Friday, June 14, 2024

How PWHL Ottawa managed to lead the league in attendance

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OTTAWA — When you step inside the offices of PWHL Ottawa, there is nothing to suggest you’re entering a workspace that houses the league’s most successful franchise.

The silhouette of a logo from a local real estate company — the previous tenant of this office space — still lingers in the main entrance. The boardroom walls are so barren that staff decided to create a collage of players’ security passes from the 2024 season to decorate one side of the room.

The office space, which is located across the street from the team’s home arena at TD Place, has unlimited potential. And that’s a rather fitting backdrop for a franchise that also feels like it has an undefined ceiling.

In their inaugural season, Ottawa led the PWHL in attendance, despite being the league’s smallest market by a healthy margin. The plucky organization — which clearly punched above its weight in 2024 — has a template for how other PWHL franchises can replicate its success.

“You can’t just walk in and expect it to happen,” said Ottawa general manager Mike Hirshfeld. “I think a lot of franchises walk into a city and expect to be welcomed with open arms and loved. But we never took anything for granted.”

“Just given the history of our sport, we don’t take this type of support for granted,” adds Ottawa head coach Carla MacLeod. “We’re incredibly privileged.”

PWHL attendance

Team Avg Attendance

Ottawa

7,496

Minnesota

7,138

Montreal

6,881

Toronto

3,912

Boston

3,770

New York

2,496

Ottawa was fortunate to land in the perfect venue at TD Place for its inaugural season.

PWHL Toronto played the majority of its regular-season home games at Mattamy Center, with a capacity of only 2,600. New York’s team had a nomadic feel, playing home games at three different venues in their inaugural season. Minnesota’s team played their first season at the cavernous Xcel Energy Center, which could house almost 18,000 fans.

But PWHL in Ottawa seemed to find the sweet spot with TD Place, maxing out with a seating capacity just over 8,000.

“It’s the perfect venue in terms of size and location,” said Erin Thompson, PWHL Ottawa’s director of business operations.

Ironically, in the early days of launching the franchise last fall, the front office felt that capacity was far too large. Their original plan was to curtain off the entire upper bowl, leaving just 3,500 seats available for the PWHL games in Ottawa.

“That was the plan,” said Thompson. “That was supposed to be our sellout number.”

But when they put their tickets up for sale, Hirshfeld and Thompson were shocked at what was unfolding in real time. They tracked the initial ticket sales on their computer screen and quickly realized they could easily surpass 3,500 if they wanted.

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“We watched that together. And right away we could open it up to 5,000 seats,” said Thompson. “So I made a call and we opened up.”

“That was certainly an ‘ah-ha’ moment for us,” said Hirshfeld. “We realized we could have a chance to sell this out.”

That first game drew 8,318 fans, and for the majority of home games in 2024, PWHL Ottawa flirted with that number. That level of consistency shocked management, who admit they weren’t sure what to expect in the first season.

“I don’t think being number one in attendance would have surprised me. I knew Ottawa was a good market,” said Hirshfeld. “I just didn’t think we would have been at 7,500. If you told me the number was 3,500, that would have sounded right.”

MacLeod told her players on opening night to soak in the atmosphere of a sold-out building, with a palpable buzz and energy. She didn’t realize that the opening-night atmosphere quickly would turn into the normal game-night experience for a PWHL game in Ottawa.

“I spent a lot of my career as a player walking into empty buildings. So to be able to walk in and see a full building is a bit of a ‘pinch me’ moment every time,” said MacLeod. “And I don’t think I’ll ever outgrow that.”

What’s remarkable is that despite the huge crowds, the club only had one full-time staff member dedicated to ticket sales in its first season. It’s not like the front office had an army of ticket-sellers on payroll who were pounding the pavement and cold-calling local businesses. Instead, they were very strategic and deliberate in how they targeted potential ticket-holders. Thompson sent direct emails to youth hockey associations in the area, trying to galvanize support at the grassroots level.

They also leaned heavily on a network of former women’s hockey players, whom they affectionately call their “Founders Advisory Board.” They used their direct pipeline to secure large quantities of tickets from their vast contact lists.

