When Hockey Canada awarded back-to-back World Junior Championships to Toronto and Montreal back in 2013, it was not armed with some very key information. And the only thing that could have provided that information was a crystal ball.
At that time, the World Cup of Hockey was just a bad looking trophy that was gathering dust. Four years ago, the Toronto Blue Jays were a last-place team and Toronto FC was a dysfunctional mess. The Toronto Raptors had just come off a season in which they finished 14 games under .500 and were 20 games out of first place. Two long playoff runs for the Jays and Raptors and an appearance in the MLS final for TFC later, the spending dollars of Toronto sports fans has been stretched. Oh yeah, there was no outdoor game selling the grassroots experience for $400, either.
So it was under those circumstances that Scott Smith, the newly minted president of Hockey Canada, spent his first day on the job charged with the task of putting a positive spin on the 2017 World Junior Championship, a tournament that has struggled for fans in Toronto and has largely been family and friends in Montreal. Canada’s opening game against Russia was close to a sellout in Toronto, but there were 6,000 empty seats for Game 2 against Slovakia. The first six games in Montreal, where there is no Canada, USA or Russia, averaged 4,800 in the 21,288-seat Bell Centre, with only one crowd in excess of 5,000. Two years ago when the scenario was switched and Toronto hosted the non-Canada group, it averaged 13,500 for the preliminary round games.
So it came as no surprise that Smith acknowledged that, armed with what it knows now, Hockey Canada would have taken a much different approach to awarding the 2015 and 2017 tournaments.
“I want to be really clear. I have no reservations at all about the fact that we came to Toronto and Montreal,” Smith said. “None. I think that was a good decision. If we knew then what we know now, we might not have gone back-to-back. But that has no bearing on the fact that we’re very pleased with Toronto and Montreal.”
Good on Smith for acknowledging that in a hastily called news conference, one that was called after Hockey Canada officials refused to answer questions about tickets earlier in the day when they announced that Smith would be replacing Tom Renney as Hockey Canada president, with Renney remaining as CEO and the public face of Canada’s minor hockey governing body.
Smith said Hockey Canada will learn from this. The price point for tickets, which was a problem particularly in Montreal the last time around, was reevaluated after the 2015 event and Hockey Canada clearly thought it had found the sweet spot this time. Tickets for Canada’s preliminary games in Toronto were selling for between $84 and $229. The cost of Canada’s quarterfinal in Montreal ranges from $58 to $182, the semifinal (if Canada reaches it) ranges from $83 to $203 and the gold medal ranges from $98 to $250. A fan wanting to attend all of Canada’s games in Toronto and Montreal faced the prospect of paying between $1,200 and $2,400 for tickets. Smith pointed out that when the event was hosted in Calgary and Edmonton in 2012, more than 175,000 people registered just for the chance to buy tickets. But oil was trading at over $100 a barrel then and it’s a completely different market than the ones in eastern Canada. Anyone who would have thought Montrealers would pay those kinds of prices for junior hockey clearly doesn’t know that market. And with the recent success Toronto teams have had it’s pretty clear that ticket buyers in this market aren’t starved enough for a winner as Hockey Canada might have thought.
By the time Vancouver and Victoria host this event in 2019, the WJC will have been in Canada or a border city in the United States in eight of 11 years. Fatigue is bound to set in, even in a hockey-mad country like Canada. For Canada in general and Montreal and Toronto in particular, it’s kind of a case of, “How can we miss you if you won’t go away?”
Still, as Smith aptly pointed out, tickets sales relative to other countries have been good. He said Hockey Canada is about 80 percent of the way to it’s goal of $21 million in ticket revenues – and that will improve if Canada can make it to the gold medal game. And since there was effectively no local bid for this tournament, organizers will not have to worry about meeting a profit minimum for Hockey Canada, as is usually the case in the World Junior. Smith also said the tournament is expected to make money, which Hockey Canada uses to fund its grassroots programs, but clearly not as much as organizers envisioned when it decided to go to Toronto and Montreal. (The World Cup clearly overestimated what that tournament would make in Toronto, too.)
You can talk about big events and secondary ticket markets all you want, and it’s a legitimate point that people probably don’t buy ticket packages up front when they know they can buy singles through ticket brokers, but it’s clear that putting back-to-back World Junior tournaments in Canada’s two biggest cities at this price point where there was a chance they’d be lost in the shuffle was a mistake. “I think we’ll know the answer to that better as we conclude this event,” Smith said. “On purpose, we haven’t nailed down our pricing strategy for ’19, so we’ll reevaluate that.”
Note: An earlier version of this blog took TSN to task for not being present at the news conference. It appears nobody from Hockey Canada informed TSN of the event.