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Variety of factors contributing to lower Canadian NHL attendance

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TORONTO – In some ways, the Toronto Blue Jays’ mid-summer return offered an optimistic leading indicator on the comfort of fans attending live events again for Canada’s remaining pro sports.

Across 30 home dates following 670 days of pandemic exile, they sold 96 per cent of available tickets, including 98.2 per cent over their final six games when capacity was increased to 30,000 from the initial 15,000. Eleven of their dates were sellouts, the majority before a provincial vaccine mandate went into effect.

Still, it’s worth remembering that the Blue Jays arrived in the heart of their season, with a wildly entertaining offence, several players enjoying award-calibre campaigns, in contention for a playoff spot and offering up an open-air environment, weather permitting.

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Even with all that going for them they were left with some ticket inventory and now are hopeful of trying to sell all 48,000 seats next summer.

“There’s no question that there is some lag effect on people’s comfort in coming out to a sold-out stadium environment. There’s no question it’s going to take time for the demand to fully recover,” Mark Shapiro, the Blue Jays president and CEO, says. “I think we’ll be able to speed that timeframe up because of how exciting and compelling our team is to watch and where the expectations are going to be for us next year. What I would caution is looking at anything now and saying that has any relevance in April. What we’ve learned is we could be a world away from this in April, or something surprising could happen in April that’s an unanticipated challenge. I can tell you one thing – I’m not going to forecast what April looks like.”

In that vein, it shouldn’t be surprising that attendance through the first four weeks of the new NHL season is down from pre-pandemic levels for all seven Canadian NHL teams. The drop ranges from negligible (Vancouver) to substantial (Calgary) and it’s worth noting that each market faces different circumstances.

The Ottawa Senators, for instance, have had declining attendance for several years now while enduring a rebuild, a fan disconnect with ownership, a failed proposal to build a new downtown arena and the departure of countless top players, Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau among them.

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In Alberta, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames are staring down a combination of economic distress and the reluctance of fans on both ends of the current COVID-19 divide.

“We think some people are likely waiting to see where COVID goes, on one extreme,” says Tim Shipton, executive vice-president Oilers Entertainment Group communications and gaming. “And on the other extreme, you probably have some fans – when we implemented the mandatory proof of vaccine or negative COVID test – people said, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to come to the building.”

That’s also in spite of the Oilers having the generational brilliance of Connor McDavid and fellow superstar Leon Draisaitl to sell. Still, there’s also a reluctance Edmonton as a city is facing in generally getting people back downtown again and there were “challenges in the economy before the pandemic,” adds Shipton. “(COVID) has only exacerbated the situation. We knew that, Oilers fans, some of them have been hurting and the economy has not been clicking along on all cylinders.”

Even the Toronto Maple Leafs, for whom attendance beyond capacity is considered a given, are in the unusual position of having a few hundred tickets available a game. Tom MacDonald, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment’s vice-president, ticket sales and service, attributes that mostly to the scramble caused by Ontario’s last-minute approval for games at full capacity.

“We got approval at 4:30 on a Friday before the Thanksgiving long weekend and only went on sale with tickets on the Tuesday, with Wednesday being our Leafs home opener,” he says. “So it was a very, very short turnaround time between when we got approval and when we actually played our first game. In a normal year, we go on sale 6-8 weeks in advance of our first game with tickets. We’re still making sales that would normally happen well in advance of our first game.”

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MacDonald described the renewal rate of season-ticket holders as being “in line with previous rates and very, very strong,” with the caveat that both Maple Leafs and Raptors subscribers uncomfortable attending games had the option of passing on their tickets for the season.

That’s led to the limited yet eyebrow-raising inventory.

“It’s something a number of sports teams have done over the last 18 months,” MacDonald says of the subscriber hiatus. “We’re talking about a few hundred seats that got parked for the season that now are available on a single-game basis. It was received really, really well from those members that weren’t comfortable, just having that option.”

By and large, though, MacDonald feels the Maple Leafs’ playing to less than capacity is more a by-product of disrupted timing. With both the NHL and NBA returning to a normal calendar, MLSE will return to its normal ticket-selling cycle this year, with season-ticket renewals in February/March, “I have every expectation that we’re going to be back to our regular sales results and capacities.”

