To say that 2021 posed a lot of challenges to the Calgary Stampeders would be a dramatic understatement. After all, this was the league’s youngest team that weathered a pandemic-shortened season without the services of their MOP-calibre quarterback for much of the early portion of the year.
The turnaround that the team made after losing the Labour Day Classic at home, going 6-2 the rest of the way before falling to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the West Division Semi-Final, was an encouraging sign that perhaps the team had done on the field what they have done so many times before. That is to say, quickly rebuild a roster picked over by other teams and get them on the same page in-season.
However, the bigger challenge this year is set to take place off-the-field, as the team also looks to rebound at the ticket window.
While it is no surprise that attendance was down in the midst of a pandemic, that doesn’t change the hard numbers facing the Stampeders front office.
2021 saw the team average their lowest attendance number since 1989 with just 23,354 fans turning the stiles on average. That represented a 15 percent drop year-over-year when compared to the average of slightly over 27,000 through the previous four seasons.
During a league-wide conference call, I asked Stampeders’ president and general manager John Hufnagel if sales were rebounding after a tough year.
“Hopefully we have good crowds this year,” he said. “It’s been a tough off-season. The economy probably hit southern Alberta harder than most parts of the country. I’m talking about COVID, a lot of people lost their jobs, and those jobs aren’t back yet.”
That doesn’t mean the Stampeders aren’t trying, though.
“Our ticket people are trying as hard as they can, shaking the bushes so to speak, trying to get as many fans into the building as they can, but it has been a difficult offseason.”
Calgary suffers partially because of their venue. Fans often complain about the lack of amenities at McMahon Stadium, the oldest facility in the league.
Long lines for concessions and bathrooms produce frequent anecdotes about missing a quarter to get a beer. While fans who can make it through a game without leaving their seats are treated to some of the best sightlines in the CFL, it’s not as though the metal bench seats offer a comfortable sitting experience.
When Randy Ambrosie first got the job as commissioner, he stopped in Calgary and said it was a shame that the league’s best organization didn’t have a stadium to match — nothing has changed.
The Stampeders’ ownership group once pitched the City of Calgary on spending money that had been set aside for a field house with a combination hockey rink/football stadium that could have seen a new stadium be opened by now. The compromise, which was to just build a hockey stadium instead, was recently cancelled by city planners as well.
There remains no immediate plan to revitalize McMahon Stadium, which is owned by the University of Calgary.
So what to do? The status quo isn’t enough and neither is winning it seems. The Stampeders are far and away the winningest team since 1990 and yet those seasons haven’t resulted in packed houses like they do in other cities.
The answer may be to look north. As much as it pains this Stamps fan to say, the Elks have been killing it since hiring new team president Victor Cui.
Cui is constantly interacting directly with fans online and through promotions. The Elks had a massive Family Day sale, which they described as generating “the largest single sales day” in recent memory. They also did a week-long Easter Bunny themed promotion, where they were “fumbling” prizes all around the city for fans to find.
Calgary has had no such initiatives. No push to get fans back to the building, even if only by making tickets slightly more affordable. No understanding that every ticket sold cheaply is a seat that would otherwise sit empty.
I know it’s easy to see something new and think about how much shinier it is than your old plaything. I’m also aware that the Elks were coming off an absolute disaster of a season that caused everyone involved to get fired. Making progress is easier when you’re working from behind. Nevertheless, my point remains.
A theory has been floated that the Stampeders are so aware of McMahon’s failings as a venue that they price tickets in such a way as to stay below 30,000 fans, knowing that is the artificial ceiling for the game-day experience. Hufnagel doesn’t appear to subscribe to that theory.
“We treat the business side just like the football side, we are out there to win. We want to do our best and we have high expectations of our season ticket holders,” he said. “How many season ticket holders do we have? We have our targets, but it’s been difficult. We are still out there slugging away.”
With the team unlikely to share any type of definite number, it won’t be until after the first few games have been played that we’ll see what an average 2022 crowd looks like in Calgary. If the numbers don’t start to reflect a similar turnaround as what was evidenced on the field, one has to believe that the Stampeders need to become much more aggressive off of it.