Column: Attempt to boost fan base a double-edged sword for Sens

By Scott Petersen

Ottawa Senators’ owner Rod Bryden is taking risks with his latest attempt to gain fan support.

Exasperated in his efforts to spur slumping season-ticket sales, Bryden is walking a fine line between cajoling the support of local businesses and alienating them with his latest marketing campaign.

The team’s current base of 8,200 season tickets ranks them considerably behind the other Canadian teams in the National Hockey League. Toronto (16,900), Edmonton (15,000), Vancouver (11,436), Calgary (11,300) and Montreal (11,050) all dwarf the Senators’ ticket base.

This is an embarrassment that could hurt the club’s ability to survive in the long-term.

Bryden has also pointed out that many of those remaining seats are in the lower bowl of the Corel Centre, which are expensive tickets usually picked up by the city’s corporations and businesses.

But his recent attempts to guide the purchasing power of Senators fans towards businesses that support the team, and only those businesses, is an area in which he has no right to tread.

Local businesses, such as those in Centretown, should not be punished for holding no loyalties towards the Senators. By the same token, local businesses have no right to punish the Senators for choosing to stay at certain hotels and eat at certain restaurants instead of their own.

It’s a matter of personal choice and individual interests, and big businesses like the Senators should not interfere with that.

Bryden should be recognized as a business aficionado for his ability to continuously loosen the debt-noose around the team’s neck with his financial finagling. But right now the team needs the magic of smart marketing, not tough-love for the business community.

The Edmonton Oilers have used the tough-love approach in recent years and it’s been a resounding success for the club. Oilers president Patrick Laforge took it a couple steps further than Bryden though, publicly listing off the local businesses that didn’t support the team.

It ticked these businesses off, but successfully forced them to buy tickets amidst the public pressure.

But it’s too easy to conclude that the same approach would work in Ottawa, with a team that’s still struggling to find its identity and ingrain itself in the community.

The Oilers have brought Wayne Gretzky, five Stanley Cups and several intense rivalrses to Edmonton. The Senators, on the other hand, have brought Ottawa Alexei Yashin, successive playoff disappointments, and a losing rivalry against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It’s likely the public shaming display that worked in Edmonton would rankle the business owners of Ottawa enough to cost the team the mediocre support they do get.

So far, Bryden has resisted going this far and publicly stated his desire to avoid engaging in a verbal sparring match with local businesses. Instead, he’s hoping they will see the positives associated with supporting the team, and trying to increase those positives by directing fan traffic to the businesses that do purchase tickets.

Bryden knows the key elements of a successful franchise are here in Ottawa: a decent sized market, a city that loves the game and a strong team. Unfortunately, the gate receipts don’t reflect that enthusiasm.

The Senators were almost 2,000 tickets short of a sell-out for their home-opener against the New Jersey Devils — the first time in six years they haven’t sold out their first home game of the year. Their second match against the Phoenix Coyotes saw only 11,862 paid fans at the game. Their current season-ticket total lies more than 2,000 below their humble goal of 10,500 and well away from the 11,300 the team had two years ago.

There is a problem in need of a solution. But instead of forcing businesses onside, Bryden and the Senators need to find a new route to garner the support of the business community.