The Tiger-Cats, despite considerable on-field challenges this season that will see them start either a third- or fourth-string quarterback in Sunday’s East Semi-Final against the Toronto Argonauts, have been a bigger success on the business side. They played a full season at the shiny new Tim Hortons Field for the first time. And, in related news, they turned a profit for the first time since anyone on the current roster was in short pants. Almost certainly, for the first time since entrepreneur Bob Young saved the franchise by purchasing it in 2003.
It has been, all involved note, a long time coming.
“It’s kind of all come together,? says Matt Afinec, the Ticats’ chief commercial officer, explaining that a year in the black is the result of what has been something like an eight-year process.
It started with the stadium. When plans for a new facility that would host the soccer events for last summer’s Pan-Am Games, and then become the new home for the football team, were finally confirmed about five years ago, it was, says Afenic, the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.?
“We all loved Ivor Wynne (Stadium),? he says. “It was a great place to watch a football game. It wasn’t a great place to run a business.?
It’s true of any sport today: old stadiums, whatever their charms, will be replaced in favour of those that can deliver more money to the team’s owners in the form of everyone’s favourite bit of sports-bizspeak, additional revenue streams. Ivor Wynne didn’t have the premium seats that are the spine of any pro-sports funding model, and it didn’t have the modern bells and/or whistles that help sell tickets.
“We are competing with television,? Afenic says. You need to do all you can to improve the in-game experience, he says, so you give fans a reason to leave the comfort of the couch in front of the 50-inch flatscreen.
At Tim Hortons Field, that doesn’t just mean fancy club seats and suites — although Afenic says there is a waiting list for each of those — but also ticket options on the lower end of the scale that appeal to a younger demographic, which, in the East at least, has not been a CFL strength at all. Behind the north end zone in the new stadium is a beer garden-type patio, where tickets are $24, and behind the south end zone are open-air lounge-type seats, with couches and tables and the whole bit. Everything but the bouncer and the velvet rope. The idea was to make the game a destination. In Hamilton, there are, er, opportunities for such things.
The result has been 16 straight sellouts, and a likely 17th on Sunday, although some of the air was let out of the season first with the knee injury to star quarterback Zach Collaros in September, and then the head injury to backup Jeff Mathews late last month. Hamilton lost its last three games to finish 10-8 and drop out of the division lead, which would have given them a useful bye this week.
The business side of the team knows about obstacles, too. After Ivor Wynne was razed, the Tiger-Cats played the entire 2013 season at the University of Guelph, and last year was supposed to be their homecoming but a remarkable number of construction delays first kept them out of Tim Hortons Field, and then allowed them into a stadium that was only partially open. Then, this year, the Pan-Ams took over the building for more than a month at the start of the year, which ended up given the Ticats a weird eight-week stretch of home games.
“We’ve seen our share of road trips,? is how Afenic puts, diplomatically, but even with the stadium completed this year the unusual schedule made ticket sales a chore.
“We couldn’t just show up and turn on the lights,? he says.
But it worked. Or at least it has worked. It’s also a blueprint for what the new owners of the Argos hope will finally rescue that franchise: new stadium, young demographic, don’t lose money by the bucketload.
For the Ticats, all they need now is for one of their raw quarterbacks — head coach Kent Austin hasn’t said which of Jeremiah Masoli or Jacory Harris will get the start — to beat the Argos, and future Hall of Famer Ricky Ray, to get back to the East Final.
Afenic says he has faith. Overcoming obstacles, not letting problems become distractions: “These are lessons the business side has often taken from the football team,? he says.