North American pro sports teams fighting for fans

BC Lions attendance down as online technology hollows out home-game business

Linebacker Solomon Elimimian in action during a BC Lions game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at BC Place stadium. The team’s 2017 home opener was June 24 | BC Lions

There's a heated sports battle taking place across the continent, but it’s not on a field, rink, pitch or court.

While North America’s overall professional sports market continues to grow, major professional sports franchises as storied as the New York Yankees are struggling to maintain fan attendance at games. Telecommunication innovations providing more sports action online coupled with generational shifts in viewing habits are resulting in more fans watching games on their mobile devices, in sports bars or at home than investing effort and resources to attend live events.

Attendance for the Canadian Football League’s (CFL) BC Lions has dropped significantly over the past five years. The team, which has been in Vancouver since 1954, averaged 30,356 people per game in 2012. At the end of last season, that per-game attendance number dropped to around 20,000 at BC Place stadium, even though the team finished second in the Western Division and made the playoffs.

George Chayka, vice-president of business for the BC Lions, said the team has launched several initiatives aimed at luring more fans to home games this season.

Last year, tickets for children under 12 for the team’s home opener were $5. This year that pricing will be expanded to all BC Lions home games for corner and end-zone seating. The tickets usually range from $43 to $52.

After a five-year hiatus, the team is also renewing a partnership with 7-Eleven that allows people to buy two discounted tickets from any store in B.C.

“We’re also going to continue to have the tailgate party with live entertainment at Terry Fox Plaza two hours before the game,” added Chayka. “So it’s a combination of things, and we want to have an exciting product. I think we captured the excitement of the province last year with our play a bit.”

The CFL extended its contract with Bell Media Inc. (TSX:BCE), which owns The Sports Network (TSN), in 2015. It includes exclusive television rights to games until 2021. The five-year deal is valued at around $200 million, although viewership for the league dropped 6% in 2014 and another 6% in 2015.

Chayka said TSN’s coverage can be a double-edged sword.

“They’ve done an outstanding job in regards to the game presentation and the broadcast quality, almost too good in a sense. One of our biggest challenges is that our television numbers are very strong. We average about 600,000 over the course of a regular-season game, and we’d obviously like to get more of those people coming to the games to watch.”

According to the CFL Database website, the biggest draw for ticket sales is the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The team averages 31,327 fans per game, or 93.7% capacity. It’s Saskatchewan’s only professional sports franchise and plays its home games in Regina.

Every other CFL team, except Hamilton, which is a short drive from Toronto, also has a National Hockey League franchise in its city.

The BC Lions have the CFL’s third-lowest average per-game attendance (21,055, or 76.5% capacity), ahead of only Toronto and Montreal. The team’s attendance was also below the league average (24,691, or 77.8% capacity).

The BC Lions are not alone when it comes to declining ticket sales as fan attendance across North America’s five major sports (basketball, baseball, hockey, football and soccer) has mostly fallen since the 2008-09 recession.

Some teams in the National Basketball Association are offering $1 tickets to boost attendance.

Major League Baseball ticket sales have dropped 1.5% since 2012, and the Yankees – one of the world’s richest sports franchises – are struggling to sell out games even though the team is currently leading the America League East division.

University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business Prof. James Brander said what’s hurting the Lions’ ticket sales is hurting all the sports franchises; however, the smaller-market teams are teetering toward economic instability a lot quicker.

“Back in the ’80s if there was a Friday-night Lions game on, there probably wouldn’t be anything else on TV,” said Brander. “Maybe a darts match on TSN. Now there are nine sports channels available to most fans all the time. You can easily time-shift, and what a lot of fans will do is watch multiple games or [use a personal video recorder] and fast-forward through the commercials.”

Brander said without TSN broadcasting CFL games and the revenue generated from that, Canada’s only professional football league might be out of business.

“It’s a tough future. It’s tough for minor-league sports to make it in today’s market, and the CFL is definitely a minor-league team. They do depend on that telecommunications-based revenue, so I definitely think the long-run survival of the CFL is in question.”

Brander added that a move out of downtown to a smaller Lower Mainland city could become a viable economic option for the Lions, as Toronto and Montreal’s teams are dealing with the same problem – fighting for fans in an already saturated market.

The outlier right now is the Vancouver Whitecaps, the only team to post an increase in ticket sales this past season in the city.

According to a recent PwC report, the ticket sales decline doesn’t necessarily mean a reduction in revenue for sports teams. The study estimates the North American sports market will increase to US$75 billion by 2020 from US$67 billion today. Gate revenue in 2016 made up US$18.7 billion and is expected to climb to US$20.8 billion by 2020; however, the biggest increase is expected to come in the form of sponsorship and media rights.

Sponsorship rights are expected to grow to US$18.7 billion from US$16.3 billion by 2020, and media rights are projected to rise to US$21.2 billion from US$18.2 billion over the next three years. Of the five major professional sports leagues in North America, Major League Soccer is forecast to see the biggest jump in ticket sales.  

– With files from Glen Korstrom