“I don’t think there is an issue there with comfort level,” he says. “The vast majority of our fans were and are and continue to be comfortable coming to the venue.”

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What’s clear is that for any team already facing challenges drawing fans, COVID-19 has only added another layer to overcome.

The Senators’ average gate from 2005-06 to 2015-16 was 18,800, with five seasons over the 19,000 mark. Attendance has dropped sharply since and an Oct. 17 gate of 8,067 for a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars was especially jarring.

Perhaps that was a bottoming out for them and the tide is turning with new captain Brady Tkachuk recently signed to a seven-year contract worth $8.2 million per season, put in place alongside other cornerstones like Thomas Chabot and Drake Batherson and budding stars Tim Stützle and Josh Norris.

Presumably a better team and increased progress in containing the coronavirus will lead to more fans at the rink.

“I hope so. I mean, that’s your personal choice, it’s a different time than anyone ever knew,” head coach D.J. Smith recently said. “You know, we’re just happy to have fans. I know that our guys verbalize to me just how good it is to have the fans back and we have some good, young, exciting players that we want this fan base to grow with.”

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At the same time, pandemic habits need to be broken in all realms of life, from returns to the office to returns to the rink and some of the slack in ticket sales may be attributable there, too.

The Oilers, for instance, typically have had a season-ticket renewal rate in the mid-to-upper 90s but dropped into the 80s for this season, says Shipton.

“We still feel like we have a strong season’s seats base. But the reality coming into this season is that we have tickets to sell. We had tickets to sell on home opener, and we’ll have tickets to sell throughout our regular season,” he adds. “You talk to people across the league, and it’s a common theme.

“We’ve been very fortunate in Edmonton to have one of the most stable and significant season seat bases across the league, but we’ve certainly seen a significant change in ticket buying dynamics over the last several years. People are looking to be a little more flexible than in the past and we’ve adjusted our strategies to that.”

As all the different factors continue to play out in the market, the Blue Jays go from leading to lagging indicator, preparing to adjust their strategy to the realities of the moment. They’re modelling out several different revenue projections based on different attendance scenarios, seeking to plot their way back to their century peak of nearly 3.4 million fans in 2016.

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Between Dunedin, Buffalo and the 36 limited-capacity games in Toronto this year, they drew 805,901 fans, the second-lowest total in franchise history (excluding the TV-only 2020).

“I just hope that things continue to improve,” says Shapiro. “And if they do, I expect us to maybe not be right back to 2015-16 levels, but I expect us to be quickly growing towards those levels here.”

With files from Mark Spector in Edmonton and Wayne Scanlan in Ottawa.



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Aaron Rodgers to the Jets? Giants' free agency options & Mike McCarthy's future with Cowboys | Ask Jay Glazer

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Jay Glazer discussed whether Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers will head to the New York Jets, the New York Giants’ free agency options, and breaks down Mike McCarthy’s future with the Dallas Cowboys.



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Super Bowl LVII: Chiefs and Eagles will meet for title in Arizona

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Patrick Mahomes finally got the best of Joe Burrow. 

All he needed was a little shove.

Harrison Butker made a 45-yard field goal with 3 seconds left — after Cincinnati’s Joseph Ossai was flagged for a 15-yard penalty for shoving Mahomes after he was out of bounds — and the Chiefs beat the Bengals 23-20 in the AFC championship game to make it back to the Super Bowl.

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Kansas City will face the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl on Feb. 12 in Glendale, Arizona. 

The Eagles opened as a 1 1/2-point favourite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

There are no shortage of storylines: Kansas City coach Andy Reid goes against his old team — which he led to Super Bowl 39 — in a game that’s also the first matchup of Black starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl with Mahomes and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts. 

On top of that, there’s a brother-against-brother showdown between Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and Philadelphia center Jason Kelce.

“Officially done being a Chiefs fan this season!! ” Jason Kelce tweeted immediately after the Chiefs won.

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The Chiefs have been making deep postseason runs on a regular basis ever since Mahomes came to town as the franchise quarterback. 

This was their fifth straight trip to the AFC title game and will be their third Super Bowl appearance in that span. They beat the 49ers for the NFL title in the 2019 season, but lost to the Bucs the following season.

