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Playoff run, new arena pay dividends to Kings

sports-imageThe Elmira Sugar Kings’ strong performance in the playoffs bodes well for next season – on the ice and on the balance sheet.

Making it to Game 6 of the second round meant three more home games and three more gates than the team budgeted for. With the organization facing some unexpected costs next season, the extra funds will come in handy.

“Had we not had the second round, it would have been a lot tighter going into next year with the increased costs,” said treasurer Jeff Zinken.

The projected ticket revenue in this year’s budget was a bit of a shot in the dark. Attendance at the old arena had been declining – gate receipts were down 12 per cent in 2008/09 from the year before – but the club had no idea what to expect with the move to the sparkling new Dan Snyder Memorial Arena.

The organization got its first inklings during the season opener. Some 1,300 fans poured into the building to watch the Kings take on the Waterloo Siskins. Some were there for the novelty, but many stayed for the season. Attendance at games has doubled over last year; average attendance was around 660 during the regular season, compared to 330 last year.

That’s partly due to more – and more comfortable – seating, but also to the introduction of flex pack tickets. The club sold 300 flex packs, which allow fans to buy a pack of tickets at a discount and use them at whatever game they chose.

“It’s always been our position that we would rather have people in the seats at a number that’s affordable versus an empty seat for a high number,” said team president Jeff Seddon.

At the end of the season, gate receipts, including flex pack sales, were roughly 2.5 times what they were last season. And that doesn’t include the $15,000 brought in during home games in the second round of the playoffs.

That doesn’t mean the club is set to become the next Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, however. The executive is concerned about facing extra costs next season. They knew that ice rental fees would increase, but they were blindsided by the news that the township expected them to pay to rent the dressing room – space that the club paid to furnish.

“That was not a cost in the other arena, thankfully, so we didn’t anticipate it being a cost in this arena. And it was never, to the best of our recollection, discussed prior to the move,” Seddon said.

The township is asking for $6 per square foot, which would add up to more than $10,000 over the season.

“With the cost of the ice and the room rental added on, that’s a major fundraiser,” said general manager Keith Stewart. “We’re not talking about selling a few chocolate bars, we’re talking about raising $15,000 with one event.”

With fundraising run by volunteers, that’s a tall order. The Kings are in good shape financially this year, but they can’t count on making it past the first round of the playoffs every year. The executive is still in discussions with the township on the rental issue; so far the only concession they’ve obtained is that the rental cost might be phased in over a few years.

In the future, Stewart said, the club might have to consider private ownership. There are only two community-owned teams left in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League: the Stratford Cullitons and the Sugar Kings. A hockey-minded owner with deep pockets can offer a team stability in the face of rising costs.

“If there’s a shortfall there, you’ve got somebody to back you up on that,” Stewart said. “Down the road, we may have to look at something like that.”

But private ownership isn’t a cure-all. Privately-owned teams still rely on volunteers to run the organization, and the biggest problem faced by privately-owned teams that are struggling financially is lack of volunteers, Seddon said. The Kings are fortunate to have a strong connection to the community and a strong volunteer base.

“Everyone that volunteers their time for anything we do is a part of our success. I think the volunteers, the group in Elmira, understand that very clearly.”

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