Large turnout at public meeting shows support to team administration
If the size of the turnout, if the exhortations of the fans who came to show their support, if the body language of team president Scott Marshall were any indication, the Abitibi Eskimos are almost assured to spend at least one more year in the friendly confines of the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls.The Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League team finished the 2013-2014 season in fourth place, edged out the stubborn Elliot Lake Bobcats in seven games to advance to the quarter-finals, but then dropped four straight to the top Tier II Junior “A” team in the country, the Sault Ste. Marie Thunderbirds – a team that lost only six regular season games – but then were beaten in the final round by a gritty and, some concede now, a better-prepared and better-coached Kirkland Lake Gold Miners squad in the final, losing four games to three.
But the 200 die-hard Eskis supporters that crammed into the Iroquois Falls Curling Club lounge weren’t thinking about the league final, they were there to show their support for their beloved Eskis – a team that finished the season with a financial deficit in the $200,000 range, a deficit that has been accruing for the past few seasons, since the Eskis were Copeland Cup champions in the 2010 season.
Marshall was all business as he opened the meeting – he stated categorically that it was team management’s responsibility to determine the future of the Eskis in Iroquois Falls – but he was very clear to point out that “this is not management’s hockey team, it’s not administration’s hockey team – it’s your hockey team, and you’re going to have to convince us tonight that the community wants this team to remain in Iroquois Falls.”
The decision to stay or go, he said, would be made that same night.
When the meeting ended, and he was left alone to face the media, he did not, actually, announce a decision to remain – but based on the attitude of those present, it appeared he would be facing an insurrection of major proportions if the Eskis didn’t give the Iroquois Falls hockey fans at least one more chance to increase walk-in game attendance and to purchase 300 season tickets by May 31.
Marshall and team executives Rick Charlebois and Greg Wickens literally opened the team’s financial books to the gathering – and the figures were devastatingly ugly. But . . . the inference throughout the entire two-hour meeting was that recovery was possible – and that the salvation of the Eskis ’ history in Iroquois Falls was not in the hands of team presidents and accountants – it was in the hands of the people of Iroquois Falls.
Marshall, with the help of a slide show outlining the rough financial picture on a screen behind him, did not pull any punches. The figures might have been guessed at by some – but the reality of seeing the numbers left many of the 200 present in stunned silence.
The annual operating budget of the Abitibi Eskimos runs to about $250,000, said the team president.
The team has been in Iroquois Falls since 1993 – but Marshall displayed operating costs from 1999 to the present. The team, he said, has spent $3 million in operating costs since 1999 – including $175,000 just to operate a team van to transport players living in Timmins (where they have to live because that’s where they go to school) to Iroquois Falls games and practices. The team has paid $236,000 in ice rental fees to the town of Iroquois Falls. The current rate is $20,000 per year. Travel to road games has been a killer - $590,000 in bus fares – and this does not even address overnight hotel costs and out-of-town meals – meals alone have added up to $174,000. The team has handed out $98,000 in educational scholarships based on $1,000 per semester to a maximum of $2,000 to college students/Eskis who maintain a “C” average.
Eskis’ out-of-town players, of course, have to be billeted – whether in Timmins or in Iroquois Falls, and the cub has paid out more than $434,000 in room and board costs since 1999 –an Marshall admitted candidly that (given the appetites of growing athletically inclined young men) “it’s not nearly enough.”
The Eskis’ corporate partners have contributed $907,000 to the clubs operating coffers since 1999 – it sounds huge, said Marshall, but the expenses of operating a Junior “A” hockey team over such a large geographical area are beyond the understanding of the average fan.
Attendance at home games has been down this year – but even at that, Marshall stated categorically that the team cannot survive financially on attendance alone – specially walk-in, game-by-game attendance, that can fluctuate wildly because of such obvious factors as weather, the day of the week, and competition from other events going on in the town.
The biggest game attendance revenue in team history came during that memorable Copeland Cup run when the series put $25,000 into the club’s coffers.
That year the club had returns of $650,000, plus another $187,000 in the playoffs. Season ticket sale (there were 220 sold) brought in $357,000 and the Eskis’ TV Bingo program added another $347,000 in revenue, and overall the Honour Wall has contributed $118,000 to the club’s bottom line. The club has raised $2.9 million since 1999.
One would think that an accumulated deficit of “only” $200,000 based on overall revenue and expenditures is “small potatoes” when the 15-year financial picture is considered. But without some immediate action – increased season ticket sales, finding additional sources of revenue – the deficit is not going to even be addressed, let alone reduced.
Marshall’s message was clear. The club has to attract more fans, has to sell 300 season tickets by May 31, and has to maintain and even increase corporate sponsorship to remain a viable sports entity in Iroquois Falls.
Rick Charlebois spoke candidly about the team’s financial future – to stay in Iroquois Falls for the 2014-2015 season, the game-by-game ticket prices are going to have to be increased – from $10 to $12 for adults, to $10 for seniors and students, and $5 for children. He said costs are continually rising in such areas as transpiration, fuel, and food – and these constantly rising expenses mean even family admission to one game will have to be adjusted – it will now be $30 for two adults and their open children. Season tickets (which look much like credit card) will cost $250 for an adult, $200 for a senior or a student, and $100 for a child under 12 years of age. A full family season ticket will cost $600 for a minimum of 25 home games.
“So now,” Charlebois told the crowd,” we put this forward to you. Nobody’s thrown rotten tomatoes at me yet, so I assume you understand the problems we’re facing. It’s time now to give us your feedback, your ideas, your suggestions. We’re going to make a decision tonight, after hearing what you have to say.”
The suggestions came – fully a half-hour passed and there was never a silent moment. There were questions about why five games were played in Timmins, questions about why the team doesn’t ask players to pay to play, as other teams do. One man wondered why the tam doesn’t change its name “because nobody knows where Abitibi is any more,” and it was as close as the meeting came to complete disorder as the poor man was belittled and shouted down.
People had ideas for fundraisers, for cost reductions, for more player involvement in the community . . . and one fan even said the reason for the tam’s declining attendance (averaging about 400 fans a game) was less related to the economy or the team’s performance than it was simply because Iroquois Falls has had a declining population for the past few years.
As the meeting drew to a close – Marshall cautioned that even though the meeting was almost entirely positive, there were “harsh realities that had to be faced.”
“This is a really good organization,” he said. “It’s going to take some time for a complete recovery – it has to get better year-by-year – if we don’t get the season ticket fan base, this team is not going to succeed.”
As the fans stood – the normal response would have been to watch them turn and leave – but many fans stayed, talked among themselves at to the team’s administration, and a number began taking out their cheque books.
Marshall did not tell the fans hat a decision has been made. But the strong turnout and the obvious interest of the crowd gave every indication that the Eskimo is not yet ready to abandon his Igloo.