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Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitchell Marner carries the puck during a recent game against the Philadelphia Flyers.John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

Two hours before puck drop on a recent Saturday night, and the Yonge subway in Toronto is already popping with the blue-and-white brigade. A couple of 20-year-old guys in official Auston Matthews jerseys are down from Aurora, just north of the city, to enjoy the game in prime seats that they figure cost about $500 each: a gift from the commercial-development firm where one of them works.

Halfway down the car, Jeremy Ridgewell stands by the door with a buddy, both of them decked out in Toronto Maple Leafs merch. They’re headed downtown, too, to watch the team take on the Calgary Flames. But they’ll be doing it at the Bottom Line, a sports bar about a five-minute walk from Scotiabank Arena. Ridgewell follows the team’s exploits religiously, writing for the blog Editor In Leaf. But buying tickets? That’s beyond his budget. “The last time I went to a game that I paid for?” He ponders. “At least 10 years ago.”

Even the pros feel his pain. Wayne Simmonds, a Leafs fan favourite who grew up in Scarborough, never saw the team play in person until he faced off against them as a rookie for the Los Angeles Kings. “The tickets were too expensive for my family to afford,” he explained during a recent interview.

Simmonds is playing on a contract that pays him US$900,000 a season, but has made as much as US$5-million a year. He still finds the cost of tickets remarkably expensive. “The word ‘outrageous’ is the first thing that comes to mind,” Simmonds says. “It is unfortunate that not too many working families can afford to take their kids to games. It sucks.”

Leafs tickets have always been costly, but a host of factors have lately sent them skyrocketing, creating an environment in which prices are untethered to the actual cost of providing the entertainment, and the notion of the “face value” of a ticket is increasingly archaic. In that environment, the same front-row seat on the Leafs blueline – sold by the club, not on the secondary market by scalpers or brokers – can soar from a little over $600 for a mid-season game against the Nashville Predators to more than $1,200 for an end-of-year match against the Montreal Canadiens.

If you think the 6.8-per-cent annual inflation rate announced by Statistics Canada on Wednesday is a big deal, consider this: The Consumer Price Index published by StatsCan indicates that prices for what it terms “spectator entertainment” (including live sports, theatre, and cinema) have risen approximately 270 per cent since it began tracking the category in 1985. Over the same period, prices charged by the Leafs for the best seats have gone up between 2,900 per cent and 6,000 per cent.

Talk to Leafs fans – as The Globe and Mail did before two games this month, speaking with dozens of them outside Scotiabank Arena – and they’ll give you an earful about pricing.

Maple Leafs historical ticket prices

Prices for gold seats to Toronto Maple Leaf home games are

from press releases ,1977-2007. No public data available after

2007. Ticket prices for 2022-23 season are from Ticketmaster.

(not adjusted for inflation)

$500

2022-23 season:

$500 to $1,232

depending on

opponent and

other factors

400

300

Maple Leaf

Gardens

Air Can. Centre/

Scotiabank Arena*

200

100

$12

0

‘76-

’77

‘79-

’80

‘84-

’85

‘89-

’90

‘94-

’95

‘99-

’00

‘04-

’05

*This is a face-value price of what became known as ‘platinum seats’ after the move to

Air Canada Centre. Additional costs above the official face value include an annual mem-

bership fee (beginning in 1998-99 at $2,500), and a one-time ‘personal seat licence’ fee

(beginning at $15,000) on thousands of the best seats, which gave licence holders first

right of refusal to purchase tickets.

simon houpt and john sopinski/the globe and mail

Source: globe and mail archives; ticketmaster

Maple Leafs historical ticket prices

Prices for gold seats to Toronto Maple Leaf home games are from press

releases ,1977-2007. No public data available after 2007. Ticket prices for

2022-23 season are from Ticketmaster. (not adjusted for inflation)

$500

2022-23 season:

$500 to $1,232

depending on

opponent and

other factors

400

300

Maple Leaf

Gardens

Air Can. Centre/

Scotiabank Arena*

200

100

$12

0

‘76-

’77

‘79-

’80

‘84-

’85

‘89-

’90

‘94-

’95

‘99-

’00

‘04-

’05

*This is a face-value price of what became known as ‘platinum seats’ after the move to

Air Canada Centre. Additional costs above the official face value include an annual mem-

bership fee (beginning in 1998-99 at $2,500), and a one-time ‘personal seat licence’ fee

