Toronto Maple Leafs fans know heartbreak.
The team hasn’t won a Stanley Cup, or appeared in a final, since 1967. Yet the team has sold out every home game at the Air Canada Centre for as long as anyone can remember – and this year, fans were given even fewer opportunities to score seats. After the third NHL lockout in 18 years, the regular season was shortened from 82 to 48 games.
This week, the passion that alternately unites and frustrates Leafs fans imposed an additional tax on their emotions: Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. announced Tuesday that it was raising the price for Leafs and Raptors season tickets by 2.5 per cent.
Remember all that talk about fans boycotting the NHL? It hasn’t happened: In Toronto, at least, seeing the Leafs is less and less of a likelihood for the average fan. Boycott? You need to find a ticket to have a boycott.
The team may be the city’s passion, but seeing them live is the toughest game in town.
John Brown says the price increase means little to fans like him, because he figures to take his family to a game, he’s already looking at $400 for four of the cheapest seats – if he can get them at face value – plus the cost of gasoline, parking and food.
“If you’re spending $400, you know you’re going to be spending a lot more,” he said.
Tom Anselmi, the president of MLSE, doesn’t get overly philosophical about cries of anguish that the average fan is being squeezed out of the market. The Leafs tickets are spoken for. Really, beyond that, there’s not much he can do.
“Are we an expensive ticket? Absolutely. We ask a lot of our fans,” he said.
One of the ways the team has addressed the issue, he said, is to try and give fans “a million different ways to interact with our team,” including social media.
Mr. Brown is more concerned by what he sees when he watches his 13-year-old son Cole’s house league hockey team play. Three coaches of the team are in their early 20s, one is a Buffalo Sabres fan, another a Los Angeles Kings fan, and the third is partial to the Calgary Flames.
“[The Leafs are] not going to lose me as a fan,” said the Ajax resident. “Where they’re losing people, I think, is with the younger generation. It’s surprising how many Pittsburgh or Boston fans you’ll see.”
Andre Richelieu, professor of sports marketing and strategic brand management at Laval University, says the Maple Leafs are risking breaking a bond with their true fans. The Pittsburgh Penguins, Mr. Richelieu notes, started putting aside a certain number of tickets last season, selling them on game days for $25. Penguins players have shown up at the ticket lines to serve pizza to fans lined up for tickets. A simple gesture, to be sure, but one that Mr. Richelieu said offers a physical dimension to the relationship between a team and its fans.
Mr. Brown says his family will go to a couple of Blue Jays games per year, and maybe catch the OHL’s Oshawa Generals or the AHL’s Marlies, the Leafs farm club. The rest of the time, the closest they’ll get to the Leafs is watching at home.
Mr. Richelieu said the Leafs risk medium-and long-term damage by pricing out the average fan. And if a second team enters the market, there could be an even bigger risk.
Compounding the issue for the Leafs is that fact that on any night there are pockets of empty platinum seats at the Air Canada Centre. “That risks a disconnect with the fan who can't go to the game,” Mr. Richelieu said. “It can risk making a fan feel that he or she isn't wanted.”
Mona Kiriakopoulos remembers how it used to be. Along with one of her two sisters, she’d line up for tickets at the Ticketmaster location at Square One Shopping Centre when she was a teenager. They’d do it three or four times a year, and despite the late nights and early mornings in all sorts of weather, their patience was rewarded. It was the price real fans paid, an investment of patience and staying warm in wind and dampness.
“They used to give you wristbands, then they went to a lottery system because of the scalpers that were there,” said Ms. Kiriakopoulos, 39, who moved to Canada with her family from India when she was 3. “If anything, I think the Internet’s made it worse for real fans. It’s virtually impossible unless you know someone who knows someone or who works for a company that has access to tickets.”
Now it’s easier to see her team on the road. Ms. Kiriakopoulos will drive to Ottawa – dead-heading? home immediately after the game – or to Buffalo to see the Leafs. The cost isn’t much more; mostly, it’s a matter of being able to get tickets.
Peter Robinson, the Barrie, Ont.-based author of Hope & Heartbreak In Toronto: Life as a Maple Leafs Fan, says there are ways to get tickets – he used many of them for his book – but it “takes time” to find them. He gets updates on game day as a member of the Last Minute Club, a service provided through the Leafs website that gives members access to tickets that are made available on game day.
And there’s an unregulated secondary ticket market – scalpers – with mixed anecdotal evidence about its nightly inventory. But you venture into it at your own risk; a story made the rounds in the Leafs offices recently of a fan who paid $800 for a pair of tickets at the Air Canada Centre. The face value was $70 per ticket.
Ms. Kiriakopoulos, a site manager for online advertising firm Olive Media, takes advantage of social-media opportunities to interact with the game whenever she can. “Back in the day, it was a lot more difficult to follow the team,” she said. “Now everything is televised. I’m on Twitter all the time during a game. Social media has really helped the cause. I get Leafs TV and can watch practice at my desk.”
But it's a far cry from the good old days. There is a slight amount of wistfulness in Mr. Brown’s voice as he describes “the buzz” of a trip to old Maple Leaf Gardens when he was younger.
“I can’t put it in words.”
He says he’s come to terms with the scarcity of tickets. And Ms. Kiriakopoulos managed to get seats to an April 15 game against the New Jersey Devils. It will be her seven-year-old son Mateo’s first-ever hockey game, a priceless experience that cost her $450.
“It’s the same old thing,” Mr. Robinson said. “It’s an emotional commodity. Logic isn’t always a factor.”
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