Bulldogs are winning, but where are the fans?
January 09, 2010
Ken Peters; With files from Garry McKay
The Hamilton Spectator
There is a scent of euthanasia lurking at the Hamilton hockey pound.
The Hamilton Bulldogs' attendance is sagging badly at Copps Coliseum this season and it hit rock bottom Wednesday night when only 1,952 showed up. That was the second lowest crowd in the Dogs' 14-year history at Copps.
The Bulldogs have iced a competitive and high-scoring squad that sits in the top spot in their division.
But the team is averaging just 3,626 at Copps this season, their lowest attendance ever. That average is about 1,000 less than last season. That leaves the Bulldogs 21st in attendance out of the 29 American Hockey League franchises.
So alarm bells are ringing, admits Duncan Gillespie, CEO of Hamilton Entertainment and Convention Facilities Inc., which runs Copps.
"It's a huge concern," he said. "When you look at some of the options we have taken to turn this around, it demonstrates how seriously we take this."
He added all the stakeholders must address the issue.
"This is a trend that can be stopped," he said. "It can be fixed but we have somehow lost some focus and we have lost a connection to the community.
"I don't think we're in a crisis mode at this point but I don't think you wait until you're in a crisis mode until you make these kinds of decisions and I think we have to make them fairly soon."
As troubling as the crowd drop-off is the fact that HECFI, which took over the Bulldogs' ticket sales, sponsorship, advertising sales and game-day operations under a two-year deal with the club, will lose $250,000 on the club for 2009.
And this week HECFI exercised a termination clause with J-Core Marketing, which had been responsible for promotion, advertising and ticket sales for the hockey team.
Gillespie said a "shakeup" was required.
Company president Jason Daleo confirmed the move yesterday and admits HECFI may find it difficult to sell Dogs ducats for the rest of the season.
"It's a struggle with season tickets. I don't think the 'are we coming or going or is the NHL coming or going' has helped our case corporately," he said. The Bulldogs have about 1,500 season ticket subscribers. Daleo said HECFI didn't help the club by reserving Friday dates for concerts giving the club fewer prime weekend dates.
The schedule also gave the club stretches where too many home games have been jammed into short periods. The Dogs are in the midst of one such stretch right now, with eight home games in 15 days.
Bulldog owner Michael Andlauer is currently in talks on a possible three-year lease extension for Copps. But Andlauer, who attended the Wednesday night dog debacle, makes it clear he is unhappy with the job HECFI is doing when it comes to operating the business operations.
"Obviously they haven't put the focus in the right direction," he said.
And it is no secret that St. John's would roll out the red carpet for the franchise if the Bulldog boss doesn't get the deal he wants here.
"I have options to leaving Hamilton right through to extension or taking it (the business operation) right back in house," he said, adding he would like to stay. The parent Montreal Canadiens also likes the team in Hamilton, a location that gives it ready access to players on short notice and makes it a handy stop for scouts.
Andlauer said the Bulldog current average attendance is a concern.
"Absolutely. There is no way you can make money at 3,700 the way it stands. We don't want to be able to hear the players cussing at the referee."
Gillespie admits HECFI has made mistakes. "But I'm trying to demonstrate to Michael that this organization is committed to the Bulldogs staying in Hamilton and the Bulldogs being successful.
"No, we haven't done everything perfectly. We've made lots of difficult decisions to move the product ahead."
Andlauer said the low crowd was disappointing but not surprising given HECFI's lack of focus on the team.
Hamilton Councillor Bob Bratina, a HECFI board member, believes a community poll should be conducted to determine whether Hamiltonians want this franchise.