Charlton's NHL Notebook: Flames Raise Ticket Prices
May 22, 2001

It could be worse.

That's the good news.

After a fifth straight non-playoff year not to mention 12 years and counting since the last time Calgary advanced past the first round of the post-season, it would be hard to picture a more galling set of circumstances for the Flames to be hiking ticket prices.

Yet worse examples abound.

In Chicago last season, the Hawks raised ice-level seats from $8,000 CDN for a pair to $30,000 CDN, effectively ejecting people who had held the seats for decades, then acted surprised when they suffered the largest attendance drop of any NHL team.

Two years ago, after the Stars won the Stanley Cup, there was a near revolt in Dallas when ticket prices shot into the stratosphere, but attendance held firm, the lure being a consistent winner.

Therein lies the difference - winning sells.

But there are other difficulties besides fielding a contender when running an American business like the NHL in a Canadian city.

As an example, Calgary is one of the lowest cost of living cities in North America. But that charming fact represents just another financial hurdle for the Flames, a team that buys its product at New York prices and tries to pay for it with your heavily discounted Calgary dollars.

It's easy for you to live in Calgary, but very difficult for the Flames.

The average Calgarian picks up a Canadian dollar paycheque and it matters little to him that Flame ticket prices, when converted to U.S. dollars, are the lowest in the NHL. To any Calgarian, $47 is still $47, not $30 U.S.

A failing season and a subsequent jump in ticket prices does not bode well for renewals this summer although I suspect, with the number of new clients brought on board during the marketing campaign of last year, that the Flames may have one or two mulligans to spend before they go into the sewer again.

In my own case, after seeing seven partners in the mid-1990's dwindle to zero by the start of last season, I actually added three as the campaign last year wore on, with all expected to sign up again.

The June 22 renewal deadline is just ahead of the NHL draft and only a few days from the opening of free agent season. The amount of space given GM Craig Button to maneuver at that critical point in the off-season will be directly related to how the Flames are able to sell themselves to Calgarians in the next month.

The Flames lost $5 million CDN last year or about $3 million U.S. and have now pushed through the dough given them from expansion. As well, failing to sell 13,000 season tickets might mean failing to qualify for the NHL Canadian assistance program - I say "might" because a lot of variables go into qualifying for the program. The Flames have qualified before with less than 12,000 season tickets.

On the positive side of the ledger I've heard rumblings around town the team is close to a new lease arrangement with the city, with something likely to be announced before next season. That, along with a lottery arrangement with the provincial government, was one of the four conditions outlined by the Flames last summer as a prerequisite for keeping the team in Calgary. Little was heard on either of these topics once the season started last year, suggesting some progress was being made. Expect both pillars to be in place by the time October rolls around.

The irony of the 9% hike in Flames prices is the fact that number would be nothing compared to the hikes that would come if management actually delivered a winning, in-demand, product on the ice.

The Flames have been lounging near the bottom of the ticket pricing pile for the better part of a decade for a reason, their failure to deliver a winning product hampering their ability to pass on the real cost of doing business in the NHL to the local ticket buying public.

Calgary is a wealthy city, by Canadian standards and even by U.S. standards. And no more wealthier than today with the oil taps flowing once again.

But winning is everything.

And so we will say again this summer what we have said every summer for over a decade.

There has never been more pressure on Flames management to deliver a winner.

Yet again.