(beginning at $15,000) on thousands of the best seats, which gave licence holders first

right of refusal to purchase tickets.

simon houpt and john sopinski/the globe and mail

Source: globe and mail archives; ticketmaster

Maple Leafs historical ticket prices

Prices for gold seats to Toronto Maple Leaf home games are from press releases, 1977-2007. No public data

available after 2007. Ticket prices for 2022-23 season are from Ticketmaster. (not adjusted for inflation)

$500

2022-23 season:

$500 to $1,232

depending on

opponent and

other factors

400

300

Maple Leaf

Gardens

Air Canada Centre/

Scotiabank Arena*

200

100

$12

0

‘76-

’77

‘79-

’80

‘84-

’85

‘89-

’90

‘94-

’95

‘99-

’00

‘04-

’05

*This is a face-value price of what became known as ‘platinum seats’ after the move to Air Canada Centre.

Additional costs above the official face value include an annual membership fee (beginning in 1998-99 at

$2,500), and a one-time ‘personal seat licence’ fee (beginning at $15,000) on thousands of the best seats,

which gave licence holders first right of refusal to purchase tickets.

simon houpt and john sopinski/the globe and mail Source: globe and mail archives; ticketmaster

Like most consumer goods and services, tickets for Toronto Maple Leaf home games used to be based on what it cost the club to pay its bills – everything from player salaries to administration, travel and capital investments.

Unlike the NBA and the NFL, which make the bulk of their revenue from massive media-rights deals, the NHL remains dependent on what are known as game-day sales: tickets, concessions and merchandise, which in the 2017-18 season made up almost 74 per cent of the league’s total revenue. And while that has fallen as a percentage of revenue, as sponsorships and U.S. media rights have increased in recent years, the NHL remains a gate-driven league.

For decades, every spring, after the Leafs failed to win the Stanley Cup, club executives would announce ticket prices for the following season, and then justify any increases by insisting the higher revenue would be used to sign better players and improve the team’s fortunes.

Fans may have winced, but they still bought tickets. (Though not in as great a number as widely believed. The legend was that the Leafs sold out every home game at Maple Leaf Gardens since 1946, but that myth was busted in 1982, when Globe and Mail reporter Paul Palango revealed it was a creation of Harold Ballard’s PR man, Stan Obodiac, and there were plenty of tickets available for games that year.)

But in the fall of 2005, when the NHL returned from a year-long lockout, it introduced a league-wide salary cap that would prevent rich clubs from buying their way to greatness. So even if costs stayed low but the demand for tickets was high, popular teams such as the Leafs could keep raising prices.

There were other factors that prompted prices to spike: When the team moved from Maple Leaf Gardens to what was then known as the Air Canada Centre in the 1998-99 season, it became the first NHL team to sell what are known as personal seat licences (PSL), charging patrons of the best 1,500 seats in the house a one-time fee of $15,000 each for the right of first-refusal on season tickets. (The club said the $22.5-million from the PSL sales went to pay down costs on the new arena.)

The club also instituted an annual membership fee of $2,500 for the privilege of buying a package of 41 season tickets, adding $61 to the face-value price of each $115 ticket.

An additional 2,500 seats were allocated to the Air Canada Club, a VIP zone where the face value of tickets was $100 but patrons also had to pay an annual $2,000 membership fee – adding almost $50 to the price of each ticket.

In subsequent years, the club sold thousands more personal seat licences, introducing what one pricing expert calls an element of real estate speculation to the hockey ticket market: PSLs now have their own robust marketplace, with asking prices hitting $100,000 a seat.

“I think they’re catering to corporate people, people who aren’t fans,” said Lauren Delano, who had picked up a pair of half-decent tickets to the Leafs-Flames game for $110 each, for herself and her sister, from someone in a company with season’s tickets who wasn’t able to use them.

“Gold and platinum [seats] are only suits, and then you’ll start to see families in the 300s [upper levels]. A lot of people can never even afford to go to games in Toronto,” she said, noting that fans will make the trip to Buffalo, for a Leafs vs. Sabres game, because tickets are less expensive there.

“It’s ridiculous. The sports atmosphere in the States is a lot better for fans, because the money’s not a barrier. So, people who actually want to go, actually are cheering for the teams.”

Fans also sometimes grumble that corporations make tickets more expensive for everyone, because companies can write off the purchases as business expenses. Decades ago, the U.S. federal government under President Jimmy Carter tried to eliminate the tax benefit, but after the pro leagues pushed back the effort fell apart. The issue is rarely raised anymore.

