Leeder Speaks – Attendance, LRT, Downtown Arena

Attendance at CTC has been a topic du jour around the nation’s capital of late, so it’s no surprise to see Cyril Leeder use every medium available to clarify what is going on with Ottawa Senators ticket sales.

After being featured in two newspaper stories earlier this week, Leeder joined TSN1200’s TGOR this morning.

You can check out the full interview here, or via the embed below.

As always, my thoughts in bold.

On any concerns with the dip in attendance this year…

“No. No, we’d like to be full obviously every night, but we’re right where we thought we’d be at this point of the year. And as I’ve said in two of the interviews this week that our revenues on tickets are up this year, year-over-year and compared to last year and compared to the last full year (in) ‘11/12. Just to change some of the promotions, and the discounting, and the policies we’ve had have really attributed to that.”

As suspected, the Senators aren’t selling less seats than they have been. The increased volume of vacant seats is merely a reflection of their policy change. 

On what the realistic goal for seasons tickets is…

“Yeah, we’ve always had a realistic goal for us is to really get a 13,000 season ticket holders and sort of make that our base and hopefully grow from there. We got there one year in 2007/08, the year after the Stanley Cup Final run. And we’ve made great progress the last two years now. I think we’re a little over 12,000 season seat owners now and that’s coming off of the last two full years – ‘11/12 and this year—(We’ve had) double-digit growth in season seat owners, so we’re in a pretty good spot there and we’ve got a good product. The team is really solid on the ice and we’ve got a bunch of good, young players and I think that people can see that there is a future with this team. (Fans) like this team a lot and we’re making the progress we need to on the season seat side and we just need to stay at that.”

A base of 13,000 still seems a modest goal, and it’s taken years to even get relatively close.

On the change of course from comp’d tickets or promo tickets…

“We don’t comp per se for the sake of papering the house. We’ve never done that. We do have mandatory complimentary tickets for players and hockey management. Some of our staff can get access and we do the odd charitable event and activity where we do comp tickets. The previous years, we had bonus tickets for our season seat owners. We would have given them with a package of 44 games, they got 50 (pairs of tickets). We’ve changed that policy primarily because of the feedback we got from the season seat was ‘First, we can’t use 50. What we’d rather have is an exchange policy where with the 44 (games) that we have, can we exchange some of those seats?’ And we’ve done that. We’ve gone to a fairly liberal exchange policy. If you can’t make a game, you can trade that game in for another game. So they’ve got a 44-game package. And the other part of that was, (season seat owners) weren’t using the tickets the way we were wanted them to. We were hoping that they’d bring somebody to the game that might become a ticket holder at some point and that really wasn’t happening. They were, in some cases, they were re-selling those tickets and competing against us on the market. While it might have made us look better and feel a little better with a fuller building, it really didn’t get the results that we wanted. We’ve got some smaller crowds right now compared to other years but we’re right on where we thought we’d be. And I think we’re in a good spot now going forward with some good games coming up and we’ll have a full building here tomorrow night with Boston in town. Next week we’ve got Vancouver coming in and that will be a big crowd. In December, again we’re getting into the meat of our schedule, we’ve got Detroit, Toronto, Pittsburgh and Boston games all in that month that will be sellouts as well. So, I think we’re on the right track and I think you’ll see bigger crowds going forward.”

You can’t really blame fans for thinking that there’s something more to the timing of the organization changing its policy after Eugene Melnyk’s appeals to the City for a casino. Considering the very publicized details of how much the organization was/is losing money, the presence of empty seats at each home game is a regular visual reminder that assuredly will be noticed. Hell, it’s been in the papers and on radio all week. Whether it’s simply an unintended consequence of trying to prevent the devaluing of your product, it’s happening and it’s there for everyone to see.

