Saturday, May 26, 2007

Memorial Cup plays big in the big city!

Ed Willes of the Vancouver Province has put together a pretty interesting piece on the impact that hosting the Memorial Cup in a large Canadian centre is having not only on the profit and loss statement for Junior hockey, but on the mindset of the junior hockey executives.

With the championship of the CHL an alternating affair, with each of Canada’s three junior leagues hosting it on a rotating basis, the once small and medium sized markets may eventually find themselves squeezed out of the hosting duties as the Junior show becomes the Big Show in the final weeks of May.

That may be a conventional thought, but somehow we suspect that this most respected of national trophies will always have time for the smaller centers to shine as well.

Vancouver has done an excellent job of presenting the Memorial Cup this week, attendance is the largest that it has ever been, with average crowds topping 13,000 each night (rush hour traffic permitting!), the fact that the Vancouver Canucks aren’t in the run up for the Stanley Cup surely helped the organizers, but still the presence of the hometown Giants has served to stoke the passions of the hockey fans of the lower mainland.

But the Moncton’s, Kitcheners and Red Deer’s will always have a chance to step up and show that a championship such as the Memorial Cup will be a huge success regardless of the size of the market, sometimes the heart of the community adds as much to the value of a tradition as all the money in a cheque.

It would be a mistake for the CHL to limit itself to the prospect of only holding the Memorial Cup in larger markets, sure the exposure is large as is the cash payout, but we suspect that holding the game in let’s say St. John’s, Newfoundland, Windsor, Ontario or Saskatoon, Saskatchewan will prove that hockey’s heart beats fast across the land and the residents there are equal if not more suitable to the task that the big city folks might think they have domain over.

Vancouver a fork in CHL's road
Can Cup afford to return to mid-size markets?
Ed Willes
The Province
Friday, May 25, 2007

It seems comical now -- like worrying how the Beatles would go over in North America -- but prior to the '07 Memorial Cup there were genuine concerns about how the event would be received in Vancouver.

The Canadian Hockey League, for starters, has suffered numerous failures in NHL markets. In moving into Vancouver, the juniors were also moving away from their core audience. As for the cost of doing business, let's just say the overhead in places like Guelph is a tad lower than it is along Georgia Street.

But, as the tournament heads into today's semifinal game, the only question remaining about Vancouver's suitability as a host city concerns the size of the cheque it will turn over to the Western Hockey League in net profit.

The average attendance of 13,300 for the six round-robin games, highlighted by a gate of 14,091 for Wednesday's finale between Medicine Hat and Vancouver, is a new Memorial Cup record. The total attendance, 79,800 and counting, will become a new record. In five of the six round-robin games, the crowd at the Coliseum broke the previous Memorial Cup record of 12,699 for the largest individual round-robin gate.

Add it up and not only will Vancouver shatter the existing attendance marks, it will put them in a place which won't be reached any time soon.

So all this raises an interesting point, namely has this year's tournament re-invented the Memorial Cup? More to the point, can the CHL afford to keep going back to mid-size markets -- "Our bread-and-butter," according to WHL commissioner Ron Robison -- when they can tap into the riches of a Vancouver?

"It's certainly the highest-revenue event in the history of the Memorial Cup," said Robison.
"It was a test for us to come to a major market and it's proven to be very successful.

"Having said that, we're not fooling ourselves. We're all about the mid-size markets. That's where we belong."

But they're not about to rule out another trip to the big city.

Following Sunday's championship final, the host committee will also turn over a cheque in the $2-million range to the WHL and that figure represents a significant windfall to the league's 22 member clubs. Throw in all the other considerations -- the increased media coverage, the association with a big-league market -- and it would seem the benefits of holding the event in Vancouver far outweigh any disadvantages, even if the prices at Starbucks scare the bejeebers out of the gentle Prairie folk.

But Robison and CHL president David Branch will tell you there are other considerations. For starters, there's the tournament's rich tradition and the notion that the Memorial Cup just belongs in Red Deer and Shawinigan. The CHL is also realistic about its place in the food chain. As Robison notes, this tournament would look a lot different if the Canucks were still alive.

"We like to be in a centre where we capture the entire marketplace," Robison said. "That's something you have to take into account when we enter a market of [Vancouver's] size."

That won't be a problem next year when the tournament is held in Kitchener at the 5,750-seat Kitchener Memorial Auditorium. The Kitchener committee, in fact, is projecting similar net revenues to those generated by this year's tournament which means Vancouver hotel costs must really be taking a bite out of the bottom line.

But the CHL has also seen what is offered by a market this size --the crowds, the exposure, the big-league feel, the five-dollar lattes. True, it has to balance those things with the Memorial Cup's history but that trade-off is a little easier when a big pay-day is coming.

"I think from time to time it's nice to be able to come to a Vancouver," said Branch. "It's a great way to position our product and the financial model is important.

"But it's not the only thing."

No, but it is a pretty big thing.

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