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Winning the only cure for Prince George Cougars' financial woes

Team president and part-owner John Pateman admits Cougars made mistakes with its ticket-pricing structure that alienated fans but predicts a winning team is on the horizon that will bring crowds back to CN Centre
Prince George Cougars John Pateman
Prince George Cougars president John Pateman says Cougar fans are in for good times ahead with the team expected to be WHL contenders for at least the next two seasons.

Now that the pandemic and the chaos it created for the sports and entertainment industry is hopefully over and done with, the Prince George Cougars can turn their focus on finding ways to get more people to watch their hockey games at CN Centre.

That was a challenge throughout the season the Cougars were unable to overcome. Playing in a building that seats nearly 6,000, the Cougars averaged 1,915 fans per game in their 34-game regular season, the third worst attendance figure in the Western Hockey League.

That’s 518 fewer fans than there were in the 2019-20 season (there were no fans allowed in the COVID bubble a year ago). That continued a trend toward a declining fan base that started in 2017-18, when a new ticket structure jacked up ticket prices as much as 40 per cent, enough to convince hundreds of longtime Cougar supporters to hang on to their wallets and decide not to renew their season subscriptions.  

As part of EDGEPRo Sports & Entertainment Ltd., the group that owns the team, club president John Pateman knows the Cougars will continue to bleed money when their rink is only one-quarter full. They need it at least 3,000 fans per game just to break even.

Pateman knows there’s only one cure; the Cougars have to become a winners on the ice, and that’s a hard habit to get into. Since 2007, when the last time they advanced to the third round of playoffs, there’s only been three seasons in which the Cougars have had won more than they’ve lost. It certainly didn’t happen this past season when they finished 15 games below .500 (24-39-4-1) and barely made the playoffs.

“We do keep saying that we’ve got to win,” said Pateman.

“People get tired of hearing, ‘oh we’re going to be good next year,’ but we’re at the stage where we really believe we are going to be good for a fair while here. Our hockey team is going to be good for the foreseeable future and we’re going to find out over the next three or four years if we can tweak this thing.”

The Cougars spend about $3 million per season just to operate in the league and ticket revenues and sponsorships are the only way to recoup that cost. An extended playoff run would help the bottom line significantly.

“I think to see a bunch more season tickets we’ve got to go out there and win something,” Pateman said. “From the sponsor side, we can do more on that getting local businesses to buy in. We’re kind of a community team, is how we look at it. It was never going to be a money-maker to speak of for us. We’d like to not lose.

“If we could fill the rink in the second round of the playoffs, that’s my big dream. Say at some point next year or the year after we make the second round, I think, just like what happened with the Spruce Kings, a lot of people would buy in and create a great entertainment environment. People love to win and they love to be entertained, so that’s certainly what we’ll attempt to do.”   

Pateman was unable to reveal how much in the red the Cats will be this season. The Cougars did receive federal and provincial grants during COVID that kept their staff employed during the down times over the past two years and those subsidies ended last October. Pateman said that compared to 2019-20, the team’s revenues this past season were down by close to $500,000 and he understands why.

“You’ve got COVID, so you have people who couldn’t come to the games because they weren’t vaccinated, you’ve got people who were nervous about going out in crowds and you’ve got people that didn’t like wearing a mask for three hours,” he said.

“Attendance in the whole Western Hockey League was down 28 per cent and we were about that average. Maybe most of that 29 per cent was people that didn’t want to wear a mask, weren’t vaccinated or felt uncomfortable sitting beside somebody they didn’t know.”

Pateman admits he had reservations about the team bringing in zone-based ticket pricing in 2017. The Cougars followed the lead of professional sports franchises and WHL teams in stronger markets that already had pricing based on where fans sit in the building. While that dropped ticket prices for end zone seats, it made the cost of seats between the bluelines significantly more expensive. He said it was a bad idea for the team to suggest people move from their seats near the middle of the rink to the ends to avoid the higher prices.

“What we did was crazy,” said Pateman. “We had a bunch of season ticket holders that their prices went down. In my business world if someone is buying something from you and they’re already paying you for it, why would you reduce the price, they’re already happy, and we lost lots of money on that.

“Then we turn around with a bunch of people that had been ticket holders forever and raised their prices 40 per cent. Why we wouldn’t reduce a bunch of prices and why we wouldn’t grandfather some of the pricing - we had most expensive walk-up ticket and we had by far the cheapest. Some of our end seats are still five or seven dollars cheaper than any other team in the B.C. Division, and half our seats are at the ends.”

For 2022-23, the team is offering a capped price of $510 for seniors and youth for the better seats and one price for children aged 2-6 regardless of where in the arena they sit. Pateman said some tickets have increased two or three per cent and the price of seats in the ends has jumped seven or eight per cent.

“We’ve still got season tickets for $325, for 34 games that’s less than $10 a game,” he said. “We have adjusted our pricing and we have the most affordable prices in B.C. for every seat.”

The Cougars are in the process of forming an advisory board made of up business leaders in the community to provide feedback and the team wants to improve how it communicates with sponsors, suite holders and season ticket subscribers.

This season, the Cougars made the playoffs for the first time in five seasons and had to play Portland, the team furthest away on the map from Prince George. The Cats were eliminated early in a four-game sweep, but Pateman says those four playoff games should go a long way towards advancing next year’s team development.

“We hung in their pretty good against Portland,” said Pateman. “I think we thought we outplayed them the first game. They had 14 kids that went to NHL camps last year and we had one (Samson, a 2021 Philadelphia Flyers’ draft pick).

“Mark (Lamb) ran four lines a lot of the year, and that was to give those kids a chance to develop. The kids understand that playoffs, that’s just a more (difficult) than the regular season, and I think we match up well with playing a team night after night. We took it to Portland on the physical side and they weren’t that thrilled about it.”