Saturday, 8 November 2014

The unengaged fans

Newcomers to Saskatoon seem absent from city’s sports scene

Spectators enjoy themselves at Griffiths Stadium.
            The final score on Friday night at Griffiths Stadium was a disappointment to supporters of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies football team, but a bigger disappointment has to be the number 3,013.
            That was the attendance figure for the Canada West semifinal playoff match between the host Huskies and the University of Manitoba Bisons. The enthusiastic gathering watched the Huskies take a 37-18 lead early in the third quarter only to implode and fall 47-39.
            There was a time not too long ago when the Huskies would play before packed home crowds for their playoff dates. With the team hosting its first playoff contest since 2010, you would think there would be a few more bodies in the stands.
            Traditionally, the Huskies football team draws the biggest amount of followers from Saskatoon.
            The WHL’s Saskatoon Blades are averaging 4,251 spectators over their first 10 home dates, but their average attendance seems capped at an average of 4,000 for about two decades.
            The Saskatoon Hilltops of the Canadian Junior Football League has their loyal following of supporters. When they downed the Calgary Colts 27-7 in the Prairie Football Conference final on Oct. 26, only 1,014 spectators passed through the gates at Saskatoon Minor Football Field. The main stands of the west side were fairly full, and the spectators scattered across the stands on the east side.
            Way back in the 1997 PFC final, the Hilltops fell 46-27 at the same park to the Regina Rams, and spectators were shoehorned into the stadium and were also sitting on the hills that surrounded the park.
            The other Huskies teams on the University of Saskatchewan campus don’t draw the biggest gatherings until playoff time rolls around. When the Huskies men’s basketball team played in their opening game of the Graham Shootout tournament at the Physical Activity Complex on Oct. 23, about 200 spectators might have been on hand in a facility that seats around 2,000.
            Due to the fact Saskatoon is growing, you would think there might be a few more bodies in the seats. Over the last eight years, Saskatoon proper has seen a population increase of 50,000 to see the centre’s population sit at an estimated 254,000. Add in surrounding suburbs and you get a metropolitan area population of about 300,000.
Fans watch Hilltops action at Saskatoon Minor Football Field
            It seems like the newcomers aren’t coming to the games.
            When you go to Huskies, Blades or Hilltops games, it feels like the fans in the stands are people who have grown up in Saskatoon, spent a long part of their life in Toontown or have a past attachment to the teams they are watching.
            The newcomers to the city seem mainly concentrated in the downtown office sector. These working professionals seem to be spending their time at the restaurant and pub district that encompass 2nd Avenue South and 21st Street East. That has created a booming downtown sector, which was non-existent even five years ago.
            In most cases, the newcomers don’t really know about the town’s local sports scene. During a fancy social that was held at a nice downtown hotel leading up to the Mike Babcock and friends fundraising golf tournament back in August, I actually ran into a working professional newcomer who didn’t know who the Hilltops were. That seemed strange because the Hilltops do have a very entrenched following.
            For a working professional that comes to Saskatoon, you can live in town and be totally unaware of what is happening with local sports. Those people likely go to the downtown restaurant or pub and watch the NHL, which has a huge captive audience in Canada. Afterwards, you might likely take in a movie.
            They usually see the Saskatchewan sporting experience as just driving down to Regina to see the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders play.
            If the Blades were still downtown, they would likely have the best chance of capitalizing on the influx as hockey is Canada’s top sport. People would walk into a rink for a Tuesday or Wednesday night contest as part of date night.
As it is, going to the SaskTel Centre seems way out of the way, and the event staff workers that sometimes go on little power trips can leave a bad first impression on a new spectator. To be honest, the event staff and security at the SaskTel Centre does have a reputation across the WHL of thinking too highly of themselves.
            If the working professionals are from centres like Winnipeg, Edmonton or Calgary, they can also get away with tuning out the local media, because they usually have money for satellite radio. They can go to the Internet and check out the newspapers from their old homes and even get the CTV, Global or CBC stations from their original home areas on their cable or satellite television packages.
            In order to engage these newcomers, you have to meet them in person. For local media companies, they don’t have the front line resources to meet the newcomers.
            If the newcomers meet the local news reporters or sports reporters, they might be inclined to check out the products the local media produces. With staffing levels in the local media arguably being lower than they have ever been, being visible publicly becomes that much harder to do.
            As it is, those in the local media are outstanding producing what they do, and they work extremely hard. If those outlets don’t grow in number, they can’t engage Saskatoon’s growing population.
             Unfortunately, the first introduction newcomers have to the local sports scene won’t likely happen until they start having children, and the children start participating in sports.
            On the plus side, teams like the Huskies, Blades and Hilltops have a new audience to tap. They just have to figure out how to engage that group.

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