Back in 2006, the City of Abbotsford held a referendum on whether or not to borrow $85-million in order to build, among other things, the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre. In the final analysis, $66.2-million of the $85-million borrowed was spent on construction of the Centre.
It was approved, and the construction was completed in time for the 2009-10 American Hockey League season. The Abbotsford Heat was born, having relocated from the Quad Cities during the close season.
As an incentive for the Calgary Flames, the parent organisation of the club, to make the transition, Abbotsford guaranteed them $5.7-million annually. Any shortfall would be made up by the city.
Since then, the taxpayers of Abbotsford have given the Flames $0.45-million in 2010, $1.37-million in 2011, $1.76-million in 2012, and $1.66-million in 2013, for a tidy sum of $5.24-million, or $39.25 from every man, woman, and a child living in Abbotsford.
Should the profits ever exceed $5.7-million, the rest would be split equally between the city and the Flames.
It wouldn't be so bad, if not for the people voting with their feet. Attendance during the first four seasons was relatively stable, averaging 3,759 per match, but this year the club is averaging 2,888 through 30 matches.
Last time around at the Abbotsford E&S Centre, 2,071 people witnessed the visiting Texas Stars take the Heat to overtime, before losing 4-3. When compared to their neighbours, those numbers do not look favourably on the City of Abbotsford.
British Columbia Lions
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Now to be fair, Abbotsford is at a geographic disadvantage, with the bulk of the Lower Mainland's population being to the far west of Abbotsford. But even if you count only Abbotsford, Chilliwack, and Mission, they are still only looking to draw 7-thousand people from a base of 250-thousand.
In professional sports, there are two tried and true methods to sell out a stadium: win or cater to the crowd. Now the first one really isn't an option. The AHL is a development league, and most of its players are provided by the parent organisation, in this case the Calgary Flames.
If a player proves himself to be of sufficient quality, he'll be immediately called up, and be replaced by a lesser player going the other way. It's the nature of the business.
But that second part, the solution is obvious. Abbotsford needs to be affiliated with the Vancouver Canucks. If that were to happen, the Abbotsford E&S Centre would be packed. Merchandise would fly off the shelves. It's a no-brainer, except the Flames like Abbotsford, and they got there first.
It's a wonder why the Canucks didn't look at the Langley Events Centre when they realised that the Flames were not interested in finding a new home for their AHL side, although the league may have scuppered any such thoughts due to "territorial rights".
Given their options, the Heat is going to struggle for the foreseeable future. The only way out, besides those mentioned above, would be to rebrand the club.
Although we are loath to propose such a thing, the Heat simply doesn't work in Abbotsford. They are an affiliate of the Calgary Flames, they look like it, they sound like it, and worst of all they act like it.
Abbotsford's flag is green, yellow, and blue, with a white flower in the centre. If the club adopted a similar colour palette, and a name that was unique to Abbotsford, perhaps it wouldn't look or feel like a Flames affiliate.
An Abbotsford-centric rebranding would give the people something to hold on to, to cherish, which would be their own, and might endure whether the Flames are affiliated with the city, or anyone else.
There is precedent for this. In the AHL, Chicago, Hershey, Milwaukee, Norfolk, and Rochester, to name a few, have a look that has nothing to do with their affiliate. They have a distinct identity are among the most stable AHL clubs.
The Heat has a history that traces back to 1977, when they were the Marine Mariners. Then they became the Utica Devils in 1987, the Saint John Flames in 1993, the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights in 2005, the Quad City Flames in 2007, and then finally, the Abbotsford Heat in 2009.
But then again, perhaps the city of Abbotsford is happy to pay the Flames. Maybe they don't mind the attendance figures. If that's the case, then we're sure that they will continue, and enjoy the same benefits as CD Chivas has in Major League Soccer.