If the crowds at last year’s Calgary Stampeders home games appeared smaller than they’ve been in the past, it wasn’t just your imagination.
The season-ticket base in Calgary has decreased by 30 percent since 2015, the team’s vice president of business operations Jay McNeil revealed on the Go Stamps Go Show. This includes a 25 percent drop since 2019.
“By no means is this the ‘Save Our Stamps’ campaign from the eighties,” said McNeil. “But if we don’t stop the trends of what is happening, who knows if we might get there.”
McNeil indicated that the club’s season-ticket base was over 22,000 in 2015 when oil was selling for $110 per barrel. Tickets sales started to drop when the oil market collapsed and the price of oil fell by 70 percent. Albertans needed to reduce their discretionary spending and corporate layoffs were taking place in droves.
By 2019, Calgary was down to 19,500 season-ticket holders. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team currently sits shy of 15,000 confirmed season-ticket holders for the upcoming 2023 campaign.
McNeil, a two-time Grey Cup champion who played 14 seasons along Calgary’s offensive line, indicated the team averages a 16 percent attrition rate every year. The uncertainty that surrounded the league amid the pandemic made it difficult for the club to find new season-ticket holders to replace the ones they lose annually.
“84 percent renew every year, then we have to replenish those sales and we go up and down. We had the same turnover in 2020 but we didn’t have a season, so we couldn’t sell new tickets,” said McNeil. “2021 came and we had the same turnover. [The league] didn’t announce we were going to have a season until a month before, so we had no time to sell those tickets, meaning we got hit twice.”
The Stampeders weren’t only losing ticket sales because of oil and the pandemic, something they discovered this off-season. McNeil said fans were “very vocal” regarding their belief that there was no value in being a season-ticket holder as the added perks that are offered in other markets simply weren’t there in Calgary.
This is something he and the club plans to change as soon as possible.
“We’ve based all of our changes this year on that feedback and trying to deliver more value for our season-ticket holders, that’s number one. We’re investing in our season-ticket holders, we’re investing in fan engagement, and we’re investing in fan growth. It’s all about how do we get our fans back into McMahon Stadium.”
The problem also isn’t simply the number of fans who enter the stadium as demographics are another concern for the club.
“There is nowhere in Calgary I should go and feel young,” said the 52-year-old. “When I go to McMahon, I feel young and that is a problem.”
Now that COVID protocols have been relaxed, the Stampeders are trying to kill two birds with one stone by having players, including defensive back Tre Roberson and offensive lineman Bryce Bell, go to schools in communities largely populated by new Canadians to conduct ‘Football 101’ clinics with the students.
“(Football) is a complicated, violent game where there are a lot of people screaming and cheering and if you don’t know (the game), (McMahon) can be a pretty intimidating place to come to,” said McNeil.
The Stampeders end each of these presentations by giving the kids in attendance two free tickets and access to a reduced price for the upcoming preseason game.
The team has set a goal to reach 15,700 season-tickets sold for this season and McNeil said he’s meeting with potential corporate partners regularly in an effort to re-establish the club as a viable business partner.
He also says that the team is committed to spending to 2019 levels despite diminished ticket sales in an effort to make season-ticket holders feel valued.
This includes Happy Hour, a program that gives fans 30 percent off certain concession items including domestic beer and wine until the posted start time of the game. Season-ticket holders also get 10-15 percent off on these same concessions for once the contest gets underway. The Stamps have also increased their spending on pre-game and halftime entertainment.
“Fans really started to expect more from a sporting event: something before the game, whether it’s tailgating, a party, family activities, and then more during the game and then something after,” said McNeil. “The last couple years, we haven’t been able to do a whole lot of that. We were just happy to get the game off.”
Fans at McMahon will also now be able to head over to the revamped and renamed Stamps House, formerly the Red and White Club, after the game to interact with players and coaches directly with live music. The hope is that this will help rebuild bridges between fans and staff, something that was missing in recent years.
Despite the low number of tickets sold a year ago, one bright spot for the team was a record in fan dollar spend, meaning that patrons spent more on average than ever before at games in Calgary. This may have been a result of the schedule as there were multiple 5:00 p.m. starts, meaning more fans were purchasing dinner during the games.
The Stamps also set a record for per capita merchandise spend as well, which the team obviously sees as a positive. Now they just need more fans in the door.
“Our number one revenue line is ticket sales by far,” said McNeil. “We need fans to buy tickets.”
The club also recognizes that its digital and social media game needs to be stepped up as McNeil mentioned they are interested in learning from other teams in the best ways to engage fans, including the use of online influencers.
“That’s a part of growing your presence across all your social platforms, bringing attention to young people who are at the game,” he said. “It’s something that we know that we have to be doing.”
The Stampeders claim to be looking to collaborate with other teams regarding what is successful in their markets with the intention of duplicating it in Calgary. As much as CFL teams are competitive on the field, McNeil appreciates how collaborative they are off of it.
16 years later, McNeil has gone from protecting the quarterback to protecting the entire franchise and he’s using his ties to Calgary’s glory days as an anchor to weather the current storm.
While success on the field is easily definable by winning or losing, for the Stampeders, their truest battle is in the stands.