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“Given the longevity of the sellouts, one has to wonder if this is a sign of things to come,” said Richard Powers, senior lecturer at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. “That has to be a question at Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment today.”
Sellouts and over-capacity crowds have long been the norm at the Air Canada Centre, home to hockey’s biggest and wealthiest fan base. Only on a handful of occasions has the team not reached hockey capacity at the ACC of 18,819 since the facility opened in 1999. It happened a few times in 1999, and once in 2002 (Oct. 31, against Atlanta, 18,727). It didn’t happen again until the fourth game of this season when 18,754 showed up for a game against Colorado.
On and off the record, the message from Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment executives was largely the same: Nothing to see here, move along.
“Our fans continue to stand behind the Leafs, and the fact that a Monday night game towards the end of the season is just two per cent under capacity is actually a strong indicator of how great our fans have been this season,” said Dave Hopkinson, MLSE’s chief commericial officer.
Privately, executives understand a winning team would have sold out the Minnesota game, but point out Mondays are a tough sell and the Monday after March break is particularly tough and the Wild are not a big draw at the best of times.
“It’s difficult and unfair to use one game as a barometer,” said Powers. “However, fans do have other entertainment choices in Toronto. This could be the start of an exodus, where they start taking their discretionary income and spending it elsewhere.”
It is business as usual for Leaf tickets to be available on the day of the game, some even at a discount. Tickets have been so hard to come by in the past, the team made a concerted effort to make some ducats available to bring new faces into the rink. Also, the team is required to hold tickets for the visiting team. Once those tickets remain unspoken for — and sometimes sponsors give tickets back — they go on sale through Ticketmaster on the day of the game.
The Leafs are seventh in average home attendance (19,076), down from sixth last season (19,446) and fifth in 2012-13 (19,426), the last year they made the playoffs. (The Raptors, by the way, have a higher capacity for ticket sales at 19, 800.)
“The Maple Leafs are one of those teams that we generally still see higher demand no matter what,” said StubHub spokesman Cameron Papp. “This season, they are ranked eighth on StubHub in terms of NHL sales. While that’s not as high as they are usually ranked, it’s still substantial given their struggles this year.
“Toronto is a larger sized market with diehard hockey fans. Maple Leafs tickets are usually hard to come by. If the team is struggling, that means fans who are usually priced out have a better chance to attend.”
There is a danger that without a playoff round victory since 2004, the Leafs could lose a generation of fans. Youngsters typically are drawn to winners, and are getting used to seeing the likes of Sidney Crosby, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Toews in the playoffs.
This season, local heroes John Tavares (from Mississauga) and Steve Stamkos (from Markham) could get a lot of TV coverage if their respective teams, the Islanders and Lightning, have long playoff runs.
The Leafs don’t have any players of their stature.
“Something like that could turn the Leafs fortunes around,” said Powers. “People will come out to see the stars. But based on what we’ve heard so far from (Leafs president Brendan) Shahanan, this could be the norm for the next few years.
“Then, if that truly is the intention, then fans will show their displeasure by speaking with their wallets.”