Friday, February 25, 2011

The elephant is unleashed

It is the elephant in the WHL’s room, and Jeff Chynoweth, the president, governor and general manager of the Kootenay Ice, has let it loose.
In a revealing but not surprising interview with Regan Bartel, the veteran play-by-play voice of the Kelowna Rockets, Chynoweth, when asked about revenue sharing, said: “I would like it to happen but I’m probably in the minority. I don’t think it will, but I would love to have it happen.”
In the last conversation I had with former WHL commissioner Ed Chynoweth, a couple of months before his death on April 22, 2008, he talked about revenue sharing. The WHL was Chynoweth’s league, make no mistake about it, and he was a visionary. And in the last days of his life he saw revenue sharing, in one form or another, as the one thing that could keep the WHL together.
More than anyone else, Chynoweth always could see the value of franchises in places like Swift Current and Moose Jaw and Prince Albert and Lethbridge and, yes, Cranbrook, the home of his Ice.
Three years ago, he didn’t see the WHL as a one-for-all, all-for-one  entity; it was, he felt, losing its feeling of being a brotherhood.
"The founding fathers, the Hunters and Munros, had a vision and as much as they tested you at the end of the day they would come clean and it was what was best for the league. I don't think we have that now," Chynoweth said at the time. "We need to sit down and say, 'Hey, where are we going with this?' "
He also pointed out that team budgets that were about $150,000 some 30 years ago now are well over $1 million, perhaps even into the $1.3-million range or even higher.
"Our costs continue to go up," he said, "and we don't have any added revenue."
That hasn’t changed over the last three years. And now, with no sign of falling expenses and new revenue streams becoming harder and harder to locate, you have to wonder what’s ahead for some of these franchises.
Especially if what the Ice is experiencing can be used as a barometer.
On Jan. 9, Jeff Chynoweth made one of the biggest trades in WHL history, sending a package of eight players and draft picks to Swift Current for star forward Cody Eakin.
Chynoweth was hoping that the deal would ignite the fan base.
Has it happened?
When Bartel asked if the fans now are excited, Chynoweth responded:
“No. They’re not. They’re actually awful. . . .I’m not very happy about it.”
That, of course, won’t go over very large in the Cranbrook area.
“It’s a little frustrating,” Chynoweth continued. “To make that trade . . . people say, you make a trade like that, you’re going to get more people. For the most part, we haven’t.”
He went on to say that the Ice has had two good home crowds since Eakin stepped into the lineup.
“Our attendance is down probably 14.5 per cent the last two years,” Chynoweth said. “It’s a concern. It’s not like we’re putting a product on (the ice) that isn’t competitive. Year in and year out, we’re one of the top teams. We’ve moved four coaches on to pro hockey in eight years. We’ve made the playoffs for 13 years in a row now, the longest active streak in the Western Hockey League.”
The Ice has put together eight 40-win seasons in 13 years, something that is awfully hard to do in the major junior hockey business.
“That’s what concerns me long term,” Chynoweth told Bartel. “What happens when we have an off year? We haven’t had one and hopefully we don’t for a number of years. But it is going to happen. That’s the nature of our business.”
The Ice averaged a franchise-high 3,635 fans in 2000-01. In 2003-03, that figure was 3440. It dropped off to 2,926 the following season and then was at least more than 3,000 for five straight seasons. From 3,071 in 2008-09, it slipped to 2,807 last season. This season, after 32 of 36 home dates, the paid average is 2,490.
“We live in a community of 20,000 people,” Chynoweth continued. “There’s not a lot of options . . . entertainment-wise or whatever. This is live entertainment and it’s affordably priced. Where else can you get 3,000 people together in a small town like this.
“Unfortunately, we’re missing a demographic and I don’t know what it is. We’ve tried different things. Right now we have to continue to work hard to try to get those people back.”
Chynoweth also made no bones about the fact that he is a private businessman and, as such, is in the game to make a profit. That, he said, is the difference between his operation and that of the Swift Current Broncos, who are community owned. But if you listen closely to this part of the interview you hear a man at a loss for answers.
“They’re in business to break even; I’m in business to make money . . .,” he stated. “Profit isn’t a four-letter word; you get into business to make money. Your costs keep going up and up and up . . . that’s a good question . . . I love Cranbrook. It’s been a great 12 years here. We signed that 15-year lease two years ago when everyone thought we were going to move. I said at the time I wanted to stay. Nothing has changed. It’s a great place to raise a family. But eventually we’re going to have to get more people here.
“If it doesn’t happen we’re going to have to look at other options. That isn’t a threat . . . that’s just a fact of life. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but . . . when your numbers keep going down and down and down . . . we’re down 14.5 per cent in attendance, 23.5 per cent in advertising.”
On top of that, Chynoweth said, “We’re doing the same thing we were doing 12 years. ago. It’s frustrating.”
You can bet that the same song is being sung in Prince George, Lethbridge, Prince Albert and Swift Current, just to name four. The difference is that no one in those communities will sing in public.
In Swift Current, for example, the Broncos announced in October that they had lost $58,927 on the 2009-10 season.
The Southwest Booster reported:
“Overall the Broncos reported an $820,688 loss in hockey operations before other income such as corporate sponsorship, suite rentals, the Hockey Hounds contributions, NHL developmental and draft money, and World Junior Hockey Championship incomes were factored in.”
Chew on that for a few moments. An $800,000 loss on hockey operations!
Jordan Wall, the Broncos’ director of business operations, told the newspaper: “Really we are in a market where revenues are always tough to come by. We are trying to increase the revenue streams whenever possible. The reality is our hockey expense will always go up. It is a matter of ‘yeah we need playoffs and we need some runs’ but we can’t depend on playoffs every year. We know that we need to have a game plan on the hockey side that we know we need to make some of that cash back. On the other side we explore all the other opportunities and make sure that we can exceed what we need to exceed.”
The Broncos, who dropped 4-3 decision to the visiting Regina Pats before 2,207 fans last night, aren’t likely to make the playoffs this season. So one can only wonder what the financials will show next fall.
In Prince Albert, the Raiders haven’t made the playoffs since the spring of 2007 and have only been in three times in 10 seasons. They are tied with the Lethbridge Hurricanes for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot. You have to wonder what might happen in Prince Albert if the Raiders end up on the outside looking in once again.
In Lethbridge, a large amount of money is being spent on renovating and refurbishing the ENMAX Centre, the home of the Hurricanes. The team has said it will bid on the 2013 Memorial Cup. But it, too, struggles to draw more than 3,000 fans per home date.
The Prince George Cougars also want to bid on th3 2013 Memorial Cup. They, however, are having trouble drawing more than 2,000 fans to home games.
At the same time, there are 14 or 15 teams who average more than 4,000 fans per game, including at least six who draw more than 5,000.
You have to wonder how many of those teams would be willing to share some of the gravy with their brethren?
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