It hasn't been the greatest season for the CFL in general on the business front, with TV ratings down by 15 per cent to 590,000 viewers on average and average attendance down by 549 fans per game. At least one club had an outstanding year on the business side, though, and that would be the Hamilton Tiger-Cats; in their first full season at Tim Hortons Field, they sold out all nine of their regular-season home games (the only CFL club to do so this year, and the first time they've sold out their home games since 1973), sold out their playoff game, averaged 24,183 fans (102.9 per cent of their official stadium capacity), brought in all-time highs in sponsorship and ticket revenue, and made a profit for the first time in recent memory. Ticats' chief commercial officer Matt Afinec spoke to 55-Yard Line last week about Hamilton's 2015 successes, and said they particularly come from the team's focus on delivering a top live experience to entice fans to come out to games.
"What really, I think, drives the philosophy of our business is that we are passionately obsessed with delivering the best live viewing experience in Canadian sports," Afinec said. "That obsession, that work we do day-in and day-out to accomplish that, is really what has led to our success from a business and sponsorship standpoint. That, combined with an amazing football product on the field, is really the recipe."
Afinec said there are four primary factors that go into the team's work to create a stellar live experience, and the first is the stadium they play in.
"First, there's facility design," he said. "We're obviously fortunate that we're playing in the beautiful, brand-new Tim Hortons Field, but going back to the design process four years ago, conscious decisions were made to maximize things like having wide aisles, big seats, washroom ratios that are unprecedented anywhere here in Canada, more points of sale and concessions. Really, it's things that drive a great viewing experience at home, and how do you replicate those in a live environment? So, the facility design was vital."
His second key factor is facility programming.
"Those are things we actually create within the venue," Afinec said. "We focused on creating as many social viewing areas as we possibly could. If you've seen a game at Tim Hortons Field, you know there are no seats in the end zone. That was very much a conscious decision, because our research and our view to the business is there's a lot of people who like attending live events who don't want to be confined to a seat. They're passionate about the event, but they might not be living and dying on what coach Kent Austin is calling on second-and-six. Part of their experience is football, but they like going with their friends, they like being outside. That's a trend across the world, but in our view, we have to create spaces for them to be able to do that."
"So if you look at our venue, we have the Coors Light Patio at the north end, which is like a two-deck, 600-person sports bar overlooking the field. We have our Touchdown Lounge at the south end, which is a product with bottle service and a bar where people have a couch, a seat, and a private server, and they sit on the rail. So, we've intentionally designed all these spaces to allow people to walk around, to not be confined to their seat. And then where facility design kind of meets facility programming, there's four consumer concourses, two on each side of Tim Hortons Field, and on one concourse on each side, you can actually see the field of play from the concourse. So even people that have stadium seats are standing in the concourse because they have such a great view to the field of play."
Afinec said the third way the team aims to create a great experience is through live production.
"We actually produce our game in-venue differently than anyone else, and we actually follow the blueprint of ESPN College Gameday," he said. "We treat our in-game production like a television show. We have a live panel that's being produced out of the south end zone, it's right in the middle of the fan experience, you can see fans behind them. We have a set beside it with a football field where we do demos, coaching experience. The easiest frame of reference is ESPN College Gameday, and that's what we've inspired our in-game experience to be like."
For Afinec, the fourth essential factor is premium seating options.
"In our previous existence at Ivor Wynne Stadium, we didn't have club seats, anything to attract that certain level of customer," he said. "Tim Hortons Field, suites and club seats and all these different amazing premium products have been a massive success. We've got a waiting list for suites and club seats. The corporate small-to-medium business segment here in our region has responded extremely well with those products."
Afinec said keeping that in-stadium experience as strong as possible is at the core of the Ticats' business operations.
"We get up every day to deliver the best live viewing experience in Canadian sports," he said.
All of those in-stadium factors are driven by what's available at the stadium, and it's worth noting that the Ticats didn't have complete control over how it was built; Tim Hortons Field was built for the PanAm Games with funding from federal, provincial and municipal governments, and while the team had substantial involvement in the construction process thanks to their status as its long-term tenant and licensee, they couldn't just go out and say "Do it how we want." Afinec said he and Ticats' CEO Scott Mitchell did extensive research ahead of the construction process to bring forward top ideas from across North America for the design, though.
"We took it upon ourselves, myself and our CEO Scott Mitchell, to travel around North America to get the best practices that we could see in facility design and programming," Afinec said. "We tried to adopt as many of those principles as we possibly could. A great example; we have a product at Tim Hortons Field called the Caretaker's Club. We copied it exactly after the Miller Lite Club in Dallas, which sees the Cowboys take the field through a premium seating product. That's an example of the programming that we've implemented at Tim Hortons Field."
