It’s not hard to tell an Oiler fan from a Flame fan these days.
One is mad about his hockey team, the other is mad at his team.
While the Oiler fan parades about town in sweltering heat in his Oiler toque, the Flame fan wears his ‘Flaming C’ — inside out.
The bottom line?
|Grant McKenzie illustration|
Winning isn’t the only thing, it’s everything to Alberta’s National Hockey League teams. Financially, they battle shorthanded in a loop that makes little economic sense to Canadian teams.
The Flames and Oilers have no control over the other issue that threatens their survival — a plunging Canadian dollar trading in the 64-cent range US. With most expenses, including player salaries, in U.S. dollars, the deflated dollar cost each Alberta team about $14 million the past season.
So in the end, the marketing tool that will make or break these teams is the hockey stick.
The Oilers are the toast of Edmonton because of their proficiency with a hockey stick, having blossomed into one of the NHL’s winningest and most entertaining teams.
After their team was eliminated by the Dallas Stars in six games in a spectacular opening-round series of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Oiler fans, red-eyed with emotion and ale, stood and lustily cheered their heroes at Skyreach Centre.
The din is still echoing in Patrick LaForge’s ears.
“This place is hockey crazy,” gushes former Calgarian LaForge, chief executive of the Oilers. “It’s a passion zone that goes beyond a sporting event. That playoff series re-established the fire in the fan’s gut. Being here, I feel like I’ve been anointed as archbishop. I love it, man!”
Three hundred kilometres south, LaForge’s counterpart, Flames’ CEO Ron Bremner, is surrounded by a posse of bitter, hand-wringing fans — fed up with a team that stumbled through another mediocre season, missing the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
A year ago, the Flames’ ownership made a desperate plea to their fans to shell out to the tune of 14,000 season tickets or possibly see the team sold and relocated to a U.S. city.
The fans did their part, buying 14,200 season tickets.
But on the ice, the Flames were the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.
With 73 points, Calgary finished 17 points out a playoff spot, 20 points behind its provincial arch-rival and two points ahead of an expansion team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, coached by one of the many Flame coaching casualties, Dave King.
“The elixir is winning,” says Bremner.
And winning in sports is about continuity.
With the Flames, the revolving door of coaches and players seems endless. Last summer, Bremner fired coach Brian Sutter and general manager Al Coates, hired Craig Button as GM, who in turn hired Don Hay as head coach and then fired him once it was evident the team was going to miss the playoffs.
“When you’re winning, everything is easier,” adds Bremner. “You can charge more for hot dogs. You can charge more for advertising . . .”
Curiously, Bremner, now rumoured to be on the firing line himself, stopped short of mentioning you can also hike ticket prices when you’re winning.
That oversight may have something to do with the fact that a ticket-price increase for next season seems inevitable with Calgary boasting the NHL’s lowest average seat of $47.
The Oilers recently hiked their $53 average ticket by 5.45 per cent and, according to LaForge, “there hasn’t been one complaint.”
Bremner goes on the defensive when asked whether ticket prices will be raised. “I’m not in a position to make a definitive answer,” he says. “What you have to look at is that our prices are $6 lower than Edmonton’s and $9 lower than Vancouver’s.”
So fans can expect a new rallying cry — from the cheer-your-face-off marketing theme to cheer-your-wallet-off-for-a-losing-team.
With a financially strapped team that expects to lose $5 million from the past season unable to foot the bill for a marquee player it so desperately needs, there is little hope that Greg Gilbert, the eighth head coach in the 12 seasons since Calgary won the Stanley Cup, can reverse the on-ice fortunes.
How desperate are the Flames?
Button last week made a personal plea for fans’ patience through a recorded phone message to 5,000 season-ticket holders, welcoming them to respond by calling or e-mailing him. So Button, the man responsible for finding players who can shoot straight, was not scouting last week but fielding phone calls and messages from fans.
While the Oilers made the most of a $25.5-million US payroll, the Flames burnt $28.5 US to win 27 games. That was an increase of $7 million US over the previous year.
Button’s biggest bust was the signing of goalie Mike Vernon, a throwback to the Flames’ glory years, for a team high of $3.25 million US. Vernon was the second-best goalie on the team.
Stock in the second and third highest-paid Flames — Igor Kravchuk and Phil Housley, both at $2.5 million US — also tanked like dot-com plays.
The Oilers, on the other hand, flourished under a new GM, Kevin Lowe, and a new coach, Craig MacTavish.
The Oilers also boast a marquee player in Doug Weight while the Flames haven’t had a showstopper since Theoren Fleury took the money and fled to the New York Rangers.
LaForge says his team, which has made the playoffs six straight seasons, will show a slight profit and will have the luxury of budgeting for a higher payroll. But it remains to be seen whether he can retain the heart and soul of the team —Weight, a $4.3-million US commodity who may command about $6 million US on the free-agent market.
Thanks to last year’s successful Flames Forever campaign, Calgary outdrew the Oilers the past season with an average attendance of 16,623, including 17 sellouts, at the 17,139-seat Pengrowth Saddledome. Edmonton averaged 15,130 at 17,100-seat Skyreach during the regular season and then sold out all three playoff games.
LaForge is confident the Oilers will reach its goal of 15,000 season tickets by targeting 2,000 extra season tickets through packages of four season tickets to each of 500 businesses.
He emphasizes that having proven winners like Lowe and MacTavish, cornerstones from Stanley Cups past, at the reins enhances the marketing of the Oilers.
“It gives the whole organization credibility and respect,” he says.
On the other hand, in Calgary, Lanny McDonald, the last link to the 1989 Stanley Cup team and the most popular Flame in history, abruptly resigned after several years as vice-president of corporate relations.
The Flames’ ticket campaign, to be unveiled in the near future, will be relatively conservative to reflect the sombre mood of the fans.
“We have good solid supporters who care about the team, are passionate and want us to succeed,” says Bremner.
“They feel let down. So we’re not going to have a slick marketing campaign with smart phrases. It’ll be a grass-roots message, like saying: ‘We’re rolling up our sleeves and we plan to get the job done.’ ”
What is difficult for the ownership groups in the cities to accept is the fact that even a winning team and the best marketing may not be enough to sustain the teams in the long term. Two of the Flames’ owners, Ron Joyce and Dr. Grant Bartlett, have already bailed, selling their 21-per-cent stake to the remaining seven owners during the past season.
The Oilers are owned by 37 partners, who bought the team last year from Peter Pocklington for $75 million US.
The survival of the Alberta franchises and other small-market Canadian teams will ultimately be determined not by the strength of a power play but that of the floundering Canadian dollar and a favourable Collective Bargain Agreement when the current one expires in 2004.
“We need a better labour agreement, one that will allow all NHL teams to break even,” says LaForge. “And we were banking on paying $1.46 (per U.S. dollar) this year and ended up paying $1.57. I’m optimistic. I think it’s going back to $1.46.”
If the dollar were at par to the U.S. dollar, both teams would have made substantial profits and had cash to sign one or two free-agent superstars.
“We’re always searching for new and creative ways to generate more revenue,” says Bremner.
The teams are negotiating with Alberta Lotteries to receive licensing fees from betting on NHL games. “We’re cautiously optimistic on that one,” says Bremner. The Alberta teams are also banking on generating additional revenue from pay-per-view telecasts of their games.
While raving about Edmonton fans, LaForge wouldn’t compare the Calgary market, saying: “I’m not going there.”
Says Bremner: “I don’t think there’s much difference. The fans demand and expect their teams to perform at a certain level. I have great respect for the Oilers. They’re worthy competitors and great business partners.”