Vancouver’s NHL franchise has been stagnant lately in terms of ticket sales. A rivalry with a Seattle team would give sales a boost.
Inside sports business
While at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, B.C., last week, it dawned on me why the local NHL Canucks are so eager to have a Seattle franchise take root.
A birthday gift had me in a seat for a game between the Canucks and my hometown Montreal Canadiens. Throughout the high-priced lower bowl were scores of red, blue and white Canadiens jerseys. The Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs are always strong draws in Vancouver, as many fans have moved there over the years from both Eastern cities, where the NHL’s only two Canadian teams played before the Canucks formed in 1970.
But this felt entirely different. There was a lack of electricity in the building, bordering on apathy from the home fans in an entertaining 7-5 victory for the visitors.
Used to be, if Montreal or Toronto came to town, there’d be as many Canucks season-ticket holders wanting to see the game rather than selling their seats to opposing fans. Not this time. This had more of the feel of an Arizona Coyotes game in Glendale, where visiting fans routinely swarm the venue, buying up the best seats and out-cheering the disinterested home supporters.
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The guy seated next to us, a native Montrealer in his early 60s now living in Vancouver, confirmed my suspicions.
“These are the games where everybody makes their money back,’’ he told me.
He went on to say that outside of resale-generating Montreal and Toronto matchups, there’s little for Canucks fans to get excited about. Accordingly, the value of season tickets has fallen.
I asked him, “After this, what else? They get to see Edmonton come in?’’
With that, he rolled his eyes.
The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames used to be fierce rivals with the Canucks.
But it has been more than a decade since the Flames or Oilers reached a Stanley Cup Final. The Canucks last reached the final in 2011, and it has been downhill for them on the ice ever since.
“The hype surrounding the team in Vancouver has changed dramatically,” said Anthony Beyrouti, owner of Vancouver-based ticket broker Venue Kings. “As the team has continued to lose, (season-ticket) renewals have gone down, and that’s why you’re seeing more and more fans of other teams at games.”
With fewer season tickets sold and more single-game seats available, he said fans can just buy face-value entry to games on Ticketmaster. Also, the Canucks in recent years introduced “dynamic” or “flex” ticket pricing, in which big-draws games against opponents such as Montreal and Toronto cost more to attend.
That has caused Canucks season-ticket holders to offload those games to visiting fans for a quick buck. And other Canucks fans to stay home.
“Because of the high prices, a Canucks fan will now go to a regular game instead of paying the premium prices to go to a game like that,” Beyrouti said.
Or, they just won’t go.
The Montreal and Toronto games at least boost ticket value because there are enough Canadiens and Leafs fans living in Vancouver to buy up seats by the thousands. But there are far fewer fans from other cities — even in Alberta — willing to make the trek. And with Canucks fans less inclined to watch the home team play anybody these days, drumming up interest and ticket demand for games against teams other than Montreal and Toronto is a challenge.
Enter the possibility of a Seattle franchise. It’s hardly a cure-all, but it provides an opportunity for some rare rivalry excitement.
In February 2014 while attending a sports-business exchange between delegations from Seattle and Vancouver, I heard all about how the Canucks desperately wanted a cross-border rival. Canucks chief operating officer Victor de Bonis addressed the Seattle delegation at a private cocktail reception and could barely contain his enthusiasm at the prospect of thousands of fans driving up and down I-5 to see contests in the opposing buildings.
It’s no fluke Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini showed up for a news conference in June in which the City of Seattle confirmed Oak View Group as its KeyArena renovation partner. Aquilini knows it’s only a three-hour drive between Vancouver and Seattle compared with 11 hours between Vancouver and Calgary and 14 hours with Edmonton.
The Canucks were likely thrilled last week when hundreds of Seattle area fans lined up into the street at the downtown Washington Athletic Club to see the Stanley Cup in person. The oldest trophy in North American professional sports — won 100 years ago by the Seattle Metropolitans — was put on display for three hours after nearly a year of lobbying to get it here by the Seattle Sports Commission.
Mike Bolt, a Toronto-based Cup caretaker who travels the continent safeguarding the trophy, said the WAC date was confirmed only six days ahead of time.
That lack of notice and publicity made it all that more interesting to see the hundreds that endured a 40-minute wait for a photo with the Cup.
That could bode well for a Seattle-based NHL expansion franchise expected in the coming year. The Canucks hope some of those fans soon will be driving up to Vancouver and perhaps kick-starting local interest.
“I think it would help, to be honest with you,” Beyrouti said. “Seattle fans are pretty passionate about their local sports, and I think you’d see a lot of Seattle fans coming to Vancouver, and you’d see a lot of Vancouver people go to Seattle.”
At the least, it’s a few more interesting home dates for a Canucks franchise in need of some increased ticket demand — regardless of where it’s coming from.