The Stadium Question

The CFL is an attendance-driven league. While you can never have enough fans, it seems you can have too many seats. The smaller-stadium movement has spread, now appearing in the West.

Even with the recent surge in popularity, a new television contract in 2008 will not bring in more revenue for each club than what the lowest team’s gate revenues are. In the 1970’s, the league average percent of capacity was probably over 90%. Since then this figure has dipped and dived as stadiums grew and gate attendance went through various swings. As attendance has increased, this figure has been creeping back to levels that are more acceptable. Instead of putting more people in the existing seats to create that critical mass where tickets become hard to get, clubs are looking at permanently shrinking the number of seats. This can only be bad for fans and the cost of tickets.

Montreal

Of course, Montreal is the poster-child for the smaller-stadium movement. Playing in the cozy 20,202 seat Molson Stadium has allowed them to sell-out over 60 straight games. However they realize to survive they must increase that number and have a proposal awaiting approval to increase the stadium seating to 25,000. This is probably the bare minimum for a CFL club to break even if they sell out every game at normal ticket prices. Montreal however has some of the most expensive tickets in the league, with single game tickets topping out at $125. When they expand, and the 5,000-person waiting list for season tickets all subscribe and they continue to sell out, will they drop ticket prices? No. The goal of the small-stadium plan is to create demand so ticket prices can be increased. The Montreal market has yet to be tested with a losing team. Alouette management is very aware I believe that a substandard season will see interest and ticket sales drop off substantially. This may result in a ticket price reduction to lure fans back to the stadium, but those decreases would quickly we reclaimed once the club returned to winning ways and demand increased.

Calgary

Calgary is the latest club to reveal interest in the smaller stadium plan. Stampeders owner Ted Hellard recently speculated about plans for McMahon Stadium in Calgary, including plans to reduce seats from 36,000 to 30,000. Currently it is no more than speculation as Hellard faces many obstacles, including feasibility of modifying the stadium and agreement with the McMahon Stadium Society and University of Calgary, the Stampeder’s landlords. The Calgary football club pays $1.1 million in rent for using the stadium for about six months of the year.

Hellard’s plans involve reducing seats in the four corners of the stadium to make way for corporate club seating. These seats would generate revenue from the initial sale as well as annual fees to the holder in addition to ticket costs. Hellard stated that ticket prices in some of the poorer backless bleacher seats might be reduced because of the increased revenue from the corporate boxes. This seems to be more of a carrot for the fans who might object to these stadium modifications. I would not hold any “might” promise to come true when such a plan is years off and by the time it is implemented revenues streams will need to be increased. The reduction in seating will only create higher demand for seats, allowing ticket prices to be raised, even the poor seats. Hellard being part of a private ownership group that consider themselves caretaker of a community club notwithstanding, business people will always use the economics of supply and demand to set pricing.

The Stampeder attendance records show an average attendance of over 30,000 each year since 1998 when it was 29,990 and a high of 35, 973 was reached in 2000. This is not a club trying to reduce a vast 60,000-seat stadium to create some atmosphere. As the city of Calgary grows, having a 30,000-seat stadium when the average attendance exceeds 30,000 will only create ticket prices out of the reach of the common fan and that is one of the key attraction factors of the CFL.

Other clubs

Toronto went through a couple years of new smaller-stadium talk until things were settled last year with an agreement to stay at Rogers Centre (previously SkyDome). The Argonauts have deployed tarped upper and lower decks to reduce seating and congregate fans to stimulate a better atmosphere with limited success initially but last season and this seem to be bringing back fans in respectable numbers.

In the last few years, B.C. created increased demand for tickets by closing the upper bowl at B.C. Place Stadium. Once the lower bowl sold out for a few games, fans knew tickets were hard to come by, and the team was putting an exciting product on the field (11-0 to start last season) the upper bowl was open, but some corner sections were still tarped off to create a little ambience in the cavernous covered dome. This season it appears the upper decks have been open from the first game while attendance figures have just hovered around the capacity of the lower bowl. While the figures are the same, the feel of the stadium changes as the fans are concentrated on the sidelines only part way up the upper deck while the end zones are only sparsely populated. The Lions have brought their average attendance up over 10,000 fans a game in a few short years. While an exciting, competitive team is partially responsible, there is no doubt creating a demand helped encourage fans to buy tickets in advance rather than leave going to a game a spur of the moment decision. After the 2010 Olympics, B.C. Place’s future is up in the air with the land appreciating in value so much it may be sold for development. This leaves some in B.C. hoping for a new, smaller, outdoor stadium. Fancy that.