YOU COULD SEE FLAMES OFFICIALS VISIBLY CRINGING when Alberta Gaming Minister Ron Stevens stated publicly last week a scheme to set up a lottery arrangement to help the Flames and Oilers was near at hand. If you left it up to the Flames, nothing would be said on the topic until the deal was set, done and delivered. And you can certainly see why. Within minutes of Stevens comments, call-in radio shows erupted in outrage with negative newspaper editorials and general grouchiness following in the ensuing days. Never mind that the NHL has an iron-clad case for insisting that free-loading taxpayers cough up some money for using NHL logos and results to build hospitals and schools. The fact that Stevens said a 50/50 arrangement would be the likely result conjured up immediate pictures of NHL leeches roaming the corridors of rinks throughout small-town Alberta, shoving similar fund-raising efforts of local minor hockey out of the way in an attempt to corral enough money to pay millionaire hockey players ever increasing salaries. Forgotten perhaps were earlier predictions made two years ago that such a scheme would be more upscale, tickets of $100 and subscriptions of $1000 coming to mind, with much of the buying power coming from those who can afford to take the bait. This struggle with public perception is a purely Canadian thing. Consider a genuine public relations faux pas in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins recently purchased a newly closed hospital - that's right, a hospital -across the street from Mellon Arena. The Pens hope to convince city officials, already on the hook for a $550 million baseball/football stadium, to jack up another $200 million of public money for a new arena. That entire scenario would fly like a lead balloon in these parts. In any event, only Oiler and Flames officials, who aren't talking given the delicate public mood towards any help, whether deserved or not, can readily estimate what such a lottery scheme might eventually generate in monies towards their teams. The ideal number is $14 million each, the unsubsidized shortfall represented by the difference between the Canadian and U.S. dollars, but that seems unlikely. An announcement by the fall, however, might make all the difference in the world in efforts by the Oilers to retain their heart and soul, Doug Weight. And give the Flames a leg up on adding further payroll down the road.

HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A TEAM IN THE FINAL FOUR, a team which beat a good Washington squad before surprising Buffalo, get as heavily criticized as the Penguins have been for their efforts against New Jersey. "Gutless" is one of the nicer things they've been called after being shut out twice at home and facing elimination tonight. Little credit seems to be given to the fact the Devils are playing hockey about as perfectly as it can possibly be played. "There just is no room at all," said Mario Lemieux after the Pens were toasted 5-0 on Sunday."The more you skate, the more it seems like you fall into the trap. They just take away the good ice and give you the bad ice, on the outside, which obviously is not what you want. They keep going back and back and you hit their zone and still have to dump it in, because they just won't let you get behind them. It's a great system. Hopefully, we can get a system like that one day here." Lemieux says the Devils are "by far the best (playoff) team" he has played against in his career. Jaromir Jagr had a more pragmatic explanation. "We just got smoked. We just got killed."

THE BIGGEST JOKE OF THE SUMMER HAS TO BE talk that the Montreal Canadiens are going to take a run at Tampa restricted free agent Vincent Lecavalier. While we would certainly understand the rationale behind Montreal seeking the next big Francophone superstar there remains the fact that George Gillette needed a "gimme" loan from Caisse to complete his purchase of the Canadiens while Tampa's owner Bill Davidson looks like Scrooge McDuck rolling around with all the coin in his vault. If it comes down to a battle of wallets over Lecavalier, Gillette isn't even in the same league as Davidson.

THEO FLEURY IS OUT OF REHAB and spending the summer, according to the New York Post, in Santa Fe, New Mexico so that he might be close to his after care counselor. Glen Sather has been talking with Fleury and reports him to be upbeat. No word on what the coming season might bring.

I CAN SEE THE EYES OF A TYPICAL HOCKEY FAN GLAZING OVER as I launch into the topic of the Canadian dollar merging with that of the U.S., although it has serious implications, all positive for Canadian based NHL teams. There are many economists out there who feel such a merger of currencies is inevitable, most proponents saying in as little as three years or at most seven. The only real problem the Flames have is that Calgary; a city that can support a NHL team with a $44.5 million Canadian player budget next season, is located 200 miles north of the U.S. border. That $44.5 million, unfortunately, is $29 million U.S., putting the Flames down near the bottom of the league in payroll instead of in the top third. But what if one dollar Canadian was also one dollar U.S.? It's the topic du jour on the economic front right now with most Canadian industries, which benefit from a low Canadian dollar, cringing at the thought of competing with U.S. industry with a par dollar. But there are other industries, such as NHL hockey, which couldn't help but benefit, just as they suffer immensely when the opposite is true. Flames fans should keep a close eye on this debate, as mind numbing as it might be.

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