offers hope that the Abbotsford Heat may not always to be a drain on city coffers, said Abbotsford Mayor George Peary.
Under a 10-year supply fee contract with the team, the city paid the Heat AHL hockey team $450,000 to cover revenue shortfalls in its first year of operation, with that projected to rise to $724,000 for year two. The deal guarantees the team $5.7 million in annual revenue. If the club doesn’t generate that amount, the city pays the difference.
Mayor George Peary said he expected to see growth begin in the second year, not an increased payment.
“Of course, I’m disappointed.”
However, he said the second financial year did not take in the entire season, leaving out all games after Dec. 31, 2010, or 21 games. And many of those games were marked by higher attendance.
The difference, said Peary, was city staff helping with marketing efforts, reaching out to schools and Abbotsford Minor Hockey, specifically.
The result was crowds significantly larger than the team had been drawing, said Peary.
The Heat averaged 3,807 fans per game last season overall, which was 26th in the American Hockey League. It was also down from 3,897 in the team’s first year.
But attendance stats show that the Heat averaged 4,414 fans over their final eight home games in March and April.
The number of paid seats, as opposed to those filled via complimentary tickets, is expected to be released by the team in June. Four thousand paying fans is considered a break-even point for the club.
“We’re getting the fans out, getting people enthusiastic about hockey – we continue to beat the drum,” said Peary.
“I’m still convinced they can make it.”
In its first season, the team blamed losses on having to compete against the Olympics and low commercial sales – which got off to a late start that year.
Last year, the team knew to expect the unexpected, said Heat president Tom Mauthe.
“There’s a thing called a sophomore year, and you never know what effect it’s going to have.”
He explained a new sport franchise enjoys some “trendiness” in its first year of operation, but by the second year that can wear off.
“Now we’ll know where the waterline is – our core business,” said Mauthe. “We’ll grow the business.”
He said the team will generally stay the course, but spend more efforts in “sampling” initiatives, introducing new fans to the game.
“People who attend the games like us,” he said.
He said a key area for growth is Mission and the north side of the Fraser.
“It is our goal that we’re going to grow,” said Mauthe. “We have a very loyal, committed fan base, and we’re committed to growing that fan base.”
Mauthe said the team found the frequent back-to-back games a challenge. Abbotsford is the western outpost of the east-based league, so all home games are booked back-to-back in order to cut back travel costs. But often hockey fans showed a preference to attend one game or the other, but not both.
Coun. Bill MacGregor is the former president of the Abbotsford Air Force junior football team. Although the first-term councillor has expressed discontent with city budget increases in his comparatively short time in office, he still has patience for the Heat.
He said the keys to financial success are to offer a good calibre of hockey, keep scheduling away from conflicts with the Vancouver Canucks, and make the playoffs.
“I think it’s going to come around,” said MacGregor. “You don’t go forward by looking backward.”
“We’re in it. We have to make sure that the sports centre continues to progress,” he added.
The city is preparing a financial report on the Heat, separate from the arena, which will be made public.