By Brock Harrison
Facing the prospect of having too many empty seats at the K-Rock Centre, the Kingston Frontenacs have received a challenge from city hall.
Mayor Harvey Rosen took a shot at the Frontenacs organization yesterday for how they've marketed their games.
"I'm surprised at the amateurish nature of the promotion being attempted here. If you want to sell tickets, you promote your events," said Rosen.
Rosen said there has been some discussion between the city and the team on how to improve attendance.
"There are other OHL teams that have very effective marketing campaigns. The Frontenacs just have to take a look down the road to see what they're doing.
"It's not inventing the wheel."
After the Frontenacs' second home game at the $46.5-million facility Sunday failed to reach the objective attendance prescribed in the arena's business plan, the city's Ontario Hockey League franchise on Tuesday issued a press release urging local media outlets to promote the team's coming games.
Under the heading "Great seats available," the release states "there are PLENTY of great seats to be purchased" for tonight's game against Barrie, as well as contests against Mississauga, Ottawa, Sudbury and two against Oshawa.
None of those games has yet sold enough tickets to reach the 3,500 attendance threshold the city has established as the minimum figure needed to turn a profit, says Frontenacs' marketing director Jeff Stilwell.
"We're at about 2,200 for those games," he said. "They're selling very well."
Stilwell added that walk-up sales will be crucial.
The Frontenacs sold out the 5,700-seat K-Rock Centre a week ago on opening night and sold about 3,100 tickets for the second game on Sunday, though only 2,283 actually showed up. That means they're averaging more then 3,500 fans over the span of the two games.
The city has budgeted for annual profits of $1 million from the arena, largely derived from ticket sales, which it will use to pay down the arena debt. If that figure isn't reached, taxes could be raised to compensate for the shortfall.
Stilwell said the Frontenacs were simply attempting to get the word out about as far as possible with Tuesday's press release.
"The mindset of people here is that there's only 3,000 tickets available for a game. That's a rationale we have to start changing," he said.
"We're going to have lots of walk-up tickets on a game night and walk-up is what we're going to rely on."
Rosen says any dialogue between the city and the team to improve attendance would centre mainly on marketing techniques, but Councillor Vicki Schmolka says its the on-ice product that will ultimately dictate attendance. The Frontenacs currently sit third last in the OHL and haven't won a playoff series in 10 seasons.
"I don't think there's a single one of us who hasn't ribbed [Frontenacs' owner] Doug Springer about it," said the Trillium district councillor. "Like, 'You have the nice new arena, now where's the good team?' "
The arena's business plan, drafted when the Frontenacs were still having attendance woes at the Memorial Centre, states "the team suffers from low attendance numbers because hockey fans expect a modern facility with appropriate amenities."
That's precisely the opposite of what Bayridge Councillor Lisa Osanic has been hearing.
"People have told me they won't go to see a losing team no matter how nice the arena is," Osanic said.
Councillor Bill Glover, who has long been skeptical about the attendance projections in the business plan, says the city may have to take recourse in the future to increase revenue if the Frontenacs continue to struggle at the gates.
"Are there non-performance penalties for the Frontenacs if they're a bad team and not performing? Do we have the option of reducing their exposure to the facility and giving more dates to [arena operator] Arcturus for other events? I think those are questions that could be raised for the legal staff," Glover said.
Stilwell suspects Sunday's poor gate attendance figure was more symptomatic of having sold-out events the two nights before - opening night with the Frontenacs, followed by the Tragically Hip concert - than a disinterest in the arena or the team.
Schmolka has her concerns about the Frontenacs' appeal to buy tickets but she'll wait to render a verdict.
"Of course it's a cause for concern. The Frontenacs may be our weakest link at the facility," she said, "but the arena isn't going to pass or fail the financial test based on the rest of the hockey season."