It appears the on-ice futility is finally starting to catch up with the Toronto Maple Leafs, cashbox kings of the NHL.
For the first time since moving into the Air Canada Centre 10 years ago, the NHL's richest franchise confirms that it has been unable to lease an unspecified number of the facility's 152 luxury suites for Leafs games this season.
Yet the team does not believe this is the first sign that fans are growing weary of the product.
"We're certainly aware of the tipping point theory," Richard Peddie, president and chief executive officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the team, said yesterday. "We have not experienced it. But listen, winning is the best thing you can possibly do. People want to be entertained, but they want to be entertained and win. We know we've got to turn things around, and we will."
The Leafs, who still announce sellouts of 18,800 people at the ACC, have just three wins in 19 games this year. They have not made the playoffs since the 2003-04 season and last won the Stanley Cup in 1967.
But the franchise that Forbes Magazine recently ranked No. 1 in the NHL with a value of $332-million (U.S.) may be showing signs of vulnerability.
This season, for the first time since they moved into the ACC in 1999, some of the luxury suites that provide an important revenue stream have remained empty during games.
"We've got a couple of empty right now and that is a change for us," Peddie said. "But we've renovated all of the suites and we've got our best sales people onto it and we'll get through this."
Peddie would not specify how many of the suites are not being used. But in Toronto's last home game, Saturday night against the Calgary Flames, it appeared that at least half a dozen boxes were unoccupied.
Suite rentals range from $4,500 to $9,000, excluding taxes, and price is dependent on location and capacity. Renters must also bear the cost of food and beverages.
Peddie said the weak economy is as much to blame for the situation as anything else and that the Leafs are not the only NHL team to feel the pain.
"If you check markets like L.A., Chicago, New York, they haven't leased out all their suites either," he said. "So it's the norm.
"Bay Street, Wall Street are all cutting back on these things, cutting back on spending, and suites at sporting events are one of them. We'll come back sold out, I think, as soon as the recession ends."
The Toronto Blue Jays, who also have failed to put a winning product on the field in recent seasons, are struggling to maintain fan interest, too.
The Jays confirmed on Tuesday they were cutting back on two of the main perks offered to season-ticket subscribers. The team will no longer fly season-ticket subscribers to spring training in Dunedin, Fla., for a team barbecue or provide subscribers with free use of a luxury suite for one game at Rogers Centre during the regular season.
"Not one of our local teams has done really well in the last few years so I'm sure everyone is getting very, very frustrated with supporting the professional teams in this market," said Jason Diplock, the Blue Jays' vice-president of ticket sales and services.
Diplock said that in a market such as Toronto, where the competition for shrinking entertainment dollars is fierce, putting a winning product on the field is as important as ever to continue to lure the public through the turnstiles.
In Toronto these days, where the Leafs, Blue Jays, Raptors, Argonauts and Toronto FC have all experienced more than their share of losing, that's a difficult proposition.
The Argos are attempting to renew season ticket packages for 2010 following a season in which they lost 15 of 18 games. This week, sales reps were calling ticket holders offering instalments on payments that are due Dec. 1.
Diplock said it is the contention of Paul Beeston, the Blue Jays' president and chief executive officer, that nothing good ever comes from having even one professional sports team in a city continually lose.
"He said to me he hopes the Leafs win, the Raptors win, FC and the Argos all win," Diplock said. "When the other teams are doing well, the marketplace will cheer you on to join them.
"When somebody's losing, everyone's just feeling bad, they don't want to support sports at all because it's a lost cause."