Tim Hortons Field isn't that big by CFL standards, with an official permanent capacity of 24,000 that's below the league-wide average attendance of 24,737 this year (and again, this was a slight down year for attendance.) Afinec said the smaller capacity works well for the Ticats, though, and it was in line with what they'd hoped for.
"Frankly, the capacity was a conscious decision to make the building smaller," he said. "We think 24,000 seats is the perfect number for our regional marketplace. ... 24,000 was the perfect number, and that's what we designed towards. But in the process of that design and having a fixed-sum budget, we felt it was more important to—our influence in that fixed-sum budget was towards wider seats, more concourses, not just to put as many seats into the building as possible. My perspective would be that's the trend all across North America. (The New York Mets') Citi Field is smaller than Shea Stadium. I don't think it's a unique situation here that we built our new stadium smaller than our old one, because like all sports franchises, we're competing with high-definition televisions."
Afinec said offering compelling in-game content that can only be found inside the stadium is designed to help the team compete with the TV experience, as is having areas where fans can enjoy the game in a variety of ways.
"That is the sole focus," he said. "Everything we do from a programming standpoint, from a production standpoint, it's when I'm sitting in the venue, what am I seeing, what am I hearing, what's the energy, what's driving the energy. That's one piece of it. But as I said, it's also the programming in how the spaces are set up and trying to create conducive areas. It doesn't matter where your bowl seat is, you can meet up with your friend even if he's on the other side of the building, because there's all sorts of great places to do that where you can still watch the game and not lose sight of the game. One detail I probably should allude to is we have the largest outdoor video board in any venue in Canada. So you ask what drives this in-house production, and the answer is this video board. It's absolutely spectacular."
The results so far have certainly been impressive, with the team bucking the league-wide trend of declining attendance. It looks like those who like the Tim Hortons Field experience like it a lot, too; the team capped its season-ticket sales at 16,000 this past year, and is now raising that to 18,000 thanks to demand. Don't expect it to rise much beyond that down the road, though.
"We're confident that there is demand here locally to get us up to 18,000 seats, and that's the perfect number, because we will always want to keep seats available for, for example, group programming," Afinec said. "We do a lot of group programming here, which brings in minor football, kids, and people that perhaps don't have the time or the means to be season-ticket holders. We'll always want to keep a group allotment and then we'll certainly always sell individual tickets as well, but getting us to 18 is the perfect mix, and season seats are great for the consumer too, because that gets them the best seat at the best price."
Afinec said the team's business success this year is the result of years of hard work and preparation on many fronts, but it wasn't unexpected.
"You don't show up and turn the lights on," he said. "We've got great programming and great people, so yes, we expected success, because like our football team, we expect to win. We knew that this is an amazing regional marketplace, that Hamilton and the surrounding region is passionate about the Ticats. We always knew that if we could deliver an amazing experience to these people, once word spread about how great it was to go down to Tim Hortons Field, we absolutely expected to achieve this level of success, 100 per cent."
The team's also involved in initiatives to try and reach out to fans across the country and around the world, including their impressively-revamped website, which now features live streaming of their in-stadium audio for games. Afinec said that grew out of the success they found from streaming video and audio for a home preseason game this year that wasn't televised.
"We have a great digital partner called Stadium Digital, they're kind of our partner in producing all this stuff, and a gentleman by the name of Mark Silver, so we actually saw a need because our home preseason game wasn't televised," he said. "In very short order, we pulled this together; we announced it at three o'clock and had people watching our preseason game in like 50 countries. It was crazy. So we said, 'Wait a second, is there a bigger opportunity here?' Obviously TSN owns those broadcast rights for regular-season games, so for regular-season games, we can't actually broadcast the game or stream the game through ticats.ca, but what we actually do, what I said earlier about our live production and how we treat it like ESPN College GameDay, we actually stream that in-house feed on ticats.ca. So, we take that in-stadium environment and put it out there."
"We know, based on web traffic, there are Tiger-Cats' fans and transplanted Hamiltonians in hundreds of different countries around the world, so we think this is something that will continue to build steam and build momentum as we go forward. The product itself is the in-venue environment, and when the game's actually being played, we just stream the audio from our radio partnership with TSN, but when they go to commercial, we stream the in-stadium environment. The one thing we try to do to build some equity around the product and give people something to hang on to; the first place you hear from Coach Austin after any home game is on Ticats.ca through the streaming product, so we try to build the anchor property, the anchor product that right after the game, literally within 10 minutes of him addressing the team, the first media appearance he makes is on Ticats.ca, and that's broadcast in the venue and streamed live on Ticats.ca. "
Afinec said the team's business success this year is the product of a lot of hard work, but it's also thanks to the way fans have embraced what they're doing.
"We're proud of our market and the way our fans have responded," he said. "It's a credit and a testament to the fans how great an experience has been created down at Tim Hortons Field."