The Globe was unable to determine what percentage of Leafs tickets are sold to corporations rather than individuals. But during an informal poll conducted by a reporter before two games this month, 28 of 60 respondents said they were attending the game courtesy of a corporation. All of those sitting in the lower bowl of the arena said they would be in corporate-owned seats.

But there are hints of change even among the corporate crowd. One fan who spoke with The Globe revealed that he was attending the Flames game with his wife, three sons and a friend because his company, an asset-management firm, had determined the value of the tickets was too high to meet compliance regulations if they were to give them to clients.

Ethics experts warn that the potential for conflict of interest is a concern when accepting gifts such as a night out at the Scotiabank Arena. In recent years, more than 1,000 asset managers have pledged to comply with an Asset Manager Code overseen by the U.S.-based CFA Institute, which holds that “Managers must refuse to accept gifts or entertainment from service providers, potential investment targets, or other business partners of more than a minimal value.” More than 90 Canadian companies have pledged to adhere to the Code, including TD Asset Management, RBC Global Asset Management and the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec.

In 2013-14, the Leafs introduced tiered pricing for buyers of single-game tickets, dividing all of the regular-season games into four categories, depending on such factors as scheduling and opponents: Seats in the end gold section could range from $190 for a weekday match against a mid-tier team to $265 for a Saturday night faceoff against the Canadiens.

Shortly after that, the club embraced an even more complicated system known as dynamic pricing, whereby a host of other variables – including moment-to-moment fluctuations in website visits – would algorithmically influence the prices at which the club would offer a ticket for sale. That also meant the price of tickets offered for sale by the club would hew more closely to the prices charged by scalpers in the secondary market.

All of which means that the Leafs, like most pro sports teams, have moved from what economists call cost-based pricing to demand-based pricing.

“It’s something that, in the airline and hotel industry, has been commonplace for decades,” noted Stephen Shapiro, a professor in the department of sport and entertainment management at the University of South Carolina, and an expert on ticket pricing and consumer behaviour. “People have come to an understanding that it’s going to be more expensive to fly right now, during the Christmas season, than it would be if you got a flight in January.”

Still, he noted that, because prices are now almost purely a function of the market, rather than being based on a club’s costs, it could leave fans feeling alienated. “It’s more difficult to know what the face value of a ticket is at a given time. I don’t want to say ‘face value’ doesn’t exist, but it’s become more nebulous, where there is no starting point, so to speak. A ticket fluctuates based on demand, and there’s less knowledge of where it started from.”

The Leafs are now the most expensive team in the league, according to data compiled by Team Marketing Report (TMR), a Chicago-based sports data bureau. The average Leafs ticket price for last season, the most recent year for which data are available, was US$145.60. That’s 76-per-cent higher than the league average of US$82.58.

TMR also calculated that the Leafs were the most expensive team for a family of four to enjoy a game in person, hitting US$697.75 after costs such as meals, parking and merchandise were taken into account. That measure, known as a Fan Cost Index, was more than 50 per cent higher than the league average of US$462.58.

The Globe and Mail shared fans’ complaints with the club’s communications department, asking whether that public perception is a concern, and, if so, what the Leafs are doing to confront the challenge. The club provided an e-mailed statement from Tom McDonald, the senior vice-president of ticket sales and service at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the Leafs’ parent company, in response.

“While our ticket pricing is comparable to similar large markets in the National Hockey League, and is reflective of the overwhelming demand in Toronto, MLSE is continually looking to create pricing options and access for all fans, including the introduction of variable pricing a number of years ago and partnership programs to distribute free tickets to thousands of Maple Leafs fans each season,” it read.

The Globe followed up with a series of questions, including a request for a breakdown of various ticket prices, average ticket price, and the division between corporate and individual ticket buyers, as well as for details on the pricing options that the team says help expand access for fans. The Leafs declined further comment.

About an hour before the Leafs faced off against the Anaheim Ducks this month, Alyssa Alaimo was in a food court near Scotiabank Arena, enjoying a quick bite with a friend who was taking her to the game with tickets he’d got from his company. Ticket prices, she said sharply, “are brutal. My dad really wishes he could come to one of these games. We would come more often if it wasn’t going to cost us $1,000 to bring the entire family.”

With a report from Marty Klinkenberg