On the change of tact in changing the policy from the revenue generated on free tickets…

“You look at that, but the real test for us has been, we want to make sure ‘Are we providing good value for our fans?’ And we know we are. We’ve… there’s been that third party validation by ESPN and last week by Team Marketing Report indicating that we are the best value in the NHL of all 30 teams when you’re coming to a game. So, we take those things into consideration, but we want to make sure that we don’t devalue the product as well. If you’re discounting too heavily or giving away tickets, that don’t really say to the people that are paying full price that the value (that they’re paying) is there. You’ve got to be careful there. It’s a fine line that you want to balance. Our objective really here is to really get over 13,000 seats. We really need to be there to ensure we’ve got fuller buildings on a more regular basis. And when you’ve got, right now, at 12,000 (season seats) that means you have got over 7,000 seats to sell every night and we won’t get there early in the season when you’ve got a whole bunch of games in the same week. We’re just not going to get there at this point, but at some time in the future, we know we will.”

It’s been some time since I’ve looked at the ESPN report, and in looking around for this Team Marketing Report, you need to have a paid subscription fee to access it. Anyways, the arbitrary nature of these rankings make it difficult to take them seriously. I mean, do you think the fan base’s amount of faith in ownership now is reflected by these rankings. Absolutely not. 

On the schedule that the league sent to the Sens and how its wonky nature could be problematic…

“Yes, I think that’s true, but that has always been the case in Ottawa. If you look historically over our attendance, the same opponent in October or November won’t draw as many (fans) as the same opponent in January or February. It’s just early in the year is always tougher. And it seems like we’ve had a number of special years in succession – this year being an Olympic year – when you look at our schedule. We have no Saturday games from the middle of January right through to April at home – that’s just really unusual. Two homes games in February in the whole month, which normally is our best month. We like to have games during the Winterlude Festival and we’ve got none this year. It’s just not ideal, but that’s again, we’re going to the Olympics and you have a condensed schedule and you have to make things work. As you said, we give our dates to the league and we have some control over them, but not full control over what happens with the schedule. Would we like to have more games in January, February and March? Sure, we’d love to have more home games then. If you look at our schedule now, we have 20 home games in November and December, which is just really about twice as many as we would have during a regular year.”

I love listening to Leeder address the issues as they come because he’s not out there pouring gasoline all over everything before lighting a match. Everything he says is concise and calculated and he gives you enough information to read between the lines. Does he sound like he’s happy with the NHL schedule? No, but he doesn’t sound like he has an axe to grind either. 

On the budget spent on payroll and it being more flexible if the Sens become closer to their sales goals…

“I think we always try to run the team on a prudent and responsible basis, but at the same time, I know how Eugene (Melnyk) views the hockey operations. He really has bought the team and owns the team because he wants to win the Stanley Cup. This is not a financial return. There has never been an ROI (Return On Investment) calculation done in the ten years that Eugene has been an owner, so I know that if we get in this position where a decision has to be made on whether adding a body to help (the organization) compete on the hockey side, he’ll do that. Does he look at the revenues? Sure he does and he pays attention there. But, what’s driving the entire process here really is, ‘how good is the team and how close are we?’ That will drive our decisions on players. Not so much on the business side of things.”

The organization keeps reiterating how there will be money available down the road to make this team better, it’ll be interesting to see whether the public holds this against the organization if they don’t; especially if this statement continues to be made for any length of time.

On alternate revenue streams being explored to generate and contribute to the bottom line…

“We’re always looking at different ways to help the bottom line and contribute to the organization. We’ve done that over the years. We’ve started our own ticketing company. We’re very active now in managing arena facilities in partnership with the city and we’ll continue to do those things. As far as new initiatives go, we are looking at a number… I think what you’ll see over the next five years or so, I think you’ll see a lot of development taking place in and around the Canadian Tire Centre. There’s obviously been some housing going on and the auto-mall, but the Tanger Outlet Mall is under construction. The big announcement was the Bass Pro Shop was going across the street as well –a huge facility. So, I think one of the areas that we’re looking at is, ‘Is there some real estate development opportunities that would help us on the business operations and also help the hockey club going forward?’ The more development in the area, the better it is for us and the better it is for our hockey fans. We can add some more networks of roads and it will help people getting in-and-out of the building quicker, and that’s one of the things that we’re certainly focused on as well.”