Shelley Coolidge — a former staff member with Hockey Canada and now the executive director of Ringette Canada — was responsible for selling 86 tickets for a single game in March just from her networking.

“Shelly is a mover, and people don’t realize how impactful she was here,” said MacLeod.

“Her impact was immeasurable,” added Thompson. “We’re a skeleton staff. Shelley’s network just branches out.”

There were also some fortunate moments, such as when a single business reached out and wanted to host an employee appreciation night at a PWHL Ottawa game. They ended up purchasing 800 tickets for staff members for one game.

Those types of massive requests might have been too much for the inexperienced staff to handle, but fortunately, they had the unseen hand of the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG) working in the background. OSEG — which owns and operates the Ottawa 67s hockey team and the CFL’s Redblacks — were willing to lend advice and support whenever the situation warranted.

“We were fortunate to have their expertise behind us,” said Hirsfeld. “We wouldn’t have been as successful without their infrastructure and expertise behind us.”

That expertise wasn’t just felt in the front office, but on the ice as well. MacLeod says that securing practice time was never an issue, as 67s officials were extremely flexible about making sure PWHL Ottawa had the ice when required. MacLeod adds that when she lamented the fact that she was too short to see over her player’s heads while standing on the bench during games, OSEG officials quickly built a platform for her to stand on so she could view the entire ice surface.

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As the league looks to potentially expand to new cities such as Pittsburgh and Detroit, officials in Ottawa urge those places to try and partner with an existing sports franchise that has marketing, ticketing and game-day experience at their disposal. They are encouraged to hear the Penguins are interested in launching a PWHL franchise in Pittsburgh, because Ottawa officials believe OSEG’s influence was a major reason why they had instant success inside the Ottawa market.

“OSEG were a game changer for us,” said Thompson. “They were such a well-oiled machine. They taught me how to run a game. Their ticketing department showed our person how they did tickets. They were instrumental. We couldn’t have done this without them.”

With games at TD Place drawing a league-best in attendance and filling up with approximately 7,500 fans per night, the natural question is about expanding. The club says they are planning on hosting at least one game at the Canadian Tire Centre next season; they could fit close to 18,000 fans in the building.

“Absolutely, we’d like to have a game or two out there next season,” said Hirshfeld. “There is a demand from our fan base to have a game out there.”

“I think we would sell it out,” Thompson said of a potential game at the Canadian Tire Centre. “But one of the (reasons) why we’re conscious of staying here (at TD Place) is because of sustainability and the first-year success. It’s new and it needs to prove its own success.”

To that end, they are already studying the new arena proposal for TD Place and Lansdowne Park, which will be the future home of the Ottawa 67s and hopefully PWHL Ottawa, too. The original design for that building — which is still at least two or three years away — called for a much smaller seating capacity, something in the neighborhood of 5,500 seats in the arena bowl — and perhaps up to 7,000, including suites and lodges.

PWHL Ottawa officials would like to see that number raised slightly to reflect the appetite for women’s hockey in the market.

“Can we up that a little bit? We don’t need to be at 15,000, but eight or nine thousand would be a really good number for us,” said Thompson.

But team executives are also leery of growing too quickly, too fast, and creating a situation in which the supply outweighs the demand. This season, it was nearly impossible to secure a ticket to a weekend game in Ottawa, creating a scarcity in the marketplace. If they permanently moved to a larger venue — or played too many games at Canadian Tire Centre — it might flood the market with too many tickets.

“There was a healthy panic this season that you wouldn’t be able to get tickets,” said Thompson. “People wanted to come to our games.”

They’re sitting at approximately a 92 percent renewal rate on the 2,400 season-ticket holders from last season. And with an additional 1,300 people on a waiting list, there is an excellent chance they could be starting next season with a season-ticket base that is north of 3,000 fans.  That would be a remarkable number that would put them in line to have another robust season in their sophomore campaign.

“I don’t want this to be the hot new thing and then it disappears,” said Hirshfeld. “We need to create a foundation that we’ll be a constant for decades to come.”

(Photo: Troy Parla / Getty Images)

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