The British Columbia Hockey League’s (BCHL) executive board met earlier this week to discuss a dire financial future for Canada’s premier junior league.
Trail Smoke Eater president Tom Gawryletz met with five other representatives of the BCHL’s executive in Vancouver on Monday to prepare for the BCHL semi-annual board of governors meeting next month and to issue a sober warning to team owners, officials, sponsors, coaches, players, and fans.
“The meeting was called based on a lot of conversation amongst team owners and team delegates that we need to somehow make some changes to make the league more viable,” said Gawryletz.
A combination of dwindling corporate support, declining season ticket sales and attendance has numbers down across the board in a league that boasts some of the best Junior A players in North America.
“I don’t believe there is a team in the league making money,” said Gawryletz. “The league has to make some changes if it’s going to survive.”
The only BCHL team that hasn’t seen a drop in average attendance this season is the Penticton Vees who are up from 1,786 fans per game last season, to drawing an average of almost 2,100 in each of 16 home games this season.
The biggest loser has been the Chilliwack Chiefs, a team that averaged the highest attendance last season, 2,168 per game, has attracted close to 600 fewer fans per match, with roughly 1,600 attending games this year.
“I think everybody is in the same boat, even the big boys that everybody thinks are making a ton of money.
“I don’t need to tell you how we (the Smoke Eaters) are doing, everybody knows, but everybody is in the same boat.”
Despite a much better effort on the ice in 2012-13, the Smoke Eaters lost over $60,000 last season; the team was down at the box office by about $5,000, and almost $60,000 from two years previous. Yet, the worst hit came from season-ticket sales that dropped more than $15,000 from the previous season, while corporate sponsorships were down $13,000, and over $40,000 from two years ago, as well as a $16,000 shortfall in fundraising.
According to BCHL statistics, the Trail Smoke Eaters sit in 11th of 16 teams in league attendance averaging just under 800 fans in 19 home games this season, down from an average of 946 over last season. Gawryletz points to a certain demographic that has dropped dramatically over the years.
“It’s almost impossible to get those 25-40-year-old people out that are sort of the next generation,” he added. “We’re living on borrowed time as far as I’m concerned.”
Somewhat surprising is that two of the largest markets also have the lowest fan support with Surrey drawing 675 per game, and Coquitlam just 556 fans per match, a significant drop from Surrey’s 1,087 fans per game in 2012-13 and Coquitlam’s 779.
Small-market teams like the Smoke Eaters already face inherent challenges due to location and population restrictions, as they compete for a limited amount of funds from the business and public sectors.
“When you go to a town like Trail, there are only so many corporate dollars available, and trust me we’re not complaining, but the hospital has taken a huge bite of some of the money that we use to raise,” said the Smokie president. “We’re not complaining about it, there just isn’t enough to go around.”
However, Gawryletz also admits that icing a competitive team is also a factor in attracting a solid fan base and raising the bottom line.
“It doesn’t help the way we’ve played the last three years, that has a lot to do with it as well.”
Despite its challenges, the BCHL is not considering contraction or folding any of its teams, and the season will play out regardless of financial constraint.
“We’re working on a lot of different things . . . but it’s a combination of everything. To get out of your chair at seven o’clock at night a lot of people just say, ‘To hell with it.’ We can give away all the free tickets we want but that core group, that younger generation, just doesn’t seem to be that interested, and I don’t know what to do, I really don’t, and it’s not just Trail.”