The WHL, of course, is very much an attendance-driven league. The very survival of its teams depends a whole lot on season-ticket sales and on sponsorship money provided mostly by local businesses. And, in the case of the community-owned teams, they also do a lot of off-ice fund-raising, all of it aimed at keeping those teams in their communities.
According to figures compiled by mib.org, the WHL drew 3,672,899 fans to its regular-season games in 2008-09. That works out to an average of 4,637.5 fans per game.
But sponsorship and season-ticket sales for the 2008-09 season were done, for the most part, over the spring and summer of 2008, which was before the economy tanked.
So it was that WHL teams were talking about going into uncharted waters when it was time to sell for 2009-10. The economy was struggling and no one seemed too sure of what would be encountered.
Well . . . the numbers are in and they aren’t especially pretty.
During the recently completed regular season, the WHL’s teams played in front of 3,453,625 fans, a decrease of 219,274. That works out to a slide of 276.9 fans per game, or 5.97 per cent.
In fact, only four of the 22 teams showed an increase over last season.
The Portland Winterhawks, their new management and marketing team having been in place for almost one full year when the season began, drew 4,437.2 fans per game, an increase of 21.63 per cent.
The Brandon Wheat Kings, who are the host team for the Memorial Cup so were able to sell season tickets on that basis, averaged 4,761 fans per game, a franchise record and an increase of 16.73 per cent.
The Tri-City Americans, who have morphed into one of the great survival stories in major junior hockey over the last five seasons, averaged 4,480.1, an increase of 1.27 per cent.
And the Kelowna Rockets drew 6,130.6 fans per game, an increase of 0.15 per cent.
Every other team in the WHL, all 18 of them, experienced a decline in attendance.
The Calgary Hitmen, who finished first overall for a second straight season, led the league with an average attendance of 8,478.4. However, that was a decrease of 371.7 fans per game, or 4.20 per cent.
The Vancouver Giants, their schedule interrupted by the 2010 Olympic Winter Games that sent them on the road for a couple of months and forced them into the Langley Events Center for a handful of games, were second to the Hitmen, with an average of 7,117.4. Overall, though, the Giants’ attendance was down 1,352.6 fans per game, or 15.97 per cent.
The Spokane Chiefs, with an average of 6,452.6, were third to the Hitmen, but were down 203.6 a game (3.06 per cent).
You want more?
The Chilliwack Bruins lost 813 fans a game, leaving them down 19.96 per cent. The Lethbridge Hurricanes, who struggled on the ice and played in an arena that is undergoing renovations, fell 19.66 per cent, or 811.8 fans per game. The Red Deer Rebels lost 909.6 fans per game, or 16.64 per cent. The Edmonton Oil Kings were down 14.60 per cent. The Prince George Cougars, with the WHL’s poorest record, slid 14.29 per cent.
Even in Saskatchewan, where Saskatoon and Regina played host to the world junior championship, the Blades and the Pats watched attendance decline. The Pats fell 442.4 fans per game, or 9.17 per cent, while the Blades were down 431.9 fans per game, or 8.95 per cent.
All told, there were 10 teams whose attendance declined by at least 300 fans per game.
With the economy making some positive noises -- hey, that’s what the experts tell us -- perhaps things will start to turn around over the summer. But there always will be challenges.
In B.C., for example, a harmonized sales tax is scheduled to come into play on July 1. Already, the Kootenay Ice, for one, is offering to pay the HST for any season-ticket buyers who take advantage of an early-bird plan.
Let’s not forget, too, that this is the second straight season in which WHL attendance has declined. The final figure for 2008-09 was down 62,303 from 2007-08. In two seasons, then, attendance has fallen 281,577.
The biggest challenge, then, is going to be for teams to find the fans who have left, learn why they chose to do that, and get them back into what used to be their seats.