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Junior A Stampeders are skating on thin ice

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For many years the Swan Valley Stampeders Junior A hockey team has been building debt, sometimes chipping away at it successfully with larger fundraisers and sometimes seeing significant losses that have deepened that pool.
This is not a surprise for anyone who follows the team. Heroics from the boards and supporters over the years have kept the hockey club alive. But, how much longer can this continue? When have they finally reached the tipping point that decisions to shut down the organization must happen?
That point is very, very near.
“I can’t speak to exact specifics with the numbers because they have not been finalized and won’t be released till the AGM in a couple of weeks, but I can say that, in the time I have been privy to the finances, this year is certainly exceeding any other by a significant amount,” said outgoing board president Pat Morden.
The Stampeders went into last season carrying nearly $200,000 in debt and it looks like they will add a significant number to that this year. And, that's with just the loss of potential playoff revenue (estimated at approximately $50,000) and a couple of other small things.
Add in the fact that they will not get revenue (estimated at approximately $17,000) from a rodeo food booth, and a few other summer fundraisers due to COVID-19, and the 2020-21 budget is already taking a hit.
“It’s really surprising how much of our budget is reliant on off-ice revenues and not based on ticket sales. That has become such a small part of the revenue picture. We can’t even raise 20 percent of our budget from ticket sales and I think the question has to be asked,”what are we doing?”.”
Low attendance to regular season games has been an increasing issue. With every year that passes, fewer and fewer people seem to come out to fill the stands. It has left the board asking why and searching for answers.
“In 2018-19 we had the most successful season in franchise history – packing the arena to capacity in the final round of playoffs,” said Morden, noting that run helped the club significantly when it came to finances. “And then, through the 2019-20 season, it was right back down to (disappointing numbers).
“What do you have to do? I think we are ticking all the boxes in terms of the talent and the player involvement in the community.
“We have seen steady corporate sponsorship and we give credit to all those that have continued their support of the team in that way,” he continued. “And, our fundraising efforts continue to be successful but there is only so much you can take out of a community. We really fall short in the ticket sales that put people in the building.”
Is there something that the organization can do to increase ticket sales that they are missing? Or, is the lack of bodies filling the seats a message that the community is sending about their desire to have a junior A hockey team?
“Maybe this isn’t the position of the board as a whole, but it’s hard not to question the feasibility of it all,” said Morden.
“We budget a sadly low number for ticket sales and last year we didn’t even hit that mark. We are maybe getting a little more in the walk-up tickets but the guarantee of the season ticket revenue is just not there.”
Hoping to change that, this year the team has added some incentive for season ticket and flex pack purchasers. When you purchase an Adult Season Ticket or an Adult 30 Game Flex Pack you will receive six referral tickets to pass on to your friends and family. For every one of your referral tickets that are returned – after a new Adult Season Ticket or 30 Game Adult Flex Pack is purchased by your contact – $25 will be given back to you, the referrer. If the team receives all of your six tickets back, you will receive the cost of your entire Adult Season Ticket or 30 Game Adult Flex Pack purchase back.
“We really need to see some sales and some revenue coming in,” said Morden. “We still have unpaid bills from last season and no finances available to pay them back. One of these is our ice fees with the Town of Swan River. They have been understanding to date but when it comes time to use the rink again they may be looking for those funds.
“Another thing that has been alluded to but not really talked about is the guarantors on the line of credit at the Swan Valley Credit Union. They are big determiners because if that support is gone, we no longer have access to that credit facility. We depend on them and if we lose any of those it might make our decision for us.”
The Stampeders have found themselves in a tight spot, one of which the constraints of COVID-19 is not helping. But, all is not completely lost yet.
The organization has been working hard to be more sustainable for the future and is implementing a new pay-to-play model that many teams are moving towards.
“Players are going to be paying $2,000 each to play,” said Morden. “I never thought I would see the day where it got to that point but it’s a trend in junior A hockey in general.
“Then, we need people to step up and buy season tickets in preparation for the fall season. We understand that there are many unknowns but the league has put together contingency plans and we are fairly confident we will be able to have a season.
“It also may sound ludicrous, but donations with no strings attached would be the most welcome. Anything to chip away at this debt,” he continued. “We think we have a chance at being healthy into the future if we can eliminate the past debt.”
What it has come down to is that the team needs more fans in the stands to be sustainable into the future.
“I don’t want to say that the community doesn’t support the team because it’s just not true,” said Morden. “I just don’t know if there are enough regular supports at this point to make it sustainable.”
The Stampeders will hold their Annual General Meeting on Wednesday (July 15) at 7:30 pm in the Westwood Inn Banquet Room. While numbers in the room will be limited due to COVID-19 capacity rules, the board hopes to have extended spaces available so that all who would like to attend are able.
The time has come to show that you want the team to continue in the community and the best way to do that is to come out to games, buy season tickets or even be part of the board (which has several vacant director spaces).
“There are many reasons not to come out but if we want this team to continue that needs to change,” concluded Morden.