The Bass Pro Shop probably isn’t going to entice me to spend an afternoon there before taking in a game, but I get Leeder’s point. As I outlined in a piece a short while ago, the organization has to do a better job of making a Senators game an event to go to. Obviously this year’s shitty schedule and the lack of Saturday night games doesn’t help matters, but moving forward, I sincerely hope the growth around the arena brings in some businesses and establishments that make me want to be in the vicinity of the Canadian Tire Centre before and after a game. 

On the arena coming up to its 20th anniversary and the life-cycle…

“It’ll be its 18th anniversary in January. There’s a magical number around 25 to 30 (years of age) when the building doesn’t wear out, but you really need to look at it and determine ‘Are you going to put a major reinvestment into it? Or are you going to look at alternatives? Whether you rebuild it next door or look at other locations.”

Oooh, intrigue. 

On whether the organization is already having those discussions…

“Not yet, but we’re getting pretty close to that window when we start looking at what our options are. If the LRT Plans had come out a few weeks ago and there was a station right at the (Canadian Tire Centre) site in the long-term plan, I don’t think we’d even be considering options. We’d just be looking at ‘How do we work with the facility here and rebuild it in the current location?’ At some point, we’ll have to have that discussion – whether we rebuild here or look at alternative locations.”

For what it’s worth, Ottawa’s current LRT Plan calls for Kanata to gets an LRT extension as far as Bayshore, and a dedicated Transitway west of there that extends into the technology parks of north Kanata. In other words, unless something changes, fans will be able to train as far as Bayshore before figuring out a way to get to the arena. This kind of Plan, certainly lends itself to fuelling perceptions that Ottawa’s next arena will be downtown. 

On the possibility that one day, the home of the Ottawa Senators may be elsewhere…

“It’s possible. I don’t want to… never is a long time, but it’s one of those decisions that is probably not in the short run for us in our short-term thinking here. Obviously we’re only 18 years in and we’ve got a lot of life-cycle left in this building.”

True, and considering how the Senators are reportedly losing money, you have to wonder how the organization would be able to finance an arena on their own. Right now, the prospect of a downtown arena anytime soon is nothing but a pipedream. 

On ideally whether he’d like the next arena to be downtown if the Sens had to change locations…

“I don’t know. I mean, there are a lot of factors that have to go into that decision. That wouldn’t be just my decision to make as well. I think that’s something that you’d have to look at as an organization, but I’ve been involved now for 25 years with this team and project and there hasn’t been one person who has come forward to me and say ‘You know, it’d be a good idea to put this building downtown.’ So, I think that’s a good theoretical discussion, but there hasn’t really been a lot of interest from any parties in having that discussion.”

Why would employees talk about it to Leeder? They probably don’t mention it because everyone within the organization is tired of listening to fans inundate them with complaints about parking, traffic and the location of the arena being in Kanata.

On the issue of land…

“Yeah, land and who builds the building and who owns it. Those are all considerations you have to review and you couldn’t view any one of those on its own. I think it’s all part of a longer-term or bigger strategy. Would you want to move your building? I don’t really want to get into that debate right now. I don’t think it’s the right time or the place to open a can of worms and say, ‘Gee, should we move the building?’ We’ve been pretty committed to the site and we’ve done a lot of work in the area – a lot of things to try to improve our lot in life here in Kanata and as I said, it’s just been getting better. There’s a lot of development happening in the area. If you look at what we came into here in 1996 and what we have now in 2013, it’s a totally different situation and one that we’re pretty happy with, to be honest.”

Again, there’s plenty of time to figure this out but if the next arena isn’t downtown somebody messed up. The CTC being in Kanata is a huge underlying weakness when trying to persuade people to attend games and invest in season tickets – and Leeder would tell you the same if injected with truth serum.