by Alex Quevillon
In a two-day span, fans of the Ottawa 67's suffering from withdrawal in the off-season received news worth getting excited over. With that being said, while all is well with the on-ice product, the most recent announcement causes a lot of off-ice concerns for the hockey club.
Early Wednesday, the Barberpoles headed into the CHL's import draft and did exactly what they were expected to do -- shore up their wingers. With the 51st selection, Ottawa selected diminutive left winger Ladislav Zikmund, who plays in the same system in Karlovy Vary as ex-67 netminder Lukas Mensator. Their second pick, at 54, was used to draft an ex-teammate of Michal Cajkovsky, 6'2 right winger Richard Mraz (not to be confused with Petr Mrazek, who joins Cajkovsky as a 67 grad).
All seems set in motion for the 67's to have a strong rebuilding campaign on the ice. However, less than 24-hours later, the Ontario Hockey League released their schedule for the 2012-13 season. Exciting news? Yes. A cause for concern in Ottawa? Absolutely.
As was confirmed three weeks ago when the 67's officially moved their headquarters to Kanata, Ontario, the team will officially play out the next two or three seasons at Scotiabank Place. Their new so-to-speak roommate, the NHL's Ottawa Senators, released a schedule around the same time that left Ottawa's Junior team in a bind.
Typically, the 67's have had the entirety of their home matchups scheduled for Friday nights and Sunday afternoons with the rare exception being made for a Saturday afternoon or Holiday Monday game. Sharing a building with an NHL team has effectively put an end to this, though. The Senators, competing with six other Canadian NHL markets, have started their own habit of hosting teams on Friday nights. As such, with the pro team taking precedence, the 67's had to work with what they were given.
As we found out, the 67's home schedule sees them playing just eight home games on their usual Friday nights. They play host to four Saturday afternoon games and seven Sunday afternoon games. During the week, fans will have to make the trek out to Kanata for three Monday games, four Tuesday games, five Wednesday games and three Thursday games.
To get fans to the games, the team is going to be forced to market Junior hockey better than they have in the past half-decade. If anyone can do it, team owner Jeff Hunt has proven that he is capable.
After taking over the franchise in 1998, Hunt's bold marketing tactics and advertising campaigns didn't go unnoticed. In fact, it helped sell so many tickets that the 67's were able to host the Memorial Cup, as their new owner had audaciously guaranteed.
From 1999 to 2005, the 67's took part in three third Memorial Cup tournaments and attendances were soaring. Every Friday night game was either sold out or nearly sold out, the team rarely plunged below 8,000 fans for a Friday night. Sundays never seemed like a chore to put people in the seats. But since their last visit to the Mem Cup, things have taken a bit of a nosedive.
With the exception of games against key teams, teams with high-end prospects, or simply games where a lot of seats were given away, Ottawa rarely found themselves eclipsing 6,000 fans. This isn't a bad hockey team, either, this is a team that hasn't missed the playoffs since the birth of their first import draftee from Wednesday and has won three divisional titles in a row. Imagine if this team falls into the lower echelon of the Eastern Conference.
Furthermore, consider the poor attendances that generally come with playoff games in Ottawa. Not used to weekday games, they only managed to sell 6,500 tickets for the deciding seventh game vs. Barrie. That was Ottawa's highest attendance for a weekday home game in the post-season. Are those numbers good in comparison to a number of OHL teams? They are, but it causes concern for what we may see next season.
If travel and the number of weekday games aren't enough of a worry, consider that the Senators are also re-vamping their marketing schemes and, in some cases, are actually selling tickets that would be cheaper than their Junior counterpart. Senators CEO Cyril Leeder is tired of visiting fans taking over 'The Bank', and is willing to lose profits to sell cheaper season's seats to Ottawa fans who will drown out opposing supporters. How far is Leeder willing to budge in order to sell his team's product to hometown fans? Down to the point where you can buy seats for $15.
Granted, very few tickets for the professional squad will be sold at the eye-opening low rate of $15, but there will still be some available to the public. By comparison, the cheapest ticket you can buy for a 67's game currently goes at $18.
If you don't think that the Senators brass is serious about their plan, consider personal experience as proof. In my family's household, there is not a single Senators fan. However, having used Capital Tickets (owned by Senators owner Eugene Melnyk) we received a letter asking if we'd like to become Senators season ticket holders, the offer of "tickets as low as $15/game" still intact. These same afformentioned family member who have been 67's season ticket holders for decades received nothing more than a long, drawn-out "please come back, we need you next season" from the Barberpoles front office.
Unable to obtain official numbers, I have heard from a number of people that the 67's renewal rate amongst season ticket holders from the 2012 season had dropped to as low as 23% as of the May 8th Early Bird deadline. Playing in a suburb, it will be hard enough to get any sort of a walk-up or casual crowd. When an approximated 77% of diehard fans aren't willing to make the trip, who is?
Furthermore, OC Transpo has now come out and said that unless the 67's sell an average of 5,000 seats per game, they will cut bus service to the games. With the price of parking already hiked up from last year's rate, bus service is crucial. It's a chain reaction if the team doesn't draw large attendances early on. If they lose bus service, it goes even further downhill.
For a team that couldn't sell 5,000 tickets for a weekday playoff game, the Ottawa 67's are going to have to come up with a brilliant marketing ploy to continue getting respectable attendances. Perhaps this starts and ends by using Cody Ceci as a selling point -- the hometown defender was drafted 15th overall by the Senators last week and is expected by many to return to the Barberpoles and likely Captain the team. Either way, with the pre-season starting on September 7th and the 67's home opener in their new stomping grounds being played September 20th, the team's front office has a lot of work to do in a very short time.
by Alex Quevillon
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