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SPORTS CHAT: An aging fan base with slow growth in millennials an issue for Cape Breton Eagles

Members of the Cape Breton Eagles are shown on the bench as fans in the background watch the team's recent Quebec Major Junior Hockey League game against the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada last Thursday. Team president Gerard Shaw says the franchise will not be sustainable unless it sees an increase in its current fan base, a statement which has made some fans uneasy. JEREMY FRASER/CAPE BRETON POST
Members of the Cape Breton Eagles are shown on the bench as fans in the background watch the team's recent Quebec Major Junior Hockey League game against the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada last Thursday. Team president Gerard Shaw says the franchise will not be sustainable unless it sees an increase in its current fan base, a statement which has made some fans uneasy. JEREMY FRASER/CAPE BRETON POST

Last week, Cape Breton Eagles president Gerard Shaw told the Cape Breton Post the hockey team will not be sustainable unless it sees an increase in its current fan base.

The story, written by Post colleague David Jala, sparked quite the conversation around Centre 200 over the past few days, with the Eagles playing a pair of games Thursday and Saturday on home ice.

Walking around inside Centre 200 on Saturday, it was surprising to have so many fans approach and ask for my thoughts on the situation. I didn't provide any answers as it felt best to sit down and think about it before sharing any opinions.

Starting with the team's current fan base, here are some things to consider.

There's no surprise the majority of the Eagles' fan base is made up of an aging demographic. Without the people in that age category, who have supported the team from basically the beginning, who knows where the franchise would be today?

The older fan base is extremely important, but, as we all know, with advancing age come challenges, and at some point many of these longtime season-ticket holders may no longer be able to commit to 34 home games a season, forcing them to give up their season-ticket accounts.

It's not to say those who give up their season-tickets don't support the team. In fact, talking to a few former season-ticket holders last weekend, they still attend select games and will forever be supporters.

The issue right now is continuing to grow the fan base beyond the older demographic. It's not just a challenge for the Eagles, it's a battle all Canadian Hockey League teams are facing right now.

Jeremy Fraser
Jeremy Fraser

In the case of the Eagles, the growth of millennial supporters, who are needed moving forward, has been a slow process and there are many reasons for that. It takes a commitment and for many, there's not a lot of time available to dedicate being a full-time season-ticket holder.

Why has this process been slow?

In reality, unless you are a die-hard fan focused solely on the product on the ice, most people want to attend games for the overall experience. When the action isn't taking place, they need something in-house to keep them entertained.

In-house production, including music, is something the Eagles need to work on, there's no question about it. This is not to take away from what the club is doing right now when it comes to in-house — they're using the resources available and are trying, and it's been noticed.

To have a good in-house production, you need people willing to do it. Unfortunately, the reality is, it's not easy to find people willing to volunteer to be part of a promotions team.

It's easier said than done to say the team needs to do this and that to make the experience off the ice better. The answer to this issue will be difficult to find, but it's one the Eagles organization needs to figure out and, by the sounds of it, figure it out fast.

The fault can't all be blamed on the community support and the Eagles themselves. Centre 200 also has a part to play in this situation as well.

Attending an Eagles game is not cheap. When it comes to ticket prices, Eagles ticket prices are fairly even with the rest of the league, but after buying tickets, the cost of concessions at the game are high.

Depending on promotions, by the time a family of four buys tickets and eats at the game, the price for attending a single game can easily reach $100. In a community having issues with its economy, there's only so much money to go around for extra activities, like attending Eagles games.

There's no denying the attendance is not what it once was when the team first arrived in Sydney in 1997 from Granby, Que.

In 1996, the year before the team arrived, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality had a population of 114,733. Today, it's below 100,000 and continues to decline every year.

The issue right now is continuing to grow the fan base beyond the older demographic. It's not just a challenge for the Eagles, it's a battle all Canadian Hockey League teams are facing right now.

Because of its location, the Eagles are the most-travelled team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, with its closest game being five hours away in Halifax. Other teams are lucky enough to have opponents closer to them, thus cutting down on their travel expenses.

It's not a surprise the Eagles have higher bills to pay than the other teams and revenues need to be increased.

The Eagles say the average they're seeking is 3,200 fans per game, which would put the organization in a safe financial position. In fact, the team is not too far away from it.

Cape Breton's average attendance per month hasn't been below 2,700 fans this season — and it remains the best average attendance for the team since 2010.

Aside from the attendance, the Eagles lease agreement with Centre 200 is up in the summer, but Shaw told the Post this is not about "them and us," meaning the timing of the news isn't because of negotiations with CBRM.

It's unfortunate this situation is drawing headlines when the Eagles' on-ice product has been enjoying lots of success over the past month. Entering Tuesday's game with the Moncton Wildcats, the Eagles were winners of 11 of their last 12 games, which shouldn't be ignored.

To close, we'll leave you with two notable comments made, on the record, by majority owner Irwin Simon to the Cape Breton Post when he purchased majority rights in November 2018:

• “Whether it’s investing in marketing and bringing out spectators or whether it’s investing in a new look for the team, investing in the offices, investing in infrastructure to build around the team, we need to get spectators to come to the games.” — Irwin Simon, Nov. 12, 2018.

• “I had no interest (in moving the team) from day one and that’s something that I stipulated that this team will not move...I have written that into the shareholders agreement and the contract, this team will not move." — Irwin Simon, Nov. 12, 2018.

Jeremy Fraser covers sports for the Cape Breton Post. If you have a column idea, sports story or would like to give feedback about this week's Sports Chat, contact Jeremy by emailing jeremy.fraser@cbpost.com or follow @CBPost_Jeremy on Twitter.

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