Edmonton has also deployed tarped upper sections to reduce seating available. Saskatchewan has also seen a reduction in its stadium capacity the last 15 years as well. The Taylor Field unexpanded attendance record of 33,032 is in no danger of falling since capacity has been capped at actual seating capacity due to fire marshal regulations.

Winnipeg

Winnipeg is trying to buck the smaller-stadium trend sweeping the league. Last year grandiose plans to replace Canad Inns Stadium (previously Winnipeg Stadium) were revealed. While only in the feasibility phase right now, the club is serious about needing a new facility to play in and is facing some opposition from the public. Disagreements about the new location, size, need, cost and government participation are already occurring. The most interesting point of the proposed stadium is its capacity of 40,000. This would give Winnipeg the forth-largest stadium in the league when they have not averaged over 28,000 fans since 1985. Some may think the optional proposal to build a covered stadium or the initial design with its glass like facade is more ridiculous. When you think about it, though, a 40,000 seat stadium that will sit one quarter empty over 50% of the time and would not be expandable and therefore too small for a Grey Cup (unless you charge $500 a ticket) seems like too much pie in the sky.

Conclusion

It is a fact that every CFL city will be equipped with a different sized stadium. They exist in different markets and public money is not available to build stadiums for every existing CFL city that needs one, let alone expansion sites.

A little prosperity for the league (where clubs lose only a fraction what they did 5 years ago or break even) and all of a sudden a number of clubs have stadium plans. The fact is the cost of building a new stadium is astronomical for any CFL club’s budget and cannot be justified with the current fiscal situation of the league and its member clubs, as good as the situation is. Plans to reduce stadium seats, and by extrapolation increase ticket prices should be monitored. Fans should stand up to these plans that limit their ability to enjoy a game, not only by numbers, but also by affordability. The first thing fans can do is to attend a game now. CFL clubs will all be much closer to prosperity and better (maybe larger) stadiums, if clubs are playing at or close to 100% capacity.

4 Responses to “The Stadium Question”

  1. Cindy Says:

    I think it looks terrible when you watch a game in BC or Toronto and the crowd is scattered all over the place. That must really take away enjoyment in watching the game. I have only attended games at Taylor Field, but I think the crowd around you is what makes watching the game better.

    I think that trying to concentrate the crowd in the larger stadiums is a good idea, but reducing seats in places like Calgary seems ridiculous. With the population climbing, ticket prices can only go up. Who wants to watch the game up so high that you need binoculars to see, if that is the only ticket you can afford. I think it is easily forgotten that not everyone is a millionaire around here. I notice that the Stampeders already increase their ticket pricing for what they call “premium games”.

  2. Jon Says:

    Hi Cindy. Thanks for stopping by.

    Those are some points I didn’t make explicitly in the post. Because there are large stadiums and the days of sellouts every game are in the past for now in big centres like B.C., Toronto and Edmonton have to think of ways to make the experience 1) better for fans at the game and 2) better for people watching at home. If it looks like no one is there because people are scattered all over then the experience looks poor. But restricting or reducing seats to get more out of the pockets of people who will spend double on a ticket leaves the rest of us (core supporters in any city) out of luck.

    The fact is not only will you only be able to afford a nosebleed seat, that may be the only seat available to you, if you can get one at all. I don’t mind sitting in poorer seats, but when there is no opportunity to even get a ticket at a reasonable price, that’s a turn off. Once again the CFL should be trying to fill the seats it has, most of these stadiums were being filled during its heyday.

  3. Cindy Says:

    It must be almost impossible for someone in Montreal who just wants to enjoy one or two games with friends or family to get a ticket. Most of their seats must be tied up in season tickets or else sold far in advance.

    If they start reducing seats and raising prices, it will be like hockey, where the average family can’t afford to go to a game, even if they could get tickets. .

  4. Jon Says:

    Montreal caps season tickets at about 18,000 I believe, leaving 2000 individual tickets avialable for all games, but they are all sold out immediately when they go on sale, meaning no spur of the moment decisions to attend a game. Even the one game they play a year in Olympic Stadium gets 40,000 in ticket sales before the season even starts since fans have to buy in advance if they want to attend at least one game.

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    No Transparency in CFL Cap → Making the contract length and terms filed with the league public like most other leagues would provide enough transparency to CFL fans. Instead the CFL continues to live in the 1970’s, shielding its operations from public scrutiny. #
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