The Eagles clobbered the Niners 31-7 in the NFC title game earlier Sunday. They’ve looked dominant in the playoffs so far, also beating the New York Giants 38-7 in the divisional round.

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Philadelphia is back in the Super Bowl five years after beating the New England Patriots 41-33 on Feb. 4, 2018. 

Now a mostly new generation of Eagles — led by coach Nick Sirianni and Hurts — will come to Arizona to try and win another title.

The Chiefs-Bengals game looked as if it was going to overtime before Ossai’s ill-advised play. Mahomes — who was playing on a badly sprained ankle — was running to get a first down in the final seconds as Ossai desperately tried to track him down. 

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Mahomes was out of bounds when Ossai gave him a shove, sending both players tumbling to the turf. The ensuing 15-yard penalty was enough to push Butker into field-goal range and the kick split the uprights.

A distraught Ossai sat on the bench with his head in his hands, well after the game was over.

The Bengals and Chiefs were playing for the fourth time in less than 400 days and Cincinnati had won the previous three meetings — all by three points. This one was decided by a field goal, too, and all Burrow could do was watch.

The Bengals lost to the Rams in last year’s Super Bowl and they just missed another chance at returning to the title game.

NO DRAMA IN NFC

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Oddsmakers thought fans were in for some close conference championship games. 

They’ll have to settle for a 50% success rate.

The NFC title game was a blowout. Niners rookie quarterback Brock Purdy was injured in the first quarter when Eagles linebacker Haason Reddick drilled his right arm on a play that was ruled a fumble. The Eagles recovered that fumble and the injury proved to be a game-changer.

With Purdy hurt, San Francisco turned to 36-year-old journeyman Josh Johnson, who couldn’t do much before eventually leaving with a concussion. Purdy came back into the game, but could barely throw, and the Eagles cruised to the win.

The 49ers dealt with quarterback injuries all season, losing Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo before turning to Purdy, a seventh-round draft pick out of Iowa State. Purdy stepped into a starter’s role in December and won his first seven games before Sunday’s injury. 

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Here’s a few things to know about the upcoming Super Bowl:

WHAT’S THE UPCOMING SCHEDULE?

FEB. 5

Pro Bowl flag-football game, 3 p.m. EST, ABC/ESPN

FEB. 12

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Super Bowl LVII, Philadelphia Eagles vs. Kansas City Chiefs, 6:30 p.m. EST, Fox

RIHANNA AT HALFTIME

Rihanna will take center stage as the headline act for this year’s Super Bowl halftime show.

With sales of more than 250 million records worldwide, Rihanna ranks as one of the best-selling female artists ever. Her most recent album was 2016′s “Anti.” Rihanna last performed publicly at the Grammy Awards in 2018.

The singer said she turned down a similar opportunity for the 2019 Super Bowl that was ultimately headlined by Maroon 5. At the time, many artists voiced support for Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who protested police brutality against Black people and minorities by kneeling during the national anthem in 2016.

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Country music star Chris Stapleton will sing the national anthem, while R&B legend Babyface will perform “America the Beautiful.” 

PRO BOWL MAKEOVER

The Pro Bowl is getting a major makeover this year after the NFL eliminated its full-contact all-star game and replaced it with weeklong skills competitions and a flag football game.

The flag football contest is Feb. 5 in Las Vegas at Allegiant Stadium, one week before the Super Bowl.

The Pro Bowl debuted in January 1951 in Los Angeles and stayed there for 21 seasons before the game moved to different cities from 1972-80. Hawaii hosted from 1980-2009, and the game has had several homes in the years since, including Miami, Phoenix, Orlando and Las Vegas.

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“The game was kind of silly, I guess,” Saints two-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk said back in September when the news was announced. “Guys weren’t out there playing true football. Hopefully, there’ll be a lot of interactions with the fans and guys will get their opportunity to go out there and show some skills. I could see that being a good change.”

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Ohio State hires James Laurinaitis & Tennessee extends Huepel's contract | Joel Klatt Show

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Joel Klatt discussed Ohio State Buckeyes hiring former linebacker James Laurinaitis as a defensive GA. Joel believes that Laurinaitis can help transform the defense into a powerhouse like the offense is for wide receivers. He then discussed the Tennessee Volunteers giving Josh Huepel a contract extension after their 11-win season.



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