Your money or your hockey team

The Calgary Flames' owners said they had to sell 14,000 season tickets by June 30 or the team might leave town. It looks like the ploy is working.

By Gary Kaufman

Published June 26, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

The Calgary Flames say it's likely they'll reach their self-imposed goal of selling 14,000 season tickets by their deadline of Friday, which would ensure that the struggling team will stay in town. The Flames sold 121 tickets Saturday, bringing the total to 13,143 with six days to go. Similar ticket drives in Edmonton often see a late surge in sales.

Flames season-ticket sales have sagged from 17,000 to below 9,000 in the past six years as the team has struggled on the ice. The Flames haven't made the playoffs in four years, and haven't won a playoff series since winning the Stanley Cup in 1989. They moved to Calgary from Atlanta in 1980.

Flames president Ron Bremner and owner Harley Hotchkiss made the announcement April 15 that unless the 14,000-ticket mark was reached by the deadline, the owners would begin entertaining offers from anyone interested in buying the team -- even if that meant, as is likely, someone who would move the club out of Calgary. They outlined a plan to keep the Flames in town that included restructuring the team's arena lease with the city and maximizing revenue from licensing of the logo. They also promised to improve the team on the ice.

The Flames say they'll lose $1.5 million this year; that figure would have been $11 million without a one-time influx of money from two expansion teams' franchise fees. The team has been hurt by a 1994 deal -- also made to keep the Flames from moving -- in which it poured $20 million into the city-owned Saddledome in exchange for year-round control of the arena. The Flames expected to profit from renting out the building to nonhockey events, but that income hasn't materialized.

Despite the vague aroma of blackmail to the season-ticket drive -- buy, or we'll move the team -- Calgarians have responded. Hotchkiss is widely seen as a straight shooter. "We are looking for solutions," he said when announcing the ticket drive. "We are not making threats."

Calgary Mayor Al Duerr is backing the Flames, saying the city would lose a lot of money, especially in the form of arena rent, if the team left. "It's not even a question of being sympathetic to the Flames," he said to Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid. "It's also about protecting the taxpayer."

"He has a point," Braid wrote in response. "But it's exactly the same point he made in 1994. Are Calgarians ready to buy it twice?"

Canadian hockey teams have struggled financially in recent years. The Edmonton Oilers, Calgary's Alberta rival, narrowly avoided a move last year when a group of local businessmen stepped in to buy the team. Fans in Winnipeg and Quebec City lost their teams in the '90s as the Jets and Nordiques moved south of the border and became the Phoenix Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche. Canadian teams are at a financial disadvantage because their income is mostly in Canadian dollars while their expenses are mostly in American dollars. They also pay higher taxes than American teams, and tend not to benefit from sweet arena deals often offered up by American cities to attract teams.

Gary Kaufman

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