Still looking to go to the 104th Grey Cup at BMO Field? Hamilton Pizza Pizza locations were offering two tickets, a large pizza, wings and Coke for just $30. (CFL.ca photo of BMO Field.)
Even after a price slash in late October when only half the seats for the 104th Grey Cup were sold, the Toronto Argonauts are reportedly still having a hard time getting rid of some of the remaining tickets. That’s led to them turning to sponsors, who can buy tickets at a massive discount and then either give them to staff or to customers via promotions. TSN (owned by Argos’ co-owner Bell) picked up a lot of tickets earlier this week and reportedly offered five free tickets each to “members of the TSN family,” and as Drew Edwards notes at 3 Down Nation, Hamilton-area Pizza Pizza locations have been advertising a $30 deal for a large three-topping pizza, wings, Coke — and two Grey Cup tickets. (Update: the deal has now been pulled, with the CFL saying “”Although it may have been made with good intentions, it didn’t have proper authorization. Once it was brought to our attention we had the promotion pulled immediately.” The rest of this post is based on how the deal was initially offered.)
With 16 Hamilton stores offering 15 pairs of tickets each, that’s 480 tickets to the big game going for next to nothing, notable considering that the cheapest tickets were initially $169 and were only reduced to $89 in October. That has many CFL fans understandably ticked off:
This is ridiculous. Glad my $600 in tickets helped pay for a Pizza Pizza promo in the hammer. Never going back to a CFL game. https://t.co/yM1n5Z25qx
— sf (@faseruk) November 24, 2016
Is the CFL investigating the Argos for gouging on ticket prices to people who bought early? Certainly goes against the spirit of Grey Cup.
— Trevor (@TXA2002) November 24, 2016
Feel sorry for everyone that paid all those high prices for Grey Cup tickets, when there's people getting free ones with a 30$ pizza deal..
— Rider Football (@AllRiderTalk) November 24, 2016
However, this is far from the first time Grey Cup tickets have been dumped just before the game following slow sales. Two prominent other cases came in 1987 in Vancouver and 1996 in Hamilton. Longtime CFL reporter Graham Kelly of The Medicine Hat News has good context on those:
I can remember two occasions when there was a looming attendance disaster come Grey Cup week. In 1987, the league was in dire straits following the demise of the Montreal Alouettes. Calgary, Saskatchewan, Ottawa and Hamilton were on the verge of collapse. League attendance was the lowest in 11 years. The 75th anniversary game was in Vancouver between Edmonton and Toronto. Although officially a sell-out (the so-called announced crowd), B.C. Place was barely half full and tickets were going for $10 a piece on the street before kickoff.
…The last ticket crisis was 1996 when the Doug Flutie Argos met the Eskimos in Hamilton. Although the stands were full, the major sponsor Tim Horton had to give away thousands of tickets. Considering Hamilton hadn’t hosted the Cup since 1972, plus the Flutie factor, the game should have been an easy sell. When this westerner got down East, I soon realized what the problem was. Torontonians wouldn’t be caught dead in Hamilton and the local’s Grey Cup slogan was “Argos suck.”
The overall CFL situation certainly isn’t as bad as in either of those cases. Terry Jones of The Edmonton Sun had a good piece the other day talking to Toronto mayor and former CFL commissioner John Tory about the league’s dark days, which included Tory’s comments on how the league didn’t even have the money for players’ game cheques in 1996:
“I remember during that Grey Cup week I was told we didn’t have enough money in the account to pay the players their money at the end of the game,” he revealed of the $16,000 and $8,000 cheques the winners and losers will receive after this one.
“People may not know this, but the players actually get a cheque in the dressing room. The cheques had been prepared. I was told when they went to cash those cheques the next day some of them would find their cheque would bounce.
“So Tim Hortons bailed us out. They gave us the extra money we needed in the account so the players could get paid.”
That’s not the case today. The CFL has an incredibly lucrative TV contract, TV ratings on the rise, a very favourable labour deal, and strong revenues and attendance in most markets. There are weak spots in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, to be sure, but Toronto’s still-last attendance rose significantly this year, and isn’t actually all that far from the estimated numbers needed to turn a profit. Moreover, the Argonauts are going to make a lot of money off this Grey Cup even when dumping tickets late thanks to all the tickets they sold at inflated prices early. It’s notable that 15,000 tickets at an average of $200 (probably low, considering that $169 was the low end and they went up to $899) would bring in $3 million, while 30,000 at $89 would only bring in $2,670,000, so the answer isn’t just “sell all your tickets at a price that will get people in the door.”
The decision to dump tickets is an understandable one given the situation at this point, and it’s all about the TV optics. The league and TSN (again, owned by Argos’ co-owner Bell) don’t want to televise significant numbers of empty seats at the Grey Cup. A packed house, even if artificially packed, presumably provides a better TV picture and atmosphere and convinces people to keep watching, boosting the average ratings (which are far more important to the CFL than just about anything else here). However, this is still a huge slap in the face to the CFL’s biggest fans who shelled out massive amounts of money to support the Grey Cup at the inflated prices the Argonauts initially charged, only to find out now they could have gotten in for next to nothing if they’d waited until now and gotten tickets through Pizza Pizza, TSN or another cheap source.
The real problem isn’t the decision to dump tickets now, but the problematic Argos pricing that led to this situation in the first place. The team tried to price tickets higher than Regina or Winnipeg, where demand is far higher than it is in Toronto these days. They didn’t correct their course until less than a month before the big game, and even then they didn’t drop prices that much. It’s worth noting that the Grey Cup is an event that attracts fans from across the country, but most of those fans need to plan in advance in terms of flights, hotels, time of work and everything else. If the Grey Cup had been priced reasonably in the first place, many more of them likely would have picked up tickets months ago, and the Argonauts would have made their money while also avoiding the need to first cut prices and then dump tickets.
There’s not much that can be done at this point, but the CFL and its teams should learn a lesson from this saga. You’re much better off to offer reasonable pricing in the first place and stick to it, filling the seats and getting your money while also rewarding instead of punishing the big fans who buy early. You also shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations of what people will pay just to watch the Grey Cup in person, especially given that it’s such a TV event these days. Hopefully next year’s Grey Cup committee in Ottawa is watching and learning, and hopefully we won’t see a repeat of this ticket dump next year. The Grey Cup is an awesome event to attend and watch, and people will do so for a reasonable price, but if you try and gouge them too much, you wind up throwing in Grey Cup tickets with pizza orders.