Sports As Ottawa Senators cover seats with tarps, it’s fair to wonder: What happened in Kanata?

07:05  13 september  2017
07:05  13 september  2017 Source:   National Post

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If the Carolina Hurricanes were throwing tarps over 1,500 seats in the upper bowl, if the Arizona Coyotes were trying to goose capacity figures by lowering capacity, if the Florida Panthers were tweaking ticket demand by reducing the supply, it is fair to say that we in the Canadian sports media would be raising a good stink about it.

OttSensSept8: Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk speaks to reporters at the Canadian Tire Centre on Sept. 7. © Tony Caldwell, Postmedia Network Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk speaks to reporters at the Canadian Tire Centre on Sept. 7.

I can say that because I would be one of the stink-raisers. We’d be having another good chuckle about the over-expansion of the National Hockey League in the southern U.S., and we’d be giving Gary Bettman a metaphorical boop on the snoot about the folly of keeping teams in failed markets and asking, again, why the league is adding a 31st franchise when it clearly has problems with some of the existing 30.

Senators to remove 1,500 seats ... in attempt to boost attendance

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But it is the Ottawa Senators that are removing 1,500 seats from the ticket pool, and so we don’t know quite what to think. Haven’t we been saying for years that the NHL’s Canadian markets are unassailable? Don’t we take as a given that the NHL should be in Quebec and it should put another team in the Toronto area and maybe somewhere in Saskatchewan while it’s at it? The whole idea is that hockey is our game and only we care deeply enough about it to support teams through lean years, outside U.S. cities that are either big or cold, or both.

But then, Ottawa. The simple fact is that a Canadian NHL team is having trouble selling tickets. What happened?

There is no lack of contributing factors, to be sure, as was explained at length when the team first suffered the obvious embarrassment last spring of being unable to sell out playoff games. Second-round playoff games, even.

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The Canadian Tire Centre is out in the wilds of Kanata, which makes attending a game something of an undertaking. The city’s biggest employer is the federal government, which removes the possibility of packing the stands with suits who are entertaining their clients. And on a related note, the problems with the government’s payroll service were at their peak last spring, with tens of thousands of employees missing paycheques, taking at least some of the area’s normally disposable income out of circulation.

But other than the payroll snafu, the other stuff is not new. Kanata has not recently moved farther from downtown Ottawa, and the team has averaged more than 19,000 fans — above capacity — at various points in its history, including the 2012-13 season. And if the blame is assigned to government workers who can’t woo clients with fancy hockey tickets, that doesn’t explain why the attendance problems have mostly been limited to the cheap seats. Senators president Tom Anselmi told an audience at city hall on Tuesday that sales in the pricey seats have been fine, which reflects the evidence from the playoffs last season, when there were thousands of empty chairs in the upper reaches.

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Anselmi also said the Sens need to sell 2,000 more season-ticket packages over the next two years, which is not a modest number. He put it bluntly on Tuesday: “We just need more of us to come to more games more often.” It is hard not to notice the Arizona vibe of those comments.

Can the dip in interest be attributed to playoff-failure malaise? The Senators have made the post-season in 16 of the past 20 seasons, a record that many teams (hello, Toronto and Edmonton) would envy, although they went as far as the conference finals only three times. That does tend to wear on a fan base. Is it style of play? Ottawa was on the boring side last season, 22nd in the league in goals scored, but they were 26th in scoring in 2012-13 and were sixth in the NHL in attendance, versus 21st last season.

Perhaps all the talk of the need for a downtown arena, which has been a constant theme from ownership in recent years, has caused the public to agree: “You’re right, Mr. Melnyk, we don’t care to make the trek out to the sticks any longer.” (Although, if you are inclined to believe that sports teams are usually being dishonest with the public — a fair assumption, really — then removing seats in Kanata is one way to keep the drumbeat for the new arena going. “Look how much we are struggling out here!”)

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Or maybe, and this would be something that should give the NHL pause, it’s the arrival of the new neighbours that has caused the Senators to pale by comparison.

The CFL’s Redblacks — sorry, REDBLACKS — have played to consistent sellouts since their arrival in 2014, and CFL executives positively swoon about the game-day experience at Lansdowne Park and how it has turned football games into day-long parties. Winning the Grey Cup couldn’t have hurt. It could be just that simple: the people who normally spent their entertainment dollars on nosebleeds for the Sens are parking that money with the hot CFL concern. It’s a theory, which is all we have, for the Canadian NHL team that has decided it has more seats than it can sell.

Coming soon, perhaps: the Ottawa SENATORS.

Email: | Twitter: @scott_stinson

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