Hamilton: Where have all the fans gone?

Courtesy Hamilton Spectator:

If you build a winner, they will come.

That was the conventional wisdom used to explain sparse crowds at Ivor Wynne Stadium during the past few seasons of Tiger-Cat football. Winning 17 games in four years and being out of playoff contention by Labour Day can have a dispiriting effect on even the most hardy of fans.

But this season the Cats are better. They’ve won as many games, six, as in the previous two seasons combined. And they’re putting on a good show at home, winning five of six — they even knocked off the defending Grey Cup champions last Friday.

Nonetheless, just 19,448 fans came to watch that thrilling, come-from-behind victory — far below the roughly 30,000 seat capacity of Ivor Wynne.

The team has averaged just 22,759 on the year, second last in the CFL and well below the league average of 28,283.

The only team that’s worse is Montreal — which has sold out its 20,000-seat stadium 92 consecutive times and is expanding next year.

So where is everybody?

Ticat president Scott Mitchell says there are a number of factors, not the least of which is that you don’t climb from the morass of perpetual mediocrity overnight.

“When you have a franchise that struggles for a number of years, it’s next to impossible to turn it around the first year,” Mitchell said. “Attendance is dictated to a large degree by season tickets sales and that’s not going to change during the season.”

Following that logic, should the Cats continue with their promising campaign — including the buzz created by a possible home playoff date — the team should see a bump in 2010.

“We are bullish about group sales and season seats for next year — I’d like to see a marked improvement in both. That’s where the proof will be in the pudding,” Mitchell said.

There are additional factors at play. Tourism Hamilton’s David Adames says that, not only has the sluggish economy affected how dollars are spent, the gainfully employed are more cautious with their ducats, too.

“There’s folks that may have been laid off or are between jobs so they have less discretionary money,” Adames said. “But the other market that is working and does have leisure dollars are making different decisions on how to spend that money, too.”

Entertainment and leisure options in the city have multiplied exponentially in the past 10 years — Adames says there is at least one special event per weekend in the city — and the Cats are facing stiff competition.

Mitchell says he believes the economy, in particular, is a factor. The team has seen end zone, family and corner seats sell well while premium tickets and suite sales have been sluggish.

“I don’t think any other CFL city has been hit as hard as Hamilton. Obviously that has an affect,” Mitchell said.

Compounding matters further is that Cat fans also have the option of staying in the comfort of their own homes and enjoying the game at a fraction of the cost of actually going. With the ready availability of economical, large flat screen televisions and high definition — not to mention cheaper beer — couch potatoes can enjoy a nice experience.

“In Hamilton, we have fans that have watched every Ticat game for the last 10 years on TV and have never come to the stadium. Because we haven’t used blackouts, fans just expect the games to be on TV,” Mitchell said.

The team has the option to black out one of the remaining home games but isn’t planning to do so.

Karen Ironside is the president of the Cat Claws Fan Club and says she expects attendance to pick up if the team continues to win.

“Hamilton is a fair-weather city and if they think there’s a bandwagon to be jumped on, they will. But they will be latecomers to the game,” she said.

Ironside said she’s fine sharing space with fans who haven’t necessarily been religious in Ivor Wynne patronage through the (very) lean years that preceded this one.

“They pay their dime just I like I did — in fact, they pay more because I have season tickets,” she laughs.

“Whatever fills the stadium and helps the team.”

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