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Lessons Calgary can learn from dwindling Edmonton Oilers attendance

Edmonton Oilers attendance is waning. Substantially.

Why does that matter in Calgary?

Edmonton sports journalist, radio talk show host and Oilers Nation writer, Jason Gregor, who penned a piece on the decline of butts-in-seats at the three-year-old Rogers Place arena, said our city can learn a lot when it comes to atmosphere, price and making our new arena a place that spurs hockey fans for generations to come.

At the start of December, Calgary’s Event Centre Assessment Committee announced the definitive agreements were signed with Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation, the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation and the Calgary Stampede for the $550 million project.

Gregor, who has a daily sports radio talk show in Edmonton on TSN 1260, is the first person to admit there’s a confluence of events that come to bear with the Oilers’ attendance woes. He first noticed it just over a week ago, when a couple thousand seats were left unoccupied.

The first two games of the season, the Oilers drew a full house of 18,347. Despite having the two highest scoring players, a new arena and being in first place for most of the season, the Dec. 10 game only had 16,175 fans.

“It was just something to look at; the Oilers have only had two sellouts all season,” Gregor said.

Rogers Place in Edmonton. Alex Scuccato / Creative Commons – Wikipedia

Alberta economy is one culprit

Initially, the Alberta economy is an easy one to blame, but the economy was poor last year – and the Oilers were selling out more games. They weren’t a playoff team in 2018/2019, either.

The Calgary Flames, despite having one of the oldest barns in the NHL, are still ninth in the league in attendance so far this season, according to the NHL. With that, they’ve been struggling to stay in a playoff position until the most recent hot streak with new coach Geoff Ward.

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One thing Gregor concedes is that after last season, many Oilers season ticket holders didn’t renew. While the economy may have played a role, he suspects most of those patrons just got fed up with a team that wasn’t winning.

“I think when you lose, you lose some fans. And younger fans can’t afford to go to the games because it’s not just the ticket price now, but it’s $30 for beer or pizza or whatever else,” Gregor said.

Creating a Calgary arena for every fan base

That’s where the new arena plays a role, and Gregor said Calgary can learn from Edmonton’s missteps. He’s had countless text, emails and comments on his post about why Oilers fans aren’t showing up.

“I think you have to design it and keep a lot of it in mind for every fan base,” Gregor said.

“It’s got to be for the people that can afford the expensive ticket prices. I think you’ve got to have family sections. That’s something that really lacking in Edmonton, and even though the owner talked about it originally, it never came to fruition.”

Tickets, food pricing, options – all need to be carefully considered, said Gregor.

Calgary Event Centre design is crucial for game experience

Gregor also said the new, cavernous designs of some NHL and NBA arenas are taking fans further away from the game experience. So, while they’re attempting to create something architecturally pleasing, they’re taking away from the in-game atmosphere. He still remembers going to games at the original Maple Leaf Gardens and the pitch of the stands put you on top of the ice surface.

“I think the people who build these arenas have to build them, not so much with the amenities, but about a game experience. The farther you are away from the ice surface, the less exciting it is,” he said.

Artists rendition of a Stampede Trail around a new Calgary Event Centre. How do we ensure it actually resembles this? CITY OF CALGARY

While initial designs aren’t expected to be made public until later in 2020 and the construction timeline is still to be determined, CMLC president Kate Thompson said public engagement will happen in the early part of next year.

They do want to focus on not only the inside, but also the outside, street-facing atmosphere.

“So how do you activate that community space and beyond the edges? I think that’s the distinction. And that’s what makes it catalytic. If we just create a box with a rink in it, we’re not going to be successful,” Thompson said at the Dec. 5 meeting.

Today’s NHL game experience is tomorrow’s Calgary Flames fan base

Gregor said NHL teams might need to take a step back to ensure they’re focusing on the game experience.

“It’s almost like going backwards a bit because sports entertainment got so into hosting and all these other things that maybe they forgot that fans are still going there as sports fans,” Gregor said.

Not paying attention to affordability and atmosphere puts Calgary at risk of suffering a similar fate with attendance. And that has a longer-term impact on fan base, Gregor said.

“If you’re a kid, and you’ve never got to go to an arena, you don’t necessarily have that same passion,” Gregor said.

“Now you’re going to lose, I think, that connection, emotional connection to your team because that’s what really fuels fans is getting that emotional charge of going to a game.”